In Puppeteer, the young boy Kutaro has been kidnapped by the evil Moon Bear King and transformed into a puppet. Alas for Kutaro things get much worse, for he soon displeases the king, who promptly eats Kutaro’s head and throws his body away. Luckily for Kutaro, losing your head as a puppet is slightly less fatal than it would be to a human, and thanks to the magical cat Ying Yang, a replacement head is found. With his new head firmly affixed Kutaro sets off on a mission to bring down the tyrannical Moon Bear King.
Taking down the maniacal monarch is a task Kutaro can’t achieve alone, so it’s good to know he always has a friend with him. Throughout the first Act – there are seven Acts with three ‘Curtains’ (or chapters) each in the game – Kutaro is accompanied by Ying Yang, though he’s soon replaced by the flying pixie Pikarina. Ying Yang and Pikarina can fly all over the screen with either the right-analog stick if you’re playing solo, or by a co-op partner.
Heads act as lives in Puppeteer - if you take any damage Kutaro’s head will fly off, though you have a few seconds to recover it. Kutaro can hold three heads at any one time, switching between them with the press of a button. Each head has its own unique action, but these actions can only be performed at very specific locations. You’ll know you’ve found such a spot when you see a floating translucent image of the relevant head somewhere onscreen.
Head actions have various effects – some transport you to a bonus level where you collect all the moonsparkles you can in a limited time, others open up faster, better pathways through sections of a level, while others start a ‘Wheel of Fortune’ style mini-game with heads, moonsparkles or death as your reward.
There are four special heads in the game that gift Kutaro special abilities such as being able to reflect incoming attacks, throw bombs or perform body slams, but it would have been great if the other one-hundred or so heads had more effect on the gameplay too.
Some of the objects you can cut through with Calibrus are both imaginative and cool. For example, standing in the barrel of a massive cannon, avoiding the fired cannon balls, and waiting for the right moment to use Calibrus on the smoke trail those cannon balls left behind both looks and feels epic.
Puppeteer leaks charm out of every pore but it does have some flaws. Using Calibrus is fun, especially at first, but there needed to be either more new abilities to unlock for it, or more variety in level design. There are a few side-scrolling racing sections, but that alone isn’t enough to give the game variety. All too often you’re reduced to battering the square button (to use Calibrus), rather than doing something new or exciting.
Another issue is that while boss fights look spectacular (more on that in a moment) they’re also dull for the most part, requiring you to repeat the same action three times to bring them down, before finishing them off with a QTE. Very few games find a way to make boss fights exciting, and you can add Puppeteer to that list unfortunately. And finally, the game was crying out for more heads that affect the gameplay in meaningful ways. There are one-hundred heads in the game, but only four provide meaningful benefit to Kutaro. That’s simply not enough.
The entire backdrop often changes as you move from one screen to another, sometimes it will drop away, and at other times it will fly upwards off the screen. In one section you’re running up a circular castle and the backdrop rotates with you as you go. The amount of change in your environment simply has to be seen to be appreciated.
Bosses may be tedious to fight, but they look fantastic, almost without exception. For me the wise-cracking sushi-serving octopus who gets a taste of his own medicine is a highlight in the first half of the game. Bosses are so large and impressive that I was reminded of those from God of War III. Nothing here is quite as impressive as that, but that they even get close is impressive enough. A lot of objects move from the background to the foreground and vice-versa, which looks fantastic in 3D. I don’t use the 3D features of my TV much, but Puppeteer and 3D are a great pair (at least in short bursts, which is all my eyes can handle).
There are plenty of bad puns – Ying Yang uses words like ‘meowgic’ and Pikarina says things like ‘you might be swimming with the fishes’ in an underwater level – but there is some funny stuff in there too. The team has worked in plenty of references; Mortal Kombat, Star Wars (‘may the forceps be with you’), Ghostbusters and even tweeting get a mention.
The game plays out as if it is in front of a live audience and they respond to your on-screen actions with gasps, laughs and the odd groan. If you stand still for a while they’ll even murmur their discontent and start shuffling about in their seats. It’s good stuff and adds to the atmosphere. The music is played by an orchestra and is deliberately over the top, which fits the mood the game is looking for.
It’s great to see the platform game back in vogue, and Puppeteer is a fun game that just needed more variety to make it a classic. If you’re a younger gamer (or just young at heart) you could do a lot worse than check out Japan Studios’ latest, which oozes charm from every pore and packs a powerful technical punch. There are a few gameplay shortcomings, but if you can get past that Puppeteer has a lot to offer.
Review By: Mike Allison