Hands On: Puppeteer

Puppeteer might look like PS3 stablemate LittleBigPlanet at first glance with its chunky 2.5 D graphics and adorable central character but it plays completely differently: a smart blend of responsive side-on platformer and deliciously macabre stage show. Sony’s upcoming PS3 exclusive from Japan Studio is all theatre – and it’s really, really good.

The idea is fairly simple – your suddenly headless character, a young boy called Kutaro who has been turned into a puppet, must discover, collect and adorn various hidden heads, each of which bestow at least one special ability, activated via a non-too subtle magic trick and usually most effective when indicated via an on-screen cue.

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The heads can be anywhere and everywhere – some are obviously stashed away inside boxes and behind other items, but some are more carefully hidden. Players can hold more than one head, which opens up interesting inventory-based puzzles depending on the situation. Going into detail would spoil the surprises, but suffice to say the game has plenty of neat tricks up its sleeve.

However, your character’s options are limited – he can only move left, right and jump for example – and thus the game’s biggest challenge was to allow the player flexibility whilst ensure some fixed mechanics are adhered to. The answer? A wonderfully dark, expertly voiced cat called Ying Yang who acts as both mentor and exploratory device – he can float around the screen (with the right stick) and can interact with most objects for you.

The goal of each screen is to simply reach the exit, normally a swirling indicator in the Bunraku-inspired show. Platforms, puzzles and enemies are usually in the way, of course, and whilst the levels start off small they soon grow in size and scope – and there are regular gameplay shifts – but it’s the transfer from level to level that’s the real draw.

Puppeteer’s theatrical nature never lets up, and that extends to how each level is hurriedly constructed from multiple parts as you move from one to the next, and it’s a constant delight to see each stage transforming before you.

Before long Kutaro finds a pair of scissors, belonging to the main enemy of the game – the brilliantly named Moon Bear King. These scissors, titled Calibrus, open up masses of new gameplay challenges (the first of which sees you cutting through a giant spider web) – not least the ability to make more use of the vertical angle.

The sound design is a particular treat – it centres the player in the middle of an imaginary front row, with boos, cheers and laughs coming from an equally invisible crowd. It gives the game a resolutely individual audio landscape, and has to be heard to be fully appreciated.

The graphics are great too, with the overall aesthetic very much like some of Media Molecule’s more twisted inventions. Paper-thin props mix with fully rounded creatures and actors with great effect, especially when it’s combined with the aforementioned, superb acting. Pantomime it might be, but Puppeteer is a wickedly cool adventure, with a dark, menacing streak that’s not immediately obvious when the game is first starting out.

It apparently also runs in 3D, an effect which is no doubt amazing to behold. Sadly such an option wasn’t available when I playtested it recently.

I really, really like Puppeteer. It’s got that spark and verve that so many games forget to bring. It’s handsome and voiced perfectly, but it plays great too – always evolving and changing but sticking to a set of gameplay rules that remain enjoyable no matter what’s going on with the stage ahead. The game came from nowhere for me, but I can’t wait to play more.

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16 Comments

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