Review

Puppeteer

Strung Up

Puppeteer is brimming with great ideas buried beneath a mountain of noise.

By Anthony John Agnello • September 17, 2013

John Zorn doesn’t have any furniture. The experimental composer has been living in the same New York apartment for nearly 40 of the 60 years he’s been alive, but the dude doesn’t even have a dresser. He just keeps his clothes in a cardboard box. This minimalist spin on Feng Shui has just one purpose: to maximize clarity. “My home is a device,” Zorn says, “A device for enabling creativity. A device for cutting out the chaos outside that people think is reality.” If I had my druthers, I would send Sony Japan Studio’s Puppeteer back to its creators with John Zorn in tow as a consultant. Somewhere inside Puppeteer is a brilliant video game as unpredictable and invigorating as Zorn’s own tunes. But chaos buries that game under a neon blitz of superfluous noise.

Even Puppeteer’s story is all over the place, although it’s built on a fairly straightforward storybook premise. The moon has been taken over by the despotic Moon Bear King, whose nigh-unstoppable powers come from a giant crystal and a magic pair of scissors. The king uses those powers to kidnap and enslave the souls of children, who he turns into puppets. You control Kutaro, a puppet who so irritated the megalomaniacal ursine that the king ripped off his head and threw him in the trash. With the help of an amoral witch, a creepy flying cat, and a deposed princess, Kutaro steals the king’s magic scissors and sets out to gather up pieces of the crystal and strike down the bear jerk for good.

Puppeteer

That sounds like the foundation for a pleasant fairy tale. The hero is struck down and has to persevere while meeting colorful friends along the way. If only it were that simple. Yet Puppeteer jerks about in every direction, never settling on a tone or coherent style. The layers of dissonance between the story and the player keep anything from sinking in.

The top presentational layer would be enough to make this game appealing. Every stage and every character looks like woodcut, segmented marionettes. Clouds are held aloft on sticks. Sturdy threads hold a mammoth desert snake together. That’s all fine, even if the stage pieces and characters fling into view so abruptly that it’s sometimes hard to tell what’s happening.

But then Puppeteer throws on another layer of artifice, pretending that the puppet show is happening on an actual stage before an audience, with a narrator ceaselessly jabbering away. And on top of that, the game doesn’t even settle on a single theme within each act. One stage is a pirate-ship battle, and the next is an underwater sushi-themed musical, with new characters introduced each time. Puppeteer isn’t charmingly eccentric, it’s just loud, bludgeoning you with voices and images. At one point, when I just wanted to start actually doing something, a pirate captain, the princess companion, the narrator, and the audience were all talking at the same time.

Puppeteer

Sometimes, though, when the game manages to shut up and let you play, the many strings pulling it apart manage to sometimes work in concert. For all its storytelling cacophony, Puppeteer’s action is mostly clear-headed. Kutaro runs from left to right, jumping over obstacles like rancid forest puddles and sparking machinery on his way to a boss. That’s classic stuff, but with some marvelous twists like Kutaro’s scissors. The scissors are a weapon, but their primary use is transportation. The stages are filled with cloth: The tree leaves are made of cloth, for instance, and so is the cannon smoke. In order to get up to higher areas, Kutaro snips into the cloth to climb in any direction. Puppeteer’s stages focus on fighting less often than they have you figuring out how to fill the air with cloth to move around. The feel of slicing your way around is unique and deliciously tactile.

Less successful, though, are Kutaro’s interchangeable heads. There are scores of heads you can find to replace the one the king ripped off, and they’re all cute. Using your princess companion to search stages, you can find all manner of substitute domes, from a giant piece of sushi to an acoustic guitar. When you get hurt, the head pops off, so you have to keep a store of three to stay alive. The problem is that the screen is so busy, it’s all too easy to not even realize you’ve lost your head. Plus, the downside of having a wide variety of heads is that I almost never had the one I wanted. Each one has a little head-specific jig, so when a particular head appears in the background, you dance to trigger a bonus stage or to get some help with a boss. A frog head used while fighting a giant kappa will lure out little frogs to act as a platform for you, but only if you have the frog head on hand. It’s clear the game is built to encourage revisiting stages when you have the appropriate gear, but seeing as a single stage can take a half hour or more to finish, the prospect of going back in isn’t very appealing.

Puppeteer

That’s the game’s problem in a nutshell: excess. Puppeteer feels like nothing else when you play, but it stops you from playing with endless dialogues and jerky scene transitions. The game is a marvel to look at, but it never stops moving long enough for you to actually take in the detail. The sound effects and orchestral score are aural treats drowning behind characters that never stop chattering. Variety and creativity abound in Puppeteer, but coherence is in short supply.

Puppeteer
Developer: Sony Japan Studio
Publisher: Sony
Platforms: PlayStation 3
Price: $40
Rating: E10+

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13 Responses to “Strung Up”

  1. Carlton_Hungus says:

    Hmm, looks suspiciously like a Little Big Planet clone with the scissors mechanic thrown in on the side.

