Puppeteer Review: a refreshing start to what could be a great PlayStation franchise

The initial appeal of Puppeteer mimics that of LittleBigPlanet, which, in its own right, is one of the first games since to seemingly attempt a similar style to Media Molecule’s giant franchise. After moving past the main menu, we learn that Puppeteer is almost nowhere near what LBP has done–which is a good thing, in this case. The initial intrigue of something completely different opens up to you once Puppeteer begins its light-hearted quest for entertainment. The stage is set for something greater than itself, and the ever so slight stage fright keeps this ambitious title from receiving a standing ovation.

Pardon the theatrics; I’m preparing you for the type of wonderfully delivered dialogue that only the likes of Puppeteer’s gorgeous narrative voice can perform. From its plot-driving work to the performance of each character in the cast, each and every primary and secondary character takes on his or her respective part as seriously as they do humorously. The story of Kutaro is a tale with a voiceless protagonist, who, upon being discovered by the Moon Bear King, has his wooden head torn off in the opening moments of the game. He is then cast off in a gloriously overacted fit of laughter from the King himself; this game really is as silly as it is serious. From here, Kutaro is thrown in with the Witch Queen and the Sun Princess, who vie for his efforts in order to obtain Moonstone Shards that can be used to thwart the Moon Bear King; the entertaining dichotomy between these two female characters is how they both play with their motives in order to get Kutaro to assist one side or the other throughout the satirical narrative.

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Initially, your companion, which is controlled by the right joystick, is a Cheshire-like cat doll who leads Kutaro to the Witch Queen, but the Sun Princess becomes your companion for the rest of the game after that, and she plays a major role in each cutscene as either satire or motivation; again, as silly as it is serious. Using the PlayStation Move controller instead of a standard controller when controlling companions outweighs synchronizing two joysticks simultaneously, unless you’re willing to dedicate a lengthy amount of time to acclimate to using them while Kutaro is in full motion. Regardless, both gameplay styles work well enough, so you can play from the comfort of your couch or with the PS Move controller.

Across seven acts each comprised of three stages called Curtains, the simplistic gameplay style becomes more and more an element of refreshment. New abilities are gained with each passing Act, and every curtain is more delightfully taxing than the previous one. Atop a crescent moon, each act takes place on a different section of the shapely celestial body, and your secondary task as a headless hero is to reclaim lost souls that are found throughout the game in order to help once again inhabit the little old planet called Earth.

With my experience, the narrative has a lot of references to offer those who watch movies, read books, or play video games, but the overzealous style, though refreshing, becomes borderline cumbersome near the end of the 8-10 hour campaign, making replayability potentially low; that is unless, of course, you fall in love with everything about this game. Unique is a word I don’t like passing around anywhere, but Puppeteer offers something very diversified, entertaining, and driving, even if it can be a little much.

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Each Curtain lasts anywhere around 20 minutes, and, under the list of 21 Curtains, I had trouble getting bored. “Get bored,” you say? Well, platformers tend to get repetitive to me to an nth degree, but the combination of theatric, humorous cutscenes–which are ironically called Intermissions–and diversely developed gameplay design kept me from seeing the same thing too often. Every time I felt like I had seen something for too long, another aspect of side scrolling play style took the reins. It’s clear, however, that this game was made by one of Sony’s studios, because boss battles use Quick Time Events. Though they’re over relatively quickly, QTEs were the only gameplay elements that I got bored of seeing. The cinematics accompanying the events were themselves entertaining, but it’s still hard to enjoy them to their full extent after playing so many games this generation with them.

The core gameplay of Puppeteer is tightly based around Kutaro’s Calibrus, which is a legendary scissor-like weapon that he uses to defeat his enemies and navigate the paper world. Calibrus can be turned on enemies as you’d expect, but it can also be used to cut through objects floating in the air in order to progress through levels; in fact, this becomes a necessity very quickly. Calibrus initially feels straightforward, but new gameplay elements issued throughout the game make navigation more based on timing and ability to both anticipate and execute proper movement according to what the levels dish out, making this a platformer that’s hard to ignore.

The main collectible in the game is that which Kutaro has lost: heads. Some of the strangest things end up useable as Kutaro’s noggin, and, though they mostly only serve as life counters, they’re also used as collectible benefits for unlocking new Bonus Stages. When hit, Kutaro loses the head that he has equipped, and he must retrieve it within a few seconds or its lost, reducing the potential head count from three to two, or however many you many have at the time. Littered throughout the game are hidden images of flashing heads that indicate where a head’s special ability can be used in order to unlock Bonus Stages, and you can use your companion to find out specifically which head you need to use if the image is unclear, but you have to have that head first in order to unlock it. So, unless you really enjoy the narrative as much as the next person who enjoys alliteration, collecting the game’s 100 different heads becomes the only major reason to replay the game. Though each head has a unique action, I spent more time saying to myself "I’ve lost my head" after getting hit rather than actually using each head. It’s not a major negative, but having 100 potential heads at your disposal could make for a very diverse game indeed.

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Above all else, the game’s style stood out the most. Featuring a healthy mash-up of Nightmare Before Christmas and LittleBigPlanet, Puppeteer’s visuals take on a stance that’s as heavily referenced as it is unique. For instance, the Moon Bear King takes similar shape and demeanor from Oogie Boogie, but the setting and circumstance allows him to be more than a copy and paste. Aesthetically, Puppeteer has a lively style that changes with its surroundings incredibly well. Dark, underground zones are designed with claustrophobic care, open landscapes have beautifully rendered maps, and the whole game has a feeling that you’re playing with toys as a kid again. This couples well with the fact that the narrative is enriched with adult themes which are interlaced so well beneath the surface of the script that younger kids won’t even notice; really, this is a genuine family game, and you can play it with another person.

On one hand, I’ve never played anything quite like Puppeteer before. On the other hand, I’ve seen everything that Puppeteer has to offer, but that’s only because this game pools heavily, and with stellar execution, references and allusions from so many different facets of entertainment that it will be hard for you to not get something from it. The theatrical style might be overbearing for some, but it adds to the genuine, whimsical flare of the game that in itself cannot be mimicked. It might be a while before I return to Kutaro and the realm of Puppeteer, but I will be thinking about it for a long time. Kutaro, the Moon Bear King, and the cast of makeshift half-wits, conniving allies, and hearty companions make this an equal opportunity title accessible to everyone; but, much like any radical new combination, Puppeteer is best taken in small doses. Sony has something franchise-worthy here, and it wouldn’t take much effort to improve upon the formula for each installment, making the sky the limit for such an ambition new title.

Score

8

The Final Word

The fellows at Sony have created a unique experience in Puppeteer that's deserving of a franchise label. With a little work, the heroic antics of Kutaro and his Excalibur scissors Calibrus can make this cult-following title into a sequel-worthy one.