The basic premise of Puppeteer has been trotted out so many times you wonder why they keep making formulaic games like this . . . you’re a scared little boy, kidnapped and transformed into a puppet. You escape a dark and terrifying castle, and try to save yourself and the world, armed only with your wits and a pair of magic scissors. Predictably, you’re in a theatre with an audience cheering your achievements, and laughing when you say something funny, and some of the actors are hamming their roles up just a little bit too much, as you run away from a giant megalomaniac bear who broke the moon up into little pieces. And your head keeps coming off, so you have to pick up objects like treasure chests, spiders, bits of sushi, and pistols to use as heads, or you’ll die. And there’s a pantomime witch, but you’re not sure if she’s a friend or a foe.
Actually, when you say all of that out loud... it sounds like a “man, I had the craziest dream last night…” water cooler type conversation, doesn’t it?
I first saw Puppeteer at E3 this year, and it was a total standout for me. I personally love cutesy little games, with a slightly dark and twisty edge, so naturally this very unique game ticked all the boxes.
The objective for scared little puppet hero Kutaro is to collect the pieces of moon stone that the Moonbear King has scattered throughout the land. A piece has been given to each of the Moonbear’s generals for safe keeping, so Kutaro must defeat them all one by one, gaining in power and abilities as he goes. Kutaro uses the magic scissors to great effect, and they provide a unique mechanic: they're a weapon, method of transport, and puzzle solving tool, all in one. You can chop through scenery to reach a high ledge one minute, then use them to cut your enemies down to size the next.
The elephant in the room of course is LittleBigPlanet. On the surface, there’s aesthetic similarities. Sackboy is very puppet-like, and moves around cartoony sets, his appearance changing often. Kutaro is a puppet, and the sets are a lot darker and creepier, but still cartoony. But he just isn’t *quite* as likeable as Sackboy. (Let’s be honest, name me a character who is though!) It could be because of the simple fact that Kutaro’s head keeps changing. Every time you pick up a new head, he automatically puts the new acquisition on. Sure, you can go back to the one you were wearing before, if you can be bothered, but that involves you actively having to select it. So unlike in LBP, where you choose when Sackboy’s appearance changes, and bond further with him by customising it with a look and feel you like, Kutaro’s head changes often. And the Kutaro you see in the beautifully rendered cut scenes, therefore, doesn’t look like the character you’ve been navigating around for an hour.
Once you get past the look, Puppeteer is a surprisingly sophisticated game all of its own, that defies comparison with anything else on the market. Designer and Game Director Gavin Moore - an Englishman living and working in Japan – has created a fantastic and unique world. He wanted to create a title that would keep his son entertained, by changing up the visuals in a very quick turnaround fashion so that he never had so long with any view of the game that he got sick of it.
The game that lucky little boy’s Dad created is dark, charming, and wildly varied, with a merge of English and Japanese imagery. You can feel both cultural influences throughout, and this lends a rich diversity to the worlds you travel through. The game was a pet project of Sony’s Japan Studio over a period of years, and it feels like it - a lot of love has been lavished on this title, and it clearly wasn’t rushed out the door before it was ready. Along with the slick visuals, the script is funny, engaging, and fast paced, the music catchy and atmospheric, and the voice acting flawless. There’s a lot of humour that adults will enjoy, without being too far over the heads of the kids - who are the real target market.