Puppeteer review

3 out of 5
£25

For

Imaginative, surreal, inventive, ingenious, high production values, strong soundtrack

Against

Bombardment of luvvie voice acting, impenetrable story, rigidly linear, relentless boss levels, button-tapping Quick Time Events

The 2D platform renaissance continues apace with Sony Japan's Puppeteer - a Playstation 3 exclusive - following hot on the fast-moving heels of Rayman Legends. It's platformer season.

We may have had a mild dig at the latter game's storyline, but it was at least confined to the back of the box. Not so with Puppeteer, whose irksome narrative is forced down your throat throughout the entire experience.

It's wholly impenetrable stuff. Suffice to say we were at least halfway through the game before we realised that it was set on the moon (we think). Throw in a headless puppet, a mystical pair of scissors, a cackling witch, a ghostly cat and a pixie companion, and you get the general idea.

Curb your enthusiasm

The tale is relayed via the unfortunate medium of over-enthusiastic shouty actors and lengthy cutscenes, making much of the game feel like being trapped in a psychedelic lift with a provincial am-dram society.

Fortunately we eventually found the "skip" button, although the chat simply cannot be stopped due to the presence of an in-game narrator. It's an idea that was realised with some success in 2011's excellent Bastion, and while Puppeteer isn't quite as laconic, it is eventually bearable, coming across like Peter Cook reading The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

The reason for this relentless luvvie-dom is that the game is set in the theatre. What you see on screen is the stage, replete with elaborate set changes. Your character - Kutaro the headless puppet - is permanently in the spotlight.

Split into seven acts, each with three curtains, Puppeteer takes in such outlandish scenarios as a pirate ship, runaway train, graveyard, obligatory underwater scene, and wild west town - all superbly recreated while slickly retaining the theatrical illusion. It's a highly stylised approach, a bit like a ride at "4D" theme park ride. Some of the more nightmarish levels evoke an unlikely collaboration between Tim Burton and Little Big Planet. It's visually stunning stuff.

Cut here

Gameplay-wise, the traditional platform fare is augmented by the aforementioned magic scissors, which helpfully enable you to snip through the scenery. There's also a grappling hook with which you can rearrange the stage furniture, a magic shield to deflect projectiles, and a kind of slam-dunk move to shake things up.

The various gameplay skills are drip-fed to you, and when fully equipped it takes a degree of manual dexterity to master them all, or indeed to remember that you've got them.

A bomb, that's the other one - there's a bomb that you can throw at things to blow them up. Helpfully, the things that you can blow up have a picture of a bomb on them.

As well as these blatant visual clues, in-game advice is proffered by your pixie companion, who can also be moved around the screen with the right stick to discover various bonuses, including the array of impromptu heads that our hero sports in lieu of his actual swede. Each head has a unique skill, which if used in the correct place can be helpful. In practice, this rarely happens, and the heads are as much a collectible as a tool, with a gallery documenting the history and property of each one that you, or your pixie friend, find.

By the way, the pixie - and the ghostly cat - can be controlled by a second player using the PS3's Move controller. Frankly, it's a naff deal, and supplementary duties should ideally be confined to a young child none too invested in the game.

Monobrow

Arguably an attempt at high-brow gaming, Puppeteer is not quite as clever as it thinks it is, with an over-reliance on hateful boss levels and dreaded "Quick Time Events", whereby you press a button in time with on-screen prompts like a chimp in a laboratory.

If you run out of lives then you'll have to replay an entire level complete with identical narration. Do that more than a couple of times and you'll want to press the mute button.

Which might be for the best as the bombardment of enthusiastic voice acting is borderline painful, and even if that isn't above incongruous then the double entendres and "comedy" foreign accents feel, let's say, misplaced at the very least and like cheery racism at their worst.

Verdict

On the surface, Puppeteer is a hugely impressive work, and the kind of game that might be given a BAFTA by people who played it for ten minutes before moving on to the complimentary wine.

Clearly a labour of love - and it does look gorgeous - the gameplay is occasionally sacrificed in favour of the theatrical shenanigans, and our patience was tested by (among other things) a full five-minute song and dance routine. No, really.

Destined to propagate the tiresome "games as art" debate, long-standing games magazines will probably wet the bed over Puppeteer. Our take it a bit different: over the course of a number of gruelling evenings, its limitations become apparent, with the rigidly linear approach eventually beginning to irk.

There's undeniably something compelling about Puppeteer, though, but there's also that nagging feeling that you're pressing on to the finish just so that you don't have to play it any more. Curtain call.