With Grand Theft Auto V getting all the attention, there's a chance Sony Japan Studio's Puppeteer, recently released exclusively for the PlayStation 3, will be overlooked. And that would be a crying shame. It's a side-scrolling platformer hewn from the stuff of 16-bit classics, and is presented entirely as a twisted puppet show that would make Tim Burton proud. Don't be fooled by its cute art direction as there's a fairly meaty game here with plenty of challenges and secrets to be enjoyed.
True to its premise, Puppeteer's story is told by a narrator and copious in-game cutscenes that bookend each act (the game's nomenclature for levels). You play as Kutaro, a young boy who's soul has been spirited away and transformed into a puppet by the Moon Bear King who has usurped the Moon Kingdom. It's up to you to retrieve the Moon shards from his generals on your way to restoring the rightful ruler to the throne.
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A good head on his shoulders
Poor Kutaro's head was swallowed by the Moon Bear King, so he'll need to find replacements that serve as his life. If his head gets knocked off by an enemy, players have a few precious seconds to retrieve it before it disappears. Lose all of your heads (you can hold up to three at once) and you'll die.
There are plenty of unique heads to find in each level, and besides giving Kutaro a funny face, they can be swapped in and out to unlock bonus stages or secrets at certain points. Finding them all can be a worthwhile challenge, giving you incentive to replay old levels.
Scissors in a world of strings
The central game design innovation that sets Puppeteer apart from the mountains of side-scrolling platformers that came before it is its scissor mechanic. Upon completing the first level Kutaro will obtain the Calibrus, a pair of magical calipers that can cut his enemies to shreds.
It's not just a weapon, but a means of transportation too. So long as you have something to cut, Kutaro will continue to fly through the air in whatever direction you choose. Often there will be floating props that need to be chopped in mid-air to get from platform to platform. it's incredibly satisfying to slice your way through a sticky spiderweb, and slicing tapestries to ribbons never gets old. It's a great gimmick and the designers get plenty of mileage out of it.
As you progress you'll obtain a handful of other items that mix things up. One of the better ones is a grappling hook which can be used to tug on stage props. These will react realistically based on a physics system, so, for example, you can tug on a chandelier to swing it back and forth to use as an impromptu platform.
PlayStation Move optional
While you're making your way through the levels, a floating ally helps you to uncover secrets by moving around the screen like a mouse cursor. If you're using a standard controller, it moves via the right analog stick. Simply tap the R2 button to interact with suspicious-looking stage elements and you'll often find something hidden there.
It can be a bit cumbersome to control both characters at once, and takes some getting used to. In fast-moving levels it will be very tough indeed to uncover all of the secrets while simultaneously avoiding an untimely death. You may need to recruit a second player (who controls just the ally) or a PlayStation Move controller (which makes pointing the cursor virtually effortless) if you want to uncover 100 percent of the game's secrets.
Puppeteer's graphics are polished to a ridiculous degree. Everything is lavishly detailed and puts similar 2.5D games, such as Nintendo's New Super Mario Bros and Donkey Kong Country Returns series to shame. All of the puppets look as though they are carved out of wood and painted by hand. The stage props and backgrounds are meticulously crafted even if they only appear on one screen in the entire game. The bosses are some of the most spectacular I have ever seen in this type of game. Of particular interest is the artful light direction, which saturates the scenes with bold colors, as well as the use of subtle but convincing motion blur.
And it doesn't stop there. The music and voice acting belong in a high budget animated film. If judged purely on its aesthetics, this game can be considered a masterpiece. However, the story segments aren't always as charming or entertaining as they were intended to be, and as a result they do sometimes overstay their welcome. It's also worth noting that the game can be enjoyed in stereoscopic 3D if you have a 3D TV.
Sony Computer Entertainment's Japan Studio proves once more that it has what it takes to crank out incredibly fun and original properties. Puppeteer is, for the most part, a complete joy to play and experience. There are some slight hiccups along the way, but these are relatively minor quibbles. The game regularly throws new concepts at the player, gradually building up a strong foundation for more and more challenging levels. When you combine that with the high production value and the budget sticker price, it's hard to imagine anyone who shouldn't give this one a try.
Source: Puppeteer website