Sony may have found its Paper Mario killer in the form of Tearaway, an inventive third-person platformer set in a world where every object is made of papery odds and ends. Not only does the game utilize the numerous, previously untapped functions of the PlayStation Vita in a myriad of whimsical ways, but, in the abbreviated span of roughly five hours, tells a heartwarming tale that involves the player, deeming them the star of the show with minimal effort. Developed by Media Molecule, the company responsible for the equally ingenious LittleBigPlanet series, Tearaway's singular flow seems to be constantly spurred by how innovative the player can be, and how long they can maintain a keen sense of environmental resourcefulness. Controlling the envelope-headed protagonist Iota (or Atoi, if you select the female version) is to be exposed to an expertly composed sampler platter of the Vita's wide array of particular capabilities, all the while being continuously sucked in to a unique, papercraft-inspired universe that's far from leaflet-thin in terms of both its visual playfulness and creative spirit.
Tearaway could have relied on ponderous, context-sensitive gimmickry to stand out from the crowd, but Media Molecule understands that tying in each newfound maneuver to a storytelling element strengthens the bond between character and player. Without much flaunting or showboating pizazz, the game works in clever, useful mechanics for tapping the Vita's backside touchpad (pushing your finger up through the ground to interact with enemies) while still making the front touchscreen the primary input source for poking and peeling various incidental flourishes to reveal countless layers of depth beneath the game's deceptive cardboard-cutout exterior. The Vita's camera is also a central part of the action, prompting players to use in-game photography to alter the world's appearance, an inherently crinkly, dog-eared affair that routinely evokes pop-up books and stop-motion animation. Additionally, taking a pair of scissors to slips of construction stationary in a separate menu and giving spontaneous, jury-rigged life to personalized arts-and-crafts projects is a feature to treasure. Despite its frequent jitteriness, though, Tearaway has graphics that are tonally well-suited to its overriding style; essentially, it does for paper what Kirby's Epic Yarn did for fabric. The sound design is also delightful, every tear and crease charmingly accentuated without being too distracting.
If there's one area where Tearaway feels pedestrian, it's in its close-quarters battling, which lacks the freshness on full display throughout the remainder of the game. Simplistic jumping attacks and tired ball-rolling tactics feel like something out of a mid-'90s adventure title. This is a shame, because when Tearaway vigorously bucks tradition instead of relying on antiquated genre standards to fill in empty gaps in gameplay architecture, it reveals itself as one of the best handheld experiences of the year, a shimmering showcase for the high quality software starved Vita. Media Molecule has once again proved they're a developer not to underestimate or undervalue, and it'll be interesting to see what kind of magic they can deliver with their forthcoming next-gen enterprises.