GAME REVIEW: Puppeteer

With lots of running and jumping in a two-dimensional world so photorealistic that it looks like it’s made of wood, cloth, and Elmer’s glue, Puppeteer is going to remind a lot of people of the LittleBigPlanet games. Heck, it’s even got a British narrator. But this adorable and inventive platformer from SCE Japan Studio (which Sony is publishing for the PlayStation 3, naturally) is different enough that both lovers and haters of L.B.P. might get a kick out of it.

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When the game begins, Kutaro loses his head, literally. Not to worry, he’s a puppet, he can take it. But the conceit of the game is that, while trying to get his head back, he’ll be able to use other things as heads in the meantime.

Aiding him in his quest are such companions as Ying Yang, a flying cat who talks like Peter Lorre. Using them to search the area, Kutaro can not only find small gems that will give him a new life for every hundred he collects, but new heads as well. Though unlike most games of this ilk, Kutaro’s other heads don’t always give him new abilities that require him to be wearing a specific noggin to use. Instead, only some heads give him new skills, and even then those skills are usable from that point forward, even if he loses the corresponding head.

For instance, while the ninja head gives him little bombs he can throw or plant, the spider head doesn’t turn Kutaro into some kind of spider-man any more than the bat head turns him into a batman. New heads, even multiple versions of ones already owned, also work like pieces of an ever expanding life bar; lose all that you’ve gathered and Kutaro loses a life.

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Though even when you lose one — say, when it’s knocked off by some enemy — it doesn’t just disappear. Instead, it rolls away rather leisurely, and if Kutaro can catch it before it falls off a ledge or something, he can pop it back on.Along with all the runnin’ and a jumpin’, Kutaro also gets to fight back with a pair of magic scissors. Which is more effective than it sounds since some of his enemies, especially the bigger ones, are made of cloth and string, and he can use the scissors to cut away at their bodies until there’s nothing left to fight.

More often, though, Kutaro uses the scissors to propel himself upwards and onwards. Assuming, of course, he has something to cut along the way. Though, in this regard, Puppeteer is rather liberal, letting you not only cut cloth and leaves but clouds as other things no real scissors could ever cut.

As much fun as it is to play Puppeteer, it’s just as much fun to watch someone else do it. Not only is it a wonderfully whimsical fairytale but, visually, it’s like the most elaborate and surreal puppet show ever conceived, one unrestrained by budgetary concerns, or the skills of the puppeteers and craftsmen, or even the laws of physics.

The only problem is that, because the camera is sometimes pulled so far back, it’s often like watching the most elaborate puppet show ever conceived…from the back row. Which works well for the mechanics of the game, but it does mean you won’t always get a good look at the stimulating visuals. It also can make for some funny misconceptions, such as when Kutaro is wearing a spider for a head but, from a distance, it looks like he’s a dreadlocked Rasta wearing a big knit cap.

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Perfectly complimenting the imagery is an orchestral score by Thor and Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes composer Patrick Doyle, who here fittingly apes (no pun intended) the dark but playful work Danny Elfman did for Tim Burton movies as The Nightmare Before Christmas and (coincidentally) Edward Scissorhands.

More importantly, unlike so much music in games these days, Doyle’s score is never overbearing or intrusive, or so loud that you can’t hear what the characters are saying. The developers even, to complete the puppet show vibe, included the sound of an audience laughing and applauding where appropriate.

As for the whole “it’s like LittleBigPlanet thing,” there’s no denying the similarities. But while L.B.P. is a puzzling platformer, Puppeteer is really more of a platforming puzzle game. It’s also not as difficult, especially with all the life-giving gems you find, and the ability to pick up your head after someone has knocked it off. Kutaro also doesn’t have the momentum that often carries LittleBigPlanet’s hero, Sackboy, just a little too far, while giving Kutaro multiple pathways sometimes makes this feel more like Donkey Kong Country than L.B.P.

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Ultimately, though, Puppeteer is a lot like LittleBigPlanet (and Donkey Kong Country, and the good Crash Bandicoot games, and lots of other good 2D platformers) in the most important way: it’s an engaging, challenging, and inventive game that, while obviously influenced by what came before it, is neither a rip-off nor a cheap knock-off. It may be a 2D platformer in the tradition of those other games, but with a unique set-up and gameplay mechanics, it stands on its own nicely as well.

SCORE: 8.0

 

What do you think of this game (or my review of it)? Please let me know in the comments below.

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