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Posted on Aug 4th 2017 at 08:00:00 AM by (zophar53)
Posted under Review, Puppeteer, PS3

It recently dawned on me that I've been writing for RFGen for just over a year now and had yet to write an actual review for the site. I'm not sure why that is; I've written plenty of reviews in my day, and not just for games. So, it's with that in mind that I decided to promote one of my favorite PS3-exclusive games from 2013 that no one played.

Every once in awhile a game comes along that, while under the radar, is so creative, unique, well-crafted, and downright fun that you want to shout from the heavens to anyone who will listen that they should play it. Puppeteer is one such game. Released in the wake of Grand Theft Auto V and Saints Row IV, it's really no surprise it didn't get much attention. Looking back at SCE Japan Studio's history though, you'll find a slew of titles that could be considered quirky and underappreciated, but revered by those who gave them a shot. I'm talking games like Ape Escape, Work Time Fun, LocoRoco, Patapon, Echochrome, and Gravity Rush.

Puppeteer wants to tell a whimsical yet dramatic story, and by adopting the look and feel of a stage play, it finds itself in the perfect setting in which to do that. In fact, SCE Japan dedicated themselves so completely to the stage play aesthetic that literally everything you see feels like it belongs as part of a cohesive whole, from the world the story is set in to the theater where the audience is sitting.

Right from the title screen the sense of immersion begins. The name of the game is presented in front of a pulled curtain, highlighted from below by spotlights. We can see the top of the stage hanging down from above and hear not only the orchestra tuning their instruments, but even the audience murmuring amongst themselves as they take their seats. Then the narrator comes on the PA, inviting us to "Come one, come all!" to an astonishing, adventure-filled show before cautioning us to turn off our cell phones and keep track of our valuables.

Before each level we're shown an introductory cutscene in which a set is quickly "wheeled in" from the side, above, or below. The actors take their places and, with voices echoing as if they were being spoken in a large theater hall, begin the performance, telling the tale of the Moon Goddess. She was betrayed by the so-called Moon Bear King, who shattered her moonstone into pieces and stole a magic pair of scissors. Thereafter, the Moon Bear King spends his days capturing souls of children from Earth and turning them into puppets to serve him in his castle on the moon. Our hero, Kutaro, is a puppet whose head has been eaten by the Moon Bear King. A special flying moon cat guides him in finding other heads and starts him on a quest to take back the magical shears and gather the scattered pieces of the moonstone from the Moon Bear King's generals.

Using a not un-Little Big Planet-like 2D platforming structure, each level comprises a curtain scene, with three curtains to make an act. Within these curtains, Kutaro has to platform his way through environments that are made up of piecemeal sets looking like handmade dioramas of paper, cardboard, and wood. Everything moves as if supported by something else. We can see strings coming down from the ceiling to hold up clouds in the background, and when Kutaro rides a horse, it bobs up and down on a thin rod poking up from below.

When you get to the far end of a set, you can frequently see gears poking through tears in the material. As you move up and down or left and right, the gears turn accordingly, and you can just imagine stagehands working behind the curtain to frantically move things into place. During action set pieces the audience will audibly gasp or cheer and clap when you uncover a hidden secret or foil an enemy. And if you set the controller down for a few seconds, the audience gets restless and starts to chatter to themselves, only to quiet down with "shhhhh's" when you start up again. It's this attention to detail that makes the world of Puppeteer so enchanting and sells the experience so completely.

The characters themselves own their performances and make it very easy to buy into the world. The voice acting is excellent and combines with quick but smooth, cleverly detailed animations to bring every role to life. Each role is distinct and memorable. The Moon Bear King, the witch manipulating Kutaro for her own gains, your valley girl fairy companion, and the few NPCs you meet along the way are all eccentric and well-written. Each of the Moon Bear King's generals are over the top caricatures, walking the line between goofy and menacing. The narrator isn't as instantly endearing as the one in Little Big Planet, but takes a much bigger role in commenting on the goings-on with emotion and humorous quips. He grew on me more and more as the story progressed.

