In any theatre-going experience there’s an electric moment: those minutes just before the curtain goes up. A violin warms up in the orchestra pit, the notes tentatively assembling into a chord. You can sense that something special is about to happen. Puppeteer’s menu screen recreates this pre-show ritual with such sensory fidelity that you are awash with good vibes before you press a single button. And you’re right to feel expectant: Puppeteer can’t wait to dazzle and delight you, and there’s a children’s bedtime story for the ages waiting behind that virtual wall of red fabric.
Puppeteer follows the exploits of a boy hero named Kutaro whose puppet head has been chomped off by the evil Moon Bear King. This grisly grizzly has been stealing the souls of sleeping children and storing them inside puppets so that they can toil away in his moon castle. A mysterious witch with equally mysterious motives gives Kutaro a pair of magic scissors called Calibrus, and explains that he must collect a number of Moonstone shards by defeating the Moon Bear King’s generals.
Games in recent years have been deftly mixing the traditional side-scrolling 2D perspective with fully 3D environments, and Puppeteer is the new high-water mark of such experiments. With scenes turning over every few minutes – the scenery plunges into the floor with a rambunctious, creaky clatter, allowing the replacement set to drop into place for the next area – there’s a beguiling sense of depth and tactility to all the elements tumbling about onscreen.
From a visual design standpoint, Puppeteer’s lighting is a high point, at times astonishingly so. SCE Japan Studio has made a virtual theatrical lighting rig, 140 distinct lights with realtime volumetric lights and shadows. The dance of light and shadow makes the onstage action feel infinitely more dynamic and emotionally potent than the uniformly bright, candy-coated colour palette of your traditional Nintendo platformer. Every piece of the game has the handcrafted aesthetic popularised by LittleBigPlanet – wood, fabric, paper – which means that the light always has compelling surface textures to bounce off. One of the game’s acts features a Halloween-themed world, and the sumptuous texture of its backlit pumpkin-shaped paper lanterns is a particular highlight.
Puppeteer’s aspiration is to make every Japanese game industry doomsayer look like a buffoon. The depth of imagination evident in the game’s character design reminds you that its native industry has cranked out thousands of monster designs for RPGs over the years, and the vast majority of them are still solid gold. Puppeteer carries on this tradition of quirky creatures, but imagines how they might look if you were carving them out of wood, gluing on additional pieces and binding them together with twine. Behold the Lewis Carroll homage of Puppeteer giving us a jackrabbit perched atop a unicycle whose wheel is – you guessed it – a clock.
OK, so it’s gorgeous to look and bewitching in its storytelling and voice acting, but is it fun to play? Occasionally, but there is a glaring missed opportunity throbbing at the centre of the game. When you realise that the Moon Bear King’s decapitation of Kutaro means your puppet hero can collect myriad replacement heads, that suggests a host of potential plot routes, maybe even a sprinkling of adventure-game puzzles to break up the platforming.
No such luck. The heads in Puppeteer are charming but largely cosmetic. Every so often you’ll see a shimmery reflection of a given head against a surface, which means you can unlock a bonus level or item drop if you press down on the D-pad while sporting the corresponding head. Most of the time you won’t have the correct head; you’ll just sigh and move along.
Heads also function as health points. You can have a total of three in your inventory at any given time. If you take damage, the head will pop off and bounce around the level. If you can retrieve it within three seconds, the headless Kutaro will stick it back on. When you’re chasing your head, there’s a delightful animation of him stooping over and reaching out his hands like a short-sighted old man frantically scouring the living room floor to retrieve his dropped spectacles.
The platforming challenges, however, lean towards the mundane. You’ll smile at how Japan Studio reimagines the typical platforming trampoline – springy bonsai trees in a Chinese-themed stage, bellies of snoozing, reclining yetis in the obligatory snow level – but these flourishes never fully stop the bombing, hookshotting and pit-leaping from feeling overfamiliar and underinspired. The most original navigational idea the game gives you is the ability to fly with your magic scissors by snipping trails of paper vines, clouds or stars. Killing a boss by snipping your way through his fabric cape of a torso feels far more satisfying than shooting a glowing orange spot, but 20 minutes later you’re in an auto-runner where you’re only responsible for pressing X to jump over obstacles and pressing down on the left analogue stick to duck under spikes. When developers crib iOS gaming’s most tired ideas, we have every right to accuse them of phoning it in.
Puppeteer’s gameplay isn’t really bad, just a bit limp, and happily not enough so to undermine all the other reasons to enthusiastically recommend it. When the offscreen narrator, voiced with arch-Britishness by Stephen Greif, welcomes you to “the magical theatre of the strange and fantastic”, his adjectives are right on all three counts. And you rarely get magic that feels quite this immaculately handcrafted.