Previews// Puppeteer

Posted 1 Aug 2013 17:00 by
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Firstly: good on Sony for publishing Puppeteer, particularly as a full-bodied boxed product. It's a weird, off-beat platformer that, despite some clear influences from LittleBigPlanet and other corners of pop culture, feels quite different to anything else on console.

In it, you play as Kutaro, a child turned into a wooden puppet by an evil king who has also just gone ahead and eaten Kutaro's noggin. And the noggins of other youngsters. Kutaro, however, has realised that heads are not the only things that can be used as... well, heads. So it is that, with the help of a strange (massive) witch, Kutaro steals the king's magic scissors and sets about righting some wrongs.

Before we get into any of the nuts and bolts of gameplay, I'm going to talk about Puppeteer's greatest strength its weird aesthetic. The textures and crafty feel certainly have a LittleBigPlanet vibe to them, but Sony's Japan Studio has taken the raw materials of LBP's visual design and used them as a springboard to build something all of its own.

There's a dark, folklore-ish aura to the game that gives it the feel of a Tim Burton project which Neil Gaiman would nod approvingly at. It will certainly appeal to fans of either creator. Despite its whimsicality there's a slightly unsettling claustrophobia to the game (provided in large part by the use of a stage as a framing device, as well as aural hints that an audience is watching your every move).

Excellent, off-kilter voice acting also helps (and gives further cause for LBP comparisons thanks to the thesp-ish narration).

Unfortunately, Japan Studio seems to have gotten a little carried away with its visual design and story in places, and the cutscenes could do with paring back.

3D is available, if you fancy it. It's a good fit, given that the aforementioned stage framing mechanism makes looking beyond the screen feel natural. It also seemed to me to add an odd texture that was off-putting. Peoples' perception of 3D seems to vary so wildly that I don't want to fault the game on this, however. It may not bother you in the slightest.

And what of the actual mechanics of the gameplay? They're looking like a bit of a mixed bag.

Early on I was worried that Japan Studio had carried the use of the stage too far. Rather than continuous, fluid gameplay there was a screen or so of terrain to navigate before you're tossed to the next 'set'. This leads to a bitty experience. Fortunately, however, this leads to longer chunks of play with some great pieces of level design that make use of both the horizontal and vertical axes.

Really, separating 'visual design' from 'gameplay' feels like an arbitrary fop to the conventions of games preview/review-writing. The odd aesthetics permeate the levels. Scaling a vertical level is just so much more pleasing when you're going up a waterfall that looks like a textile collage of a Japanese illustration.

The boss battles, in particular, are strong. There's some real inventiveness at play, making interesting use of abilities that you've acquired.

I'm pretty sure I'd be a happier Puppeteer player, however, if much of the gameplay didn't involve using those bloody scissors. I mean, I get that there's some sort of metaphorical hoodoo relating to puppets and strings going on there, but it gets pretty annoying.

Using the scissors to attack enemies is fine, but you can also use them to cut through textiles in the environment. This would also probably be OK, if doing so didn't constitute a mode of travel. It's a sort of cartoonish mechanism where if you keep chopping at something your feet won't touch the ground, and you can keep moving in whatever direction you're pointing.

It's a neat idea, but it gets used a lot, and going along with it basically means button-bashing at length while having a frustratingly low level of fine control over the direction you're going in. This sounds like a minor niggle, but if it gets used throughout the later levels as much as it does in the early stages I played, it could really hamper the enjoyment of some players.

However, it seems that new abilities are going to be introduced at reasonably regular intervals, so here's hoping that enough new mechanics turn up to water down the button-mashing...

The head you happen to have screwed on can activate different elements of the levels. I'd like to tell you more about this but, frankly, I rarely had the correct head to get any use out of this feature. Maybe I was being rubbish, or maybe Japan Studio needs to work on when relevant heads show up. I don't think, however, that I'm the worst gamer who will play Puppeteer.

I don't want to get overly bogged down in these grumbles, though. Puppeteer has lots going for it. Sony deserves a tip of the hat for not only putting out something this unique, but for going all-in with it when the company could easily have made it a smaller PSN game. It will be interesting to see what else the final release of Pupeteer holds.
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