The only thing worse than a TV show with an audience laugh track is a video game with an audience laugh track. Here's looking at you, Puppeteer.
Actually, the canned laughter is only one of several problems with what at first appears to be an intriguing and noble new effort to spice up the stolid platforming genre. Puppeteer does a few things right, but there's also so much it gets wrong.
Let's start with the story, which is as nonsensical as it gets. The Moon Bear King – he's a bear who's a king that lives on the moon, naturally – captures the souls of children and puts them to work in his castle. One of the boys, Kutaro, is cast off after having his head chopped off. But that's okay – he can find new ones to try on, each of which unlock new bonuses such as hidden levels. The mute youngster is enlisted by the Moon Witch to get revenge on the villain and is promptly paired up with Ying Yang, a talking, flying cat sidekick who can discover new heads.
Still with me? Yeah, it's pretty hard to decipher any logic to it all, and things only get weirder from there. The Moon Bear King sics his followers, including a militant rat and a giant puppet snake, on Kutaro as the player traverse a host of levels ranging from oceans to deserts and forests.
Did I mention the whole thing unfolds as a stage show, with big red velvet curtains opening and closing between the story's seven acts. That's where the laugh track comes in. The unseen audience laughs at the parts that are supposed to be funny and "oohs," "ahhs" and claps whenever Kutaro does something impressive. It's bad enough when TV shows tell you how you should be reacting – it's even worse in a game, where the player is supposed to be the ultimate judge of what's happening on screen.
As if all that wasn't enough to make you squirm, there's also a British narrator who fills in even more confusing backstory. It conjures up memories of LittleBigPlanet, Sony's other big platformer series, which also features voiceovers from actor Stephen Fry. Puppeteer strives hard for the same quirky charm, but with no legitimate laughs to speak of, it falls short.
That missing of the mark extends to many of the characters too, who are mostly annoying. Kutaro's feline sidekick Ying Yang, for one, has some sort of unidentifiable accent that's as grating as nails on a chalkboard – he keeps pronouncing "moon" as "meeeyoon," which made me want to chop his head off. The sun princess, who joins the quest a little later, is an annoying teenager who does nothing but whine. The only likeable character of the bunch is Kutaro, and that's because he says nothing.
Yes, this is supposed to be kids' fare, but even children are likely to be hard pressed to make any sense of it. The intriguing idea of the multiple heads – which seems to be presented as the central premise of the game early on – is never really taken beyond cosmetic collectability. The heads activate bonuses, but they're not really essential to the game. I gave up looking for them after only a few acts.
Other abilities that our protagonist eventually picks up are far more necessary. Magical scissors, for example, allow him to basically fly by cutting through tapestries, leaves and other background items, while the exploding bombs he finds after discovering the secrets of the ninja let him take out enemies and obstacles. But again, there are logic problems – why are ninjas associated with bombs? Wouldn't it have made more sense for Kutaro to gain stealth abilities or even a sword upon learning their secrets?
Puppeteer works best when it just lets you rip with these abilities, and has some fun and inventive boss battles. Kutaro may, for example, have to jump a giant boss's flying blades, then use a grappling hook to pull the bad guy down to the ground. Then, after the boss takes off again, he must snip his way up to his head using his magical scissors.
Unfortunately, the action is often overshadowed by more of that non-sensical story. The levels are usually short, which means you end up sitting through large portions of the game watching the story spiral even further into inanity.
If the story, forced zaniness and virtual audience got out of the way, there might be a fun game to found in Puppeteer. Yet, if that were the case, the whole thing would last only a handful of hours. It's a game that tries way too hard to be funny, quirky and different, which is the surest way to end up as anything but.