The PS may be about to arrive but if Puppeteer is anything to go by, there’s plenty of life left in its predecessor.
You play as a child called Kutaro whose soul has been stolen and placed in a puppet, before the evil Moon Bear King ripped off your head and tossed you away. Thanks to the help of a floating cat thing called Ying Yang, you gain a new noggin and find yourself on an incredible adventure to restore your soul.
Puppeteer is a 2D side scrolling platformer in a theatrical mould, levels take place surrounded by the proscenium arch of the stage, while on off screen audience cheers and groans as you triumph and pratfall from one location to the next.
The controls are wonderfully responsive (bar some floatyness which dogs a few delicate manoeuvres), brought to life through incredibly detailed animations that help to draw you into the world. Kutaro may be your main point of focus but the world is filled to bursting with minor characters and interactive elements, all bearing some resemblance to the flimsy reality of stagecraft.
Running and jumping are your main controls here, but things are made more complicated with a variety of heads and special abilities. You can carry three heads at any time but if you get injured it’ll fly off, giving you just a few spare seconds to retrieve it (or swap if you have any others left). It’s mechanically similar to the rings which scatter from Sonic’s body and you’ll also gain extra lives by collecting the many pieces of moonstones which litter the levels.
But heads perform yet another function – certain areas have interactive elements which respond to a particular head. Swap to it and press down on the D-Pad and you’ll do a funny dance and open up a bonus stage or wheel of fortune.
Abilities are gained by defeating the many bosses in game, and include bombs and a handy shield, plus your ever useful scissors. These tools build up as you progress, allowing for more complicated interactions with the wildly imaginative levels that see you snip paper to stay suspended in mid-air, reflecting projectiles and chucking explosives with wild abandon.
Kutaro isn’t alone on his grand adventure, you’ll have company from both the feline Ying Yang and later the Sun Princess. And they’re not just AI companions, you can control their actions via the right stick as you run around with the left. It’s a slightly jarring control mechanism to begin with but you’ll soon find your partners ability to grab new heads and taunt background characters invaluable.
Better still, you can grab a real-life friend and they can join in, either with a second controller or a PS Move – which is the preferable option. In two player, your companions powers are greatly enhanced (partly to ensure they have more to do) and they can grab moonstones in the environment, help you with bomb placement and even pull the heads off enemies with a little effort. Take note, they can also pull your head off if they’re feeling mischievous!
While Puppeteer may look and sound like a kids title, it sidesteps that category on the one hand by being more challenging than you might imagine. Levels unfurl at quite a clip, requiring quick reflexes and focus and the multi-stage boss fights are impressively chaotic and engaging. You’ll certainly die from time to time, though the extra lives and heads make it less of a problem, and the occasional QTE’s are very forgiving.
The other element which sets Puppeteer apart from other casual or kids titles is the tone – it’s a dark, deadly world that Kutaro finds himself in, filled with bizarre creatures, hidden agendas and the fairly malevolent presence of the Moon Bear King. His subjects are most definitely out to murder you, and you’ll just have to murder them first.
The three acts unfold across hugely varied worlds with a massive amount of creativity in visuals and style. Trees come to life, curious sea creatures draw close and one thrilling scene takes place entirely on the back of gigantic snake. And there’s a glorious consistency to the design, using the art of Japanese paper plays and theatrical lighting to create a unique look that feels like a pop-up book come to life.
This is what a Moon Bear King looks like... Enlarge
Inventive platforming and delightful, coupled with accessible and fun mechanics make Puppeteer a joy to play and that’s mostly matched by the presentation. Much of the voice over work is top notch and energetic, with one time Blake 7 chap Stephen Greif trying to outdo Stephen Fry in his role as the narrator. If I have a criticism, it’s that the narrative interruptions are sometimes quite lengthy, while a few of the voices start to grate, but it’s a minor issue… and you can always just skip them.
Puppeteer also has plenty of value for completists, especially those who feel compelled to replay every level with the right heads to unlock all those secrets. Trying to keep your noggins intact while dodging the dangers of the later levels long enough to get to a certain spot holds a special kind of thrill which will appeal to those slightly masochistic folks.
Puppeteer is that rare game which combines stunning visuals with exceptional gameplay and in a form that’s accessible to most players while still providing a worthy challenge. The plotting isn’t always the most subtle but it’s otherwise an adventure absolutely worth undertaking.
Puppeteer is available now, at a budget price of around €35.