Puppeteer hands-on PS3 preview – heads will roll

We go hands-on with Sony Japan’s disarmingly charming (mostly) side-scrolling adventure, Puppeteer. There’s a kind of magic somewhere in its lines of code that makes you feel like a child while you play it, despite its rather macabre tone and moments of genuinely challenging platforming. Without further ado, let’s raise the curtain.

Puppeteer PS3 hands-on preview

When I saw the reveal trailer for Puppeteer at Gamescom 2012, I had no idea how it would play. Do all the theatrics play out around you while you just… clasp your hands and grin? It was an exciting, charismatic reveal, but as each new set unfolded at manic pace it wasn’t immediately apparent what you, the player, would be doing.

I don’t mean to be condescending then when I outline exactly what Puppeteer is. *Takes deep breath.* Imagine playing through LittleBigPlanet levels that are being built right there in front of you, while a very vocal audience watches on. Oh, and at any given second you’re in very real danger of losing your head. But that’s okay – as long as you recover said bonce within a few seconds, you’ll survive to hop and skip gaily onto the next nightmarish dungeon-scape. Any questions? No? Right, that’s cleared that up then.

The striking thing about Puppeteer is that it exists in a ghoulish, unsettling place, and simultaneously a place full of childhood pantomime cheer. The inexplicably terrifying Moon Bear King at the root of the story’s evil looks not unlike a loveable stuffed toy, and yet he regularly kidnaps the souls of children to work guard duty in his castle. He’s not averse to munching their heads off, either.

Your on-stage hero Kutaro, whose name sounds like a Japanglish version of ‘Cutter,’ is just such a juvenile unfortunate. Snatched away from his (you’d imagine) more pleasurable existence of not wandering the halls of a nightmare-castle sans head, he’s enlisted by a witch living in the Moon Bear King’s abode to steal a magical pair of scissors named Calibrus.

These scissors are the key to the Bear’s undoing, and the catalyst that’ll restore order to the kingdom. Along with Kutaro’s disposable heads and secondary controllable character Ying Yang the unsettling cat, Calibrus is also one third of a trio if inventive mechanics that define Puppeteer’s platforming.

“It feels like ripping righteously through the densest of World of Goo levels. Bubblewrap-popping levels of satisfaction.”

So what do you do, run from scene to scene, with or without a head, snipping wildly at all and sundry while flailing a spectral cat in all directions with the right stick? Yes. Yes, you do, and it’s a lot more graceful and theatrical than it sounds.

The physical properties of Puppeteer’s world are, to use the correct scientific term, all floaty and that, and that means with each jump you’re able to snip around with the grace of a cranium-bereft ballerina, slowing the pace of the action down to a lunar stroll just as it appears the obstacles and enemies before you can’t be bested.

With all these perculiar mechanics having been introduced in the game’s intro to an unseen audience who gasps, shrieks and laughs in all the right places, I’m left to put them into practice. It’s slightly daunting, even in the relatively accomodating bowels or Moon Bear King’s castle. Levels flip, twist and morph as I traverse them, while grinning, vaguely friendly skeletons nevertheless hurl things at me. I jump, lose the makeshift head I’ve been using (a knight’s helmet) whenever things go wrong, and scrabble about to regain it before it disappears and I die.

I use Ying Yang with the right stick to rattle objects out of Kutaro’s reach. Some contain gold, but others contain that most viable of commodities in Puppeteer’s world: spare heads. You can store these up like grisly 1-ups and swap between them depending on the occasion.

Each head has its own special ability: a spider-head I find comes in handy when dealing with actual spiders (specifically, yielding more gold), and the confusingly delicious burger-head I have… well, I haven’t discovered the special power for that one yet. Unless you consider walking around looking like the most delicious headless boy ever to be a special ability.

The Puppeteer trailer . Subscribe for more PS3 & PS4 videos.

The pace is slow and creeping until I grab Calibrus – then things heat up. Literally. I’m in a kitchen, jumping between searing hot pots and pans while the audience coos at my exploits. Then, I’m bombarded with a series of spider-web-like obstacles I need to cut through, sharpish. It feels like ripping righteously through the densest of World of Goo levels. Bubblewrap-popping levels of satisfaction.

Those are all the flavours in our slice of preview pie. Simple platforming across anything-but-simple levels, under a spotlight, accompanied by constant audience hubbub. Simple exploration via Ying Yang’s proclivity to rattle any object in sight, revealing a substantial head-swapping mechanic. And snipping things. Lots and lots of that.

What have we learned about Sony Japan’s theatrical platformer? Firstly: it’s every bit as good as that Gamescom reveal hinted at. It engages immediately with perfectly measured voice performances and wonderfully animated scene changes, introduces surprisingly macabre elements but never lets the tone dip below jovial. A family game, first and foremost, but not a game you’d feel the least bit silly playing alone.

You’ll get your own chance to sample Sony Japan’s unique brand of theatrical entertainment when the Puppeteer demo arrives later this year. The game’s due out on September 11th.