A night at the theatre may not be the most appealing idea of fun to gamers, a breed notorious for having a rather short attention span. As gaming continuously seems to follow the trends laid out by Hollywood, SCE Japan Studio have taken a different path. Hoping to join the ranks of William Shakespeare, Arthur Miller and er…even Ben Elton, the creators of Ape Escape and Loco Roco have put on a show with Puppeteer, a PlayStation 3 exclusive that seeks to add a little bit of culture to hearts and minds of gamers.
Our leading man in tonight’s performance is Kutaro, a young boy who has been transformed into a wooden puppet by the evil ruler of the moon, Moon Bear King. Managing a daring escape with the help of a morally ambiguous witch, Kutaro loses his head but that doesn’t stop him from fulfilling his destiny – freeing the seven kingdoms of the moon from the clutches of Moon Bear King’s evil minions and sending the souls of Earth’s children back home.
Puppeteer’s premise is a wildly imaginative and entertainingly original one, bursting at the seams with creativity. Using the concept of a stage play as our window into the game is a tricky one, but thankfully SCE Japan Studio have a top notch stage crew working hard behind the scenes to pull it off without a hitch. The transitions between levels are even entertaining to watch with long, enthusiastic cutscenes, complete with a reactionary audience, all woven together by a fantastic vocal performance from the game’s omnipresent narrator portrayed by veteran stage and screen actor Stephen Greif.
At first glance, it would be easy to compare this 2.5D platformer visually to Sony’s sandbox platformer Little Big Planet. After all, both Kutaro and Sackboy are crafty little heroes that would fall apart of the seams if they run into trouble. However, spanning twenty-one stages, each of the games’ seven acts has its own distinct theme. From swashbuckling pirates on the high seas to spooky haunted castles, the game takes players on a Disneyesque tour of the moon’s seven kingdoms. The level designs are an absolute treat, if not a tad repetitive in their layout. Traversing winding staircases or soaring up seams in the tapestry make up a large section of gameplay, but it’s easy to forgive the game considering its operating with the confines of the creaky wooden, hand stitched visual style of the theatre.
Early in his adventure, Kutaro becomes the bearer of the Calibrus – a magical pair of scissors that are at the core of the gameplay. Cutting enemies down to size is a given, but where the scissors really become essential is their use in travelling across each level. Dotted lines are the seams holding this world together and Kutaro can snip his way across flags, banners, leaves and even smoke clouds to navigate over large chasms or up to higher ground using the cutting power of the Calibrus.
The Calibrus also factor heavily into the game’s unique boss battles. After dodging a number of attack waves, Kutaro uses a combination of hacking away at the boss’ vulnerable seams and quick time events in order to reach victory. After defeating each boss, Kutaro will receive a moon shard – a fractured mystical crystal that grants the headless hero a new ability in his quest to defeat Moon Bear King. These abilities, such as throwing bombs and reflecting blinding sunlight, really open up both the puzzle solving and combat elements of the gameplay. Much in the same vein as other adventure titles, such as God of War or The Legend of Zelda series, as the game increases in difficulty, Kutaro must use these abilities to navigate blocked areas in each level or indeed against some of the more elaborate bosses later in the game.
It may seem like a lot for one wooden puppet to handle, but thankfully Kutaro isn’t alone in his travels. The right analogue stick is used to control a floating companion (a talking cat in the first few levels, followed by a red-headed pixie for the remainder) who can interact with parts of the scenery in order to uncover the thousands of collectible moonsparkles that eventually grant Kutaro with extra lives. This is where the PlayStation Move functionality comes in, although using the traditional controller is preferable as it gives the player much greater control over navigating the pitfalls and traps scattered across each level.
The secondary character also helps Kutaro in his quest to find and collect replacement heads. From skulls and submarines to bananas and burgers, these heads usually fit in with each act’s theme. You can carry three interchangeable heads at a time, with their initial purpose acting as buffer between life and death for Kutaro, in a similar manner Sonic the Hedgehog and his golden rings. However, losing your head becomes nothing more than a side quest for Kutaro. Each head comes with a unique special “ability” but this amounts to nothing more than a funny little dance routine or taunt that can unlock bonus stages or reveal hidden moonsparkles. It’s one big missed opportunity as these heads don’t offer anything more than cosmetic value and some added replayability. It’s a real shame because given the sheer creative input that’s gone into this game; giving some added functionality to the heads would have certainly garnered the game with a nomination of an Olivier award.
Puppeteer receives a standing ovation for its visual originality and everyone working behind the scenes should come to the front stage and certainly take a bow. Kutaro’s performance as the hero of the piece is overshadowed by the dozens of uniquely brilliant characters he encounters on his quest to save other imprisoned children and get his head back. The theatrical setting may not quite have the same appeal to the gamer demographic as, say, the movie quality blockbuster titles that make up the final quarter of the release calendar, but even if you don’t know your Lady Macbeth from your Widow Twankey, Puppeteer is one of those rare gems that comes along once in a blue moon and will surely whet the appetite for anyone who has a taste for the theatrical.