It’s as if the Brothers Grimm (Hansel & Gretel), Tim Burton (Nightmare Before Christmas), Terry Gilliam (Monty Python’s Flying Circus) and Media Molecule (LittleBigPlanet) had a secret rendezvous one night under the light of the full moon and came up with the barking mad concept for Puppeteer, the latest platformer from SCE Japan Studio.
Puppetter’s narrative may start off looking like the perfect fairytale story with some cute-sounding characters, like the MoonBear King and the star of the show Kutaro, the puppet boy who leaps around trying to ensure he doesn’t lose his head(quite literally), but soon it all goes 'Brother’s Grimm' and something more sinister comes to the light. It materialises that nasty MoonBear spends his days stealing children’s souls and then transforms them into his henchmen to protect his macabre trophies.
Kutaro is actually one of the lucky children because he just gets his head bitten off and his body survives. This tiny puppet figure no more than an inch tall now has no head attached to his strings and wanders around in search of his precious bonce. With the aid of a pair of magical scissors, which he uses to cut through materials, enemies and scenery, Kutaro embarks on his journey picking up makeshift heads along the way, rescuing the souls of captured children and destroying Moonbear's minons.
We told you it was weird, right? Well, the bizarreness just keeps on coming as everything in the world of Puppeteer takes place on a dynamically-changing theatrical stage, complete with spotlights and audience interaction such as cheering and clapping when you’re doing well and booing when things go against you. Throw in a theatrical narrator that regularly updates players about the unfolding shenanigans during and in between the game’s Acts (stages) and you’ve got a game that revels in its own wackiness and consequently feels very unique among the deluge of been-there-done-that platformers of the last few years.
Though we’ve seen the words ‘platforming side-scroller’ mentioned around the web to describe Puppeteer’s gameplay, the main antagonist doesn’t just move left to right and neither do the backdrops. In fact, most levels fold away like a concertina to reveal new environments all decked out in a unique art-style reminiscent of an animated Tim Burton movie. The result is visual extravaganza of weird and wonderful imagery where you can go from riding on the back of what looks like a pink flamingo while gliding across the back of a snake and jumping over volcanos to fighting against a giant papier-mâché tiger who pounds his paws to the ground in an attempt to electrify you.
Yes, Puppetter isn’t your run-of-the-mill platformer that’s for sure and Kutaro is accompanied on-screen by Ying Yang, a ghost cat that you can either be controlled by you or a second player. While Kutaro is controlled with the left analog stick, Ying Yang, who floats around with the freedom to explore all areas of the environment, is controlled with the right. In terms of controls, Kutaro is simple to manoeuvre around screen. There’s no fancy moves to get used to and, aside from learning to time jumps and move around the area chopping things apart with your scissors, there’s a range of standard platforming manoeuvres, such as crouching, double-jumping and using Kutaro’s shielding power. That’s not to say Puppeteer is an easy game.
While Kutaro carries out the main platforming antics, Ying is used to interact with objects and search the environment for rewards. He can, for example, shake a cupboard to send a shower of moonsparkles across the floor (collect 100 and gain extra lives), open windows to reveal an exit way or tickle a bad guy to keep him busy. Controlling the two together can be a bit like the first time you tried to pat your head and rub your stomach as there’s a lot to think about particularly as the levels get trickier. Consequently, we’ve found that we got so much more out of Puppeteer playing it in co-op mode where two players can concentrate individually on what are individual goes – while Kutaro is concentrating on survival, Ying Yang is searching the environment freeing lost souls and finding hidden moonsparkles.
The whole concept and execution is utterly barmy. Within the first half-an-hour, you’ll be picking up a variety of heads that you can switch in-between with the d-pad to utilise their different powers. Bananas, burgers, spiders and all kinds of weird noggins land in your lap. Heads double-up as lives in the game, so if you get hit by an enemy your noodle will roll away and you have to chase it and put it back on before it disappears; or you can switch to a new head if you have one. Collecting heads yields rewards too because whenever you see a feint image in the background of a particular head you can interact with the environment by pressing down on the d-pad in order to discover secrets such as bonus levels.
The action gets more frantic and the scenes become more heavily populated with traps, obstacles and enemies the further you progress and more and more you have to rely on Kutaro’s magical pair of scissors. Scissors are used to kill enemies, including some of the bosses we encountered, but largely we using them to traverse the environment. There’s pieces of rope suspended in the mid-air, leaves to chop through and material to slash through by rapidly tapping the square button. The scissor action basically allows you to free objects that are trapped or get from A to B following a pathway through materials. Tapping square and having to move Ying Yang with the right analog stick is extremely tricky, which one again convinces us that Puppeteer will be best played with two players.
As with any good platformer, moonsparkles are the collectible item in the Puppeteer and it’s fun exploring the environment to find them and pulling off a chain of swift manoeuvres in order to pick as many of them as possible in each stage. Collect 100 moonsparkles and you’ll receive an extra life which is quite crucial by the time you hit Act 2. Often throughout levels there’s also secret paths where you can stray off the beaten track and be furnished by dozens of moonsparkles as a reward. There’s some replay value in replaying levels too as each Act takes you with rescuing ‘X’ amount of souls and finding a certain number of heads, as well as seeking out the bonus level.
Puppetter is certainly unique and unpredictable. The first few Acts showcase many different backdrops and ideas that are unique to the platformer genre and the story is told in such a wacky and fascinating way that we didn’t take our eyes off the screen once. It’s goes without saying that we can’t wait to see what’ still to come from Puppeteer in the full game. As long as we don’t spend too much time button-bashing the square button to glide through levels, which can get a little repetitive, then SCE Studio Japan’s bonkers platformer is nicely set-up to be one of the best games in its genre of this generation.