Growing up in the computer age I don’t actually think I’ve ever seen a puppet show. And at first it does seem like a little bit of a strange concept for a video game to limit itself to such a potentially restrictive medium. But if you look at it the other way, imagine what you could do with a puppet show if you where limited only by creativity. OK my puppet show would still stink because I have about as much artistic talent as a shoe but the good folks at SCE’s Japan Studio don’t suffer from the same problem.
It’s very difficult not to get drawn into Puppeteer. Right from the moment you start it up it’s just so delightfully innocent and charming. Every aspect of the game treats you as the audience to the most elaborate puppet show ever. The pause menu will bring up the curtains for an intermission and after a time the narrator will politely usher the audience to their seats claiming he’s not sure how long the break will be. When selecting a new mission there is a nice voiceover that flows seamlessly into the introductory cutscene.
On your journey you are in control of a mute puppet named Kutaro and initially a magical flying cat who is soon replaced by a sprite who happens to be the daughter of the Sun. Kutaro is your main avatar and will be controlled by the left analogue stick and the face buttons, platforming his way through the game’s environments. The secondary character will always be on screen and is controlled using the right thumbstick, or by a second player if you wish. Your secondary character is used only to inspect various elements of the environment and hunt out secrets and collectables.
But, because Kutaro is mute it’s often the case that your faithful companion will be in charge of plot progression and communicating with the various friends and foes you will encounter as you progress. It does at times seam a little superfluous to have a mute protagonist only to accompany him with an ancillary character that carries out the necessary interactions but given Puppeteer’s presentation it makes perfect sense.
There really aren’t any ancillary characters in Puppeteer. Each contributes in their own way and providing you immerse yourself into the game and accept your role as the audience enjoying the show it all makes sense. Little touches like the audience laughing at a comical fight or sharply inhaling in shock when Kotaru performs a particularly perilous feat help drag you into Puppeteer’s world. It’s completely ironic that Puppeteer intentionally makes you feel like an audience and somehow immerses rather than disconnects you.
Environment and character designs are wonderfully in-depth. Different ‘stages’ will fly of screen and new ones will slam into position with various elements wobbling and reacting to the impact. Then, once the cutscenes and narrations are over, Puppeteer becomes a platformer. It’s a case of solving simple puzzles with the various items you acquire on your journey; jumping and running to avoid the usual deadly obstacles. The most important of which is undoubtedly a pair of highly sought after magical scissors named Calibrus. Calibrus can be used to cut through various on screen elements and allow Kutaro to defy gravity (provided there’s something to cut), alter the environment or take on giant bosses.
Often the gameplay is simple but remains largely satisfying. Plot progression never lets up and even as you play there is almost always some narration to accompany you. The focus is certainly on enjoying the story even during gameplay and as such the platforming sections are quite simple. At times though they can be unnecessarily specific and can see you failing because of the slightest miscalculation. It doesn’t happen very often but it can become frustrating repeating a small section repeatedly.
Another key gameplay feature is Kotaru’s lack of a head, which he loses at the start. Throughout your journey you will pick up different replacement heads such as bananas, bats and caterpillars. At any time Kutaro can have 3 heads and if you get hit you get a limited time to run around and plop it back on your neck. If you don’t you lose that head and if you lose all 3 you lose a life. Apart from forming a health system each head has a unique ability that can unlock certain secret areas in a level.
The problem is that apart from experience it’s impossible to know which head is needed at which point until you get there and as such it is very easy to swap the wrong head at the wrong time. Time and time again I picked up a new head in replacement for one I already had (I already had 3) only to find I needed the one I swapped. Admittedly it doesn’t hinder the game progression in any way and really just functions as a collectable/secret to find but it can be irritating to miss out through no fault of your own. It seems like a big feature of the game but really just provides something for the completionists. Still it’s amusing to see what heads you can find so you have banana boy running around in a cutscene talking to a witch on a flying fork. Yes it can get a little strange at times.
There are plenty of extras to find and there is certainly enough to hold attention after completion of the game but Puppeteer’s strong points definitely lie in it’s ability to tell a story. The platforming is nothing without Puppeteer’s narrative so even despite the collectables Puppeteer’s initial playthrough will likely be its strongest.
From subtle audience reactions to the spotlight that follows Kutaro on stage and the constant relentless energy Puppeteer’s presentation is stunning. Unique story telling methods make sure Puppeteer stands out from the crowd. It’s impossible not to enjoy playing Puppeteer but it’s equally as entertaining to watch. I can genuinely see a scene with a family gathering around, passing the pad between one another, captivated by the gorgeous puppet show unfolding before them. It’s completely twee but somehow it works.
Sadly gamers looking for a complex and challenging platformer will probably be disappointed by Puppeteer but if you can just let yourself enjoy the journey it’s difficult to see how anyone wouldn’t thoroughly enjoy Puppeteer.