How long has it been since I was genuinely surprised by a game, and furthermore in a positive sense? Nowadays you can do so much research about a game before its release that when it finally comes to you, it’s very easy to have seen the shape of it already and to just have your opinion validated or slightly altered. Puppeteer was a game that I had heard nothing about, and which I could see straight was a true labour of love.
Puppeteer has the setting of a magical puppet theatre, which the player sees very little of except for the curtains at the side and the sound of the audience. The entire plot takes place as one of the shows being performed this evening, separated into Acts and Scenes. As such, all the characters are ultimately just actors playing a role, and the various “levels” are just constructed by the set crew. This is very important to remember, for the way in which the player is brought into the game is so skillfully done that you can genuinely care about the characters and the plot itself, and laugh when something reminds you of its fictional status, such as an actor flubbing a line. It comes so out of left field that it is usually a very funny moment, but somehow doesn’t detract from the core drama.
The main plot stars Kutaro, a young boy like so many others, who has been turned into a puppet boy by having his soul kidnapped while sleeping by the evil ruler of the moon, the Moon Bear King. The Moon Bear King is a magical entity who had overthrown the benevolent Moon Goddess three years earlier by stealing her magic scissors called Calibrus. Kutaro is guided by a mischievous witch named Ezma Potts, and her familiar cat Ying-Yang to steal Calibrus for them, but when he does, Calibrus decides he is worthy to wield it. From there he must travel across the entire moon, which oddly enough has areas with many themes, such as the Wild West, a haunted forest, and a pirate cove.
If all of this sounds a little childish, then have no fear. Puppeteer has some of the most messed up details and dark plotlines I have experienced in a game for a very long time, especially one with such a charming outer veneer. Much of the things that are either directly mentioned, alluded to, or even just hinted at carry a level of realistic drama that goes beyond the general fairy-tale mood that is first seen. Neither is this edginess for the sake of edginess, rather it is the result of getting involved with the characters and understanding that some very bad things have happened before you arrived to defeat the evil emperor, and all the characters have suffered in one way or another for it. And despite this, the mixture of humor and drama is used so well together that you are almost never bored.
Gameplay is split into two main portions, with there being an option for two player co-op to control each aspect. The first is Kutaro’s companion, who floats around with a stage light on them, providing illumination, and who can be free to toggle or activate hidden items, objects or people in the background for some benefit or secret to be revealed. The second is Kutaro himself, who is controlled in a very smooth platformer manner, and who wields eventually several powers aside from Calibrus. Kutaro, via the plot, lost his puppet head near the start of the game, and a big gameplay mechanic involves finding secret objects that can be used as “heads” and which serve the function as health points when worn. There is a huge arrangement of charming items that all look differently cute, and which can be used to unlock secret areas or methods to travel in game. The world in which he lives is a puppet theatre, so enemies and stages and backgrounds are all made out of felt, fabric, wood, cardboard etc, which can have Calibrus used on them as such. This can be used to propel movement along vertically, as Kutaro pushes forward when he uses the scissors and hits something. So you are often left with the charming action of travelling to the next platform by cutting across a “raincloud.” And also, for those of you still doubting the scissors issue, this is the most badass pair of scissors in the universe. For some reason, a lot of bosses end up being defeated finally via incredibly epic God-of-War style scenes, with the scissors scything along huge creatures in a way that makes it very satisfying to watch.
Puppeteer is an extremely charming and enjoyable game with an incredible art style, and some of the best humor I have seen in a game for years. It has enough gameplay to last a long time, and has plenty of options for replayability. It’s currently still being sold at slightly less than other mainstream games, so you can afford to pick up one of the best platformers released for ages.