Tearaway: unwrapping Media Molecule’s crafty new Vita adventure

Seeing it fully formed on Vita’s crisp little screen, Tearaway’s papercraft theme seems inevitable. It taps into Media Molecule’s fascination with making games based on the material world, invoking elements of arts and crafts while adding all manner of playful touches. It’s an aesthetic that’s bound together by illustrator and creative lead Rex Crowle’s distinctive and charmingly lopsided doodle art style. The result is coherent and enveloping, despite being as varied in its inspirations as you’d expect from the studio behind LittleBigPlanet. There are cogs and gears and propellers, of course, but there are also nods to the wilds of America in the form of wendigos, teepees and stuffed deer. In other words, it’s the kind of apparently effortless concept that in reality must be the result of weeks of deliberate iteration, random inspiration and headaches.

Despite the varied influences, Tearaway’s foundations are familiar. It’s a 3D platformer in which you direct a tiny papery character called Atoi (or the male Iota, if you choose) along a continuous linear course. What’s unusual is that Atoi’s quest is to deliver a message to, well, you. Each message will apparently be unique to the player, and though this idea sounds like it’s edging dangerously close to a Molyneux-cum-Curiosity stunt, it’s underpinned by a game that possesses shades of Super Mario 64. Like Nintendo’s classic, Tearaway drops you into a world that’s the product of imagination, and it’s designed for you to play around in and explore without the props of explanatory text. Sure, Mario 64’s levels are nonlinear, but Tearaway’s spaces are similarly rich with interactive diversions, most of which reward you with little collectible orbs. Some areas are exploration-based, with hidden items to find, and others are based on puzzle solving and interacting with objects.

Drums covered with PlayStation symbols will sound when you tap the rear touchpad and bounce your avatar into the air. You’ll stumble over a hole – more accurately, a tear – in the ground and find balls of crumpled paper nearby to try throwing into it. Flowers unfurl around you and lob you up into papery canopies. Jagged plains of grass beg to be trampled. There are rotating wheels that turn when you throw balls onto their paddles. There are monsters that snap from beneath lily-pad lures – traps ripe for leading little frog enemies into. There’s a basketball hoop and a supply of balls to chuck through it; there are hollow logs that, naturally, you’ll try trotting through; and there are tents with deckchairs sitting outside and strange groups of figures standing inside.

Most objects in the environment react to your presence in some way, depressing or flexing under your character’s feet, and reinforcing the sense of an entire world made of paper. Concentric ripples of tears spread as you step through water, accompanied by little splashes of paper that curl into nothing as they reach the ends of their parabolas. Much of the animation has a stop-motion quality that evokes the vivid Czechoslovakian shorts that used to air on late-night TV. While your little character runs around smoothly, the paper constructs surrounding him or her spasmodically skip through their movements. Campfires are rendered with flapping triangles of red and yellow paper. The bear-like wendigos that act as antagonists in the section of the game we play flip between fierce attack cycles, puzzlement when they lose you and idle lumbering. The overall style supports a general sense of weirdness that’s particularly delivered by the soundscape, which is a collage of papery rustling, quiet birdsong, woodpeckers’ rhythmic knocking, as well as distant animal roars.

Those wendigos turn out to be less antagonists than puzzle elements, your role to avoid or capture them in cages as you pass through their territories. You learn that they’ll go after and devour ‘pearls’ (they look more like balls of paper to us), and that drawing them into areas marked with a target will see them instantly captured in a cage. But more often than not, all you can do is run away. Your health is marked by a little heart-adorned stamp, and you can only take a single hit before it swoops out, sticks onto a letter and takes you back to the nearest checkpoint. You’ll welcome, then, the sight of glued sections, which allow you to run vertically up walls and out of danger as you plough on along the path.

Though Tearaway is as catholic in its use of Vita’s varied hardware features as it is with its thematic inspirations, it happily doesn’t try to shoehorn in novel interfaces where they won’t fit. In fact, touchscreen and tilt control is all rather incidental to Tearaway’s main course of platforming, which is performed on the usual sticks and face buttons. We only encounter the chance to punch our fingers through the environment with the rear touchpad twice, once to move a concertinaed bridge into position, and once in a mini-level based on punching your fingers through the floor to bash enemies around. Hit them accurately and they’ll fly up and stick onto the camera lens, requiring a prod from the front to remove. In terms of touch control, it’s worth noting that the force of your taps is occasionally important – those Atoi/Iota-launching drums react to how hard you hit the rear touchpad – and that you’ll manipulate some objects with the front touchscreen, too.

Vita’s accelerometers, meanwhile, are used for a mini-level in which you roll a ball by tilting the handheld while simultaneously controlling the character on the sticks, each hitting switches to aid the other’s progress. They’re also used to aim your character’s camera when taking in-game pictures. The results, incidentally, are rendered with a delightful depth-of-field effect and vignetting that brings to mind Instagram filters.

The rear camera rounds out the set of Vita-enabled tricks, providing a feed that’s visible when you punch your fingers through the level as if you’re seeing right through the handheld. Media Molecule seems to follow the line that traditional play is best served by traditional controls, and that novel approaches are often best enabled by unusual inputs.

All these little features lend the game the same overall air of restless creativity, cheery self-indulgence and generosity that marked out LittleBigPlanet, but it’s also happy to integrate tried-and-tested ideas. Yet another mini-level features an accordion that can suck and blow air (visualised with a multicoloured cloud of confetti) in a manner that recalls Half-Life 2’s Gravity Gun, operating objects such as propellers that turn platforms around, and dispatching enemies by drawing them in and shooting them away, or firing balls.

Aside from some rough edges in our exclusive early demo code, such as the lead character’s habit of catching slightly on bits of environment and an occasionally wayward camera, Tearaway is looking like it’s on course to be as polished and essential to Vita as LBP was to PS3. The next question is whether the rest of the game can sustain the level of invention and sense of wonder that’s evident in the segments we’ve played. If it can, we could have a modern classic on our hands.