Puppeteer review: Trims fairy tales

Puppeteer review  clever subhed about Grim fairy tale or something Also, bears are jerks
Whimsy is tough. It's this kind of vague emotional cross-section between delight and wonder, and it can easily wander into unsatisfying areas of childish preciousness or just weirdness for weirdness' sake. It's difficult to create a whimsical space – one based on a fairy tale, no less – that adults will enjoy exploring, but PS3 exclusive Puppeteer does just that.

The game's lunar setting, animal actors and magical trinkets could have collided in a childish mess of aggressive cuteness, but instead create a constantly-changing world that offers surprises around every turn. Even when it relies on familiar gameplay tropes, Puppeteer brings a clever joy to its presentation that will have you smiling, even while you're missing that last really tricky jump. Again. And again. No no, you need to get closer to the edge before you ... there you go.
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Puppeteer (Gamescom 2013)

Our story begins when Little Bear, who is kind of a jerk, swipes the Moon Goddess' Moonstone and Calibrus, her pair of magical scissors. He declares himself Moon Bear King, casts the moon into nonstop darkness and begins stealing the souls of children and cramming them into wooden puppets. One of those souls belongs to our hero, Kutaro, who gets his head bitten off shortly after being puppetized (puppefied?), then discovers that he alone has the power to wield the otherwise untouchable magical scissors, stealing them from the Moon Bear King. With a replacement head and the might of Calibrus at his command, Kutaro sets out to retrieve the bits of Moonstone the Moon Bear King gave to his 12 generals, restore the Moon Goddess to power, and hopefully put his soul back where it belongs.

Kutaro's adventure is presented as a puppet show, complete with narrator and appreciative audience that "oohs" and "aaahs" at all the right times. The action is presented in 2D, with Kutaro moving stage left or right, the scenery flying in and out as he changes locations - an immensely clever way to mask a design style that might otherwise feel simplistic or dated. A pair of scissors doesn't sound like the weapon of a hero, but during a puppet show, where the scenery is made of paper and characters are held together with string, it's a potent force.

Not only can it cut enemies to literal ribbons, but by snipping the paper scenery with rhythm, Kutaro can also cross gaps or climb to great heights. So long as he keeps a steady rhythm – slicing through foliage, clouds, flags and the like – each subsequent cut keeps him aloft and moving in any direction, allowing for long chains of cuts that twist and turn around the level. Mess up the timing or miss the paper, and Kutaro plummets back toward the stage floor. The scissors provide the basis for Puppeteer's ingenious twist on classic platforming gameplay, requiring precision timing and movement while not relying solely on jumping. On top of Kutaro's cutting skills, he'll also acquire Hero Powers, such as the ninja's bomb, which lets him blast through certain spots.

The headless thing actually turns out to be a bit of a boon for Kutaro, as it allows him to carry around up to three noggins as he explores the Moon. Get hit, and you'll lose your head; lose all your heads, you lose a life. Each of Puppeteer's dozens of heads has its own special action, though that action only matters at locations marked with an icon matching the head. Used in the right spots, heads can unlock Bonus Levels, reveal roulette wheels offering a chance at prizes, or even let you bypass a boss fight. Whip out the Deck of Cards head when it comes time to face General Rabbit during his magic show, for example, and his tricks will go horribly awry, putting him at your mercy. Swapping out heads is totally unnecessary to complete Puppeteer, but it's a much more whimsical and interesting experience if you take the time to hunt down all of Kutaro's possible domes and use them where intended. The variety of heads is delightfully creative. I mean, sure, getting a bat head in a spooky castle is kind of obvious, but a topiary or teacup or guillotine? Those I didn't expect to see atop Kutaro's neck (or anyone's, really).

You won't be able to find all the heads on your first time through, but you'll enjoy searching the wonderfully varied environments for them. Who knew the Moon had deserts, neatly-groomed gardens straight out of Alice in Wonderland, a town where it's always Halloween, or a swamp? Each location is gorgeous and intricately detailed, offering new experience as you interact with the background or even as you complete other levels. Heads and equipment you find in later Acts can be used to access new areas or items in earlier Acts, which might then reveal even more heads to be used somewhere else. There's so much more going on than just Kutaro's jumping and scissoring that your third or fourth replay of a level – and that's probably what you'll need to track down every last head and lost soul – is nearly as enjoyable as the first. The outstanding soundtrack, a score in perfect keeping with Puppeteer's theatrical stylings, makes repeat trips even more palatable.

The one bit of Puppeteer that could've used a bit more rehearsal is Pikarina, the teeny weeny Sun princess who accompanies Kutaro on his quest. She's Kutaro's flying guide, cheerleader and assistant, and unlike her puppet companion, can interact with the environment to locate hidden goodies. Controlling Pikarina with the right stick and R2 button is pretty easy, but she occasionally requires annoyingly precise positioning. Place her here, and she doesn't find anything, but move her a hair to the side and presto! Treasure galore. She also has a tendency to yammer non-stop, repeating the same heavy-handed hints as you try to complete a tricky move, and even worse, she's kind of mean. It's reasonable for her to trash talk the Moon Bear King and his generals, I suppose, but she's fairly unpleasant to just about everyone; at one point, the narrator shares a heartfelt observation about his family and she brushes it aside with an "I don't want to know about that." I appreciate that it's a different approach than the typical plucky sidekick, but Pikarina's snottiness often rubbed me the wrong way.

Puppeteer review  clever subhed about Grim fairy tale or something Also, bears are jerks
The puppet show shtick is just the final flourish on a brilliant production. The scissors allow for fantastical levels that can defy gravity as well as reality, as Kutaro snips his way across a sprinkle of shooting stars or fights a Weaver miniboss by hacking at its tapestry. The narration embraces the richness of language, with rolling cadences and clever plays on words, while memorable characters occupy every corner of the Moon. (Mr. Pink, the officious flamingo, is my personal favorite, though one must take a moment to appreciate the frog mama's, erm, "performance.") Puppeteer doesn't overuse its environments, either, choosing instead to provide plenty of new, colorful locations to keep you amused. Each Act of Puppeteer finds new ways to delight you, like discovering that the frogs you chose to rescue throughout one level come back during the boss fight, or turning a level completely vertical so you can challenge two angry generals to a car race through the desert. Puppeteer puts on a great show without forgetting that you, as the principle actor, must also be challenged in your role as hero.

Puppeteer is an excellent example of the 2D platform genre, but it wouldn't be nearly as memorable or enjoyable if it weren't for the way it so fully commits to its puppet show aesthetic. Leave Kutaro inactive long enough and the audience will become restless, murmuring and coughing in impatience. Spend too much time in the menu, and the narrator will remind the audience that there's excellent merchandise for sale in the lobby. Actors occasionally forget their lines, overdo death scenes, or yell at the director in fits of diva pique. Scores of tiny details, like the carve marks in the puppets or the footlights and curtain frame, work together to create the illusion that you're watching a performance of a fairy tale, rather than bouncing your way through yet another ordinary platformer.

As with any great performance, as soon as the curtain falls on Puppeteer, you'll be calling for an encore.

This review is based on a retail copy of Puppeteer, provided by Sony.

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