Puppeteer opens with an unseen British narrator welcoming you, the player, to a game meant to “astound the eye and capture the soul.” As it turns out, his gleefully grandiose tone is spot on, as the game, from its alliterative script to its dreamy visuals is a wacky, whimsical homage both to classic storybook adventures and pure imagination. The environments appear to be built from papier-mâché, while all the characters are elegantly modeled marionettes, and the result suggests a cross between The Nightmare Before Christmas and LittleBigPlanet. Then there’s the theatrical element, from the aforementioned narrator to the fact that, like the similarly themed The Gunstringer, everything takes place on a stage, with the cutout sets literally swinging, sliding, and popping into place. Behind the stage’s coaxing crimson curtain, anything might happen, and Puppeteer relishes in working the sort of video-game magic in which just about everything does.
To begin with, there’s the heroic Kutaro’s arsenal, which not only features a knight’s reflective shield and a magical pair of scissors that can be used to cut and maneuver through the flimsier parts of the paper environment, but also includes a ninja’s explosive bombs, a pirate’s grappling hook, and even a Lucha Libre-style wrestler’s bodyslam. Moreover, Kutaro, who begins the game with his soul being purloined by the malicious yet maladroit Moon Bear King, and his body transformed into that of a pate-less puppet, can find up to 100 replacement heads along the way. Though these spare heads don’t actually change up the gameplay, as in the classic Kid Chameleon, they offer a neat visual flourish and, when used in the correct locations (which isn’t always the same area in which you found them), can open up shortcuts and challenging bonus areas, provide extra items, and help to defeat bosses.
This variety extends to each of the 21 “curtains” (stages) of the game, all of which have an entirely different feel (Patrick Doyle’s filmic score helps). One moment you might be cutting your way up the burning, cannonaded main mast of a pirate ship; the next, you’ll be leaping across the sinuous sections of a snake—and through its corrosive core. In Hallowee’ville, you’ll detonate jack-o’-lanterns to scare off ghosts; in the Wild Waste, you’ll learn to push and pull sets out of the way; and at one point, you’ll even leap across enchanted playing cards from within an hourglass, racing to beat the sand filling up behind you. The bosses are just as richly varied, no two beaten in the same fashion. You’ll have to use traffic signals to sneak up behind Horse; stopping Bull, on the other hand, requires blocking his charge at just the right moment.
Puppeteer’s creative even in the intermission between levels, where you can review the back stories of the various heads you’ve collected or read Edward Gorey-ish picture books that fill you in on the supporting cast. Beating the Moon Bear King’s 12 zodiac-themed generals might be worth it for the puny Achievements alone: “Long Snake’s Journey into Plight,” “La Cage aux Fowl,” and “The Taming of the Moo” jump to mind. Even the basic mechanics, in which you collect 100 moonsparkles to gain an extra life (a la Super Mario Bros.) or have the ability to pick up your fallen head before it—and you—expire (a la Sonic the Hedgehog) feel fresh.
Puppeteer, sandwiched between Klonoa and Rayman in terms of difficulty, is charming, cute, and at times childish, but it’s clearly designed for an adult to play while a child looks on. There’s even an optional co-op mode, too, which allows a less-experienced second player to control Kutaro’s companion (with a controller or the Move), bypassing all the platforming and QTE sequences in favor of clicking on the environments, looking for hidden heads. If there’s a complaint, it’s that having to do this in some of the on-rails single-player sections is a little too difficult. That said, Puppeteer is so uniquely captivating that whether you’re playing or simply passing by, you’ll find it easy to watch: no strings attached.