E3 Impressions – Puppeteer

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I haven’t been shy about my excitement for this beautiful platformer coming from SCE Japan Studios, and that excitement has only gotten stronger since the initial announcement. Finally though, I got to play it, and what a fantastic experience it is.

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There are two levels available (I skipped the ‘tutorial’). It started with Kutaro (the hero) jumping into a cart, which shot across the screen. In this section, the gameplay consists of ducking and jumping as you scream toward a myriad of obstacles. The action is fast, with immense levels of stress and close calls. What I couldn’t help but notice though, is the absolutely stunning visuals along the way. Game Director Gavin Moore told me that one of the core decisions in ‘Puppeteer’ is that no background will be present for more than a few minutes, so the visuals will always appear fresh, and never repetitive. As far as I could see, they will amaze you at every turn. The depth of the environments is almost limitless, including some well placed assets in the foreground. Lighting is plentiful and drapes across every object on the screen, and the animation is smooth as butter.

‘Puppeteer’ is presented as a stage production more than just simply a game. Curtains open and close between acts as the narrator reads-along with whatever is taking place on stage. At its core, this is a side-scrolling platformer, but the level of interaction with the foreground and backgrounds exceeds even the LittleBigPlanet series, especially when battling the multi-level bosses throughout. After completing the cart level (man, I so want to say ‘minecart’) I was presented with a more “traditional” platforming experience, running from left to right (up and down too) in the attempt to make it past the numerous obstacles that stood before me.

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What I started to experience though, was that same feeling I had when Nintendo unveiled Donkey Kong Country on the SNES at CES. The rendered visuals were something that we’d never seen before on a cartridge-based console, and it truly was a new and unique experience. At it’s core it was still a platformer, but the visuals and audio took the player to a new level of gaming, and that’s exactly what Puppeteer does today. Armed only with an oversized pair of scissors (where’s a shopping mall to open when you need it?) and a set of interchangeable heads, Kutaro runs, jumps, and cuts his way through the level, with the scissors adding an entirely new mechanic to a classic genre, and it really works. You’ll see cloth tapestries hanging in the background, or clouds made of paper floating slowly upward, and this is where the scissors come in.

To bridge an otherwise insurmountable gap, the scissors can be used to cut cloth, paper, and other similar objects, and while you cut, you’re also traversing across that item. Some of the gaps seem impossible to cross, even when you see objects that can be cut, since some seem to be almost unreachable, but your first cut or two will also result in a lunge in the direction that you’re swiping toward. I loved that part of the gameplay too, because the tension added so much to the fun, and what I could tell right away is that even though Puppeteer may look it, this is not a game for kids. Skill is most definitely required in this one, and with the addition of 4 interchangeable heads, all of which grant unique powers, you’ll need to stay on your toes for success. Also, if you lose your head, you only have a set amount of time to get it back, or suffer the consequences.

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The heads each offer specific powers, and will require a bit of strategy to assure the best use of each. The Knight’s head gives Kutaro the ability to use a shield to deflect certain attacks, the Pirate head adds a chain and hook to pull objects closer or to allow you to pull yourself up to a new location. The Ninja head gives you a bomb to blow up enemies and objects, and the Wrestler head adds a powerful body slam. Fortunately, the final level I played gave me the chance to use all 4 heads in different ways, offering some of the deepest gameplay I’ve ever experienced in a platformer, but at the same time, keeping things simple enough to not confuse me (hey, I’m old.)

I was confronted by a huge Dragon made of paper, with each round section held together by ropes. The dragon was much larger than the background, and right away I knew that this would be no easy task. I quickly made my way froward along the dragon’s body, each time bridging the way to the next section by cutting the rope that held him together. The battle was intense, requiring full concentration on my part. I muttered “it’s not fair, I want to gaze at these graphics”, but if I took to long to do just that, I’d be starting again from the most recent checkpoint. Along the way, I used the hook from the Pirate’s mask to climb farther and farther up, finally making it to the dragon’s head. By this time, I had the headphones off because I kept jerking the cable, and because I couldn’t hear Gavin, so I have no idea what the dragon said to me, but I’m pretty confident that he wasn’t inviting me in for tea.

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This is where the masks really came into play. I would use the hook to pull a part of the dragon down, then a section of his body would spin toward me, making me attempt a bomb throw while wearing the Ninja mask, hoping that my timing was good enough to invoke his attempt to fry me with his fire breath. If he did, I could use my scissors to cut through the smoke so I could get above him, then use the body slam from the wrestler’s mask to pop him squarely on top of his head. When I finally did this enough, he was finally defeated. It took a couple of tries, and it was some of the most satisfying gaming I’d done in a long time.

Quite frankly, what I played of Puppeteer vaulted it immediately to my top 3 of any game I saw at E3. There are multiple hours of gameplay within a package that offers one of the best audio-visual experiences that I’ve ever had in a game, and how they tell the story is top-notch all the way. Do yourself a favor by NOT discounting this one as “another platformer” or as a “kids game”. That would be like saying Gran Turismo is just like ‘Pole Position’ on the 2600.

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