Every now and then, a game will come along that really shows how to put a certain piece of hardware to use. In 2005, the Japan-only rhythm game Osu! Tatakae! Oendan (and its 2006 Western spiritual sequel, Elite Beat Agents) demonstrated how unique a gameplay experience touchscreens could offer, before smartphones were as ubiquitous as they are today. The Nintendo Wii console came out swinging in 2006, with the launch title Wii Sports opening many to the world of motion controls. In 2008, Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots put the raw power of the PlayStation 3 console on display for all to see.
Tearaway does for the PlayStation Vita what all these other games did for their respective systems. Media Molecule have taken the unique aspects of the system and run with them, creating an experience that only Vita owners can experience - and that every Vita owner needs to experience.
At its core, Tearaway is a 3D puzzle platformer with a striking similarity (gameplay wise) to the likes of Spyro the Dragon and Jak & Daxter. What sets it apart from its peers is the way it uses every element of the handheld to create new, refreshing puzzles and - maybe more importantly - to craft a heartwarming fairy tale that tears down the wall between player and avatar.
You see, Tearaway takes place in a “world of stories”, only the world has run out of new tales to be told. To remedy this, a pair of unnamed narrators tear a hole between the game and the real world, inviting you into their gorgeous papercraft reality to help forge a fresh story.
From this point on, you - the player - are a character in Tearaway. You’re a mysterious, god-like being known to Tearaway’s denizens as a “You”, and it’s up to you to guide a personified envelope (known as atoi or iota, depending on the gender you chose for the character, or simply as the Messenger) on an adventure, with a new tale for this world of stories unfolding around you.
Not only is this embracing of the relationship between a player and on screen character a clever and unique plot device, but everything about the way you play the game ties into it. While the game does employ standard platformer controls (move with the analog stick, X to jump, and so on), it also uses the Vita’s control mechanisms to inject the player directly into the game.
At certain points, you’ll need to use the rear touch pad to push “your” fingers up into the game world to move platforms around or defeat enemies, while other sections will have you using the touchscreen to unfold doors or open wrapped presents (one of the game’s many collectibles.)
Rather than having the player as some mysterious puppeteer behind the scenes, both Tearaway’s narrative and gameplay are built around the relationship that you, as the player, form with the Messenger. It works brilliantly.
Given the papercraft world setting, you’ll at times be tasked with cutting out your own paper creations to be injected into the game world using the touchscreen. This is probably the weakest gameplay element, although I will admit this may come down to my terrible drawing skills. Still, crafting your own designs feels tacked on when you’re forced to do it in order to progress, and it works much better when it’s optional - such as creating decorations with which to adorn your Messenger.
The Vita’s cameras aren’t left out of the mix, either, being used sporadically to inject visuals of the player and the real world into the game, helping to sell the idea that whatever separates the world of Tearaway from the real world is being torn down. And then, of course, there are puzzles making use of the Vita’s motion control mechanisms, in which you have to tilt and twist the system to achieve your goals. Tearaway literally uses everything the Vita system has to offer, control-wise.
As for the plot itself, it’s a rather simple, fairytale-style affair. That’s not a criticism by any means - everything it lacks in complexity, it makes up for in sheer storytelling prowess. The pacing is absolutely spot on, and it’s hard to see what’s coming next despite the simplicity.
What’s more, the writers at Media Molecule have mastered the very difficult task of crafting a tale that can appeal to adults and children alike. And not just by injecting adult-oriented jokes into a kid-friendly narrative, like Pixar films do. It really is a beautiful, endearing, heartwarming tale - I challenge you not to be grinning from ear to ear in pure, unadulterated happiness by the time the credits roll.
Like any good platformer, Tearaway is full to the brim with secrets and collectibles. These come in various forms; confetti pieces are analogous to coins in Mario or gems in Spyro, and can be found all over the world, while beautifully wrapped presents are harder to find and sometimes require the completion of a side quest of sorts. The most interesting collectibles are easily the papercraft models - taking photos of sheer white models with the ingame camera unlocks plans for that model at tearaway.me, which you can print off in real life and put together. This is a fantastic idea in its own right, but even more impressive is the way it ties into the whole theme of the merging of real life and the game world.
Tearaway does have its flaws, of course. They’re hardly game breaking and do little to get in the way of the overall experience, but I must bring them up in the interests of a fair and balanced review. The game can be a little on the easy side, but this isn’t necessarily a problem. None of the puzzles are particularly challenging, and should you die in combat, you simply teleport back to the last checkpoint rather than reloading, with any enemies you’ve slain staying dead. The camera switches between fixed and moveable, and while the fixed camera parts are designed to give you the best view for platforming, I often felt like they impeded my desire to just explore. Once or twice, the camera bugged out on me, getting stuck behind scenery and making it impossible to see what was going on.
And then, of course, there’s the fact that puzzle platformers and arty games like this aren’t for everyone. If you’re not into this type of game, Tearaway probably isn’t going to change your mind. In spite of that, I’d still say this is a must-buy for anyone with a Vita. At worst, it’ll make you rethink the value of some of the system’s more “gimmicky” user input mechanisms; at best you’ll get to have your heart set aflame by one of the most adorable, charming, and genuinely moving game experiences to date.