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Review: Puppeteer

puppeteer
As the curtain draws open it reveals Puppeteer, a visual masterpiece that also acts as a satisfying platformer. 

Developer: SCE Japan Studio

Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment

Platform:PlayStation 3 (also digital on PlayStation Network)

Release Date: September 10, 2013

Current MSRP: $39.99 (download size- 6.3 GB)

Puppeteer follows the Sony’s lineage of high quality platformers that includes Crash Bandicoot, Jak & Daxter to Ratchet & Clank. The game is side-scrolling 2D platformer with puzzle elements involving loose heads and special powers.

The game’s hero is Kutaro (pronounced coo-tah-row), a boy far away from Earth. Moon Bear King, the game’s main villain, transformed him and many other children into wooden puppets on the moon, stealing their souls for more power. Moon Bear King was once Little Bear, a companion to the Moon Goddess, but rebelled against her and took over the moon with his companions.

The Moon Bear King bit off Kutaro’s head and now the hero needs to use others to stay alive. Ezma Potts, a witch who works in the Moon Bear King’s kitchen, secretly guides Kutaro out of the lair. With the help of Pikarina, daughter of the sun and a princess turned puppet, Kutaro must recapture all the Moonstone shards to stop the Moon Bear King and restore order to the Moon Kingdom. Even with its trippy plot, the game’s story is reminiscent of a classic children’s fairy tale.

Puppeteers is a mesmerizing and artistic game, with dramatic presentations and backgrounds that constantly change throughout the adventure. It has the look and feel of a theater play. The animations are stunning. Everything feels alive even though most of the objects are visibly made of wood. On almost every screen the narrator tells the continuing story while the player controls Kutaro. As a nice touch, audience members in the background even cheer, clap, boo or react in horror as the game unfolds.

Lights, Camera, Puppets

There are seven acts in the game, with three curtains each, for a total of 21 levels. All the set pieces and levels look amazing. Each act is always evolving throughout the level. With every new screen a different sets appears with no wait or loading times. These instantly burst out on the screen. There are a lot of storytelling cut-scenes, with lengthy ones (for a platformer) that begin each level.

The details popping out on every level are incredible. The spotlight is always on Kutaro, with a slim light following wherever he goes. When moving behind or inside objects on the stage, shadows are cast, creating an excellent display of each impression. There is so much going on during each level that it almost overwhelms the player.

Puppeteer is one of the best looking games on the PS3, and might be one of the most gorgeous ever. It’s exploding with unbelievable amounts of creativity. It’s hard to think of a game that looks anything like Puppeteer or matches its stunning presentation. The levels are all creatively designed. Whether walking through a jungle or a graveyard, riding the back of a snake or inside a candy-infested house of horror, it makes the player want to stop to view the scenery.

In Puppeteer’s fairytale, the villains are larger-than-life animals with wacky personalities. The interactions between these characters, the extras, Kutaro and Pikarina are movie-level quality. Characters such as a general tiger, an evil scientist monkey or protagonists like talking cedar trees create a mythical in-game world that makes the players care about the story and completing each stage.

puppeteer characters

Even the game’s villains are lovable characters. (Image by SCE)

The soundtrack by Patrick Doyle, a film composer known for his work in many movies like 1998’s “Great Expectations,” “Quest for Camelot” and most recently Disney’s “Brave,” adds another layer to the terrific theatrics found in Puppeteer. The game’s voice acting is also tremendous, giving a dramatic range of acting to the storytelling. There are also sections where extra characters break out in song and dance, which build upon Puppeteer’s theatrical display.

Puppeteer feels like something out of a Pixar movie. The phenomenal presentation throws you right into Puppeteer’s enchanting world. The dialogue doesn’t feel like traditional video game speeches but more from an act on broadway. The game often breaks the fourth wall with its humor, with an “actor” forgetting their lines or talking about the play’s behind the scenes aspects. Puppeteer’s inclusion and focus on humor is similar to another platformer like Ratchet & Clank, that sometimes can be surprisingly mature.

Heads Up

As a puppet, Kutaro uses interchangeable heads. Three heads can be equipped at once. These act as Kutaro’s health, with three hits before Kutaro dies. New heads are found by examining the environments, fighting bosses or using other heads to unlock the hidden ones. Losing all three leads to death and starting back from the screen’s beginning. Collecting 100 of these shiny, yellow Moonsparkles throughout the game gives one life. These are everywhere in Puppeteer.

There are 100 heads to find the game. The heads come in all sorts of designs, from a bat, flamingo to even a hamburger or a piece of cake. Each head has a secret tied to it somewhere in the game. By using the head’s animation near the glowing outline of that specific head, it will change something in the environment, open up a secret, or take Kutaro to a bonus stage.

puppeteer head

Finding heads unlocks secrets but having the right one is a challenge. (Image by SCE)

There’s only one shot at the bonus stages. Some of these are strictly timed and one misplaced jump can end it all. These bonus stages give a large dose of Moonsparkles. Once a head is triggered it also brings up special dialogue banter between Pikarina and the narrator. There are a few heads that are more than special triggers for a flow of secrets or start of a bonus stage. One can be used in a boss fight to turn one of their attacks into a harmless tail. A majority of the heads are used as gateways to secrets and personalizing Kutaro.

