Sunday, January 12, 2014

Puppeteer - All The World's A Stage

I have discussed games that I became interested in because they belonged to a particular franchise (ex. God of War, Sly Cooper) and some original IP’s that drew me to them by their ideas, general reception, or concept alone (ex. Dust: An Elysian Tail, The Stanley Parable). Puppeteer is a game that falls under the latter, though it was a case where I became curious about it with little information, though admittedly I can’t remember exactly what drove to want to play it. Regardless, this, like Ratchet & Clank: Into the Nexus, is a game I got as a Christmas present, and so I wanted to get to it as soon as I possibly could. While I thoroughly enjoyed the game, I must say it has a couple of tangled strings.

The game is presented as an in-universe puppet show, presented by a Professor Gregorious T. Oswald (but you can call him “G”), titled “The Perilous Journey of a Boy Named Kutaro”. The show opens by explaining that there was once harmony on the Moon between light and darkness, but the Moon Goddess was weakened when a small bear named Little Bear became corrupted by the Black Moonstone, becoming the evil Moon Bear King, and shattered the White Moonstone into several pieces. Regularly, the souls of children from Earth are brought to the Moon, specifically to Castle Grizzlestien where the Moon bear King resides, where they are turned into puppets, some of which become monsters if they are really unlucky. One such child is the titular boy named Kutaro, who gets his head torn off by the Moon Bear King, after which a flying cat named Ying Yang tells him to wear a new head for the time being. On a quest from the witch residing in the castle named Ezma Potts, Kutaro is sent to acquire a pair of magical scissors kept by the Moon Bear King called Calibrus. Once Kutaro obtains Calibrus, he must retrieve the shattered pieces of the White Moonstone while fighting off the Moon Bear King’s army of 12 Generals, who have taken over various areas of the Moon.

Kutaro wearing his normal head while holding Calibrus and
the Lion head.

The concept behind the game being presented as a puppet show is very unique, and I think it pulled this off rather well. It does not forget for a moment during the story that it’s set on a puppet stage and this is used to great effect. The objects and characters on stage have the appearance of being made from certain elements, such as cardboard scenery and cardboard/paper foreground objects, not to mention characters being typically made of wood and occasionally metal (though without any visible strings, which I think allows for more fluid movement from the puppet characters). This, combined with the side-scrolling and constant narration, creates minor LittleBigPlanet vibes, though not in a bad way. Adding to this are audience chatter and reactions, plus if you take too long at certain screens, Professor Oswald will tell the audience about what’s available in the lobby (not to mention the Pause screen is called an Intermission). In short, when this game goes for presentation, it really goes all out.

The presentation of the game is complimented by the graphics and art style of the game, which do a good job of realistically portraying each of the different elements that make up everything on the stage. Not only that, the game also displays a variety of color palettes, from bright and colorful to dark and dismal, neither of which overtakes the other. The voice acting also adds to the puppet show display, since the characters , especially the pixie/daughter of the Sun Pikarina, play around with the fact that they are putting on a show for the audience, both in and outside of the game itself (including Pikarina conversing with Professor Oswald and a scene involving a character trying to remember their lines); the voice actors themselves do a good job portraying their respective characters, including adding certain vocal traits such that they are (mostly) not annoying (ex. Ying Yang has a habit of altering certain words to fit cat noises, such as “Moon” to “Mewn”). The background music also adds to atmosphere of the game, depending on the setting of each level, without being intrusive on the experience.

The controls are simple at first, however there is more complexity added over time, but in just the right way that they’re still fairly easy to grasp. The primary game action you can perform is using Calibrus to cut things, though there is some variety to prevent this from becoming monotonous. Not only is cutting necessary when facing enemies and obstacles, it can also be used to traverse gaps if something is provided (such as smoke, leaves, banners, etc.). While most actions are tied to Kutaro, you (or a second player with a Dualshock 3/PlayStation Move controller) are also able to control a second, floating character that follows you (Ying Yang at first, but mostly Pikarina), who is able to explore the environment to look for Moonstine shards or extra heads. Collecting 100 Moonstone shards over time (this is cumulative throughout the game) grants you an extra life, and some levels may require you to use up a number of lives depending on the difficulty of the area (there are checkpoints, though admittedly some deaths in the game can be attributed to player error). You can carry up to three heads at a time, which you can scroll through with the D-Pad, and losing three heads takes up a life (though if you lose one head you have a few seconds to retrieve it), at which point you are resurrected at the last checkpoint along with your current arsenal of heads. Heads can be found throughout the environment, mostly inside floating Head Pots, and some are earned after defeating bosses or completing hidden objectives.

