As I’ve grown, I’ve sought more mature stimulation from entertainment. I have a craving for material that challenges me intellectually and emotionally, media that’s willing to approach highbrow concepts and adult issues that aren’t simply sex and violence. This change in taste has greatly affected my attitude towards video games. I want to see one of my favorite past-times evolve, tackle subjects it’s been afraid to approach in the past, be recognized for the art that it truly is. The last decade has seen considerable growth in that regard thanks to several titles: Shadow of the Colossus, Mass Effect, Journey, Gone Home, The Novelist, Papo & Yo, To The Moon, Dragon Age, The Shivah, Silent Hill, and Spec Ops: The Line. But there is still a part of me that appreciates games that don’t take themselves so seriously; the fun, the imaginative, the whimsical stories that evoke fond childhood memories, that let me forget about the pressure of the outside world and partake in simpler joys. Sly Cooper, Professor Layton, and The Legend of Zelda have been some of the best comforts over the years, with another recent title joining their ranks - Puppeteer. Developed by Sony Computer Entertainment Japan as a Playstation 3 exclusive, Puppeteer is a fantastic piece that perfectly captures the magic and wonderment of the games I loved as a kid.

Once upon a time, the kingdom of the Moon was ruled over by a kind, beautiful Goddess. She cared for her subjects deeply, but this love was not reciprocated by all of them. One of the children she was fond of, Little Bear, conspired to overthrow the Goddess. He stole the Black Moonstone, a gem with phenomenal magic powers, and a pair of enchanted scissors called Calibrus which could cut through almost anything. Twisted by the dark energy, Little Bear was transformed into a monster. Rechristening himself the Moon Bear King, he led a rebellion against the Goddess and her champions. Though they fought bravely, the forces of light fell. After his victory, the Moon Bear King shattered the White Moonstone, the source of all moonlight and the only artifact that possessed the magic capable of countering his dark powers, and gave a fragment to each of his twelve generals so that it could never be used against him. To satisfy his constantly growing hunger for power and expand his influence, every night he would steal the souls of sleeping children from Earth, imprisoning them within wooden puppets who were then forced to serve his every whim. For three years the tyrant’s ruthless reign over the Moon Realm made life nightmarish for all who lived there. No opposition could even come close to stopping him… until the night he abducted the soul of a young boy named Kutaro. Feeling especially malicious at the time, the Moon Bear King ripped off Kutaro’s head almost immediately after placing his spirit in a puppet prison before tossing him into the dungeon. The boy would have died right away had it not been for the assistance of the witch Ezma Potts and her familiar Ying Yang. The pair provide Kutaro with the power to use any heads he finds as replacements for his own, then send him off to retrieve Calibrus as they have done with so many other children before. The boy succeeds where those before him failed, using the enchanted shears to free himself from the Moon Bear King’s castle, as well as to rescue Pikarina, Princess of the Sun, who was transformed into a pixie and imprisoned. With these powers bestowed upon him, Kutaro embarks on a journey to recover the fragments of the White Moonstone to free all oppressed by the Moon Bear King and restore balance to the Moon Realm.

Puppeteer presents itself as a theatrical performance, taking full advantage of the setting to put on a spectacular show. Every act is bookended with the opening and closing of curtains, the action all takes place on one stage with the scenery changing to fit the story rather than having you progress to the next area, and an unseen audience cheers, jeers and applauds whenever the situation calls for it. Unconstrained by the limitations of reality, the game can go to outlandish lengths to keep things entertaining with elaborate fight scenes, Disney-inspired musical numbers, and many instances of melodramatic overacting, which often draw derisive or annoyed remarks from others on the stage who think their co-stars are embarrassing themselves with such hammy behavior. There is no fourth wall – everyone is aware they’re in a play and will often break character to address the audience, complain to the narrator if they dislike how the story’s going and offer sarcastic quips when he states the obvious or tells a bad joke, make requests of the prop and wardrobe departments, even pop into scenes they’re not supposed to be in for various purposes (eavesdropping on conversations, getting into arguments with other performers, etc.) It’s one of the many aspects that make the story so enjoyable.

