Within minutes of starting Puppeteer, it's clear that it's an absolutely stunning game. The art style, the animation and the sheer amount of detail packed into each and every visual asset make the title a joy to behold. Trailers and screenshots simply don't do the product justice – this is something that you need to see in motion for yourself, on a nice big television screen.
Indeed, the game's aesthetics are without doubt its greatest achievement. They provide one amazing location after the next, filled to the brim with brilliantly designed characters who boast extravagant theatrical personalities as they bound about the stage, all while the backdrop twists and turns. The game is easily one of the most cinematic platformers that we've ever jumped into.
The 10 hour campaign is punctuated with dozens of cutscenes that all sport a pantomime style, with the cast spouting crazy and exaggerated dialogue as they skip and fall across the set, bumbling into one another. In between levels — and sometimes during — these displays often last upwards of a few minutes, and for that reason, it's hard not to get wrapped up in the story. That said, it could be argued that there's actually a little too much exposition – some of the lengthier scenes can really start to drag out the experience and get in the way of gameplay.
It's hard to get annoyed when the plot is as whimsical and charming as this, though. Playing as a young boy named Kutaro, it falls to you to thwart the tyrannical reign of the Moon Bear King. The furry ruler and his menagerie of dastardly animal generals have overthrown the previous monarch and now threaten the existence of the inhabitants of the moon, although this isn't the dusty hunk of rock that we know. Here, the moon takes on a fairytale form, its crescent shape dotted with different environments that range from forests to deserts.
Over the course of seven acts — each broken up into three curtains — you'll be guiding Kutaro and his varied group of companions on their journey. Because the story is so well paced, and each act is set in a completely different location, it really feels like you're taking part in a grand adventure. The youngster himself plays a silent protagonist, but much like the rest of the cast, his superb animations help sculpt his likeable personality. He's also customisable thanks to the fact that the Moon Bear King pulls his head off in the opening act, allowing you to find and wear different noggins that are all incredibly varied in terms of design, and by sporting the right one at the right time, you'll open up bonus stages and unlock helpful, level-specific secrets. It's an arrangement which calls to mind the zany Sega Mega Drive title Dynamite Headdy.
A tap of the left or right directional buttons cycles through your current set of heads, and you can store up to three at a time. Unsurprisingly, they play a big part in terms of gameplay – getting hit by an enemy or falling into a hazard will cause whichever head you're wearing to pop off and roll away, and if you don't quickly pick it back up, it'll disappear. Lose all three, and you'll be sent back to the last checkpoint and forfeit a life. Overall, it's a system that feels somewhat unique, especially when you're desperately trying to catch your lost cranium before it rolls just out of reach.
However, the mechanic does mean that the title can feel overly forgiving. Messing up multiple times while fighting a boss only to luckily have your head land right back on your shoulders can make it seem like you're borderline invincible, although as a whole, the release doesn't provide much of a challenge anyway, particularly when you're granted a life by collecting one hundred glowing moon pieces – which are found in abundance throughout.
On the other hand, younger gamers should have next to no trouble when playing thanks to the title's inherent accessibility. A second player can even take control of Kutaro's floating, invulnerable companions, who can investigate the backgrounds of stages to find treasures and stun both normal foes and bosses, perhaps providing the perfect support for less experienced players.
When it comes to the platforming fundamentals, Puppeteer runs and jumps with confidence. Kutaro's leap is precise and responsive, as is his movement in general. And again, his delightful animations fill him with character, even when doing something as simple as walking. Of course, the title would prove to be rather uninspired without its own unique take on a timeless genre formula, and this is where a a magical pair of scissors named Calibrus come into the equation.
With the shears in hand, you'll be able to attack small, goblin-like enemies known as grubs, cut your way through obstacles, and traverse through trails of cloth or paper props in order to progress. By jumping and pushing square as you line yourself up with an object that can be snipped, be it paper leaves or cloth flags, you'll be able to carve your way across bottomless pits and over an assortment of other dangers. It seems like a strange mechanic, but in the context of the game it works extremely well, as each satisfying slice takes you closer to the goal.
On top of Calibrus' inclusion, you'll also discover special heads left behind by old heroes over the course of the story — which you'll acquire permanently — and their actions are each mapped to a different buttons. They bestow unique powers, but these techniques are largely unoriginal. For example, there's a knight's head that can be used to block attacks and reflect projectiles, as well as a pirate's that shoots out a hook on a chain which can be used to pull platforms towards you or to grapple distant adversaries. There are usually visual cues that tell you when each noggin is needed, but they add some variety to gameplay nonetheless.
This is especially true during the game's many, many boss fights. As previously mentioned, the Moon Bear King's army is made up of different animal officers and a lot of the acts revolve around Kutaro's battle with each of them. In one level, you might be running and hopping across a giant creatures back, while in the next you'll be fighting it face to face. Typically, as the title goes on, battles tend to get more and more complex, and you'll have to make use of the special heads at your disposal. Surprisingly, almost every encounter ends with a series of quick time events, which may seem out of place at first, but the invigorating actions that accompany them are brilliant to watch.
To top off the jaw-dropping aesthetics, the release also hosts a rousing soundtrack that really ties the experience together. Everything from spooky melodies to inspiring orchestral scores are included, and every tune suits the game perfectly. In addition, sound effects are comical and add a hint of humour to proceedings, as does the pantomime dialogue and narration, which is all well acted. Unfortunately, there is one character, the sun princess, whose voice will slowly but surely drive you insane. In a title that's full of British accents, she sports a horribly out of place teenage American dialect that'll have you scrambling for the volume button, and the worst part is that once she starts, she rarely stops. But when this is the worst criticism you can throw at a game, it must be doing something right.
From the red velvet curtains that border the screen to the giant creatures which inhabit Puppeteer's world, this is a title that is almost the very definition of artistic. Every single detail is masterfully crafted, and the absolutely solid platforming gameplay very rarely gets its strings tangled. Kutaro's marvellous journey is packed with characters that are anything but wooden, and a narrative that's both self-aware and effortlessly charming, resulting in one of the best exclusive adventures on the PlayStation 3.