Release Date: September 10, 2013
Platform: Playstation 3
Developer: SCE Japan Studio
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
At the start of this current, now almost-ending generation of home gaming consoles, it seemed that traditional platformers were very steadily on the way out, as game developers began cashing in their Crash Bandicoot and Spyro the Dragon for their Uncharted or Infamous. Luckily, games like LittleBigPlanet showed that the age of sidescrolling platforming was still alive, and recent games like Rayman Origins and its fantastic sequel Rayman Legends only solidified that fact. PS3-exclusive Puppeteer is the latest in line of colorful and cartoony platformers that hope to recapture that essence of the old sidescrolling greats, with a theatrical story about a heroic puppet who must stop the evil Moon Bear King. Although the game offers a few neat ideas, after playing and enduring all of its many theatrics, it quickly becomes clear that Puppeteer is much less of a BattleBlock Theater, and more just dangling on someone else’s strings.
There was a lot about the game’s story that just came across like it was trying too hard. The humor just wasn’t that funny, the lifeless characters just didn’t make you care at all about the plot, and the sarcastic narrative was like a B-rate version of the narrator from The Cave. The strange thing is that each one of Puppeteer’s many cut scenes dragged on for what seemed like forever, and I actually found myself starting to skip through them by the time I hit the third act, just because I wanted to get back to the gameplay. For instance, you’ll find a meaty cutscene both before and after each individual scene in every act, that serves to set the stage (literally set the stage) for the upcoming level; but then add this in with all of the many smaller cutscenes that populate the scenes themselves anytime something of even the slightest potential significance occurs, and you’ve got yourself one disjointed storytelling experience. I get that the whole theme of the game is supposed to be centered on actually going to the theater, but seriously, this has got to be the most longwinded puppet show in the history of dramatic performances.
However, given the fantastical backdrop of a puppet show theater that takes place on the Moon, it’s clear that almost anything is possible, and so the diversity in level themes and designs is definitely one of Puppeteer’s strong suits. The cutesy 2D visuals look like something taken straight out of LittleBigPlanet’s book, and the developer stays true to the whole theater theme that permeates the entire experience: the edges of red curtains will always be visible at the top of your screen, and you’ll continuously go behind “layers” of objects and environments as you progress through each level, much like the changing of scenes in between acts when you go to see a real play in person. As you meander along the rambling plot, you’ll find yourself in all sorts of eye-popping environments, from dark castle dungeons, to bubbling green marshlands and forests, to my personal favorite, a treasure-filled pirate ship and its swaying sails above.
The game is made up of seven different acts, each of which encompasses three lengthy scenes to complete it all. And I mean it when I say they’re lengthy: a lot of the time I found myself wondering when exactly that particular stage was going to end; and I guess it certainly didn’t help that the game’s allocations of checkpoints and save systems are a little inconsistent at best. In addition to your traditional jumping over platforms and slashing into baddies, you’ll also be using the right joystick to maneuver a helper character around the screen, and “investigate” background objects to unveil additional secrets that might be hiding (which lends nicely to the game’s 2-player cooperative mode).
So let’s talk about the two main features that distinguish Puppeteer from your run-of-the-mill 2D sidescrolling platformer game. The first is actually the more gimmicky of the two, and involves your character Kutaro being able to change his head at will to a number of other funky puppet heads that you’ll pick up along the way. At any one point in the game, Kutaro can carry three different heads with him at once, which you can toggle back and forth using your DualShock 3 controller’s directional buttons. These serve as your health of sorts, as every time you take a hit, your head will come popping off, and you’ll have the chance to chase after it before it disappears and then you’re left with only two heads on your proverbial shoulder.
