We liked Puppeteer at E3, in fact, we loved it. We were, it turns out, completely justified. This is a goofy game. It’s a platformer where you’re a child, Kutaro, kidnapped from earth by the Moon Bear King, who puts your soul in a puppet and bites off your head. Then a friendly cat and not-so-friendly witch find you a series of new, replacement heads, you steal the Moon Bear King’s ultra magic scissors, the Calibrus, and set off to recover your original head and escape back to Earth. Also you meet a sun princess, whose dad is literally the sun. And there are pirates. And a Halloween world. And magic tree gods with homely Wisconsin accents. It’s a fantastic journey right out of a studio Ghibli film, with aesthetics to match. While the gameplay isn’t perfect, it’s still great platforming, and the design more than makes up for it.

The first thing you need to know about Puppeteer, before the wacky story or the gameplay or the anything else, is that this game is lovely. It’s pretty, the voice acting is entertainingly good, the characters are fantastically inventive, and animations are either unique or hilarious. You can tell that really wonderfully inspired design went into this thing – it’s aesthetically uniform. When you’re talking about making a game from concept to execution, with a unified vision, this is as good as it gets. The stage design rapidly changes from level to level – and even within levels – with varied and enjoyable music and characters. The story is filled with childish whimsy, so it’s perfect for kids, but that doesn’t detract from how genuinely fun it is to watch the story in motion. There’s no reason that a “childish story” should be less entertaining for an adult, and Puppeteer is an example of how that works. Sometimes, though, it drags out the storytelling too much – like when you get pulled out of platforming and into a 60-90 second cutscene mid-level. Those are the unfortunate parts, but that doesn’t take away from how much there is here to love.

The game starts off as a mediocre, jump from A to B platformer, but quickly takes off. Every few stages, new mechanics are introduced, accompanied by a quick segment to test them and show how they work. Because Kutaro’s head is missing, you get a series of replacement heads throughout the game, which serve as both special powers and your lives. You can carry three heads at once, and if you get hit a head gets knocked off, then you have a limited time to recover it. Certain heads allow you to do context-sensitive actions to get health or unlock secret areas, like a drum head that plays a song for some frogs, who then invite you into their drum-themed minigame bonus stage. You don’t always have the right head for the job, which can be frustrating, but adds to the game’s replayability as you jump from stage to stage trying not to get hit, and therefore preserve the heads you’ve got with you.

The game’s controls of Kutaro are excellent, though. The rattling, not-quite-fast-enough movement is a throwback to older platformers, which required more precision timing than speed. Alternately, there are rapid speed, twitch segments where you cut through strings of airborne leaves or along seams with Calibrus, the giant scissors. They’re really unique, and quite unlike anything else in games right now. Flight by cutting with scissors is a great mechanic, where you can keep going as long as you plan your route and have something to cut. It’s like some hybrid of aerial juggling in a beat-em-up and running in a Sonic the Hedgehog game.

All of that praise aside, the game suffers from imperfect design. Difficulty can vary from level-to-level. For example, sometimes falling into a crack means you can make a recovery by wall jumping just so, but sometimes it’s permadeath. Sometimes a level wants you to move quickly to proceed, or else you miss your chance and die, but sometimes you have to carefully time each jump. Often, a level jumps between fast and slow play. You’ll usually catch the cues to switch between playstyles, though, and it’s not game-ruining – but it can be frustrating when you try a level over several times. The game’s co-op mode definitely suffers, and the second player – who controls your background-searching cat or princess companion – will get bored long before you do.

Puppeteer really only commits one great sin: Quick Time Events. They are present, and they are just as bad as ever. The QTEs are accompanied by their less-sinful-but-still-awful brother, “Mash Button Over and Over” events. Neither are especially egregious examples of the boring blandness that are QTEs, but they’re still bad, boring, trial-and-error gameplay. Plus, they come at the worst time: near the end of otherwise great platformer boss fights. You’ll be in the middle of fighting a giant snake, sailing through the sky by cutting through cloth clouds, and suddenly you’ll get plunged into a rapid QTE. If you fail it? Back to square one.

Bottom Line: Puppeteer is a game that most might overlook, but it’s an inventive, beautiful new world with fantastical ideas.

Recommendation: If you’ve ever liked platformers, whimsy, or inventive visuals, then this is a game for you. Double if you have kids.

[rating=4.5]

Game: Puppeteer
Genre: Platforming
Developer: SCE Japan Studio
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Platform(s): PS3
Available from: Amazon(US), GameStop(US), Amazon(UK), Play.com(UK)

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