For quite some way into Puppeteer’s lengthy opening level, it’s hard to shake the feeling that you’re playing a themed LittleBigPlanet pack. The outsized proportion of protagonist Kutaro’s head to his body, the way each level is presented as a series of dioramas, and the abundance of different heads to find all make use of the aesthetic language set out by Media Molecule’s series. There are other inspirations here, too, from Studio Ghibli and the Brothers Grimm to Clover Studio’s Okami in the delicate, hand-drawn cutscenes, but despite this initial familiarity, it soon becomes clear that Japan Studio has plenty of unique ideas that imbue the game with its own personality.
For one thing, the time that the studio has invested in getting its platforming right – one staffer spent a full year refining the jump mechanic – has paid off. Movement has a tight, springy texture that echoes the clunking set changes that occur as you progress through each level. It’s a marked improvement on LBP’s less predictable character physics, and just as well: behind all that charisma, Puppeteer hides a surprisingly tough challenge.
Our demo starts with a tutorial level in which Kutaro finds himself turned into a headless puppet after an encounter with the Moon Bear King. Without a head he’ll soon die, but fortunately there are 100 alternative noggins to be found, along with four hero heads that grant special powers.
The standard heads act as hybrid between a traditional energy bar and more fashionable recharging health. You can hold up to three at any one time, switching between them with the D-pad. Take a hit and your head will roll away, disappearing after a few seconds and requiring a potentially perilous dash to recover it in time. You acquire continues by collecting 100 Moon Sparkles, glowing shards that spill from fallen enemies and hide in the set decorations around you.
You’re aided in your search for Moon Sparkles and new heads by Ying Yang, a floating cat in the service of a mysterious witch, who offers you her help at the beginning of the game. You move Ying Yang around the screen with the right stick, and interact with objects (which give a little shake as you hover over them) by tapping R2. There are numerous secrets and pathways to be found too, but these require you to use your head (well, heads), a faint floating image indicating where each one can be used. Early on, a burger head transforms a boring-looking sandwich into its much springier fast-food counterpart, allowing Kutaro to reach a platform previously out of reach. Later, during a tower ascent, a spider head opens a doorway into a bonus stage by attracting a large spider’s attention.
Later in the level you acquire Calibrus, a powerful pair of scissors that let you snip away at both enemies and scenery. You cut enemies by tapping Square, removing their armour piece by piece, the fallen carcass sprouting a stem; prune that and a child’s soul is released. Jump before hitting Square and you’ll Sky Cut, travelling through the air for as long as there’s material to sever. Larger enemies will often wear cloaks ripe for the scissoring, or a blade-tempting seam.
The second level we try plays very differently. Taken from later on in the game, it features a protracted but enjoyable boss battle with one of the Moon Bear King’s 12 generals, this one a giant dragon. First we climb its tail in a sequence that will feel familiar to anyone who’s played an endless runner: mounted on the back of a pink flamingo – and flanked by a fairy rather than Ying Yang – we leap over the giant creature’s spikes and try to avoid lightning from the clouds as our mount runs automatically from left to right.
While we can’t stop the bird’s sprint, we can shave off a little speed by pushing the left stick in the opposite direction. Speed boosts, meanwhile, are granted by bottles of what appears to be Tabasco sauce. At certain points, we jump from the bird and make use of Kutaro’s Sky Cutting ability, following the path of lengths of rope in order to avoid falling to our death. Occasionally the path splits, offering a riskier option for rewards.
The final encounter takes place on a series of cloud platforms while the dragon spews fireballs and attacks with swipes of its tail. It also does a good job of showcasing Kutaro’s hero heads: a Knight’s head gives you a shield that can reflect enemy projectiles; the Ninja’s head lets you throw bombs; a pounding attack is made available by the Wrestler’s head; and the Pirate’s head gives you a grappling hook. Defeating the dragon requires all four abilities – along with some judicious Sky Cutting – and finishes with a short QTE sequence.
That Puppeteer still manages to stand out amid all the next-gen buzz is testament to its mesmerising art style. As with LittleBigPlanet, though, players drawn in by those visuals may be put off by the level of difficulty that awaits. But if Japan Studio can maintain the sheer level of imagination and energy on show in these two levels throughout the entire game, it will be an exhilarating adventure indeed.