The previous generation of game consoles followed an interesting arc.
Introduced as serious, realistic, and “gritty” action games were nearing the height of their popularity, it was a common observation and complaint that, for all of the graphical power and high-definition capabilities of the then-new machines, they certainly were not giving players very much variety to look at.
As a general trend, World War II shooters and dark space action games (a la Gears of War) dominated the marketplace, and the muted, somber design aesthetic (thought to convey realism, perhaps as a reactionary response to the colorful Mario aesthetic popular so few years prior) began to spread to a great number of high-profile titles. For the first few years, it looked like that generation of console gaming was going to be a very brown generation.
As with any trend, though, people grew weary of the earthen-brown design aesthetic. Nintendo (after taking a brief detour into trying to follow this trend with their highest profile launch titles, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess and Red Steel, both sporting the darker aesthetic) turned heads by producing a solid line-up of colorful games with fantastical flourish, as they are quite famous for doing, most notably Super Mario Galaxy.
As is often overlooked, Sony worked hard throughout the lifespan of the PlayStation 3 to provide these kinds of lush graphical experiences to their players as well, landing exclusive titles like LittleBigPlanet, Katamari Forever, and the Ratchet & Clank Future series.
Since then, the gaming audience has voiced a strong desire to return to these kinds of colorful, lush games. Now, even quite dark and “gritty” games are often infused with striking, beautiful colors, such as The Last of Us and Grand Theft Auto V.
The demand for colorful, imaginative games has led to some magnificent experimentation in both the independent and industry spaces, and now, with games like No Man’s Sky, Minecraft, and Mario Kart 8 capturing the public’s imagination, that trend seems to be growing faster than ever before.
Now that trend has become so popular that there are vocal populations of detractors warning people against letting down their guard. “They can sell you anything, as long as they put it in a flashy package”, they say, citing examples like Noby Noby Boy and Proteus, games of rather minimal objective structuring.
The detractors claim that, like snake-oil salesmen, companies butter up their audiences with eye-catching screens and end up delivering a lackluster play experience. Whereas a colorful and innovative aesthetic design used to (and still often does) signify an intent to return to classical elements of game design, with ideas like fun and tight mechanics being core design philosophies, now, many are afraid that a pretty paint job is simply covering up a mediocre product underneath.
Puppeteer, a 2013 PlayStation 3-exclusive game by Sony Computer Entertainment Japan Studio, introduced itself with a striking and lovingly-crafted look. Puppeteer is a side-scrolling platformer designed to look like the game is a production of a Bunraku puppet theatre, with all props, actors, and sets being made of cloth, wood, and practical materials, and even the light being cast by spotlights visible on the edges of the screen. Scene transitions are done in real time, like a real puppet theatre, with elements of the set being pulled away and replaced, and the acts always begin and end with theatrical red curtains.
The player can even hear an audience reacting and laughing along with the action that is taking place on screen. The characters, puppeted around with the comic, exaggerated style of real puppet theatre, behave like real actors, reacting to mishaps on stage, breaking the fourth wall, and occasionally forgetting their lines. To top it off, the entire game is narrated by a jovial and cheeky, unseen narrator (voiced by Stephen Greif).
The thing that is most apparent after playing the game for a while is its absolute commitment to its concept. The amount of attention to detail and care put into every aspect of the design is extraordinary. The game’s director, Gavin Moore (The Getaway, Siren series), stated in a great interview with PlayStationLifeStyle.net that he did not let his team re-use assets in the game. Every new area, every new character, and every prop is designed from scratch so that the experience feels like an authentic theatre production. Each and every level is hugely varied, both in appearance and mood, taking the player to any number of diverse locations, such as castles, Japanese forests, under the ocean, Mexican villages, and haunted graveyards.
As impressive as the visuals are, they are supported by an equally as diverse and masterful soundtrack (composed by Patrick Doyle). Doyle’s versatility is on full display, as the setting and tone of the story send the music into all different genres and moods.
Puppeteer is about a young boy named Kutaro who, along with the other children of the Earth, was stolen away by the Moon Bear King, a fearsome monarch who usurped the Moon Goddess and stole her throne by force. The Moon Bear King held the souls of the Earth children inside of wooden puppets and forced them to work in his castle as slaves. Kutaro happens upon a pair of magical scissors, Calibrus, which gives him the power to fight back against the Moon Bear King, free the Earth’s children, and restore order to the Moon.
