Tearaway review: Not quite a love letter

The charming platformer Tearaway gets so many tiny details exactly right. It fully commits to its papercraft aesthetic, putting everyday elements like glue and confetti to ingenious use. The way it makes you – starring as You – a driving element in the game is both clever and engaging, and don't even get me started on how cute the damn squirrels are.

If only Tearaway hadn't relied so much on a clumsy Vita control scheme, it might have been an enchanting bit of portable escapism, but instead it's a lot of sighs boxed in an adorable wrapper.

The story of Tearaway is the story of You, who's literally broken into the papery world of the game from the Real World - your face pokes through the sun, courtesy of the Vita's camera. Tearaway has a message for You, which it seals up into the envelope head of either Atoi or Iota, depending on your preferred gender of game protagonist, who then begins a quest to deliver it. The Messenger is given a camera with which to record their adventure, but shutterbugging has some practical purposes, too. Pictures taken in the game can become papercraft objects in the real world, and pictures you take in the Real World can become part of the game.

The Messengers' mission will take them through different lands, where they will encounter the Scraps, little box monsters who are sucking the color and joy out of everything and who are just pretty naughty in general. Tearaway has an innocence and simplicity that is refreshing when placed against the grimness of so many other games clamoring for your attention.

Calling Tearaway a platformer is a bit misleading, as it doesn't rely on precision jumps or split-second timing. You can't even jump when you start the game. Its emphasis is instead on exploring the intricately-constructed environments to find the many collectibles. Each locale is littered with presents, characters in need of assistance, papercraft models and confetti; getting from one end of the level to the other isn't particularly difficult, but tracking down every last goody requires a keen eye.

The collecting isn't just for the sake of sating your completionist tendencies (though it's very good for that) - the confetti you find lets you unlock new paper components with which you can customize your messenger. If you want some dracula fangs or maybe a few bones to stick in your hair, you're just a few handfuls of confetti away. You can also add new filters and lenses to your camera, so you can do things like get nice wide shots or add a special sepia effect. Some objects in the game are totally blank when you find them, but snap a pic and they flush with color, which adds their papercraft design to your library in yet another example of how Tearaway likes to meld the game world and the Real World. Grab any of your collected designs off of a special website to try your own hand at papercraft and add a bit of Tearaway to your home.

Tearaway will sometimes prompt you to create your own items with a nifty little in-game set of paper and scissors. Your finger doesn't make the most precise pencil, but it's probably good enough to get the basic outline of a mitten or a pumpkin down, which the scissors will then automatically cut out. At other times, you'll be asked to take a picture in the Real World using the Vita's camera. These tiny, personalized, moments are part of what makes Tearaway so endearing. One character was tired of white snowflakes, so I made him a blue one, then watched in delight as my awkward little snowflake began falling all across the level. An elk lost her coat and wanted me to take a picture she could use as a new one; soon, all the other elks had copied her style – my bedroom carpet – because she was such a trendsetter. You really, truly are part of the game in Tearaway.

You're not just a big face in the sky, however, you're an active participant in the Messenger's mission. Everything in Tearaway – the scenery, the people, the animals, everything – is made of paper, but some of it is marked with thumbprints. Using the Vita's touchscreen on those points, you can pull open the ribbons of a present to unwrap a gift, or unfurl a piece of curled paper to extend a bridge. Tapping the rear touch pad can let your fingers poke through the paper and invade the world, clearing a path for Atoi or activating a bouncy platform. It's a brilliant idea, this blending of the game "you" and the character of You, but using the rear touch pad is consistently awkward and unresponsive.

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It's not so bad when all you have to do is tap it to help Atoi bounce on a jump pad, but for everything else it's a hand-tangler. Maybe placing my fingers on the back for balance is a weird way to hold a Vita, but I found many sections of Tearaway to be aggressively unfun simply because of their reliance on the rear touch pad. One section, in which you have to activate jump pads, cross falling ledges and navigate narrow paths while running away from a pack of angry Wendigos was particularly frustrating. Tearaway's awkward camera, which at times is so unhelpful it seems to be siding with the Scraps, didn't make navigating the narrow walkways and steep ledges more enjoyable.

For all its marvelous attention to detail, Tearaway seems to forget about its nature as a game. Fighting the scraps never becomes fun, even once you've acquired the concertina that allows you to suck them in and shoot them at each other. You gain new papery abilities as you progress, like curling up into a ball and rolling around, but they don't substantially alter or augment the overall experience. The construction paper motif is always wonderful to witness, as levels play with notions of folding, furling, sticking and floating, but the gameplay part of Tearaway never really changes all that much. As a sort of interactive art exhibit, Tearaway is delightful. As a game, it's disappointingly one-note.

Tearaway is cheerful, clever, and colorful, but never quite attains the masterful blend of art and gameplay exhibited by developer Media Molecule's previous efforts, the LittleBigPlanet games. It's crammed full of wonderful ideas that can't quite compete with a control scheme that – apologies – looks good on paper but doesn't work well in practice. Tearaway has a big heart ... if only your fingers didn't keep getting in the way.

This review is based on a PSN download of Tearaway, provided by Sony.

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