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Japan Studios has been quiet the past few years, but with the release of Puppeteer, a brand new intellectual property, the developer has re-established itself in my mind as one of the top studios in the world. Puppeteer is creative, original, fun and densely packed with content and variety.

What You Need to Know

The evil Moon Bear King rules the Moon under an iron claw, exacting suffering on all of the lowly creatures of the moon through the minions he has given the corrupting Moon Stones to. In his fortress are puppets inhabited by the souls of children from Earth – souls that were captured from sleeping children. One of those children is Kutaro, the hero of the tale.

The witch, Esma Potts, sends Kutaro from the castle’s kitchen to steal Calibrus, the enchanted scissors which are also in the clutches of the Moon Bear King. Calibrus is just the first step on a giant adventure for Kutaro and his companion, the Sun’s daughter. It’s a dark, fantastical puppet show with intricate sets, over the top characters and a light-hearted tone, like a cross between ‘A Nightmare Before Christmas’ and ‘Spirited Away.’

What’s New?

Puppeteer is at heart a 2D platformer, but it has some new and creative platforming mechanics. Calibrus, the enchanted scissors, allows Kutaro to cut through floating paper-like objects and thus fly through the air. Kutaro has more varied moves than most platform games, too, and has a shield that reflects things, can throw bombs, use a grappling hook and also perform ground-pounds.

The setting and art style is unique, with everything set on a puppet stage. This is explored to full effect with set changes falling in or popping up in clever ways and even the occasional nod to the fact that the characters are really being performed by a puppeteer, and that you are really part of the audience. The 2D plane is also explored fully, with some stages side-on, others circular (i.e. Kutaro runs as if on a circle, with a boss character within its radius), and other levels top-down.

A second player can play as the Sun Princess, flying about the screen collecting Star shards and investigating background props for hidden puppet heads or Grubs. If you don’t have a second player you can control the Sun Princess yourself by using the right stick.

What’s the Same?

The base mechanics are running and jumping on a 2D plane, so that’s nothing new. There are also a number of runner stages included that copy a lot from the mine-cart stages of Donkey Kong Country Returns.

You’ll Enjoy Puppeteer If You Liked…

… Donkey Kong Country Returns. As platforming goes this is the most similar in feel with some stages directly reminding me of levels from Country Returns, particularly the mine-cart stages from that game.

… The Legend of Zelda series. The boss battles specifically reminded me of Zelda games, with their focus on figuring out what to do and how to use your new (and old) abilities to defeat the boss rather than relying on quick reflexes and expert timing.

… The Paper Mario series. Puppeteer utilizes the puppet stage setting similarly to the way Paper Mario plays on the paper aspect of its world. If setting and art is important to you then Puppeteer is your game.

Puppeteer Screenshot 5

What I Liked

- 4.) The Moon Bear King, the witch Esma Potts and the various minions including Bull, Horse, Pig and Sheep are hilarious and overflowing with character. In fact, just about all movements, speech and actions are over the top in their drama, just as a puppet-show should be.

- 3.) The puppet setting is used to full measure, with curtains as loading screens, a narrator setting the scene, and even an audience laughing and clapping at times. The narrator is voice acted to perfection, especially in the extra storybooks you unlock as you complete Acts.

- 2.) Boss fights are a joy because they’re rarely difficult (the odd spike in difficulty does happen but they’re fairly minor) but do take a little figuring out and end in pretty spectacular sequences. As an aside, I enjoy a tough boss fight, but I did appreciate that in a game like this you don’t have to eke out a win against a boss once you figure out how to defeat them, it’s just a matter of carrying out a plan with some room for error.

- 1.) Impressive variety in worlds and mechanics keep the game fresh and keep you excited to explore the next Act. Amazingly, Puppeteer keeps up this variety for over ten hours of densely packed play.

Favourite Moment

There are lots of clever, hidden moments in Puppeteer. For example, if you use the head action of the Pumpkin head at the right place (a shadow in the background alerts you to what head action to use), then the pumpkin prop in the background changes into a pumpkin coach and whisks you away to a bonus stage. Finding these little gems makes exploring the world of the puppet stage a pleasure.

Puppeteer Screenshot 9

What I Didn’t Like

- 3.) Some of the non-playing sequences when the story is played out on stage are a little long, and the dialogue can be fussy at times. Paying close attention is rewarded because there are little jokes and clever ideas thrown in everywhere, but it can be all a little overwhelming. Then again, like a good music album, repeat plays will be more enjoyable as you discover things you missed the first time.

- 2.) If you die during a sequence that has a voice-over then that narration will play again when you replay the sequence. If it’s a particularly difficult sequence you will probably be able to recite the script by the time you get past it. This didn’t happen often, but when it did it could be annoying, especially when it was the Sun Princess doing the talking [Zing! - Ed]

- 1.) Too much talking. I get the way they’re imitating puppet shows and characters talk non-stop in those, but the Sun Princess simply talks too much. Her character is intentionally annoying which is clever but can actually get annoying for real because she never stops.

Least Favourite Moment

In one runner sequence I died a lot. This is usually not a problem, but this time it was because the Sun Princess talked during that sequence and I had to hear her prattle about candy or sushi or something over and over again. That this is my least favourite moment is indicative: there is so much to enjoy here that any of my negatives are nitpicks.

What’s Extra?

You can collect puppet heads, most of which are hidden in the stage sets so they need to be discovered by exploration. For each puppet head there is also a secret to be found which will trigger an event in the show, such as a bonus stage, a bonus wheel or simply a random sing-along.

Each stage also has a number of souls to rescue. Completing the stage 100% requires rescuing all the souls (by destroying the puppets they inhabit), collecting all of the available puppet heads and finding and completing the bonus stage.

Each Act has three scenes in it, each of which is about half an hour of play, and there are seven Acts to play though. As you complete each Act you also unlock a storybook, which are strange fairy-tale-like stories narrated along with pictures. They’re strangely grim.

Puppeteer Launch Trailer

The Bottom Line

Puppeteer is a crafted 2D platformer wrapped up in a mesmerizing puppet show that entertains, surprises and delights.