Kutaro, who quickly had his head bitten off by the Moon Bear King, is able to replace his head with any number of suitable replacements that he finds lying around. He escapes from the Moon Bear King’s fortress with the help of an old witch and is tasked with reassembling the twelve scattered pieces of the White Moonstone, a beautiful and magical crystal that has the power to banish the Moon Bear King for good. Unfortunately, the fragments of the White Moonstone are being held by the Moon Bear King’s twelve generals, each an animal modeled after the animals of the Chinese zodiac. Kutaro, armed with the mighty Calibrus, must traverse the Moon to defeat the twelve generals and reclaim the White Moonstone shards.
Calibrus allows Kutaro to cut through cloth and cardboard, which Kutaro can use to change aspects of the environment or propel himself forward (remember, this is modeled on a puppet theatre, so many of the props and set pieces are made of cloth and other materials, much like the style that LittleBigPlanet and Kirby’s Epic Yarn popularized).
In essence, Kutaro is able to cut away at the façade around him. This gives the designers some great opportunities to experiment with some creative navigational puzzles. If Kutaro wants to ascent a building, maybe he will have to set a car on fire at the bottom and use his scissors to cut along with the prop cardboard smoke that rises from that fire, propelling him upwards. Kutaro learns a handful of other abilities throughout the game, such as the ability to pull certain objects, body-slam, and fire a grappling hook, among other things. Standard platformer fare.
Puppeteer’s health system is interesting as well. Every time that Kutaro is hit, his head falls off and bounces around the stage. If it is retrieved, it is like the hit never happened. If it is not retrieved, Kutaro switches to one of his other heads (he can only have three at one time). If he loses his last head, he dies and is sent back to a checkpoint. Often, though, it is easy enough to retrieve Kutaro’s head after being hit, the player can sustain many hits before succumbing to death, much like chasing down that one last ring in Sonic the Hedgehog to postpone death. This is probably good, because sometimes avoiding damage is difficult.
The platforming is reminiscent of LittleBigPlanet’s, and platforming fans will usually agree that this is not a flattering comparison to be making. The jumps feel squishy, imprecise, and unresponsive, and the combat / Calibrus-enabled navigation fares no better. Do not expect something with the level of responsiveness and fluidity as Rayman Legends or New Super Mario Bros.
The decision to employ this more physics-driven movement scheme is puzzling. LittleBigPlanet chose to employ it out of necessity for the robustness and unpredictability of the game, catering particularly to the game’s level editor. Media Molecule chose to give Sackboy a versatile movement scheme that allowed him to traverse a wide array of player-created content with relatively little encumbrance.
The “looseness” of the mechanics’ design was due to the unpredictable nature of the places Sackboy would find himself, which brings Puppeteer into question. Puppeteer has no player-created content. It is a singularly-focused game with tightly-designed worlds. Why would Japan Studio choose to employ a physics-based control mechanic?
Short answer to that question: they didn’t, or might not have, anyway. Moore, in the interview linked above, states that the game doesn’t use a physics engine, and that all animation is done by hand. If that is the case, I am puzzled by why Kutaro still feels so awkward and variable.
Most levels culminate in a boss fight, and the bosses in Puppeteer are always highlights. They are usually the most innovative portions of the level and are always quite a spectacle. The boss fights are fresh and creative, and as interesting to watch as they are to play. The number and frequency of these boss fights makes the game feel absolutely jam-packed with content.
Probably the most brilliant thing that the team accomplished with Puppeteer was its integration of the second character on screen. While the player is primarily controlling Kutaro, as he jumps and fights his way through the world, the right stick and R2 button control a pixie (or, in the early stages, a flying cat) who act as a cursor, of sorts, on the world.
Perhaps following the example of Super Mario Galaxy’s starbit-collecting cursor and, more recently, Rayman Legends’ Murray character, the pixie can fly around the screen and interact with objects in the background to solve puzzles or to uncover secrets. This is brilliant because it encourages the player to look more intently at the lush, detailed world.
Using R2 to interact with objects always yields fun and interesting responses. It gives the game a feeling of a point-and-click adventure game being played on top of a 2D platformer (similar, in fact, to Stick It to The Man!, which I have reviewed previously).
