Papo & Yo
“To my mother, brothers and sisters with whom I survived the monster in my father.” With this revealing sentence Papo & Yo starts; a stark message that what follows has more on its mind that your typical puzzle platformer. Videogames as allegory are still relatively rare, whereas other forms of narrative fiction have long used their medium’s own conventions to explore deeper or more personal issues it is only really recently with the growing popularity of smaller indie game studios that designers have started applying a similar tack to the games that we play.
Since it was announced Papo & Yo has gathered interest for its lead designer, Vander Caballero’s, openness about the games relation to his own experiences growing up in Brazil with an alcoholic and violent father. Viewed through this lens it gives the game a different feel, a more grounded and sombre tone that would have otherwise been the case. However deeper artistic intent does not in itself a great game make, and where Papo & Yo falls down it is in the more gameplay driven elements, but these do not ultimately stop it being an interesting and distinctly unique entry to the PSN selection of downloadable games.
As the story starts you assume the figure of Quico, a small boy first seen cowering in a bedroom wardrobe before being transported to what appear to be the favela streets of Brazil. In this mostly realistic looking environment you find ways of manipulating the world, through clear white lines and drawn on symbols that you interact with. Through pushing and pulling levers and turning keys you begin to open up your way around the world, and the way that the whimsical, childlike elements (houses sprout legs and wander across the screen, you pull a building down into a series of stairs) mix with the more grounded environment works effectively.
The game opens with you following a mysterious girl who eventually leads you to Monster, a hulking orange beast with a proclivity for sleeping and eating fruit. Initially the game seems to follow a natural co-operative experience, as you lure Monster to switches and between you a path through the world opens up. However there’s a twist, if you come across an area containing frogs then Monster loses his cool, as eating these sends him into a fiery rage (quite literally) where he turns from lumbering friend to dangerous foe. The game’s metaphor here is not subtle, but it can be effective and navigating these mechanics to progress through the world to find a ‘cure for Monster’ is what drives the rest of the game. There is no death state, no real chance of failure, just a focus on problem solving and finding your way through the world.
The real problem with Papo & Yo is that after a promising start, it doesn’t manage to maintain the same level of ingenuity and inventiveness to the end. It shows its hand too early and your basic skillset then remains unchanged for the rest of the game (and in one slightly frustrating decision is actually reduced for a large portion of the 4-5 hour adventure). This might not be such an issue if the level of puzzle design was changed up enough, but they remain relatively simplistic to the conclusion.
It’s not that any of it is particularly bad, just somewhat unengaging, with there is usually only one way to solve a problem which simply involves finding all the areas of the level you can interact with, requiring little in the way of actual problem solving. It’s a shame as the mechanics are fairly solid, the jumping can be a bit of a pain and the game overall lacks the polish of some bigger titles, but it doesn’t really impact how it plays. The use of Monster as well can be disappointing, again relying on a set few standard puzzles and abilities, plus the inclusion of the rage-induced sequences can frustrate when Monster takes to throwing your character around the screen should you fail to avoid him; this may well be be somewhat harrowing the first time, but the tenth or twentieth…?
Joining the somewhat bland gameplay is the overall aesthetic design; whilst it is nice to see a more original setting used in this style of game it can feel very generic in terms of the art-style and repetition of similar looking streets and buildings. The inclusion of a more abstract style or a bolder look across a wider variety of environments may have helped this and would have still allowed for the mix of the realistic and fantastical that the core of the game rests on.
Though it may dip a little in the middle Papo & Yo finishes strongly, making good use of the game’s evocative musical score and themes to create a resonant conclusion that may be a little on the nose, but still feels risky and experimental compared to the narrative tropes typically used by most games. If you can look past its flaws Papo & Yo is definitely a title worth your interest and attention, it is a shame that the execution at times can’t match the lofty ambitions. As a piece of art exploring a difficult subject it deserves praise, and if first time developer Minority can build on the foundations of this uneven but fascinating experiment, it could be on to something really special.
D+PAD reviewed Papo & Yo on the PlayStation 3; game provided by TriplePoint PR.
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