You have to admire Sony. While Microsoft may play it safe with their stable sci-fi shooters and Nintendo tend to rely on a steady stream of Mario games, Sony tend to be more open when it comes to trying new and interesting ideas. And their latest game, the Puppeteer is one such thing - a side-scrolling 2D platformer with a unique theatre-inspired look and surprisingly witty dialogue that oozes charm out of its every Thespian pore.
The game puts you in charge of pulling the strings of the silent protagonist Kutaro, a young boy who's been turned into a puppet by the dastardly Moon Bear King, before having his head unceremoniously bitten off. Finding a replacement bonce - anything from a banana, to a spider, to a drum and everything in between - Kutaro soon happens upon a magical pair of scissors known as Calibrus, and jumps and - despite what your mother may have told you - runs with them across the moon, defeating the Moon Bear King's Chinese Zodiac-inspired generals to end his reign of terror once and for all. But Kutaro isn't alone – your pixie-like companion Pikarina and booming narrator Professor Gregarious T. Oswald are with you every step of the way, telling the tale on the stage with plenty of humour, drama and endless bickering as you go along. Because that's what's special about Puppeteer – it's personality.
At least part of this can be attributed to it's unique setting – all the action happens on a stage, and is played through the eyes of an unseen audience, complete with 'oohhs' and 'ahhhs', applause and laughter punctuating everything you do. Curtains fall, scenery shifts around and the cast even breaks out into the occasional song, as you travel through forests, giant castle kitchens and even the digestive system of a snake (sledging through the purple slime atop a rather reluctant rat, naturally) on your globe-trotting adventure. No two levels seem the same across the game's seven acts, each one brimming with secrets to discover and stuff to collect.
Between the platforming, Kutaro's unusual talent for switching his head around comes into it's own. Being able to store up to three heads at a time, each one has their own specific use, many of which you'll need to progress through the levels, uncover hidden areas and rescue all the 'souls' trapped in each stage. For example, a burger head can turn regular, boring sandwiches into bouncy trampoline buns, while a fishing rod can haul up all sorts of secrets from the deep blue sea, and a cute panda noggin sets a bonus wheel spinning - finding all the game's heads is no mean feat, with over 100 to find, as well as the not-so-simple matter of figuring out where each one should be used. There's also a number of special heads you come across during the story that grant little Kutaro new powers, too, giving him a shield to wield, bombs to blow holes in the backdrop and enemies alike, and a funky grappling hook to swing your way across levels. Each head also functions as a health bar of sorts, as one hit from an enemy or particularly vicious piece of scenery will send your noggin bouncing across the stage, with only a few seconds to chase it down and pop it back on before it disappears – run out of heads and you'll have to start over from the nearest checkpoint (which are thankfully pretty regularly spaced).
The other part of Kutaro's arsenal, his magical scissors, soon become as important as his ability to switch heads on a whim. Once you manage to steal them out from under the Moon Bear King's nose, you'll be able to snip through scenery, cut through bad guys and shear your way out of many a sticky situation, with a simple mash of the Square button. Unfortunately, using these clippers in conjunction with platforming is where Puppeteer stumbles slightly, as the game often requires you to leap and snip your way up the screen, along falling leaves, billowing smoke clouds and fabric flags, which is generally easier said than done. With all the grace and poise of a drunken sheep shearer, you find yourself wobbling all over the shop, sometimes snipping more thin air than anything else – and when things get a bit hectic or require you to get a move on, having Kutaro go a bit haywire with the scissors in mid-air can cost you. While it can make things seem a tad unfair at times, you'll find most obstacles and boss fights can be overcome in a few tries, and Puppeteers' light-hearted and easy-going attitude means you can rarely stay angry at it for long.
But it's not just the little puppet guy who's under your control – with the right analogue stick, you control an assistant of sorts - first the witch's cat Yin Yang, and later Pikarina, both of whom can interact with the background and things far out of the reach of Kutaro's stubby wooden arms. Initially seeming a bit awkward, before long you'll find prodding around becomes second nature, nabbing yourself extra Moonsparkles (akin to Mario's coins or Sonic's rings, with 100 earning you an extra life) from the scenery, discovering hidden heads or revealing the hidey-holes of other such puppet children. In the spirit of audience participation, Puppeteer also lets a friend join in and control your companion, giving you one less thing to think about – and letting them vacuum up Moonsparkles for you (which Yin Yarn/Pikarina can't do when in single player). While it's no fully-fledged co-op mode, it's still a nice touch, giving your friend/spouse/child something to do as they watch the stage show unfold.
Puppeteer is one of those games that refuses to take itself seriously, and while the odd technical hiccup can cause a problem, it's almost entirely overshadowed by the charming narrative, unique setting and general eccentricity. With 21 levels, oodles of secrets for completionists to uncover and a thoroughly entertaining narrative to work your way through, it's doubley surprising that this is a budget-priced game, weighing in at £25 rather than the usual £40+. As one of the PS3's swan songs, it's well worth a visit – after all, there's not really anything else like it.