The tone of the game evokes the dark, disturbing, often violent nature of the original Grimm fairy tales and the works of Roald Dahl. We hear about the torture the captured children endure, being dismembered and battered before they’re transformed into mindless monsters obedient to the Moon Bear King. The major enemies you encounter are all killed (at least in the context of the story within the game) in a number of macabre manners: sliced apart, broken, burned alive, even devoured whole. There’s a general theme of corruption as we see the effects of the Black Moon Stone twist the lands of the moon and their inhabitants into more dangerous, disturbing incarnations. None of this is intended to make the story grim or edgy, but to provide a source of morbid black comedy reminiscent of Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam’s movies, both of which were sources of inspiration for writer/creative director Gavin Moore. It pokes fun at what the narrator describes as “modern, sanitized fairy tales” where there’s no hint of real danger and everyone lives happily ever after. It isn’t afraid to use mild vulgarity, implied violence, even sexual innuendo if it will provide a laugh, without being so excessive that it will drive off younger players or offend their parents.

Puppeteer is one of the few modern games that knows how to convey humor effectively. Clever dialogue, puns and wordplay, physical comedy, visual gags, funny background scenes, and an overall sense of surreal absurdity create a hilarious adventure. As with every comedic game I cover I don’t want to give away too much since they’re best received when experienced personally, but here are a few of the lines and moments that got me laughing:

– Pikarina attempting to stop an excessively cute, saccharine musical number performed anthropomorphic animals and trees by shouting “Don’t you dare go Sondheim on me!”, then tossing rabbits off the stage when they refuse to comply.

– A battle against a robotic crab piloted by Generals Pig and Sheep where the narrator offers them advice because he nerds out around robots, referencing robot-themed science fiction shows like Lost in Space and Thunderbirds. After the machine takes enough damage to lose balance, he suggests they fiddle with the stance rectifiers, leading Pig to make this groan-worthy pun; “I can’t! It’s not a fiddler crab!” Naturally, the giant enemy crab meme is referenced in this fight.

– The beginning of Act 5’s second level where Kutaro must rapidly roll to slim down after being fattened up by an incantation. During this segment, the narrator provides a bizarre lecture on how weight has affected human development – “All of human history can be traced along our waistlines. Agriculture and then food storage eventually separated men into the plump and the poor. Call it… ‘fatocracy.’ To narrow the divides between the ‘fats’ and the ‘fat-nots,’ someone had the bright idea to ration food out. It was called ‘communism.’ ‘Want bread? Line up! Don´t be like those unhealthy fatocrats!’ But communism ultimately lost. No five-year plan could wean people from the temptation of all the caviar and the vodka.”

– A self-deprecating vampire who laments about how he’s lost the power to frighten others in the modern age, rambling on about how the old days were better. This goes on for three minutes, and listening to the entire monologue grants a trophy.

– While chasing General Rabbit, he remarks that it’s impossible to enjoy a nice tea under such stress. Pikarina chides the lagomorph by responding “First world problems, bunny-man.”

– A discussion between the narrator, Pikarina and a giant gingerbread man about what the most important snack in history is. When the narrator nominates pudding, his opinion is dismissed because he’s British and presumably has no expertise on food.

