QCF: Puppeteer

t’s no secret that indie developers have reclaimed the renaissance of the side-scrolling platformer has been led by the indie development front, and ironically have tooled the remnants of Japanese game design and the charm it instilled from the 90’s into the modern conventions in their present titles.  A certain development team however has blipped on the radar as exception to the trend and has demonstrated the magic that the land of the rising sun is capable of—Japan Studio. With surprising hits like Gravity Rush and Tokyo Jungle under the belt, they’ve proven to be a worthy to the PlayStation brand, and aimed to do it again with their latest release Puppeteer.

While the aim was earnest however, this whimsical run ‘n jump venture could have used some more time behind the current before appearing on stage; Puppeteer is an endearing but ultimately rough act to sit through.

While we’ve rarely see the side-scrolling jump affair dive into the throes of dramatic theater when it comes to narrative and exposition to advance its plot (and succeed at it), Puppeteer plays its presentation close to the chest. Taking place on the metaphysical grand stage, the quote unquote “play” stars the plight of the Moon Kingdom suffering from the tyranny of the Moon Bear King, and how he subjected one particular marionette boy to a decapitating bite into the dungeon chamber below. There’s more to it, and about five six minutes beyond that, you’ll be able to finally get the game going. Again, It’s endearing to portray the finer details and soliloquies of the characters and plot developments when you advance through a game that normally doesn’t focus on such elements to this amount of depth, but there’s a reason for that.

In a game as active as a platformer, it can detract from what little agency you get as a player in a gameplay structure that’s so narrowed—which is why only the most essential details are the ones that need to come into play, a great example of this is Klonoa: Door to Phantomile. Puppeteer delivers humorous plot advancements and character development during the active stages themselves but then goes into overkill with the additional cut scenes that take place between every single stage of the game—the story is great but a lot of the exposition that delivers isn’t interesting or engaging, it’s just superfluous.

As far as aesthetics go though, Japan Studio didn’t pull any of the stops and their efforts have paid off, Puppeteer is unassumingly gorgeous in every pixel it displays on screen. The design within all of the character models and scenery and physical level design take on the nuanced imagery from era of Sicilian puppetry to the effects that range from a travelling donkey cart to a theatric show within the Italian Broadway--the game applies itself to the performance culture while still instilling a lot of creative touches of its own. The soundtrack is one of the biggest highlights it has to offer, the ambient verses from the subtle orchestra work to the bellowing breakdowns upon the battle of a boss, if there’s one anyone will take away from Puppeteer, it’s looming sound of tracks you can’t help but become familiar with.

The nitty grits of the gameplay itself unlike that of the presentation is surprisingly simple; just hop and bop, and bippity-bop to the end of the level then repeat. Near the end of the introductory stages of the game, you’re endowed with the magic scissors of Calibrus that operates more as a means to traverse then a weapon to confront with. Operating under the assumed pre-tense of how anyone would imagine scissors to be used as, the constant button presses that drive Kutaro to cut and cut do almost little to no damage. While you’ll be given more abilities to utilize the further you advance, the scissors become less and less reliable as you advance through the game, which didn’t feel challenging, instead it was punishing. In fact, that’s what it really comes down to, the main issue with Puppeteer to its very core, getting the most out the gameplay results in punishment over challenge.

Through later points within the stages, you’ll be given new permanent abilities that you can use at any point and the act of executing them is sloppy at best. Certain actions dictate the arc of your bomb throw and even though the arcs are supposed to clearly telegraph where they land, the physics don’t often correlate with them. The dynamic force field you’re given doesn’t always auto-target the way it should and when you’re facing multiple foes that demand it’s use, using it can be a bit frustrating to say the least. The grappling hook is a squandered mess of potential, as you it only serves to interact with contextual points within the game to traverse as you remain completely still to use it, nothing else—imagine the hookshot from Legend of Zelda, only one-dimensionally boring. Finally there’s the stomp, while it isn’t quite broken like the other abilities, it’s a pain in the ass to contend with; these features could have given so much to Puppeteer had they been polished but they instead hurt it most of the time.

Another main draw is switching around Kutaro’s noggin around with themed craniums that range anywhere from a Skull to a Hamburger much like Dynamite Headdy, except they do little to anything beyond being the quite literal ornamental headpiece that they are. None of the heads have an ability that you depose with at will per say, but instead act as health points for Kutaro that can be recovered if you’re quick enough to chase after it before it can disappear. The significance of the varied heads lie within every level; there are random points of interest that require a specific head to interact with it that will take the player to a bonus stage or hidden route through the level, the stage’s aesthetics or theme do absolutely nothing to hint or telegraph what head you’ll need.

What’s worse is that most of the points that demand a specific dome to be atop of your shoulders won’t even unlock until much later, then you’re tasked with playing a memory game with both the location of where to get the head, and where it needs to go. It’s a shame, because it’s slim to none that you’ll encounter a head within the same of convenient stage that has it’s contextual interaction, and the payoff beyond being a completionist shows off some of the coolest theatrics that Puppeteer has to offer, but the labor just doesn’t compensate the reward of the endeavor it demanded.

Boss battles definitely play out a lot better than the actual stages do, and position players to make the most of the abilities they earn in the most ingenious ways. Regardless of the uninspired quick-time events associated with them, there was always something interesting tactic that commanded one of Kutaro’s specific skills or a combination of them in order to put the big bad dude away, making these segments standing with themed puppet head held up high as the definitive highlight that Puppeteer has to offer.

Usually, I’ve always commended the work of Japan Studio and applaud everything they’ve released since Ape Escape, but there’s just something lacking with Puppeteer. It’s a shame too because there’s a genuinely honest to goodness charming platformer game in there somewhere, it’s just unfortunately buried under loads and loads of misdirection. 

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