When it comes to big games, the market likes to play it safe. Shooters and brand name franchises endure, with few publishers and developers willing to donate some big bucks to kick-starting something different and out of the box.
Puppeteer though, is one such game which isn’t only a departure from the usual line-up of games on offer right now, but a title with plenty of charm and style. Albeit an innovative title that comes with a few strings attached.
The basic premise for Puppeteer is like something out of a dark fairy tale. There’s a new king in charge of the moon (MOOOOOOOOON KING!), a bear with astonishing anger management issues and a physical size to match his ego. The old queen is gone, the Moon Bear King is in charge and he’s got a magical pair of scissors that are known as Calibrus which will help keep him in power.
Enter Kutaro, one of many children who happen to be kidnapped each night and find themselves transformed into puppets who are either quickly decapitated or served an even worse fate working for the wretchedly charming Ezma Potts in the castle kitchen. Able to collect new heads, and charged with a quest to dispose of the Moon Bear King, Kutaro starts a journey to reclaim his soul and return the moon to its rightful ruler.
And that’s where the strength of Puppeteer shines forth. It’s a game that prides itself on telling a story, one that is firmly committed to its puppet roots. Levels unfold in various acts, a narrator provides constant updates and the visuals are drenched in that old-school aesthetic that helps it feel like an actual puppet show that you’re not only watching, but engaging in.
Kutaro himself picks up several abilities as the game rolls on. Able to wield Calibrus once he acquires it later in the game, Kutaro can also use the standard 2D platforming tricks such as ducking, jumping and rolling. Take a hit though, and Kutaro will lose his head which needs to be recovered as quickly as possible.
On the plus side though, Puppeteer is crawling with replacement noggins for Kutaro, extra heads which unlock cosmetic and hidden extras in the game. Kutaro can have three heads at any time equipped, and activating the abilities of a head in the right location, can open up some scenery that will yield shards to Kutaro, the currency and life blood of Puppeteer.
These heads can be a challenge to find however, and finding the right head to unlock some bonus stages or to take a spin on a roulette wheel which could yield further rewards, will require several playthroughs. Kutaro also picks up several other abilities as the game winds on. Ninja bombs, a shield to deflect attacks and power attacks are some of the skills that go hand in hand with wielding the mighty Calibrus.
Calibrus itself will be your main weapon, as the enchanted scissors can snip their way through several enemies, obstacles and reality itself when the moment presents itself. Hitting the square button will also allow Kutaro to get past the pesky laws of gravity, as he snips his way through obstructions and the deadly mini-bosses known as Weavers, creatures which have a cloth body that needs a trim.
In addition to all that, Kutaro is joined by a guide during stages. Starting off with Yin Yang, a floating cat with a habit of making as many feline-based puns as possible, Kutaro will also join forces with the Sun Princess as the acts unfold.
Controlled with the right analogue stick, these characters can help Kutaro uncover secrets in the scenery, such as life-giving moon shards and extra heads. Sounds perfect so far, right? Well not quite.
For starters, one aspect of the game that falls a bit flat on its wooden face is the pacing of it all. The flow of combat and storytelling never gels together perfectly, and it all feels rather slow for a game of this specific genre. The energy that is built up during more frantic missions quickly dissipates when the story starts to drag on, and Kutaro can be a slow and awkward character to use in the thick of combat.
Controls feel sometimes too lose, and lack that necessary tightness where more precise movements and attacks are needed. However, don’t let that unpolished facet of this title take anything away from the absolutely superb boss fights.
There’s over a dozen big bads waiting to battle you, and Puppeteer has done a marvellous job of adding some puzzles to what could have been a dull and clichéd experience. There’s a secret to defeating each boss, that can only be uncovered with trial and error, but once you have that strategy in place then the game really comes alive.
Sure, it may be the usual gameplay of nailing that one exposed weak spot, but getting to it is half the effort, as well as half the fun when it’s done in a varied and interesting manner. Puppeteer also boasts some fantastic visuals, which showcase the amount of homework done by the developers of this title.
Textures pop, levels are colourful and the animation of all the action unfolding on the screen never skips a beat. The voice-acting is pretty solid as well, but I wish the same could be said for the script. It’s one thing to hear a professional create a believable character, but some of the lines are so damn cheesy that they’re still mooing.
Seriously, by the tenth time I heard Yin Yang make a “Meow-oon” joke, I was ready to throttle it’s remaining lives out of it. And I love cats. So adults might want to prepare themselves before playing this game.
That being said though, Puppeteer is a decent departure from the norm. It may not fire on all cylinders, but it’s the kind of game that the industry needs right now. It’s a game that is proud of its influences, and is more than happy to show them off.
Fully committed to its puppet aesthetic, Puppeteer may not be at the top of any must-play lists right now, but it won’t make you feel any poorer for having given it a bash if you can overlook several flaws.