Stuffed to the seams with colour, texture, lore and laugher, the only thing richer than Puppeteer’s storytelling is the game’s bright, beguiling palette.
An opulent and eccentric scrapbook world brimming with larger-than-life characters and a dark, Dahl-esque fairytale, Puppeteer is a brave but beautiful experiment in how wonderfully immersive a simple premise can be.
As the name might suggest, Puppeteer is presented wholly through the lens of a puppet show, complete with curtain, props, spotlights and, occasionally, over-the-top dramatics. Limited to the perspective of the crowd you’ll experience the story just as they do, often joining your fellow spectators as they gasp, ooh and aah with each twist of the fantastical story.
You play as unfortunate child Kutaro who – after inadvertently rubbing the Moon Bear King up the wrong way – ends up on the moon, his soul imprisoned in a wooden puppet’s body. And just to rub salt into the wound, the impulsive King decides to bite off his head, too.
Your task – accompanied by the Moon Witch and floating companions Ying-Yang and the oh-so-irritating Pikarina – is to fight your way back to the King, taking out his motley (and memorable) generals along the way.
The backdrops are as varied as they are lush, and it’s this – Japan Studios’ aching attention to detail and their unabashed embracement of colour, texture and sound as you trek through a dizzying array of environments – that will inevitably draw you deeper into Kutaro’s world.
But a headless puppet isn’t going to get far, is he? It’s handy that the world is littered with an assortment of discarded items that our lad can pop onto his shoulders as makeshift skulls.
Almost anything seems to double up as a spare bonce – blossoms, spiders, guillotines, burgers, frogs, padlocks – but while the look of them may vary their use really doesn’t, which makes it all a bit pointless.
The one exception is when donning a certain head in a certain area enables Kutaro to access hidden areas and bonus stages … but even those feel a little unnecessary sometimes.
Other than that, the trio of heads chiefly enable Kurato to withstand damage.
Get whacked and your head will tumble, but even then it can be reclaimed if you’re quick enough to grab it before it dissipates.
Lose all three, however, and you’ll be forced to restart the level, though – given the difficulty – this shouldn’t happen often, particularly as extra lives can be generated by collecting shards of moonsparkles.
New heads are easy to miss, though, and limited to just three at any one time, Kurato will have to learn quickly which heads are required in each secret area.
It’s also irritatingly easy to have Pikarina or Ying-Yang release a head you already own, which rather uselessly doubles (or even trebles) the availability of your already pointless head.
But it’s not just spare heads that Kurato has up his wooden sleeve. As you progress, the Moon Witch will help you unlock a series of special abilities and skills. Shield, bombs, grappling hook, magical scissors called Calibrus: all enable our hero to navigate quickly around the scenes, ensuring that the gameplay remains fresh and, for the most part, fun, too.
It’s the addition of the magical Calibrus that sets Puppeteer apart from its platformer siblings.
Obvious use for combat aside, the scissors can be utilised for a wealth of other tricks, enabling Kutaro to cut, chop and crop his way around environments, evading enemies, climbing obstacles or getting around in style by traversing flags, feathers, leaves, and bubbles, to name but a few.
The comparisons with Little Big Planet are as plentiful as they are obvious, but where LBP strikes the perfect balance between aesthetics and gameplay, Puppeteer, sadly, just falls short of the mark.
Whereas, on the whole, the game’s difficulty is pitched perfectly for gamers big and small, sometimes simple physics let it down, morphing unassuming jumps into nail-shredding feats of frustration.
The long and plentiful cut-scenes fall on just the wrong side of succinct, but as you’re never sure if or when Kurato will pop up with a delightful QTE or two, it’s probably best not to drift off to make a cuppa, either. Level design is at best intuitive, but at worst repetitive, and it’s difficult not to feel disengaged when you’re climbing a tattered flag for the umpteenth time.
And there’s our silent hero himself, of course.
Given the boundless personality crammed into each and every other character Puppeteer parades before you, it’s a pity the character you personally champion is so… dull.
Unfortunately, on some occasions, Puppeteers brilliant backdrops work against the mechanics. There’s often so much going on you lose sight of Kutaro, particularly if you’re hurtling through the painted skies frantically trying to stab the scenery and stay afloat.
Having to control Pikarina separately, too, can be problematic, particularly when you’re using the left stick to move Kurato, the right to control Pikarina, the screen is crammed of enemies and you’re simply trying keep a cool head.
Or any head at all, really.
Version Tested: PS3