Article by contributor Morgan Park.
Puppeteer asks a lot of the player. It asks you to buy into its very unusual art style, engage in its rather unremarkable story, and master its flawed platforming. It’s the definition of a game where “this one part is really cool, but…”. For every cool or interesting or innovative thing it does, there’s an equally damning or disappointing aspect to it waiting around the corner that makes you wonder whether that “cool” thing was worth it at all. But at the end of the day, it is.
Puppeteer follows the journey of Kutaro, a child who’s soul is stolen by the Moon Bear King in the dead of night. With the help of Calibrus, an uber-powerful pair of scissors, and his pixie companion Pikarina, Kutaro sets out to collect all nine Moonstone shards and liberate the moon from the paws of the tyrant king to restore the Moon Goddess to power.
A very distinct art style is very quickly established in Puppeteer, one that it sticks to ever-so faithfully. The entirety of the experience is presented as a puppet show–the stage and spotlight always in view. As one could imagine in a puppet show, everyone and everything is made of wood. I was consistently impressed and immersed by how dedicated the game was to maintaining its stage show illusion, both for the fictional crowd and the player. Everything moves as one would expect wood to move–the same could be said for the sound design. Cloth and paper reacts to Kutaro’s precise cutting in such a believable and satisfying manner. An enjoyably jubilant and omniscient narrator accompanies the journey. This narrator does a good job of breaking up gameplay with enjoyable dialogue, especially through the sluggish early game.
Much of Puppeteer’s moment-to-moment gameplay revolves around hopping and cutting. Kutaro’s primary tool, a pair of scissors called Calibrus, allow him to literally cut and bend the world to his bidding. This is Puppeteer’s most satisfying mechanic. Achieving extended air time by slicing through paper objects in the foreground never quite got old, especially about half way through the game, when an upgrade to Calibrus allows for more freedom in regards to transportation. Each new world grants Kutaro access to a new power, ranging from throwable bombs, grappling hooks, and body slams. Each new mechanic adds welcome depth, especially in later stages where the player must use every tool in their belt. But one area where Puppeteer fumbles is in its empty combat portions. Cutting up the same two or three grunt enemies dispersed throughout each stage is tedious, boring, and mind-meltingly repetitive. This might not be such a damnable offense, if the player was not constantly encountering these combatants, and asked to defeat all them before moving on.
Though it’s not just the combat that highlights Puppeteer‘s pacing issues. Every stage is introduced through an often lengthy dialogue by the narrator. And while these intros do indeed set the stage for what’s ahead, they take very long to say very little and often amount to nothing more than filler and bad puns. Even worse is encountering these same interruptions in the middle of stages. Completing an engaging platforming section just to have control taken from my hands left me with more frustration than interest in what’s going on. It all feels so shamelessly unnecessary.
From a very basic control standpoint, Puppeteer is not a great platformer. The game’s puppet show motif doesn’t do the player any favors with regards to discerning what can and can’t be jumped on, and what is and isn’t in the foreground. But apart from this, jumping and scaling ledges feels less than natural. It feels as if each jump is really just flicking Kutaro through the air at an inconsistent height and distance each time. Often I would have to fight with the awkward air control to get Kutaro to land where I desired, and even more often would fall to my death after a failed attempt to grasp a ledge. A certain amount of this mechanical fault could be overlooked, except that the later worlds of Puppeteer ask for much tighter timing and precise jumping from the player. Earlier worlds exhibit a much more casual approach, where the platforming is practically a non-issue.
But if there is one rather major card in Puppeteer‘s hand that makes all of its mechanical woes worth the trudge–it’s the boss fights. This is where the advantages of Puppeteer‘s odd art style shine the brightest. The sheer amount of design that has gone into crafting these beasts for the player’s pummeling becomes apparent from the very start. And while the action of defeating these bosses are always relatively simple–”dodge this attack a couple of times and wait for an obvious opening”–they were always fun. The boss fights aren’t plagued with the same monotony as the grunt combat, and make for great cinematic set pieces.
By the time I closed the book on Puppeteer–after the myriad of mixed emotions brought about by its flat combat, fantastic style, lackluster platforming, and breathtaking boss fights–it’s safe to say that it’s a game with very high highs, and very low lows. But overall, it was an experience worth having. There is a whole lot of love stuffed between every seam of Puppeteer’s oddly wonderful presentation, but a disappointing lack of attention dedicated to making a mechanically consistent game. But if you can find a way to cut around all the rough edges, you can find something very special waiting to be experienced.