Kutaro jumping on a burger in an early level with the Burger head equipped,
while Ying Yang follows behind.

Heads are actually the core mechanic of the game aside from Calibrus. Each head has a unique action, which can be activated by pressing “Down” on the D-Pad, in the form of an animation. When you activate the head’s action at specific points (usually denoted by an image of the required head), something special will happen, mainly causing a roulette wheel to appear or Kutaro to be transported a Bonus Stage, wherein you must gather Moonstone shards before time runs out (or in some cases you fall down). There are a wide variety of heads that you can come across, such as a Lion, a Burger, or a Train, and that’s just scratching the surface. Throughout the game, you also gain heads from a group of fallen warriors, each of which can be accessed through assigned buttons and whose abilities are required to progress or access hidden areas (some of which can also be found through the second character). All this adds a good amount of variety to the gameplay so it never quite feels monotonous.

There are also a couple of unlockable items in the game, one of which is a gallery where you can view the heads you have collected for Kutaro, as well as view the unique action each head has; this is a good way to see them up close without having to try and view them through gameplay. The other unlockable is a number of viewable storybooks in the game, one unlocked for completing each Act (each consisting of three levels, or Curtains). Each of these storybooks tells a story that expands on the plot of the game, including character backstories and how certains events in the main plot came to be. While at least one or two things shown in these stories may be a little questionable (mainly why Little Bear became the Moon Bear King in the first place), they do a good job of providing context in certain parts of the story and fleshing out the game’s world.

The Moon Bear King, the primary antagonist of the game.

As I mentioned previously, there are a couple of snags I found that sort of affected my experience, albeit in minor ways. As I played Puppeteer, I had the feeling that this could be a timeless tale…or at least it would be if not for a scene within the last few sections of the game that makes an indirect reference to Twitter, which, like with Ratchet & Clank: Full Frontal Assault, I fear might eventually date the game at some point (at least it wasn’t name-dropped). As also mentioned before off-handedly, there is a 2-player function in which the second player can use another controller or a Move peripheral to control the second character. This, to me, is a rather interesting use of the Move, and since I happened to own it, I had my brother volunteer to test out its effectiveness. While it ended up being very responsive, it took us a while to think about looking at the Digital Manual for the game to find out it was a feature meant for player 2, since the game itself didn’t really make that clear. You might also have to be careful during the calibration process (since your movements with the controller seem to matter) and maybe have to recalibrate the Move at least once or twice to get a good feel for it, but the feature otherwise works really well and what we went through didn’t really impact the experience all that much.

While not a complaint, I did make one observation while I was playing, namely that the game is very, very Japanese. This only goes as far as certain cultural things, though one particular level stands out in that it contains many things that would make more sense to a Japanese player or someone knowledgeable in Japanese culture, such as the inclusion of Kappa (a creature from Japanese folklore), taiko drums, and Japanese shrines, among other cultural items from the region. Again, this is not a complaint, just an observation I made about the game. Also, once you know that one of the game’s reasons for its ESRB rating of an E10+ is “Suggestive Themes”, you will begin to see why within some of the dialogue (mostly from the narrations).

With a premise so unique, Puppeteer manages to pull it off very well. The gameplay mechanics work well, the presentation is amazing, and the story is rather interesting to watch unfold. Though a couple of problems hamper the experience a little bit, it is not enough to make this game not worth your time. Fans of LittleBigPlanet might get some enjoyment out of the presentation of the game, but I would also recommend Puppeteer to fans of platforming games, since this game contains a whole lot of it and adds some interesting ideas to the formula. If you happen to own a second controller or a PlayStation Move peripheral, I would also suggest grabbing a friend or family member and have them join in on the fun.

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