How do you follow up one of the most successful debut games of all times? Well, by making a sequel of course. But what about after that? How does messing around as a co-developer on a few spin-offs strike you? Hardly taxing though, is it? Regardless at the rising sense of apprehension you may feel, sooner or later you’re going to have to strike out and make something new, become innovative again, create rather than repeat. Developers Media Molecule have only just reached this final phase, having spent the last five years playing around with LittleBigPlanet iterations and derivatives. Their first steps with a new intellectual property have been brave ones, leading them onto the Vita and into the paper world of Tearaway.
Tearaway is a world of stories, a place where every constituent part tells a tale. But sometimes stories get old, the retelling becomes tiring and the ability to create is forgotten. This is the world you enter, your very act of picking up the Vita and starting the game ripping a hole in the sun and beaming your presence across the world. And what better way to see what the giant sun-face wants than to send it a message?
From the off then it’s clear that Tearaway is utterly unique. From the gloriously crazy story premise to the papercraft world and its inhabitants, you’ve never ever seen anything like this before. Technically, you play as You (yes, you) as you use the Vita to help guide one of iota or atoi through this papery world as they attempt to deliver a message to you. This gets better – instead of simply being a messenger, iota or atoi are actually the message! A walking, non-talking envelope of platforming goodness! The last time we can remember seeing something this conceptually bizarre from a Western developer was probably back when we were perusing £2 cassette tapes in the Eighties.
And what a papery world it is. Absolutely everything you can see (apart from the odd glimpse of your own gurning face) is a stylised object made from paper. Trees, animals, rocks, walls, houses – every single thing is paper. It all looks fantastic on the Vita’s screen, the folds and crinkles bringing forth amazement at the minds that could create such spectacles. Immersion surrounds you as a player, with the little touches combining with the more overt to draw you into this world as you work to uncover more of it.
But these aesthetic choices aren’t without their limitations. The fancy looking 2D constructs hide a myriad of places in which to get stuck, or fall through, or get hidden behind. Of the three, getting hidden behind a piece of scenery has to be the most frequent, although being able to use the camera as an emergency first-person mode to help escape from your predicament helps mitigate the eye-rolling somewhat. If you’re the type of player that likes exploring random nooks and crannies then you’ll find your fair share of these places, but thankfully the generous checkpoints ensure that you’re never put too far back because of your over-enthusiastic exploration. Perhaps because of these issues most of the hidden gift collectables secreted throughout Tearaway are criminally easy to find, all of them clearly signposted by ledges or similar. It all seems like a minor point, but a bit more robustness could easily have enabled far more prodding or poking around the paperscape.
Talking about prodding and poking, what use would a papercraft world be if you couldn’t interact with it? Tearaway makes almost full use of the various functionalities the Vita offers, leaving out only those forgotten AR cards and the GPS working of the 3G model (bet you guys are still glad you went for that SKU!). Other games have tried to shoehorn in these abilities in fairly gimmicky ways, and nearly all of them have failed horribly. Tearaway is different – it’s really the first time a Vita game manages to nail every single control input it utilises. Places where you can interact using the touchpads or the motion controls are clearly highlighted, with certain points even allowing you to poke your fingers through the rear touch pad into the game world (this actually totally happens, it’s not just graphics or anything). From drumming on the rear touch pad to send your messenger to a higher ledge to peeling back paths on the front the interactions feel natural throughout, and there are sections in the later levels where your fingers dance from pads to buttons and back again that the potential of the device begins to finally be realised.
Throughout, the platforming never becomes too difficult, and the checkpoints are far too generous, but the constant innovation drives you to continue your journey and see what those minds have planned for you next. Slight puzzling elements come to the fore in places, but in the main you’ll follow a linear path with the odd piece of more advanced work required to reach a particularly tricky gift. While accessibility was clearly in the minds of the designers at Media Molecule you’ll finish certain sections and wish that they had managed to replicate such wonder throughout.
This isn’t the only criticism that can be thrown at Tearaway either; the final two thirds of the game are a wonder of pacing, rolling up fun, achievement, challenge and joy into one sweet, sweet package. On your first run through of these sections especially, there will be times where you’ll have to pause the action to just sit back and take in what you’ve seen, with each new section building on the mechanics and creations that have come before. This makes it all the more painful that the pacing in the first third of the game is awful. Basic actions are dripped out to you over the course of the first few levels, with jumping, rolling and the in-game camera all locked from the off. In many ways these early levels feel like an elongated introduction to the world of Tearaway, a disguised tutorial that grew and grew until it was large enough to be a significant part of the game.