Running with Scissors

It may share some similarities with Little Big Planet, but Puppeteer isn’t a “floaty” platformer. Kutaro’s actions are solid weight. The controls are tight enough to not cause massive frustration.

Calibrus, magical scissors acquired early in the game, are used for attacks and getting around. The scissors are also the way to keep climbing up the set by cutting up branches, clothing or 2D objects triggered by interaction in the envrionment. Considering the game’s storyline material the Calibrus is almost an anti-weapon and a creative choice for Kutaro’s design.

More powers hidden by the Moon Bear King are discovered in the acts. A knight’s shield, ninja bomb, hook grapple and a wrestling slam are all added to Kutaro’s arsenal. The shield can only take a few hits before it needs to be recharged but makes Kutaro temporarily invincible. It’s also used to deflect some attacks to open the next screen. Bombs are used to open up areas or take out enemies. The hook is needed to move objects in the environment by repeatedly pressing triangle. The power slam can also defeat enemies and create new platforms.

Outside of the bosses and environmental obstacles there’s only a few enemy types in Puppeteer. A majority of the enemies are purple little guards called grubs. Killing these grubs gives souls, which each level having a specific amount of to collect. These grubs are simple to take down and actively catch bombs thrown at them for an instant kill. If a head is lost because of an enemy or environmental damage, it bounces across the screen for a few seconds. If it’s not recovered, it turns into a batch of Moonsparkles.

puppeteer cutting

Scissors are the way Kutaro moves around the world, cutting up the stage and bosses alike.  (Image by SCE)

Calibrus is used a lot more for getting across the stage than attacking enemies. For most of the game it’s Kutaro’s main way of transportation. The scissors are used to climb up leaves and other obstacles. Dropping a bomb might start a fire that shoots off paper smoke to move up. Jumping in the air and then using the scissors acts as a sort of extended jump. Later on a quick dash ability is obtained for Calibrus, which increases the cutting speed by pressing the square button in timed intervals.

There are several race-like sequences in the game. Some chases start by cutting a rope and then speeding through that section, jumping over obstacles and picking different paths. Other chases happen as side-scrolling events. These speed sections are fast-paced and require a lot of attention and precision. The first few are exciting but then become mundane until the game increases the challenge in the later acts.

With so much moving parts it can be hard to collect all the game’s Moonsparkles and heads on the first run. In single-player mode, the R2 button and right analog stick is used to control Pikarina across the environment to find secrets. There are many objects that Pikarina can interact with on a stage, often giving Moonsparkles or triggering small scenes with animals or people in the background.

A second player can join local co-op, with that person controlling either Yin Yang, a magical cat playable early in the story, or Pikarina for the rest of the game. The second player does more than fetch Moonsparkles though. The co-op partner can destroy obstacles in the path and pick up new or lost heads. They can also pick up Kutaro’s bombs and drop them on enemies. The co-op partner can’t die so the main focus is still on Kutaro. During some levels playing as Pikarina doesn’t offer much in the way of satisfying gameplay since the stage is focused on racing. The co-op is a good addition because of Puppeteer’s nature and level design.

The game features PlayStation Move support using the Motion controller and PlayStation Eye camera. Motion controls are used only for the second player and not for Kutaro. The Move works just as well as a regular controller if not better, especially because of Pikarina’s size, purpose and the varying speed of the game’s action.

Boss battles are special attractions, taking full advantage of Puppeteer’s extravagant presentation style. There are more than 12 boss encounters in the game. Bosses follow an easily identifiable pattern, often taking three or four drawn out hits to defeat. These bosses also make the most out of Kutaro’s powers, more so than the regular platforming. Each boss encounter in Puppeteer is a memorable experience. The personalities of all the villains are so well done that they turn every interaction into a duel of wits that leads to a unique fight by the end of an act.

Action on the Set

One of Puppeteer’s biggest missed opportunities is incorporating all the different heads into meaningful gameplay mechanics. Outside of specific locations to unlock bonuses there’s no use for them. This could have been a great gameplay feature but not having at least some heads give Kutaro permanent special powers is a bizarre exclusion.

Whenever a special head section did appear in the background it always felt like the right one is never available when it’s needed. There’s no way to select what heads to keep or discard in the inventory. Whatever heads are found replaces the one currently equipped. On the first run of a level you’ll probably miss some secrets because of this. Lost heads barely stay on the screen long enough to recover after being hit so it can be frustrating to manage and also guess what each level’s secret requirements. Without any strong gameplay additions, heads feel like an empty gimmick that doesn’t come close to realizing any of its potential.

