Games like Puppeteer don’t deserve to be sitting out in the wings. You’re more likely to find Japan Studio’s side-scroller nursing a cold cup of coffee and pushing about props than strutting its stuff on centre stage. In an industry increasingly obsessed with leading lights like Call of Duty and Battlefield, there’s becoming less and less space for humble platformers to find a place on the shrinking console cast list. Fortunately, publisher Sony’s never afraid to take a risk – but does its latest offbeat production break a leg or fall flat on its face?
Having scored front-row seats for the opening act of the Tim Burton meets Terry Gilliam release, we were lucky enough to get a sneak peek at what you can expect from the PlayStation 3 exclusive when the curtain lifts on the title in early September. Fortunately, we left the theatre dazzled and dazed – but, perhaps most importantly, desperate to get our hands on the full game. This promises to be a vibrant adventure, that’s absolutely deserving of a place on your box office wishlist.
If you haven’t already familiarised yourself with the script, the title sees you assume the role of Kutaro, a wooden imp with a mislaid noggin. Having been discarded by the glamorous (but ever so slightly grumpy) Moon Bear King, the peg-legged protagonist finds himself at beck and call of an alliterative witch, who’s desperate to lay her snip-happy digits on a supernatural pair of scissors. After sending teems of unsuspecting children to their doom, the headless hero and his sarcastic kitten companion manage to nab the enchanted utensils – and end up irritating the aforementioned mad mammal in the process.
It turns out that those clippers are pretty pivotal to the way that Puppeteer plays. Most platformers have a momentum-based mechanic, and for Kutaro and crew it’s all about cutting through delicate materials. Mashing the square button sends you hurtling through the air, snapping the jaws of your Excalibur-esque shears along the way. You can keep snipping as long as you’re carving a path, allowing you to essentially fly through the world. It sounds simple on (chopped) paper, and it is – but it works incredibly well. Swooping across roller coasters of yarn, and up the furry paws of fuzzy-felt felines feels like nothing you’ve done in a video game before, and it’s supremely satisfying to boot.
But it’s not just the act of playing the game that stands out. This is a release that looks like nothing else either; its rotating sets and stage lights really are a breath of fresh air. The crowd will cheer you on as you slay bad guys, giggle as you uncover secrets in the environment, and gasp as the game’s pantomime villains cook up dastardly plans. The environments look hastily constructed, but gorgeous in a LittleBigPlanet-style make-do regard. If there’s any real disappointment, it’s that in the desire to switch the scenery up, stages are split into scenes which last a few seconds at most. You probably shouldn’t expect sprawling sequences in the full game.
The variety that the setup imbues is worthy of applause, though, and its accentuated by the cavalcade of alternative noggins that you can equip. Because the hero is without his head, you need to attach different bits of bric-a-brac to survive. These range from hamburgers and sushi to guillotines and crowns. Each custom cranium augments you with a new ability, and triggering these at specific moments will allow you to reach bonus stages or progress through the game. You can carry three heads at a time, but drop them all and you’ll die. Fortunately, collecting a hundred Moon Shards rewards you with the option to retry. It’s all quite old-school beneath its, ahem, theatrical facade.
If you’re flying solo, then you’ll be able to control a sub-character using the right analogue stick. This adopts the guise of a ‘Meow-velous’ moggy named Ying-Yang in the opening exchanges, but switches to the pink fairy from the game’s marketing materials later on. The premise remains the same, though: you move the minion around the screen, and interact with items and enemies in order to give Kutaro a helping hand. If you’d rather perform in tandem, then a second player can jump into costume and assume this role independently. Alternatively, you can use the PlayStation Move controller if you prefer. You’ll probably feel like you’ve drawn the short straw if you’re not guiding the Pinocchio-esque protagonist, but younger players will likely enjoy interacting with the supporting stars.
Alas, while the gameplay may seem quite simplistic on the surface, the boss fights are anything but. An early clash against an enormous quick-witted talking tiger sees you hopping over its electric charges, defending against its catnip-induced swipes, snipping away at its mangy mane, and cutting out its teeth. The presentation – and, most importantly, animation – is absolutely astounding, and the game features a lot of depth effects that will make you wish that you owned a nifty stereoscopic display. These battles appear to be pattern-based, but the introduction of quick-time events augment the set-pieces with a sense of scale that rivals God of War rather than your traditional bout against King Koopa.
The audio is tip-top, too. Ignoring the awesome title screen that remixes the famous PS3 startup sound, the music is a blend of harpsichords, orchestral swells, and big horn motifs. It’s plucked straight out of a Danny Elfman songbook, but it suits the side-scroller’s sense of style perfectly. The voice acting is similarly rambunctious, with more wordplay than a joke shop’s book aisle. The whole experience can feel a little busy at times – with characters constantly shouting their lines – but it’s befitting of the pantomime tone, and makes sense in context, even if it’s a bit exhausting.
That shouldn’t deter you from securing your seats, though. This is shaping up to be a potty, pacey, and precisely polished platformer. The magical chopping mechanic brings a unique dynamic to the action, while the replacement heads system ensures that there’s always something silly around the corner. However, it’s the larger than life boss fights and rich presentation that really elevate the release beyond its relatively humble ambitions. Just make sure that you don’t utter the word ‘Macbeth’ before release.
Are you planning to purchase tickets for Puppeteer? Would you like to see more platformers on the PS3? Let us know in the comments section below.