Heads and Tales
There’s something holy about fairy tales.
By coincidence or choice, we’ve enshrined these wholly unbelievable stories among our most defining cultural myths. They’re inescapable, fundamental knowledge, touchstones planted in all of us during our most formative years. Before we utter a single word to our children about philosophy or science or religion, we teach them about magic and might, about death and danger, about heroes and villains.
That’s because, like any good mythology, fairy tales present us with a framework for grasping at the unknowable corners of our universe. They provide lessons on understanding evil and injustice, on overcoming adversity, on growing up. They don’t talk down to their audience, but elevate it. For all their fantasy, they ring out with undeniable truths.
You’ll find these same traits echoed in the most celebrated children’s media of today—Pixar films, classic Disney features, the works of Hayao Miyazaki. Yet videogames, for all their breadth and history, have never truly capitalized on that tradition. Games aimed at or inclusive of children almost invariably fall into one of three categories: licensed tie-ins, blatant educational tools, and ultimately hollow, gameplay-driven experiences. There’s no originality to Disney Infinity, no whimsy to Reader Rabbit, no thematic depth to Mario.
But Puppeteer is different. SCE Japan’s latest creation has all of those things and more. It is, quite possibly, the closest thing we’ve ever had to an interactive fairy tale.
That impressive accomplishment starts—but certainly does not end—with its charming story. Our hero is a young boy named Kutaro whose soul is stolen from his body and whisked away to the moon, where it’s trapped inside a wooden puppet by the sinister Moon Bear King. This ursine usurper has overthrown the moon’s rightful ruler, the Moon Goddess, by shattering the Moonstone and scattering its pieces among his animal generals. With the aid of the brusque witch Ezma Potts, her trusty cat Ying Yang, and the sassy sun princess Pikarina, Kutaro sets out to defeat the Moon Bear King, reforge the Moonstone, and return his soul to Earth. It’s a simple story, but it’s told with enough heart and emotional heft to take on the timeless, universal quality of a good fable.
Helping greatly to this end is some fantastic voice work and snappy writing. The dialogue and narration is pervasive, accompanying your every move, but it never grows tiresome. There’s really something to appeal to everyone here: childish slapstick humor, slyly educational asides, winking references only adults will appreciate, and just about everything in between.
Equally impressive is Puppeteer’s visual style, which channels the Japanese tradition of bunraku puppet theater. Your adventure is a grand stage performance, framed by stately red curtains and footlights, accompanied by gasps and applause from an invisible audience. Every object you encounter looks as though it’s been handcrafted as a prop, set, or puppet, imparting a rich sense of material and texture. As you progress through each level, the sets change around you, pieces dropping in and out, backdrops scrolling past as they’re shifted by clockwork mechanisms. This conceit gives Puppeteer plenty of opportunities to toy with perspective, blending side-scrolling movement with top-down environments and rotating, pseudo-3D arenas. It’s an absolute treat to watch.
The core gameplay is likewise imaginative. Kutaro’s most important tool is Calibrus, a pair of magical scissors. In addition to slicing away at foes, Calibrus allows him to cut through any paper or fabric he encounters. Since each snip gives you a bit of forward momentum, cutting the environment becomes a key component of your movement, allowing you to shear your way up, across, over, and around obstacles. The floaty physics take a bit of getting used to, but once you’ve mastered them, they’re a delightful change of pace from standard platforming tropes, put to good use across a variety of well-designed levels and boss fights.
The other primary facet of Puppeteer’s gameplay comes from Kutaro’s swappable noggin. Throughout the game, you’ll discover dozens upon dozens of alternative heads to pop onto his shoulders, each with a different theme. A handful of essential ones grant Kutaro crucial new abilities, like a shield or a grappling hook, but the vast majority function simultaneously as collectibles, keys to secret areas, and, most importantly, your hit points. Take damage, and your head pops off. If you don’t grab it in time, it disappears, and you move on to the next one in your reserve. Lose all three, and you’re out a life.
To uncover these heads, you need to use your ever-present floating companion—Ying Yang for the first act, and Pikarina for the remaining six. Functionally, this ally is a mouse cursor you control with the right analog stick, using R2 to click and investigate points of interest on the screen. Most of the time, you’ll be rewarded with a cute animation and a few extra Moonsparkles—plentiful pickups that grant an extra life for every hundred you collect—but every so often, you’ll find that coveted head. These interactions are so plentiful and varied that much of the joy in playing Puppeteer comes from seeing what you can and can’t affect in the world.
But this is also, perhaps, the one area where the game truly falters. Since there’s so much to discover—much of it frustratingly well hidden—attempting to find everything in an area can slow your progress to a crawl as you exhaustively scan every inch. Platformers are at their best when your momentum is carrying you forward through one death-defying feat after another. Mixing in these adventure game–style pixel hunts detracts from that ideal pacing. Still, the sheer volume of secrets means that repeat visits to levels rarely feel unproductive or boring. If you can grow accustomed to the stuttering rhythm required to be a true completionist, there’s a enormous amount of replay value. Fairy tales, after all, are meant to be told over and over again.
They’re also meant to be communal experiences, and Puppeteer understands this as well. SCE Japan has included some of the most thoughtful co-op implementation I’ve ever seen in a game. The first player controls Kutaro, while the second takes charge of his companion. For the sake of accessibility, the control scheme is kept incredibly simple, making use of the left stick, a single face button, and one shoulder button.
If those were the sole changes, the co-op would likely feel like an equally mindless imitation of Super Mario Galaxy’s approach, but entire sections of the game are smartly reconfigured to account for the presence of a second player. Puppeteer offers quite a few brand-new gameplay mechanics for the companion, too. They can pop the heads off of enemies to create new pickups, collect Moonsparkles to deliver to Kutaro, destroy dangerous obstacles, and interrupt some attacks during boss fights. They can even help out during quick-time events, pressing buttons alongside player one. If they press the wrong button, however, there’s no penalty or risk of failure. In essence, the second player is designed to always be helpful, but almost never be necessary.
This attitude makes Puppeteer’s cooperative experience approachable for just about anyone in any walk of life. A parent or grandparent who’s unfamiliar with games can take an interest in their youngster’s hobby without having to worry about whether or not they’re good enough to keep up. A child too young to master the complexities of controlling Kutaro can still follow the story and feel like they’re contributing to the adventure. Someone like me, playing the game at the beginning of their adult life, can return to it years from now, when they have a son or daughter of their own, and see everything through new eyes.
Call me a sap, but I think there’s something holy about that, too.
|Developer: SCE Japan Studio • Publisher: Sony • ESRB: E10+ – Everyone 10 and Up • Release Date: 9.10.2013|
It’s rare that a game can succeed at offering something for all audiences, but Puppeteer manages to accomplish just that. With a charming story, innovative gameplay, and a theatrical visual style that’s impossible not to love, this platformer’s a great fit for parents, kids, and everyone in between.
|The Good||A whimsical, wonderful interactive fairy tale.|
|The Bad||Hunting around the screen for hidden heads can be frustrating and breaks the flow of the game.|
|The Ugly||The Moon Witch’s sagging bosom. She could sweep the floor with those things.|
|Puppeteer is a PlayStation 3 exclusive.|