Back in 2013, Sony's Japan Studio released an extremely unique platformer called Puppeteer for the PlayStation 3 console. I knew it looked really interesting, I heard some good things about on gaming sites and podcasts, and I even bought the game digitally. But I didn't play it.
The game didn't get much of an advertising push, it wasn't heavily promoted on the PlayStation Network, and it quickly faded out of the public consciousness—and, apparently, mine as well. For well over a year, it sat in my PS3's games list unplayed and largely forgotten.
This weekend, I realized what a terrible mistake I'd made.
Puppeteer is not just a visually striking game (although, with its marionette show aesthetic, it looks unlike any game I've ever played), it's basically a "greatest hits" mashup of some of the best platformers over the last few decades that blends together in a wildly charming package that is definitely worth experiencing if you still have a PS3 under your TV.
The easiest comparison to make when you first dig into the game is LittleBigPlanet; it's also a PlayStation exclusive, it has a similarly tactile look to it, it has a British narrator, and it's got a slightly floaty jump. However, where most LBP games offer a "just okay" set of pre-built levels and focus on user-generated content for much of their magic, Puppeteer gives you seven "acts" (worlds), each with three "curtains" (levels), all of which are uniquely designed and quite well done. There's no level builder here, but I think that let the game developers focus more time building interesting stages; I'm fine with that tradeoff. And, even though it does have a looser, floatier control feel than any Mario title, it makes up for it with other gameplay elements (more on these later) that render its jump less of a detraction from the experience than in LBP.
Controls aside for a moment, it bears repeating that this game is downright gorgeous. The character models all look as though they've been crafted from various blocks of wood and bits of fabric, and the animations help sell the idea that you're truly watching a puppet show. Oh, and the "stage lights" fully cement the illusion that these are actual puppets. The environments, too, dash in and out of view like scenes being controlled by unseen stage hands; you'll sometimes even spot the shadows of gears, sticks, pulleys, and strings that make parts of the stage move and breathe with life. It's wonderful sight to behold.
The story centers around protagonist Kutaro, a decapitated boy-turned-puppet who must don various heads and wield magical scissors to restore harmony to the moon by reclaiming stolen "moonstone" pieces from the Moon Bear King (and his twelve animal generals, who correspond to the Chinese zodiac) and save the Moon Goddess. It's a little wacky, but the fun visuals pair with some great (if melodramatic) voice acting and narration that help tie the whole thing together. My only complaint is that some of the cutscenes overstay their welcome with lengthy monologues that aren't that well-written.
I mentioned earlier that the game's floaty jump wasn't that big of a deal. You can mainly thank Kutaro's magical pair of scissors, Calibrus, for that.
With a press of the square button, you can cut through lots of different environmental objects, like leaves and tapestries, to give Kutaro vertical mobility. By continuing to cut, you can guide him in all directions, and this adds a significant amount of depth to what would otherwise be a pretty standard platformer. Cutting through falling leaves or swirling clouds as you avoid floating obstacles gives the affair an edge that helps keep things interesting.
In a few areas, I even felt echoes of Donkey Kong Country. Certain fabrics have "seam" lines in them that let you cut more rapidly, sometimes propelling you into the air so you could catch yourself on the next seam. It reminded me of the classic barrel sequences in DKC, but without the "shoot timing" element. Another level lets you ride a rat through a purple river, and it was hard not think of Donkey and Diddy Kong's mine cart adventures. Whether or not these homages were intentional, they offer some subtle nostalgia for older players while introducing great platformer techniques to younger fans.
While jumping and cutting are clearly the core game mechanics, the game starts doling out other abilities, too, including bombs, a shield, a hook, and a destructive helmet. Although the game never lets you backtrack, these add a fun dash of Metroid meets Zelda, as you discover new ways to traverse the environments and must rely on new gear to defeat bosses (like tossing bombs to destroy purple goop on some friendly tree people). By shifting the focus away from simply running and jumping, Puppeteer avoids falling victim to a repetitive rut.
Unfortunately, despite its solid Metacritic score (80), the game only sold about 230,000 units worldwide (maybe slightly higher with digital sales). That means its probably never going to see a sequel, and it's unlikely to get renewed life on the PS4.
That's a real shame because this game deserves to be among the platformer greats.
At $39.99 on the PlayStation Network, I'd probably recommend either waiting for a PSN sale or buying it physically off of Amazon, where it's selling new for about $15.00; but it's absolutely worth your time and a spot in your collection.