    • rvb1023 says:

       As much as I love LittleBigPlanet, these games have nothing in common outside of a vague puppet aesthetic and being 2D platformers.

      LBP’s main draw is the level creation and multiplayer. Puppeteer feels like a single player experience (I think there is a 2 player option but the other person plays as the fairy you can control normally) with a far greater focus on tighter platforming and visually engaging set pieces.

    • Nabokov_Cocktail says:

      Scissoring is the worst.  I mean… why even bother?  Am I right??!?

  2. SamPlays says:

    Timely Zorn reference. Dude turned 60 recently. Also, he would make for a terrible game consultant.

    “I propose that we develop a dynamic gaming experience where programmers create the game on-the-fly. It will be housed in a portable studio that travels to rural outposts where gamers must discern between constantly changing game mechanics, environments and narrative while surrounded by several dozen experimental guitarists and oboists.”

    • dreadguacamole says:

       Are you saying he’d basically turn into Peter Molyneux?

       Also – I like some of Zorn’s stuff, but calling any of his… compositions “tunes” is stretching it a little. At least going by the stuff of his I’ve listened to.

    • That is… totally accurate. 

      I was actually listening to an interview with Zorn, as well as his new album, while playing through Puppeteer for review. The guy’s philosophy on creative work kind of crystalized why Puppeteer was bugging me so much. There’s so much in it that’s great but my god is it hard to get to. At one point while I was playing, my wife screamed at the TV, “OH JUST SHUT UP ALREADY!”

      That sums it up pretty well.

      • Fluka says:

        Unexpected references to and discussions of John Zorn in a game review.  This is why I come to Gameological.  

      • SamPlays says:

        I haven’t listened to anything Zorn in many years but his approach to music has always tickled my intellectual side. As a form of entertainment, his music can be irritating but that’s besides the point (I think). The use of musical frameworks to guide improvisation is an idea full of utilitarian value (David Bowie and Brian Eno have used similar approaches to better aesthetic effect, IMO). Rules and boundaries (like his “game pieces”) offer a different kind of freedom – sometimes when you work in a completely open-ended system, the vast array of possibilities can cripple decision-making. You often see “linearity” used as a critique in the gaming world, as if open-ended sandbox games are the panacea to our gaming woes. But sometimes I enjoy the voluntary simplicity that comes with linear games – it’s less about fulfilling what I WANT to do and more about trying to identify and understand the creative decisions made by those behind the curtain. 

        What’s interesting is that open-world games reflect the growing trend of modern societies having too many choices – this especially applies to North America, the US in particular. People assume that more options is better but there’s loads of research indicating that having more choices often leads to mental distress (even depression). 

        The paradox is that we want more choices but that actually makes us less happy. It might be that we are cognitively overwhelmed when we get caught up with making a choice. It might also be that when we focus on customizing our life (or game) experience it isolates us from others – there’s less and less shared experience because everyone is having their own unique experience. (Slight digression: I find this is the case with TV. I have a regular line-up of shows that I regularly enjoy but I find there are very few other people in my real life who also watch those shows. I’m consuming and enjoying a form of entertainment and I can’t share, discuss and explore that experience with other people who share those interests. This wouldn’t be the case if everyone was limited to 2-3 channels. Cable is ruining our lives!)

    • PaganPoet says:

      Still, better than John Cage as a game consultant, yes?

      “There will be a single dot on screen, and a single tone playing via square wave. The computer assigns a random numeric value to this dot and pitch, which correlates to a time value, anywhere from 1 second to several weeks. After said time value has elapsed, a second dot corresponding to a second pitch appears elsewhere on the screen. The “game” so-to-speak is actually the player’s discomfort at not knowing what is going on.”

  3. rvb1023 says:

    A pretty good review of it, I had mostly the same impression but came away with almost the exact opposite outlook. The only thing that I do find bothersome is never do have the head the game wants me to have in some sick form of replayability. Some of the cutscenes do feel a little long but it’s nothing as egregious as something like Super Paper Mario. The implementation of the scissors is grand and really helps give the game a sense of identity, though.

    I actually like how erratic the game seems to be. I went from a pirate-themed level to a western-themed level to a Halloween-themed level and every time the stage designers looked like they were having a lot of fun. Christ, the beginning of one of the levels is you have turned into a fat man and have to roll yourself thin.

    Yeah, I went with this over GTA5, what of it?

  4. zpoccc says:

    … i like neon blitz and superfluous noise

  5. duwease says:

    I wanna play this just because it’s too similar to the Treasure classic “Dynamite Headdy” to not be a homage, and that game was possibly the best game on the Genesis.  If you can find it on a Virtual Console (or in Sonic’s Ultimate Game collection, or… elsewhere), I highly recommend it.  Incredibly original and varied for a game of the era, and criminally overlooked.  Possibly because it was face-meltingly difficult.

  6. A_Proper_Struggle says:

    I can’t be the only one who thought of Man Bear Pig at the mention of Moon Bear King?