Deprived of his head and therefore lacking a mouth, Kutaro is a silent protagonist. While he does convey some emotion through his body language, such as cowering in fear before entering a foreboding area or striking a victorious pose after defeating a powerful enemy, there’s no substantial characterization. We’re told that he’s growing from a scared boy into a courageous, selfless young man through his journey, but we never see that development. Fortunately Kutaro’s lack of personality is more than compensated for thanks to the vibrant attitudes of his two constant companions. Pikarina, voiced by Julie Rogers, is bursting with an energy fitting her status as Princess of the Sun. She’s a feisty pixie who’s always ready for action, never hesitating to lay a beat down on an opponent or anyone who annoys her. Even with her reduced stature, she can deal serious damage to larger foes, though she mostly prefers to fly into them repeatedly. While Pikarina is determined to restore order to the cosmos, she’s very capricious and prone to becoming easily distracted by thoughts of food (which happens frequently in the underwater stages when the sight of many fish get her hungry for sushi), cute animals, explosions, arguments, or whatever pops into her head. It would have been easy to make Pikarina another stereotypical annoying flying companion who points out the obvious and never offers any real help, but the effort was put into giving her a strong, well-defined identity, and she really stands out.

Kutaro’s other ally throughout the story is the narrator and owner of the theater, Professor Gregorious T. Oswald (“G” to his friends). His role is to provide exposition for the show as well as guidance for Kutaro, delivered with the sophisticated tenor of veteran actor Stephen Greif, best known for his role as Travis in Blake’s 7. While G strives for professionalism in his role, like Pikarina he is prone to losing his train of thought. At several points he’ll lapse into non-sequitur lectures, reminisce on his past when a set brings up personal memories, reveal a bizarre or humiliating eccentricity which the other characters will mock, and argue with the cast. He also has a tendency to become an overly-excited fanboy when robots or impressive technology appear on stage. G is another in a growing trend of comedic narrators inspired by Lemony Snicket, much like in The Cave and The Stanley Parable, and is as successful here as in those other games. When a character you never even see or directly interact with has such a lasting impact, it’s a sign of excellent writing and acting.

During Kutaro’s perilous journey, he encounters a number of peculiar characters that inhabit the lunar landscape. The Moon Witch Ezma Potts, who starts the boy on his trek, is very reminiscent of Mom from Futurama. Her schizophrenic personality switches between a warm, compassionate grandmotherly figure and a cantankerous harpy who doesn’t shy away from verbally or physically assaulting those who annoy her. She offers Kutaro assistance in his quest to recover the Moonstones, but it’s obvious she has her own agenda and won’t hesitate to betray him if given the chance. Her actions and the mystery surrounding who she really is make Ezma a memorable character. The same can’t be said for her familiar, the lazy flying cat Ying-Yang, whose only real purpose is to make deadpan sarcastic remarks and puns related to the onomatopoeias “meow” and “purr” while sounding like a sedated Peter Lorre. I was concerned he’d be my companion through the entire game, and was very relieved when Pikarina replaced him.

Ying-Yang is just one of very few bland NPCs, the only others that come to mind being Mr. and Mrs. Cedar, a pair of giant trees with an unoriginal bickering married couple routine. Thankfully they’re the only two members of the cast that didn’t impress me, while the rest shone.Two of the most interesting were Nebula Oblongata, an emo/goth teen ghost that goes overboard with angst-ridden, navel-gazing metaphysical poetry, and Galahagrid Mulberry Timesawestin (also known as Mr. Pink), a pompous, overly verbose, fast-talking flamingo whose excessive blathering irritates Pikarina so much she makes increasing demands for him to reduce how much he says, such as limiting exposition to 140 characters because, as a bird, he should be familiar with tweeting. The pirate Captain Gaff is one of the more peculiar NPCs as there’s a bit of sexual innuendo present in his speech and actions: he describes his ship and island base like he would beautiful women, refers to a swordfight as “foreplay,” romances Ezma by calling her a flower he’d like to “pluck” and that she needs an “able seaman” to satisfy her, and at one point he straddles a massive cannon between his legs while thrusting energetically. The jokes are bound to fly over the heads of kids while providing a chuckle for older players, though they may miss the pun which explains why the captain behaves in such a way; in the theater, a gaff is an article of clothing used to conceal genitals when men play female roles.