It’s not just platforms that you’ll have to battle with on your travels. As well as having to put up with the You poking around in their world, the inhabitants of Tearaway also have the scraps to contend with. Pugnacious little rapscallions, they come in a variety of species, but all of them falling from the hole in the sun to wreak havoc where they can. Combat is very much a side mechanic in Tearaway, with simple variations on one main tactic proving enough to get through virtually every fight (although be prepared to feel like the ultimate badass whenever you get to ‘finger’ groups of scraps to oblivion!). It’s to the credit of Tearaway that combat isn’t allowed to devolve into a grind, into something thrown in simply to extend the playtime of every level, and instead manages to find a natural place within the tale.
As with LittleBigPlanet, Tearaway offers you the ability to customise the look of your character and the surrounding gameworld, albeit with fewer opportunities for full scale redecoration. From very close to the off you’ll have full control over the customisation of your messenger’s appearance. Using confetti (found within the game world and awarded whenever you find a hidden gift collectable) you can purchase a wide range of facial features or coloured shapes or designs. Individually these may not amount to much, but when used intelligently together you can quickly create an entirely unique messenger, unlike that of any other player. Fancy a cute little dog face? Go for it! A scary vampire envelope (beware if you have any sticky paste in your veins!)? Sure, Tearaway’s got you covered. We’ve even seen someone mock up a fairly decent representation of Mario already, which gives us great hope in what we’ll see knocking around the web once the game has had some time out in the wild. As well as the purchasable items, you also have the ability to create bespoke 2D creations whenever you want. This cut-out art can be pasted anywhere on your messenger and a steady finger can yield surprising results. If the first thing you do when you gain access to cut-out creations isn’t making iota a handlebar moustache, however, then you’re doing it wrong.
But even with all these options there are restrictions to your creative abilities. Each cut-out design has a cap to the number of cut-out pieces you can attach to it, and there is a limit to the number of items you can plaster onto iota or atoi. These aspects are more of a problem of course for those wanting to create intricate, in-depth designs, but then those are the players that the game should be catering to most of all. As you progress through the game you are given opportunities to affect parts of the world around you, or even its inhabitants, but you won’t quite shake the feeling that you should have been given far more chances to leave your mark on the world. Saying that, every instance of interaction you have is of far greater importance than it may initially seem; we don’t want to give anything away at all that would impact your enjoyment of Tearaway, but it should suffice to say that Tearaway will reward those who put the time into those story-related customisation opportunities rather than tear through them as fast as they can. In fact, that’s all part of the charm of the game – why spend a few minutes knocking up a snowflake when you can spend the better part of an hour tinkering with it to get it exactly how you want it.
If you’re able to look beyond the visual aspects of the papercraft world you’ll encounter the wonderfully folksy soundscape. Fabulously rich, the music tells its own stories as you progress through the game – from dubstep-folk in the barn to a more traditional shanty influence once you hit the coast. You’ll not just stop the admire the visuals in Tearaway, you’ll stop to listen to the paper-waves crashing onto the paper-sand, you’ll stop to listen to the secret vocal shanty, you’ll restart from a checkpoint just to hear your favourite track again. From the music to the most minute paper rustle from interacting with the environment, the sound in Tearaway is a journey in of itself, and yet still perfectly complementary to the action on-screen.
One of the most glorious things about Tearaway is that not only are elements of your world invading or interacting with the game world, but you can recreate the game world in ours. Hidden throughout the levels are various objects or characters who have had their colour stolen by the scraps – snap a picture of them and they not only return to the previous glory but also unlock a set of papercraft instructions aligned to your profile at Tearaway.me. Slightly too involved for a young child to complete alone, they nonetheless provide an excellent way of bringing the world you’ve experienced to life, and I dare anyone not to be impressed by the excitement and wonder of a youngling as you transform a printed sheet of paper into a pig, or an iota, or any of the other unlockables. The online hub may seem like a bit of a moot point when talking about a game, but at a conceptual level these unlockables make perfect sense, right down to the joke in the manual about dealing with scrap paper appropriately.
If you’ve paid attention there’s a word that keeps popping up again and again – wonder. We’ve used it a few times here, and it really does sum up what the greatest parts of Tearaway manage to achieve. The journey through the final two-thirds of the story is one long trip of jaw-dropping, head-shaking amazement, appreciation flowing for the world Media Molecule has been able to create, as well as how they have seamlessly incorporated every part of the Vita’s functionality into the game. In our preview of Tearaway we said that it seemed to be clearly aimed at a younger demographic. We’re happy to report that we were entirely wrong – Tearaway is a game for anyone other than the douchiest dudebro, a game for anyone that is able to sit back and enjoy a game for the sheer fun of it. In many ways, it’s a game that Nintendo would be proud to have on any of their systems, and if that’s not a compliment I don’t know what is.