What makes children’s folklore have real sticking power is a fine blend of whimsy and an unexpected darkness. “Jack and the Beanstalk,” for example, features beans that grow a humongous beanstalk into the sky where a hidden floating castle awaits (whimsy) only to find that a giant lives there, one who wants to grind human bones into his bread (darkness). Or “Hansel and Gretel” where a brother and sister stumble across a house made of sweets (whimsy), but unfortunately for them a witch who wants to cook and eat them lives there (darkness). It’s the darkness that makes the story stick, far more than one about boys and girls made of sacks.
That is where Puppeteer, a 2D platformer from Sony Japan, excels. It is masterfully crammed full of whimsy: you play as a boy named Kutaro who must fight back against the Moon Bear King; the entire game is framed as a theatrical play where sets quickly and almost violently shift as you reach the end of the scene; and nearly every character is acted with such extreme melodrama that it’s hard not to just smile at the voices. It is also, however, tinged with darkness: the Moon Bear King is taking the souls of children and trapping them into puppets; Kutaro is one such child until he gets his head bitten off; and many of the 12 generals you fight are rather…unsavory.
As you can tell, there is a lot of stuff going on in the game. None of it is very deep, but there is enough variety to always keep you smiling like a kid listening to his favorite story. Kutaro’s head, for instance, isn’t much of a problem. It reveals that he is the only one who can stop the Moon Bear King (who isn’t a Moon Bear made into a King, but rather a Bear calling himself a King after stealing the Moon Goddess’ Moonstone and mystically inclined pair of scissors called Calibrus) and wield the snippers. So he just gathers up three replacement heads at a time and sets off to fix the order of the universe.
The three heads add a lot in the way of whimsy. Each one is different and pops off whenever you get hit or damaged, forcing you to either catch it as it rolls away (kind of dark, don’t you think?) or put on a new one, though if you run out of heads, you lose a life and start over at a checkpoint. Each head has a special action, but they really only matter in very particular locations where you can unlock bonus levels or items. On the rare occasion, they will come into play during boss battles where they will change how you approach your combat strategy, something I would have liked to have seen more of throughout the entire game.
The scissors, though, carry quite the load in terms of mechanics and milieu. Everything in the game’s stage production is presented as a prop-heavy play, so a giant pair of scissors is actually quite the powerful tool. With it, Kutaro can defeat enemies (which he can follow up on by walking over and freeing the trapped soul contained within) and chop through any paper-like material. As clouds and leaves and flags go by, you can jump up and start cutting by hitting the square button in rhythm. This will help you propel yourself along in the air where you can remain aloft as long as there are things to cut and you are cutting them.
This adds a very nice wrinkle to the otherwise overly simplistic proceedings. While the base level of jumping between things is sufficiently engaging, the scissors make it so you now have a considerable manipulation over the timing of faraway platforms and moving obstacles. And then you introduce the zip-line (snip-line?) sequences and the mesh-cutting and so on, well it’s easy to see where the do-it-all attitude comes in.
Pikarina is another facet that adds another layer to the 2D platformer foundation. You control her, a spritely fairy, with the right stick and activate her against the background with R2. She can reveal treasure and pop out extra heads and general do things for Kutaro when he can’t. She sometimes requires an annoying precision in her placement to get these things to happen, but I was usually mashing and moving the button and stick too much to notice or care. What is unequivocally bothersome, though, is the character herself.
The rest of the world is rife with overacting and sincerity. You won’t find a single person who doesn’t carry on with the vaudevillian bravado consistent with this otherworldly stage and the genuine belief in every word they say…except for Pikarina. As your sidekick and guide, you hear her talk a lot, but she delivers every line as more of a valley girl and with the acerbic cynicism that usually comes attached. She undermines a lot of the gleeful nonsense that spouts out of the game and it’s kind of a buzzkill. (She’s also the only character who pronounces it as koo-tar-oh instead of koot-uh-roh.)
But that doesn’t matter because there’s such so much of that joyous, carefree randomness in Puppeteer that you don’t really mind. The commitment to the theatrical presentation is absurd and lovely and altogether unbelievable, especially when it looks so good doing it. If you had shown me Puppeteer and told me it was a PlayStation 4 launch title, I would have believed you. There is an overwhelming amount of variety and charm to the artistic design that it’s hard to wrap your mind around it all.
The way the sets haphazardly swap as you finish scenes really makes you feel like the stagehands backstage are actually moving the pieces and props around, and when the audience oohs and ahhs with big, overacted monologues or battle sequences, you feel like you’re watching this fantastically fantastical performance as much as you are informing it. And as you linger about in the game or in the menus, the audience and the narrator will let you know. You can see the proscenium, you can see the light rigging, and you can see all of painterly details on the props and sets; it’s impossible to not fall in love with this overwrought and whimsical production.
The music, the art design, and the sheer variety in the things you’ll do (and see and hear) are all simply exemplary. As much as I enjoyed actually playing the game—moving the sticks and pushing buttons—seeing the delightfully silly story unfold in such a wholly genuine presentation is the true joy of Puppeteer. The whimsy and the underlying darkness are irrepressibly impressive and lovable when taken hand in hand, and Puppeteer is something truly to be taken whole cloth.
Just don’t let those scissors near it.
+ Absolute commitment to the theater conceit
+ Gorgeous world and unbelievable art direction and design
+ Voice (over)acting is phenomenal
+ The sheer variety makes the simplistic base platformer engaging again
– Pikarina doesn’t fit with the rest of the puppet world
Final Score: 9 out of 10
Game Review: Puppeteer
Release: September 10, 2013
Genre: 2D platformer
Developer: SCE Japan Studio
Available Platforms: PlayStation 3
Players: singleplayer offline, multiplayer online