And to contrast the gravitas of the story, Puppeteer is never afraid to have some fun and be self-referential, going even further to propagate the premise that you're simply watching a play. Surprisingly often, the talent will break character and talk directly to each other, taking jabs at their acting or performances. In one instance, after defeating a boss, she goes into a grand soliloquy and refuses to exit stage left on cue. Kutaro's fairy helper begins to complain about her being such a ham and asks why the regular actress isn't there to do the part as intended. Fun moments like these add charm and personality to an already polished package that it made me really wish the developers had included a mock post-performance actor/actress Q&A video as a bonus feature.

For all the effort put into the performance, it would be for naught if the game itself wasn't fun to play. Fortunately, it's as much of a joy to make your way through each world as it is to watch. Each level is completely different than the one before it and jam packed with things to do and secrets to find. As you control your marionette protagonist, there are many, many different puppet heads you can find, each of which giving you different ways to uncover hidden items. Using the right stick, you can make your fairy friend investigate parts of the sets with varying results. Sometimes you'll be treated to something as simple as a cat jumping out and giving you more gems, sometimes you'll find yourself whisked away to one of the many bonus stages to complete timed challenges. It makes the prospect of a second playthrough after getting more abilities and puppet heads an exciting thought.

Kutaro gains a few new abilities throughout the game, but the scissors he wields are his main weapon, and are used for a lot more than taking down the grubs scattered around. Each time Kutaro jumps up and cuts a piece of paper scenery, he's propelled forward slightly. In this way, he can cut through paper cloud trails to cross large gaps and cut pieces of netting to free special items. If you see a stitched seam trailing off into the sky you can cut quickly along it to follow wherever it may take you. The boss encounters, individually unique show pieces in and of themselves, almost always involve cutting souls loose from their fabric like balloons or cutting down the huge tapestries of their bodies.

Not every level is a straight left to right progression, either. In an early desert level Kutaro is racing a train on horseback, jumping from the horse in the foreground to the train in the background and back again to continue the pursuit. Changes of pace like this add welcome variety and action.

I did manage to find a few flaws in this production, however. The controls are generally fine, but they're not quite as quick and responsive as I would've liked. Kutaro isn't nearly as loose and floaty as Sackboy, but he's nowhere near as nimble as Meat Boy either. This usually isn't much of a problem, but requires a little care near platform edges and when trying to snip in certain directions to stay on course of a cloud trail or perforation.

The environments Kutaro's adventure takes him to are interesting, vibrant, and creative, with lots of things to see and do. So much to see and do, in fact, that at times it works against itself. I spent so much time oogling what was happening with the main characters or platforms I needed to jump to that I either missed important signs of hidden items nearby or forgot to look for them altogether. The difficulty never gets too maddening, but as the game progresses things definitely get more challenging and intense, to where I was concentrating more on keeping Kutaro out of harm's way than on investigating every little tree in the background looking for secrets. Some are obvious, but many are well-hidden, requiring the right action in the right place at the right time while wearing the right head.

The only other complaint I have involves the bonus stages. They're fun little diversions, and they all have different rules from the main game. But while your fairy is exceedingly proficient at telling you exactly what to do to proceed in the main quest, she doesn't follow Kutaro into the bonus stages and there's no explanation given for how a particular bonus stage works. Forcing the player to learn each one's rules via trial and error is fine, but when the penalty for failure is being kicked back to the level without the option to quickly try again, it's frustrating knowing you'll have to back all the way out of the level and play through again to have another crack at it.

But those are minor blemishes in what stands as a wonderfully put together feast for the eyes and ears by way of Broadway theater. The quality acting and animation, expressive characters, fantastical story, an original soundtrack that compliments it, and impeccable commitment to the aesthetic make Puppeteer an absolute joy from the opening scene to the closing curtain. It's a crying shame it was released at the time it was; it never had a chance to get the standing ovation it deserves. It game me more smiles per minute than any other game I played that year, and can still be found fairly easily on the cheap. If you're looking for something not quite like anything you've seen before and enjoy 2D platformers, Puppeteer is well worth a try.

**Images taken from PlayStation.com

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I bought this game last year and have not played it yet, I think its about time.  Thanks for the review!
@douglie007: My pleasure! Let me know what you think.
I was one of the few who played this at release. I strongly recommend it for anyone who owns a PS3. Great review!
Always wanted to play this, as I am fascinated by games with great art design. Always a huge plus when the gameplay is great as well.

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