While Puppeteer’s controls are tight, there are points where landing a jump appears off. The timing of the jumps felt too precise, when a leap towards a ledge was missed after jumping off a bouncing platform that you know should’ve been made. Movement with the scissors can get annoying over long distances, with the super dash ability sometimes overshooting. Since there’s no real double jump ability, the platforming needs extra precision in the way movements are chosen.

puppeteer cut scenes

Bosses may look intimidating but afterwards follow similar Quick Time Events . (Image by SCE)

There are a lot of Quick Time Events in Puppeteer. These happen mostly during boss fights to finish off the villain. Since these happen after every fight they’re easy, predictable and get stale, but are at least well presented visually Throughout the game, but especially in the last few chapters, there’s also a lot of mashing the square or triangle buttons in the gameplay, which can make your hand feel like it’s about to go into spasms. Ac certain points it felt like the game goes overboard with unnecessary button mashing during sections where you’re also trying to avoid being attacked.

Puppeteer goes from easy to challenging on a whim. The last two acts ramp up the difficulty. These acts require everything in Kutaro’s tool set, sometimes several at once, to get past a screen. The game escalates nicely until the finale. A lot of the gameplay isn’t that complex but still is enjoyable because of all the aesthetics. After acquiring so many lives with an abundance of Moonsparkles, it’s impossible to ever get a game over. Losing all three heads just sends you back to the beginning of that screen and some bosses even have checkpoints during the fight.

Puppeteer is heavy on cut-scenes. Usually with platformers the focus is more on the gameplay than the storytelling but with Puppeteer it’s the opposite. Each chapter has several minutes of cut-scenes before being able to control Kutaro again. While these demonstrations are excellent for storytelling and visually incredible, sometimes it feels like the game goes overboard with its dramatics.

The narration throughout the entire game can be distracting sometimes since it draws attention away from the gameplay to the dialogue and theatrics. It can be hard to realize you’re supposed to be actually playing instead of observing the set. A platform can be easily missed or damage taken since you’re paying attention to other characters or the background. At a point you want the drama to end so you can finally start playing. It can be hard to get into a gameplay groove with all pacing breaks from theatrics.

The sidekick Pikarina gets annoying fast. She sounds like a stereotypical teenage girl, constantly giving commentary that teeters between humorous and irritating. Kutaro never says a word in the game so it’s left to Pikarina and the narrator to boost him up. She also pronounces Kutaro’s name differently than all the other characters. Her character works fine as a gameplay companion but not so much as a likable protagonist.

Puppeteer’s presentation and fairy tale story are more at the forefront that its gameplay. Once the drama wears off after a few acts, Puppeteer’s platforming becomes routine and doesn’t match the quality of the game’s theatrics. Under all the amazing glamor is still a good and capable platformer though, but it falls short of the extremely high standard set by the game’s visual and audio designs.

puppeteer platforming

The visuals and presentation in Puppeteer are second to none. (Image by SCE)

With each scene taking about 30 minutes to finish, Puppeteer is around a 10 hour long game. On top of the 21 bonus stages there’s plenty of substance. All bonus stages can also be replayed from the story menu. Cut-scenes are skippable, allowing for high replay value going back to collect all the heads, souls and beating the bonus levels. In the menu is a head display that shows where all the missing ones are located in their specific act and scene. There are a lot of Trophies (63 of them), to collect as well, with many having stage-specific requirements. After completing an act, a story book unlocks in the menu. These give an entertaining backstory to various characters in the game, offering insight to their actions.

Sony released Puppeteer at a time where it can easily be forgotten next to a blockbuster release like Grand Theft Auto V and new consoles around the corner. Its wide appeal goes from kids to those who played platformers for years. Especially with its reduced $40 price point, Puppeteer is a no-brainer to check out. The game’s total package is remarkable and there aren’t many games like it.

Final Thoughts

Puppeteer is another strong platformer exclusively on a Sony console. It’s an incredibly charming game. Puppeteer could be synonymous with the word unique. While Puppeteer’s gameplay is good, its true strength is found in the unbelievable visuals, sounds and characters that make up its fairy tale world. Puppeteer should be a game that’s memorable for years to come.

Score: 4/5

Positives

  • Amazing presentation
  • Beautiful visuals
  • Creative levels
  • Excellent voice acting
  • Memorable boss battles
  • Quality storytelling
  • Soundtrack
  • Great for all ages

Negatives

  • Heads don’t do much for gameplay
  • Drama can be distracting
  • Heavy on cut-scenes
  • Sidekick gets annoying
  • Lots of predictable Quick Time Events
  • Platforming doesn’t match quality of presentation

A physical copy of Puppeteer was purchased new for $39.99. As of publication 33/63 Trophies were obtained for 47 percent completion.

Logo image by Sony Computer Entertainment

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