On its face Papo & Yo is a tale of boy and monster, of frogs and fruits, but beneath its fantastical scenario lurks a subtle maturity that goes beyond the reach of many games. It's a story devised to mirror designer Vander Caballero's own struggles in a family that bore the burden of addiction, under an alcoholic patriarch, and delivers a tale that, even hidden behind a colourful mask of reverie, throws some emotional jabs.
You're Quico, a young boy who inhabits a dream landish Brazilian favela. Your actions and interactions with the world exhibit several coping mechanisms that might be adopted by a child in a bad situation: you can block the world out by placing a cardboard hint box over your head to get a helping hand; your toy robot is an imaginary friend and loyal companion brought to life to aid you. Otherwise realistic environments can be manipulated with a variety of switches, levers and toy-like wind up mechanisms; peeled back, shifted and pulled along on rope, the world becomes a wishful play box where anything can happen and all can be escaped or changed provided that there's a line of magical chalk to it.
The initial areas focus entirely on Quico and what he can do in this world. Tug a string and you can drag a white winding staircase from within a building, the brickwork and such still on its side. You hop over hot tin roofs, finding ways to create new platforms by elevating the houses themselves. The morphing environments become more and more impressive throughout Papo & Yo's four or five hour play length, with relatively simple alternations – ripping back a wall to make a passageway, picking up entire buildings to make bridges – eventually giving way to more complex, world-shaking surreal setpieces that excite and make you feel a little queasy in equal measure. There are a few points where the thinly drawn interactive levers are difficult to spot, though camera sweeps and chalk lines generally do a fair job of showing you where to go next.
Before long you're reunited with your would-be plastic protector Lula, a small robot that clings to Quico's back so that he can use a jetpack to soar over larger gaps, or alternatively can be sent off to hit out-of-reach panels. Then of course there is Monster; built up for quite a long time, with only rumbling sounds and shadows to hint at his appearance and the threat he holds, he's eventually introduced as a slumbering oaf that likes nothing more than to chow down on as much fruit as his substantial belly can hold. Trails can be left to lure him into piles of cardboard, where he will rest so that you can use his stomach as a trampoline to bounce to new areas.
But there's a dark side to Monster. He adores fruit, but there's one thing he loves to eat even more: frogs. He's addicted to them, and upon consuming just one of the little hoppers he transforms into a towering inferno, a scorched, flaming beast beyond reason, that chases Quico down relentlessly and flings him about savagely whenever he catches him. The gentle giant lives up to his namesake in this mood, any pretence of friendliness and innocence lost in a literal blaze of anger. The only way to make Monster revert to normal is to feed him a rotten blue fruit to force him to vomit up the offending amphibian – he collapses into a spent, regretful hangover as he does so.
It's a mechanic that's interesting but doesn't always feel particularly fair. In normal form, Monster would never do anything to harm Quico and helps you along, only annoying when he greedily snatches up a fruit just before you can do the same, meaning you have to wait for it to respawn or shake some more down from a tree. Enraged, however, he's perhaps a little too powerful: though he gallops in lumbering fashion, it's never long before he's caught up with you, and his attacks can be infuriating.
Once caught you completely lose control for a few seconds as he sends you spinning through the air, presumably a purposeful polar opposite to the power you feel when you move the very world around you. You can't die, but you can be repeatedly and mercilessly thrown — in any direction — away from a switch you're about to press. This means that sometimes you end up stuck in a loop of pushing forward and being lobbed away over the same small section of ground; it's never a significant portion of area, usually just a few feet, but when it happens several times in a row it can get quite frustrating.
Soundtracked to a gorgeous mix of South American music that incorporates Spanish guitar, strong percussion and more to great effect – particularly in the stunning, touching conclusion – Papo & Yo is pretty enough. Realistic towns, daubed beautifully with bright graffiti, stand at odds with the stark white used for surreal effects. Environments tearing, rolling or otherwise adjusting is smooth and impressive. It is rather rough around the edges, however; the framerate is often slightly sluggish and objects clip through one another all the time.
Papo & Yo is not a technically perfect game, and is perhaps a little short for the asking price, but it covers a topic that is rarely discussed in the world of video games thoughtfully with an inventive style that provokes an emotional response at several points.