After my initial playthrough of the game, I realized I had a fairly love-hate relationship with this feature: on one hand, the amount of care and creativity that went into the hundreds of different heads you can find is certainly apparent, and you’ll go from being a panda bear, to a caterpillar, to a treasure chest all within the same five-minute interval. But on the other hand, this constant switching of heads leaves Kutaro with an overwhelming lack of identity (even for a puppet), and makes it hard to really connect with him despite the game’s heavy emphasis on story. At various instances throughout each scene, Kutaro will come across an area that requires the special ability of a specific puppet head. You’ll know which head you need by a large transparent image of the head floating nearby the specific location, and investigating the hologram with your helper will display a text description as well, just in case you needed any further help. The problem here is that there’s no way to no ahead of time which heads you might need before beginning a level, and no way to acquire that last needed head other than earning it through regular gameplay all over again. What this all translates to is a lot of backtracking to earlier level to retrieve certain head types, with no guarantee that you’ll be able to hold onto them until the time comes to finally use them.
Successfully using the correct head at the correct location will usually net you an additional burst of Moonsparkle collectables and the occasional Bonus Stage, where the only reward is, you guessed it, more Moonsparkles. These tiny yellow pickups are found quite frequently throughout each lengthy stage and their sole purpose is providing players with an extra life every time they manage to collect a total of 100 (I didn’t lose my first life until the beginning of Act 3, and by then had already amassed close to 30 extra lives, so going out of your way to collect more Moonsparkles isn’t going to be the more pressing thing in the world). But for me, the biggest missed opportunity here in Puppeteer is the fact that each of the head’s “special abilities” is merely just a little dance or animation that Kutaro does, which doesn’t hold any impact on the gameplay whatsoever. With so many wonderfully varied and unique head designs that you can wear, it was just a little pointless that each one held such a stiff and identical purpose as the next. If I’m wearing a bright green frog head, then I want my character to be able to jump like a frog, dammit!
The second, and infinitely more enjoyable, big feature of Puppeteer is in Calibrus, the magical pair of scissors that Kutaro is able to wield from early on in his adventure. Using these scissors brings about a very unique handling of physics to the world of Puppeteer, as you’ll primarily be using them to navigate over cliffs or up plummeting channels, as you snip your way through all sorts of environmental objects like leaves, water spouts, and even snake scales. Essentially, Calibrus lets you manipulate gravity in the game, and essentially fly around the area to your wooden heart’s content: given that there’s always something in the air nearby that you can latch your scissors onto and get to snipping. Many of the larger boss battles in the game make wonderful use of these scissors, as you’ll need to scamper up their bodies and slice through some important part of their body or head. Conversely, these larger-than-life animal-based boss fights are often some of the best and most memorable parts of the game. But unfortunately, like most other aspects of this theater-themed platformer, there is still a nagging flaw that presents the boss battles from being completely perfect, and this is often in the form of the completely unneeded, and often quite jarring, Quick Time Events that signal Kutaro’s finishing move in most boss encounters.
However, while the unique scissoring gameplay is certainly the star of the show here, I actually found myself growing more and more attached to some of the other gameplay mechanics that take a nice supporting role behind the curtain, like the bombs you can throw or the grappling hook of sorts that you can use to draw enemies closer or activate various switches and levers as you find them throughout the game world. You’ll gradually learn each of these new abilities at regular intervals in the first half of the game, as you get forced into accompanying longwinded tutorials to learn their proper usage on the Moon. What’s interesting about many of these new abilities, though, is that it gives you another added incentive to return to previous acts and scenes, where you can use them in small side areas that you couldn’t access before, and unlock some new head types.
So in the end, Puppeteer doesn’t set out to redefine the way we play 2D sidescrolling platformers, or to blow us away with ; but it DOES still manage to carve out its own little niche in the genre by bringing just enough new and interesting ideas to the puppet table. The base platforming gameplay is nice (and a fun callback to games like LittleBigPlanet), the scenery is always fresh and exciting, and the gimmicky inclusions of the scissors-physics gameplay and head-switching are executed well enough for the most part. The real problems arise in the little and unavoidable grievances that emerge from each one of these instances, and ultimately work together to pull the overall experience down a few pegs; or if you’d rather, loosen a few strings.
Story – 5/10
Gameplay – 7/10
Graphics – 8/10
Soundtrack – 8/10
Replayability – 6/10