The central villain, the Moon Bear King, makes a serious attempt to give himself an imposing figure, showing nothing but cruelty to his subjects and his generals while demanding unwavering loyalty to satisfy his ego. But we still see signs of the child he once was behind the ferocity through petulant tantrums thrown when he learns of Kutaro’s latest success, or the fear that washes over him as the thought of his defeat, and the loss of the power he doesn’t deserve, draws closer to becoming a reality. Most of his generals manage to leave strong impressions, though the efficacy varies. Some make their mark after appearing in only one level, while some who are encountered throughout an entire chapter are dull and forgettable. Just about every general has a fairly simple defining trait: Tiger is a fey, campy coward who sounds like an effeminate Tim Curry, Rabbit is a dandy magician who’d rather indulge in luxuries than fight his king’s battles, Ox and Horse are a pair of competitive adrenaline junkies, and Monkey is a demented scientist whose redundant, overly-complex speech, raspy voice and hyperactive behavior remind me of Mojo Jojo from The Powerpuff Girls, perhaps an intentional reference. Many, such as those I just mentioned, never become one-dimensional because of how they present themselves, selling their characters with an intensity that can’t be ignored. Not all of them can pull this off though – Snake is nothing more than a mindless killing machine, while Pig and Sheep are just obsessed with money, and as a result they become forgettable.

When Gavin Moore was brainstorming for the game that would become Puppeteer, he asked his son what he’d like to see in a game. His son responded that he wanted to see something that changed every five to ten minutes. It seemed like an impossible request, but Moore proved up to the challenge, creating a platformer brimming with variety. Like the Donkey Kong Country series, Puppeteer offers something new in almost every level such as automatic racing through side-scrolling obstacle courses, shifting to a top-down perspective as you move vertically, jumping puzzles that require accurate timing, environmental manipulation, physics platforming, and riding atop a dragon in flight as you gradually dismember it.

Don’t let the playful atmosphere fool you though, as there is considerable challenge. You have to get a firm grasp on the layout and tricks of each level, figuring out what action you should take and how quickly to execute it: when to dodge or jump, what angle to fire a shot at, whether you have time to check out that alternate path now or will doing so get you killed by a steadily rising instant death trap. Things never becomes unfair thanks to tight controls, easy accumulation of extra lives, and opportunities to recover lost heads after taking damage. It provides a steady difficulty curve that won’t frustrate younger players or bore more experienced gamers. This also applies to the boss fights – all of them have you dodge their attacks, but they’re telegraphed sufficiently in advance so you have time to respond. Most of the battles occur in multiple phases that necessitate identifying their attack patterns. The final segment of each fight involves a series of quick-time events which again, give you a fair amount of time to respond, but if you’re not paying attention or press a button without thinking then any damage received is your own fault.

Kutaro’s main weapon is the enchanted pair of scissors Calibrus, which is used to defeat enemies and to navigate through the stages. Calibrus can shear through webbing that obstructs a path, guide you along seams for quick movement or cut through floating and falling objects to travel through the air, each slice providing momentum to reach the next one. This is another aspect where good timing and direction are crucial since if you don’t put enough force into the cut or move the wrong way, you’ll end up falling and most likely take damage. As you progress through the story you’ll unlock four additional abilities for Kutaro: a shield which can deflect energy attacks and reflect light, bombs that can destroy obstacles, a grappling hook for reaching objects out of range, and a powerful stomp to break through fragile ground. A brief tutorial lets you get a handle on each new power before you have to use them to solve puzzles or defeat enemies.

While the game is fairly linear, it does encourage exploration of the world. Using the right analog stick you can move Pikarina (and Ying-Yang in the first act) around the screen to interact with objects or characters, like the mouse in a graphic adventure game. Doing this allows you to trigger background events which include solving simple puzzles, unlocking new heads or Moonsparkles (the collectibles that grant you extra lives), making a character or set piece do something odd, and in one late level, acting as a fake light gun to shoot down pigeons. While most platformers have you run from one end to the other with little regard for your surroundings, Puppeteer breaks the rule by encouraging you to go at a slower pace, to look around and see what secrets you can discover. If you’re willing to briefly exchange active entertainment for something more passive, I think you’ll be pleased by what you find.