This “layering” of game-types does not make the experience feel bisected, and the player’s attention does not feel torn between the two tasks. The cursor elements can be ignored for most of the game if it does not strike a player’s fancy. It rewards those who take the game slowly and drink in every detail in the beautiful, hand-crafted world. This is a feature that I would like to see other games employ.
The cursor character can also be controlled by a second player using a different controller. The second player can help (or hinder) the progress of the first player. This is a great asymmetrical play option for people who prefer the ‘I Spy’-like item hunt throughout the levels, and it is also perfect for those who are inexperienced or perhaps too young to come to grips with the play controls but still wish to be involved. The second player feels a bit more “connected” to the experience than the second player cursor in Super Mario Galaxy, and they feel like the game is not ignoring them in service of the first player like Tails players in the Sonic the Hedgehog Genesis titles.
The pixie character serves as a great segue into the most troubling aspect of the game. As magnificently realized as the world is; as thoughtfully constructed as the cut-scenes are; as wonderfully designed and animated the characters are, the script is terrible. It pains me to say it, as it is clear that everyone involved in its creation was having a lot of fun, and every time that Gavin Moore speaks about the game, his enthusiasm for the script is so earnest and sincere, the script majorly brought down the experience for me.
My distaste for the script made the game a distressing experience. I was entirely of split mind. The cut-scenes were imaginative and wonderfully animated — an absolute joy to look at, but as soon as the characters began speaking or blocking / performing, it became almost unwatchable.
The cut-scenes are chaotic, abrasive, and poorly directed, as characters are constantly speaking over each other’s lines, performing frantic actions that have nothing to do with the scene that is unfolding, and are constantly flying uncomfortably close to the screen to take full advantage of the game’s 3D capabilities.
The jokes are beyond flat and delivered with a completely unearned winking knowingness. The voice acting and animation of the characters is over the top and unrestrained, which fits the puppet theatre theme quite nicely, but unfortunately amplifies everything that is wrong with the script in the way that shouting a good joke can sometimes make it funnier, but shouting a bad joke can only make it more awkward.
The jokes are easy and weightless (actual examples from the game: “Vegitation? More like snack-itation!”, “Danger, Will Crab-inson! Danger!”, “Look at that rock! That’s a sight gag waiting to happen!”). The characters, each of which I wanted to love due to their beautiful designs, I ended up hating just as soon as they opened their mouth to speak. Again, it is clear that the writers were trying very hard, but that makes it even more painful to watch.
Most troublesome was the character of Pikarina, the pixie who acts as the player’s cursor on screen and Kutaro’s companion throughout the game. She is the “wouldn’t it be funny if there was someone who acted really ‘modern’ in this fairy tale?” character (hint: the answer to that question is always no).
She is a brat who is either telling terrible jokes, or telling you the solutions to puzzles (and not when you clearly are stuck — like, she will walk you through how to solve a puzzle immediately when you enter the room. The game treats you like you are stupid). The fact that she is ever-present makes the entire experience grating. If there was some way to turn off the voice acting, the game would be much improved.
I would like to mention, though, that there are some genuinely good moments in the game. One highlight was a mermaid musical of exceptional quality (see video below). It made me wish that the entire game was a Disney musical. There was a production level and certain brand of energy that is so unusual in video games. I would really like to see more of it! Also, the haunted graveyard act was great. I have a personal affinity for fun-horror, and that had all of the spooky scary skeletons I could ever want. It absolutely nailed the fun-horror aesthetic and was a pleasure to explore.
Between the sub-par platforming and the immensely-grating script, I could only stomach a couple of levels at a time before I had to turn off the PlayStation in frustration and disappointment and retire. The game was, perhaps, over-ambitious, and it ended up falling short of what it could have been. It is particularly heartbreaking, because with a better script and slightly-tweaked platforming controls, this could be a real standout classic.
Overall, it is difficult for me to recommend, for as much as I would like everyone to see certain parts of it, the overall experience put me off so much that I cannot advise others to pursue it. If it is to your liking, though, Puppeteer is packed-to-the-ceiling with content, from its constantly-changing worlds to its top-tier boss fights, it is a great value if you get along well with its writing.