Puppeteer Review - Dark, Bizarre, and Fantastically Good

Jonathan Bolding | 6 Sep 2013 16:35
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We liked Puppeteer at E3, in fact, we loved it. We were, it turns out, completely justified. This is a goofy game. It's a platformer where you're a child, Kutaro, kidnapped from earth by the Moon Bear King, who puts your soul in a puppet and bites off your head. Then a friendly cat and not-so-friendly witch find you a series of new, replacement heads, you steal the Moon Bear King's ultra magic scissors, the Calibrus, and set off to recover your original head and escape back to Earth. Also you meet a sun princess, whose dad is literally the sun. And there are pirates. And a Halloween world. And magic tree gods with homely Wisconsin accents. It's a fantastic journey right out of a studio Ghibli film, with aesthetics to match. While the gameplay isn't perfect, it's still great platforming, and the design more than makes up for it.

The first thing you need to know about Puppeteer, before the wacky story or the gameplay or the anything else, is that this game is lovely. It's pretty, the voice acting is entertainingly good, the characters are fantastically inventive, and animations are either unique or hilarious. You can tell that really wonderfully inspired design went into this thing - it's aesthetically uniform. When you're talking about making a game from concept to execution, with a unified vision, this is as good as it gets. The stage design rapidly changes from level to level - and even within levels - with varied and enjoyable music and characters. The story is filled with childish whimsy, so it's perfect for kids, but that doesn't detract from how genuinely fun it is to watch the story in motion. There's no reason that a "childish story" should be less entertaining for an adult, and Puppeteer is an example of how that works. Sometimes, though, it drags out the storytelling too much - like when you get pulled out of platforming and into a 60-90 second cutscene mid-level. Those are the unfortunate parts, but that doesn't take away from how much there is here to love.

The game starts off as a mediocre, jump from A to B platformer, but quickly takes off. Every few stages, new mechanics are introduced, accompanied by a quick segment to test them and show how they work. Because Kutaro's head is missing, you get a series of replacement heads throughout the game, which serve as both special powers and your lives. You can carry three heads at once, and if you get hit a head gets knocked off, then you have a limited time to recover it. Certain heads allow you to do context-sensitive actions to get health or unlock secret areas, like a drum head that plays a song for some frogs, who then invite you into their drum-themed minigame bonus stage. You don't always have the right head for the job, which can be frustrating, but adds to the game's replayability as you jump from stage to stage trying not to get hit, and therefore preserve the heads you've got with you.

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