One of Puppeteer’s central mechanics is Kutaro’s ability to use any head he finds as a substitute for his own. New heads are obtained by defeating mini-bosses and generals, performing specific actions, or using Pikarina to interact with an object. You can carry up to three heads at a time, but when you come across a fourth, it will replace whatever one you currently have selected. This concept was used in earlier titles like Dynamite Headdy, Dead Head Fred, and Kid Chameleon, but while the heads in those games granted different powers for use in battle, they have no offensive capabilities in Puppeteer. Instead, they’re used to trigger events at certain points in each level, sometimes taking you to a bonus stage or activating a roulette wheel for extra heads and Moonsparkles, other times giving you a new head or making your progression easier. The Caterpillar head, for example, summons a giant butterfly that instantly takes you to the top of a corrupted cherry blossom tree, saving you the trouble of fighting your way up (and prompting Pikarina to comment on how high fantasy needs more butterfly riders). The Sushi head transforms moving fish that you need to use as platforms into stationary sushi rolls, and the Octopus head creates giant octopus-shaped balloons to fill gaps in the ground.

A few heads even serve a role in ending boss fights more quickly; the Ace head will cause Rabbit to get pummeled by giant playing cards, while the Grim Reaper head summons the Angel of Death to cut Dog in half. Unfortunately, this feature never achieves its full potential because each head’s special ability only triggers one event. The opportunity to have multiple actions for the heads spread out across the game would have made them more valuable rather than one-use items that mainly serve as health points. Still, the secrets you unlock with them are fun, and going back through the previous levels to find them all adds another layer of challenge.

The game is absolutely beautiful, with every aspect designed to resemble a puppet show. Character models are vividly colored while showing signs of the material they were made from like visible wood grain and stitches in fabric. Even their movements are animated to give the impression they’re being manipulated by someone’s hands. In some scenes you can even see the strings attached to flying characters like Pikarina and Ying-Yang, or rods being used to move larger creatures like in bunraku theater. The level design shares the same aesthetic with background objects made to look like they’re constructed from cardboard ,wood, or papier-mâché. It offers a creative twist on rather standard platformer settings (forest level, desert level, horror level, space level, ice level, etc.) For an additional theatrical joke, exposed scenery will sometimes show moving gears and levers to demonstrate how the settings can quickly shift. The influence of Tim Burton is present in several areas, most notably in the fifth act, Hallowee Ville, where every setting and character look like they were plucked from The Nightmare Before Christmas. Perspective is used very well as most of the levels have multiple routes that pop up one after the other, the camera panning out to push each back as the next one comes up. It creates an illusion of depth where you see the next area you’re travelling to in the distance, rather than having to walk far enough to the right or left. This is also helped by clever lighting tricks which cast shadows that make objects and characters appear further away in the horizon.

As with most games developed by SCE Japan, Puppeteer has an incredible soundtrack. Orchestral pieces composed by Patrick Doyle provide a unique leitmotif for each of the main characters and settings: an instrumental Celtic sea shanty while on board a pirate ship, light woodwind to complement Pikarina’s pixie form, and a golden-age western arrangement complete with whip cracks and whistling plays while traversing the desert. Almost all of the sound effects are emphasized and exaggerated, which fits with the cartoonish style.

Puppeteer is a fantastic game that can be enjoyed by players of any age. It’s refreshing to see a platformer go for something new rather than simply rehashing old ideas or copying more successful titles. As I said in my introduction, our tastes and attitudes need to mature, but there’s no reason to become old at heart. Despite what the Bible says, we do not need to put away all childish things when we’re adults. We should still be able to indulge in the things that gave us pleasure in our youth. Puppeteer allowed me to do that, and I think it can do the same for others who play it.

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