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. Fez and similar games worked because they were open-world and there was not the same sense of forward motion that Puppeteer relies on; the more developed platforming this game employs does not always capitalise on the potential of the puzzle aspect. A gallery mode gives the player hints on heads that they have missed, but the entire philosophy of the level design (where a head-usage symbol may be in the middle of a boss fight, where the player is likely to lose that head by getting hit) does not make the point-and-click aspects as rewarding as they could be. The joy of puzzle games is generally in the methodical, logical process of solving puzzles (where Fez‘s out-of-game aspects shone); if this is tied to a more traditional gamist progression method such as platforming, an open-world or continuous level structure – allowing the player to return to puzzles in their own time – seems more appropriate than a constant sense of forward motion and opportunities missed.
What also makes the replay aspect of Puppeteer so incongruous is how narrative-driven it is; it tells a linear story in well-presented cutscenes and diegetic dialogue between characters in the background, and its theatrical presentation with a narrator and scenery appearing on stage by ropes and gears and trapdoors is charming. Yet because of this, the level design becomes awkwardly fragmented, with lengthy periods of inaction that feel unsatisfying. Replaying levels makes this disjointedness even more apparent, and the length of many of the levels combined with the ease with which conditions for secrets can be missed or failed makes them less appealing to return to time and again to see everything. A platform game like Rayman Origins has short, fluid levels with minimal interruptions in the action and storytelling kept as unintrusive as possible. Obviously, Puppeteer is a very different kind of game, but its attempts to combine score-chasing replay and completion focus with a linear story do not quite convince. In narrative terms, however, it succeeds; combining the easygoing narration of a title like Bastion or Littlebigplanet with a quirky story that pokes fun at fairytales and classic Disney animated musicals, and using a puppet-theatre aesthetic both to frame the story but also as a puzzle design tool, it has a very strong sense of theme that quite outdoes many more abstracted and narrative-light platforming or puzzle games. It manages to have disparate environments and self-contained levels that feel complete and yet also contribute to a wider story, and – perhaps most crucially – makes its characters a key part of the game experience. Its cast of villains provide well-developed boss fights in retro game style, with simple repeat-three-times patterns which always require mastery of all skills acquired up to that point. These on their own, and the times when the platforming is the main focus and the levels expand in scope beyond small areas, show the strength of Puppeteer – it is a platform game first and foremost.
Yet at the same time the constant screen-transitions via teleport at the completion of each discrete level section, and the large amounts of narrative which sometimes slows the progression down and kills ongoing momentum, plus the constant focus on finding secrets, mean it is overall a game uncertain of how it wants to be paced; there is not the harmonious mixture of genres that would make it truly exceptional. Puzzle elements are integrated incompletely with the platforming elements, and while both have moments of retro-inspired genius neither is quite sufficient to truly stand alone.