Puppeteer is a hard game to define; as a platform game it is too obviously and intrusively fragmented by design to have the continued momentum that has traditionally defined the genre, and as a puzzle game it is not as in-depth as a title such as Fez; it sits in a strange yet satisfying midpoint between the two genres. What its deliberate, neatly-broken-up structure does is turn it into a game much more based around technical prowess and replaying levels once the nature of a puzzle is known; despite a strongly narrative-driven linearity of design it is simultaneously a game based around returning to find new areas in past areas.
A game which combines platforming with another genre – in this case the point-and-click adventure – risks unsatisfyingly depicting both aspects. While Fez’s transmedia puzzles were innovatively used, its method of interacting with the world was limited and it worked better as a framework for logical exercises of deduction than a hybrid platform/adventure game. Puppeteer has, on the other hand, solid platforming; it deploys the heavy physics of something like LittleBigPlanet or Pid and adds a number of gadgets to make traversing the world more varied.
Crucially, these powers are well-applied and introduced at a steady rate and it is the variety of movement options and problem-solving tools that allow the player to return to past levels. Hooks and bomb symbols become new routes to secret areas once the appropriate item is found – these are puzzles within the video-game world using game logic, not distinct from it. At the same time, though, what these puzzles generally permit is the unlocking of new heads, the “currency” of the game.
At first the head-switching mechanic might seem to be an evocation of retro classic Dynamite Headdy, with each “theme” for the protagonist having a unique ability. But instead, they serve as keys to different paths within levels. As the player progresses, they will encounter symbols that correspond to heads found within the level (usually in some secret area that requires exploration or investigation to find), and activation of that head’s ability at that point will open a shortcut or bonus room. This adds a resource-management aspect to the game and again highlights its replay value; a first pass through a level may show that the player has none of the right heads to see the secrets, but provide the information needed for a second pass.
At the same time, though, this is the main failing of the game; the heads required to see the secrets are a health system, replenished using pots throughout the level. Collecting a new head overwrites the active one, and so it is easy to accidentally lose a vital head with no way of restoring it. Similarly, the secrets are one-use-only; a simple error after activating one can mean it is lost for that run through the level. The end result of this is at time the game feels unfairly random; seeing parts of the level is reliant on having the right item at the right time with often no way of predicting when this will happen, or way of fixing this without beginning again. Backward progress through the level is blocked by the structure of the game as a series of self-contained rooms, and so if anything the insistence on replaying levels is too strong.
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