Contains: Alcohol Reference, Fantasy Violence, Mild Language, Suggestive Themes
It has been quite some time since I anticipated a game as much as I anticipated Puppeteer. The eye-assaulting, gorgeous platformer impressed with its initial trailer and continued to astound me with each and every new detail. With a quiet release, at a budget price of $39.99, it took precedence in a very busy September, but was it worth the focus?
Puppeteer follows the story of Kutaro and the evil Moon Bear King. Rising to rule after experiencing the power of the Dark Moonstone, the Moon Beak King is stealing souls from Earth. Kutaro is his latest catch. His soul is thrown into a puppet, and his head is quickly ripped off. With the help of the unsightly Moon Witch and a few other accomplices, he seeks to topple the new regime and bring peace back to the Moon. To do so, he must find a pair of magical scissors, called Calibrus, collect the four Hero Heads of past warriors, and liberate the pieces of the shattered White Moonstone split among the Moon Bear King’s twelve Generals.
Puppeteer is artistically arresting. Its unique and imaginative approach is simply unrivaled. Hailing from SCE Japan Studio, it opts to seek influence from traditional Japanese Bunraku theater, and excels at doing so. Ditching the strings, characters still retain a certain quaintness thanks to the decision to construct them from whittled wood. While the lead Kutaro looks lovely, this approach is really impressive on some of the larger bosses with intricate segmented bodies. Environments, which would excel in beauty even if devoid of the theatrical influences, really nail the theme with small details. Clouds are strung from the rigging, while other moving elements are held in place with sticks. Spotlights are used too. The audience even gets in on the action, reacting to play as it unfolds. Not a single element of the game is invulnerable to this theatrification. Even the pause screen is just a closed curtain with the word “Intermission.”
Environments range drastically, from dark, cold castle interiors to lush forests, underwater ecosystems, colorful favelas, and winter wonderlands. It would be hard to pick just one, but the spooky town of Hallowee Ville may be a personal favorite.
The story and characters have a delightfully vaudevillian feel, which I can’t recall in any other game. Nothing takes itself too seriously. The omnipresent narrator mimics voices as if he’s conducting a one man show. Characters – who often acknowledge their acting – are over-the-top, often bordering or crossing the line of being hackneyed. Voice over work is often absurd in the best possible way. Some characters go out of their way to speak as often as they can in bad puns and alliteration. Silly songs spring up from time to time. There’s even a rabbit magician. The whole thing is a bit reminiscent of a Disney theme park, and the beauty it carries in a child’s eyes. Children at heart will appreciate this vision, even if it sometimes overreaches and become a bit too silly.
Gameplay starts out a bit slow. The first few acts – of which there are seven in total that each contain three curtains – serve to introduce the Calibrus and four Hero Heads. While there are a hundred swappable heads overall, these four serve to introduce main gameplay mechanics. The first gives you the ability to block. Bombs, a grappling hook, and a skydiving wrestling move follow. After all these abilities are acquired the real fun starts. Platforming and the various, brilliant boss battles use these Hero Heads and Calibrus to lead to some really spectacular gameplay. No two Generals, which are represented by various members of the animal kingdom, look nor feel the same. Multi-stage battles amaze all the way up to their quick time event finishers.
As for the other hundred-or-so heads, they all serve smaller purposes. For instance in the first level, the spider head allows you to interact with the environment to unlock the levels bonus stage. Each of the 21 curtains has one, but finding and keeping the appropriate head may not always be so easy. I don’t think I even managed to find half of them. Each has a purpose. They’ll unlock bonus stages, other heads, or help with platforming and bosses. Sometimes you’ll discover heads though a single action; other times you may have to seek out or interact with multiple pieces of the environment or background. Each head also has a silly animation, which can also be viewed later in the head shadow box in the games menu. This area also gives subtle hints on how to find heads you may have missed. I only managed to obtain around half of these heads too, so most players should have plenty to go back and unlock.
Still, most impressive is the Calibrus mechanic. The tool is simply sublime. They do serve as a weapon, allowing you to rescue souls from evil Grubs, but it’s the other things they do that make them stand out. Throughout the game there are plenty of objects that need cutting: spider webs, fabrics, and a wide array of triggered 2D elements. Depending on the environment these could be plant leaves, plumes of smoke, or a deck of cards. And that’s only scratching the surface. Traversal via these means is extremely satisfying, especially since these elements are actually sliced and minced by Calibrus. There are also other on-rails cutting sections that play out like a roller coaster, featuring multiple paths, speed boosts, and jumps. All of this creates a mechanic that is always fun to use, and one of the most satisfying in recent memory.
If there’s one complaint I have with the game, it is that the gameplay and pacing can be a bit slow. A few levels also allow you to hop on various “vehicles,” like a horse, squid, or UFO, to do a bit of timed platforming. These are a little more twitch-based than the basic gameplay, much like the on-rails Skycutting sections, but still feel a bit lethargic. The basic platforming and some of the elements of the boss battles also seem to just trudge along. I’m not sure if this was a choice due to frame rate concerns, the game’s family friendly appeal, or something else, but there’s a noticeable lack of urgency throughout the experience. (This may have been a bit exaggerated since I just came off of the fast paced action of Rayman Legends.) While it did seem a bit odd, it’s definitely not worth dismissing the game for.
Overall, Puppeteer provides an extremely unique experience. It’s busting at the seams with whimsy and creativity, and follows a path unlike any other platformer I’ve played in my quarter century of gaming. It introduces new ideas that evoke emotions reminiscent of Walt Disney’s Tiki Room, Muppet movies, Conan O’Brien variety shows, and childhood in general. As GAF member MercuryLS stated a while back, “[It] out Nintendo’s Nintendo.” And it’s the reason Grand Theft Auto V will remain in its packaging for another week or two.
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- Thrives thanks to amazing visuals, creativity, and art direction.
- Vaudevillian influences lead to an extremely unique experience.
- Calibrus mechanics are very satisfying.
- Boss battles are impressive in quality and quantity.
- Pacing and gameplay tend to be a bit slow.
- Sometimes it overreaches with its absurdity.