Running with magic scissors.
Sony continues to crank out exclusives for its PlayStation platforms, but the latest for PS3 will attract two very different camps within the contingent of fans gobbling up every new piece of software in the hopes that it'll further their camp's side in the coming next-gen war. If the Kratos Sackboy skin in LittleBigPlanet got his own 2D action game, complete with God of War-sized boss fights and quick-time events, it'd look a lot like Puppeteer.
You take control of Kutaro (Coo-tah-row), a young boy under the thumb of the Moon Bear King which, like Man Bear Pig in our realm, is the source of the puppet world's problems. Moon Bear King bites Kutaro's head off and imprisons him in the body of a puppet capable of switching heads at will. While Sony's Japan Studio delivers this throwaway plot through overwrought and gratingly constant narrative, Puppeteer offers gamers colorful, unabashedly childlike wonder and a few neat gameplay hooks at an appropriate price.
Many reviewers won't mention the cost, but here Puppeteer's $39.99 price point is a strength as it makes up for some of the recycling you might experience in-game. Not all of Puppeteer seems like it was crafted within LittleBigPlanet 2, but it's clear how much of the game has come from other areas of Sony's worldwide development force. While Kutaro doesn't have Sackboy's floaty and inaccurate feeling players might have bemoaned in LittleBigPlanet, the models and general presentation harken back to Media Molecule's platformer too closely. Puppets vs. Sacks will have to be saved for another day.
Jumping over gaps and rolling to avoid enemy attacks feels tighter and more action-oriented, though, and in aping God of War's kill-every-boss-in-cinematic-fashion QTE flourish, Puppeteer reaches some action-game highs you might not expect from a story about magic scissors and oppressive puppet overlords. As you learn to block, dodge, and cut, you'll also find Japan Studio wastes no time in testing your grasp of these mechanics. In fact, the speed at which Kutaro learns and utilizes new abilities belies the child-friendly aesthetics.
With three different heads at your disposal and the ability to retrieve a head after an enemy damages you (just like Sonic can recapture a few gold rings), Puppeteer's health system proves forgiving, balancing out the intense action. Eventually it's revealed that Kutaro needs to use his magic scissors and the heads he picks up along the way to reunite 12 moonstone pieces and restore the Moon Goddess. Though this isn't the worst plot ever, it is still delivered in a way that made me shudder like someone dragging their nails down a chalkboard behind me.
Puppeteer's narration is constant and not that entertaining. I was far more interested in playing the game than I was learning anything else about the characters and their motivations, but Puppeteer remains steeped in exposition. While the voice acting and soundtrack hit Hollywood-caliber highs, the story never lets up, with frequent cutscenes holding the satisfying gameplay just out of reach. It's all justifiable for a kid-friendly game about magical puppets, but there's real depth in the mechanics and boss battles that seems to get swept aside in favor of cutesy and annoying characters like Pikarina (who PlayStation LifeStyle review scribe Russel Ritchey rightly compares to Ocarina of Time's Navi).
I felt like the varied and imaginative levels and faithfully herky-jerky puppet animation out-maneuvered the heavy-handed narrative. Obviously, Kutaro will defeat Moon Bear King and return good and happiness to the world, but at some point you've gotta stop saying it so the player can get down to business. When that happens, Kutaro is fun to control and do battle with, the world shines with intricately puppet-like animations, and it's not so bad for yet another 2D platformer.
Where Puppeteer stumbles, the player's hands can catch its fall. As a child, you might find puppet shows at least mildly entertaining and at the very least something to zone out on before naptime. To me, the prospect of playing the puppet yourself was always more enticing. Even in Kutaro's world that rings true.
Copy provided by publisher. PS3 exclusive.