Papo & Yo is a game about that tragedy. It's about a relationship that is by turns loving, gentle, and even playful, but can instantly turn into something ugly and full of violence and pain.
As a video game, Papo & Yo can be lacking – the mechanics are simple, and while the technology is capable of creating some beautiful moments, it's just as capable of being frustrating. As an expression of autobiographical emotion for creator Vander Caballero, however, and a rendition of the complicated relationship between a young son and his abusive father, Papo & Yo succeeds in the strongest ways.
A boy named Quico is Papo & Yo's main (and playable) character, but Monster, the big pink creature that Quico finds in his magical Brazilian favelas, shares the spotlight. He, like the rest of the game it seems, has been through a few revisions, but he's landed in a well-crafted spot. When you first come across the creature, he's intimidating, but a little silly. Quico can use Monster's stomach like a trampoline as he sleeps to make bigger jumps, or feed him magical fruit to guide him around the game's first few puzzles.
As Quico navigates Papo & Yo's dingy but beautiful world, cracks begin to appear. White spaces and boxes float up out of nowhere, and at times, the world is literally pulled apart and manipulated by Quico himself. It's a child's view of a ghetto, with elements like hopscotch squares that rise up out of the ground, or a chalk-drawn soccer field with dimensional doorways. Eventually, you find some colorful, gigantic frogs, and this is where Monster's full character is revealed. He prefers frogs to the fruit, and when he eats them, he flies into a flaming rage directed squarely at Quico.
The relationship between these two characters, Quico and his Monster, is portrayed in a wordless, gorgeous way. Monster's animation and movement all speak towards how caring and playful he can be. At one point, you can even toss him a soccer ball, and he'll kindly throw it back in fun. But leave a gate open, and allow him access to just one frog, and he'll turn on you. The kind, even gentle giant helping you navigate the world suddenly becomes a raging, firey beast.
Is it his fault? Is it yours? Was there something you could have done to stop it, to calm him? Why is he so driven to become such a Monster, when just a moment ago he was so willing to play and help? Papo & Yo doesn't necessarily answer these questions, and they are certainly tough ones to ask. But what it does best is make you, as a victim of such abuse, stop and think about what's happening, and how helpless it can feel to have someone so close turn against you in such a terrible way.
Unfortunately, the gameplay of Papo & Yo isn't quite as strong as the relationship the game creates. There are some very nice touches early on (one puzzle has you moving boxes that are tied to actual floating favela houses you can then use as platforms over a gap), and the magical realism of the setting makes for great moments like the houses on the mountainside bending open to enter the next area. But all too often going forward through the relatively short and easy game just means finding the next switch, rather than trying to master some interesting mechanic.
Lula, Quico's personal robot, for example, is a toy made real in his poverty-stricken world. She could have been used to add a little more variety to the game's puzzles but, in the end, she's relegated to the two roles of jet pack and switch-presser. Narrowing down those mechanics does let the developer focus on that all-important titular relationship, but it still leaves the core gameplay of Papo & Yo fairly simple.
The music, on the other hand, is especially great. Even when Papo & Yo's story isn't completely clear (there are a few tonally powerful cutscenes that definitely refer to autobiographical events in the creator's life, but they are never clearly explained), the ebb and flow of South American rhythms are always there to tow the emotional line. Later on, the Unreal Engine kicks out some beautiful sunsets during a particularly touching part of the story, and the music is able to match the excellent visuals throughout.
There is, however, a powerful experience here. Papo & Yo makes its player face the terrible relationship of abuse in a very personal way. It makes you wonder both about Quico and his Monster, and what they must feel and think about why they do what they do. Through the thin lens of this magical world, Caballero and his team have painted a striking picture of the heartbreaking betrayal that lies at the center of a relationship like this. And even at the end, after facing all of Papo & Yo's tough questions, Quico and Monster's tale proves that, in the face of such a tragedy, there are never any easy answers.
This review is based on a final PlayStation 3 version of Papo & Yo, provided by Sony. The game was played to completion on the PlayStation 3.
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