The Puppeteer is SCE Japan’s newest in-house release, a title reminiscent of Media Molecule’s Little Big Planet and modish platformers featuring paper-styled cutout aesthetics. Given its relatively low presence on the industry’s radar, The Puppeteer sort of exudes that “hidden gem” feeling right off the bat. Cleverly, your platforming antics take place in the low light of the theatre, where the antsy crowd will gasp and guffaw at your every move. All the world’s a stage, but unfortunately, this one’s not worth buying tickets to.
The Puppeteer puts you in the shoes of Kutaro, a puppet boy from Earth whose soul has been taken by the evil Moon Bear King. Kutaro’s quest begins in the dungeons of the Moon Bear King’s castle, after the aforementioned bear gobbles Kutaro’s noggin whole. After fitting himself with a substitute head, Kutaro takes to the top of the Moon Bear King’s castle. In the Moon Bear King’s chambers, Kutaro steals Calibrus, a magic pair of scissors tangentially on par with Excalibur fame. Wielding the scissors, Kutaro must slice and dice his way across the moonscape, collecting heads and Moon Stones in order to recover his real head, regain his soul, and return home.
The game’s levels are designed around Calibrus’s ability to snip at environments, allowing Kutaro to suspend himself for a short time or travel across gaps and dangerous spaces. The giant pair of scissors also serves to pinch enemies, whose souls can then be liberated and returned to Earth with one final snip. While Calibrus remains Kutaro’s main tool throughout, there are several power-ups and unique abilities you will use over the course of the game’s seven acts. The Moon Bear King has several titan-like bosses in each of the game’s areas, those of which are harboring unlockables like bomb-chucking, super slamming, and a fiery double-cut feature (not unlike a double jump).
But Kutaro’s unlockables are much too little, way too late. Without Calibrus’s fiery secondary snip, the unwieldly pair of scissors is an awkward way to bridge gaps and is slow to cut down and destroy enemies. The game’s power-ups and new abilities are handy when they get there, but they simply take too long to arrive. It isn’t until Act III or IV that you really feel like you have a legitimate palette to work with, one that still isn’t super satisfying when it’s within reach. And when Kutaro’s new powers are finally realized, more often than not, it’s during a boss battle — at which point Kutaro will win, and ditch that particular power in lieu of the next act’s offerings.
And while you yourself may be second-guessing just how long it takes to warm up to Acts III and IV, I’m here to tell you that this is where The Puppeteer really works against itself. Admittedly, I probably would not have had such a hard time with the more paced acquisition of Kutaro’s new stuff, were it not for the painful cutscenes and drawn-out narration sequences. Not only is each Act bridged by these terrible, forcibly long theatrics, but each scene is as well. There’s even one particularly awful musical sequence featuring mermaids and mermans, where I questioned the legitimacy of my 21-year-old manhood.
Before I dip back out of the bad, I will also mention that quicktime is the most distracting and garbage feature in recent game design. Boss battles in The Puppeteer are actually a fun ride, but take a turn for the absolute worst when Kutaro is made to finish off rampant bulls or giant serpents in the worst way imaginable: quicktime button taps. From an amateur games journalist — lest we even consider my absence of any game design skill — this may come as biting or naïvely bitter, but I hold the firm belief that quicktime screams laziness. For The Puppeteer, a title which joins the ranks of games carefully crafted to make the characters’ movements a core value to the gameplay itself (e.g. platforming at large), quicktime works contra to any notions of “fun.”
Well, it looks good.
But the game looks good! I will say that. Presenting the game as this sort of meta, theatrical experience is a clever and fun idea, but it never extends beyond that. When the curtains open, the whole stage sort of racks up in front of you, tier by tier, and it’s neat to see the different cutouts and structures you’ll be traversing. There’s also several fourth wall moments where characters fly out toward the screen — almost like you yourself are part of the interactive audience. The sound effects, too, are really crafty and childlike — which is in no way a bad thing, especially given the game’s genre. When Kutaro rolls, you can hear his virtually wooden body collapsing and reconstructing itself, similar to many other features and assets that are featured in the game.
And for that, you have to applaud The Puppeteer’s ambition. What the design team has created is very entertaining, but for that, lacks involvement. There’s so much saying, and not enough doing. “Show, don’t tell,” has never resonated so clearly as it does within the halls of The Puppeteer’s worst moments. There seem to be so many missed opportunities, and without generalizing, the game just could have been so much better with more pace. The game’s cutscenes add so much extra fat — so much — that just needs trimming.
The Puppeteer’s originality suffers at the hand of a rude narrator, busy dialogue, and an inability to pick up from the get-go. I’m no stranger to theatre, but suggest you not cut this game a break, because you’ll likely never come back from intermission.