A fractured fairytale takes gamers into a nightmarish realm controlled by the Moon Bear King and his minions in the side-scrolling adventure Puppeteer (Sony Computer Entertainment, rated E10+, $39.99).
Sony's in-house Japanese studio delivers a gorgeous, visual masterpiece exclusive to the PlayStation 3. Developers use the theatrical presentation of an intricate puppet show, complete with draped red curtains and audience reactions, to reveal the woeful tale of a boy made of wood.
Now bear with me here parents, as the plot is quite bizarre and a little extreme. One could describe it as a twisted collaboration between the Brothers Grimm and Tim Burton.
Taking place on one dark moonlit night, a young human boy named Kutaro gets carried away by the Moon Bear King to Castle Grizzlestein where the lad gets transformed into a puppet.
The terrible tyrant hates Kutaro and devours the boy's wooden head and casts away his body.
However, a greedy witch named Ezma Potts discovers this headless hero in the making. She wants to help him destroy the Moon Bear King and take his most prized riches.
With her guidance and some newfound friends, he acquires the skills and weapons to escape and survive. He must free the souls of other trapped brethren, clean up the Moonwood Kingdom of evil and accomplish his primary mission, to become a human boy again and return to his warm bed.
Kutaro fights, jumps, blocks, deflects and floats though a seven-act play, with a trio of chapters in each that will consumer at least a dozen hours of a player's time as he solves perplexing environmental puzzles.
Much in the tradition of side-scrolling, platform-style games, Kutaro meets many a challenge while guided through locations such as the winding spiral staircase of a castle, a bamboo forest, the back of a wooden snake in ancient Egypt, a Wild West town and swamp.
During his harrowing journey, Kutaro receives a pair of magical scissors called Calibrus that he can use to defend himself against some spiky, one-eyed imps and wield as a transportation tool.
As he clips away at such items as paper waves and clouds, webbing, leaves and tapestries, it propels him in mid-air and allows him to glide into new areas to continue his adventure.
More important, the boy finds a variety of more than 100 heads to wear ranging from a panda to iron ball, banana and a guillotine shaped cranium to name a few. Some provide special powers while others simply deliver cute animations
Player who lose three of Kutaro's temporary heads in the heat of battle will find themselves losing a life and starting over in that chapter of the action. It's worth noting that when a head rolls away, a player can still get the boy to chase and retrieve it.
Thankfully, if noggin acquisition becomes a problem, he can constantly find a generous supply of Moonsparkles (bits of moon energy) scattered about and for every 100 he acquires, gains an extra life.
Kutaro even gets help from sidekicks, at first by a feisty floating cat named Ying-Yang, and then the sun princess Pikerina who both lend a crucial hand. A player controls them with right analog stick and trigger to activate hot spots, tap scenery and characters to get more Moonsparkles, and poke floating cauldrons to find more heads.
As expected, the escapes and boss battles get much more difficult as the play continues. Encounters with the toxic purple paint-spewing rat early on as well as a mechanical bull and iron horse that transforms into a fire-breathing locomotive will seriously challenge a player's skills.
However, I never gave up as the game designs are so stunning in their eye-popping glory, being bored is never an option.
In fact, Puppeteer's design remains consistently breathtaking at all levels, looking like a rich homage to stop-motion animation. The set pieces and puppets reminded me of artist Dave McKean's mixed media work on the film "MirrorMask" and Terry Gilliam's quirky art for Monty Python.
Be it the carved wooden intricacies of a ferocious tiger general, the tossing of ninja bombs by Kutaro that explode like a confetti popper, an almost paper mache like quality of the witch Ezma, the tapping of water-colored cocoons to birth colorful butterflies and a lush forest speckled with H.R. Pufnstuf style creatures, it's a feast for the peepers at every slightly disturbing turn of events.
Our narrator, Professor Gregorious T. Oswald (or G for short), is very talkative throughout with a Burl Ives charm and propensity to over describe events with the most charming flow of alliteration.
His vocal exercises work marvelously in a set of unlockable picture books that each offers a fully illustrated motion story for the kiddies to watch and listen to.
Additionally, a two-player mode allows one puppeteer to control Kutaro while the other handles his assistant, and it makes for a wonderful time for parent and child to appreciate the game.
With a preponderance of very adult video games hitting the market these days, it's great to see Sony not afraid to dive into the Mario Bros. and Rayman's worlds with the imaginative Puppeteer.
Any member of the family will not soon forget this whimsical, impeccably designed experience. This game demands a standing ovation.
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