- Platform PS3
- Publisher SCEE
- Developer SCE Japan Studio
- Release Date 11/09/2013
If there’s one thing you can’t say about Sony, it’s that they discourage originality.
Puppeteer is a game unlike any other and that’s not just reviewer rhetoric. Technically, it’s a simple 2D platformer, but this is no Mario or Donkey Kong – it’s a visceral adventure told in the form of a stage play, a mix between puppet theatre and British pantomime.
How exactly does that work, you ask? The answer is brilliant and so surprisingly simple that it’s amazing no-one thought of it before – especially since the game comes from a Japanese development studio (panto isn’t exactly big over there). All the characters are portrayed as rough cut wooden puppets and the story itself is presented as a live stage show, with the stage decorations dropping away to be replaced by new ones every time you enter a new scene. It can be a bit disorienting the first few times you see it but after a few quick scene changes your eyes soon grow accustomed to the sight of scenery and characters plummeting away into darkness as new ones spring up in their place.
Get Your Head Round This
The story follows a young boy called Kutaro, who is turned into a puppet and has his head ripped off and eaten by the Moon Bear King, who has ousted the Moon Goddess and destroyed her Moon Stone, giving a shard to each of his generals. Saved by Ying-Yang – the former pet cat of the Moon Goddess, who is down to his last life after losing seven of them in the war against the Moon Bear King’s grub minions – Kutaro collects a few spare heads and proceeds to make his way to the kitchen, presided over by Ezma Potts the Moon Witch, a crazed old woman whose short temper is matched only by her ineptitude at cooking. The old hag sends Kutaro to retrieve a magical pair of scissors called Calibrus from the Moon Bear King’s throne room, which, unlike the many puppet children sent before him, he succeeds in doing. Under Potts’ guidance, Kutaro races to the Knight’s tower to acquire the Knight’s Shield – which belonged to one of the Moon Goodess’ four champions who died fighting the Moon Bear King – where he rescues Pikarina, the daughter of the Sun God, defeats one of the King’s generals and makes his escape. With Potts guiding him and Pikarina at his side, Kutaro traverses the many realms of the Moon and battles the remaining 11 generals as he reassembles moonstone and frees the Moon from the Bear King’s clutches.
It’s worth saying outright that how much you enjoy Puppeteer will depend largely on how much you enjoy theatrical performances. As the name might suggest, Puppeteer is presented in the style of a puppet show, complete with curtain, props, spotlights and, occasionally, over-the-top dramatics.
It’s worth saying outright that how much you enjoy Puppeteer will depend largely on how much you enjoy theatrical performances. As the name might suggest, Puppeteer is presented in the style of a puppet show, complete with curtain, props, spotlights and, occasionally, over-the-top dramatics. You see the performance unfolding from the audience’s point of view and you’ll hear them gasp, ooh and aah in response to what’s happening before them just like a real audience. Your journey is also narrated by an off-screen narrator who frequently banters and jibes with Pikarina throughout the game – think Stephen Fry’s LittleBigPlanet narration only with added snark. For gamers with a love for all things theatrical it’s an amusing and entertaining format, but for those who aren’t so keen it’s more of an intrusion than a compliment. Musical numbers frequently interrupt the story inbetween levels, and the pacey scene changes barely give you time to take in your environment. It’s a shame because the graphics are gorgeous and the backdrops are as varied as they are lush. But despite the nippy pace it’s Japan Studios’ painstaking attention to detail and passion for vivid colour texture that draw you deeper into Kutaro’s world.
You may be wondering how a headless puppet manages to get around these lush environments, so let me explain. The world is full of heads you can pop on your shoulders to replace your own, from a giant piece of sushi to an acoustic guitar. When you get hurt, the head pops off and rolls away. The game only lets you carry three at a time and if you lose all three of them, you’ll be forced to restart the level, though the game’s difficulty level means this shouldn’t happen often, particularly as extra lives can be generated by collecting shards of moonsparkles. The real problem is that the screen is often so busy you don’t even realise you’ve lost your head and before you know it you’ve run out, especially during boss fights. The heads are many and varied but feel woefully under-used. Equipping the right one when a picture of the relevant head appears in the background unlocks bonus stages that you can play through to gain extra lives, but beyond that the heads are largely cosmetic.
Giving each head a unique power would have mixed up combat and provided an air of strategy to proceedings, but instead the whole thing just feels like a missed opportunity. It’s clear the game is built to encourage revisiting stages when you have the appropriate gear, but seeing as a single stage can take a half hour or more to finish, only the most patient of gamers will want to return for a second round. It’s also incredibly easy to miss new heads and it’s maddeningly easy to have Pikarina or Ying-Yang release a head you already own, which only doubles (or even trebles) the availability of your already pointless head.
Calibrus is a much more useful tool. Aside from their obvious usefulness in combat, the scissors can be utilised for a wealth of other tricks, enabling Kutaro to cut, chop and crop his way around environments, evading enemies, climbing obstacles or getting around in style by traversing flags, feathers, leaves, and bubbles.
As you progress through the game the Moon Witch will help you unlock a series of special abilities and skills, including a shield, bombs, grappling hook and belly slam move, all of which help Kutaro navigate his way through the dangerous levels and ensuring that each new stage is accompanied by a new toy to play with.
There’s no online multiplayer mode to speak of here but the game does feature a handy co-op mode that allows a second player to take control of Ying Yang and later Pikarina. This is by far the best way to play the game, as playing the game solo requires you to control Pikarina separately alongside Kutaro. Having to use the left stick to control Kutaro and the right to steer Pikarina can be teeth-gnashingly frustrating during some of the game’s more hectic stages, especially when the screen is jam-packed with enemies and you’re desperately trying to keep on top of everything.
Beautiful to look at, dripping with imagination and bursting with creativity, Puppeteer stumbles over its hectic set pieces and nearly trips over its own sense of missed opportunity but ultimately manages to stay upright. A delightful but flawed gaming experience.