Game Review: Papo & Yo [PS3]
Papo & Yo looked set to brighten this summer in ways last seen in Thatgamecompany’s Journey. Minority Inc have, to some extent, matched its peer’s tonal subtleties and expositional ingenuities, rendering a touching narrative that gets its hooks in early. The gameplay itself, however, lets the side down, thankfully falling shy of destroying an otherwise brilliant idea.
We’ve seen games handle difficult themes before; one may think of the tragedies in Heavy Rain or the twisted darkness ingrained within GTA. Papo & Yo deals with a more intimate atrocity, child abuse. Built as an outlet for the real life experiences of creator, Vander Caballero, the game’s colourful aesthetics mask some genuinely dark undertones, all of which are commendably handled with the subtlety and care they deserve.
We find the unlikely protagonist to be a young South-American boy, Quico. He rarely speaks, acting primarily as a receptacle for the player; although, unlike Mr Freeman for example, he does emote, generally through action over dialogue. He’s joined by a mysterious girl, whose identity is only ever hinted at, and a robotic friend, Lula, a more talkative kind of guy who can handily trigger switches and operate as a Clank-esque traversal jet pack. Of course, the other dominant lead is Monster, a hulking pink beast who, at best, shows the player scornful indifference and, at worst, goes crazy on a frog-fuelled rampage.
It doesn’t take long for the symbolism to become abundantly clear, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, the subtelies in Monster become all the more impressive once you realise the meaning behind them. Especially memorable are the moments when Quico must comically bounce of Monster’s stomach to reach higher areas. Before doing so he clambers onto the beast’s resting belly, waking him up slightly. Monster then quizzically examines the boy before nonchalantly falling back to sleep. It’s these quieter, subdued scenarios that are universally evocative, but they serve also in making the frenzied scenes all the more powerful. When Monster enters his first rage, it is frightening. He bursts into flames, charges, scoops up a screaming Quico in his mouth and tosses him aside.
The ways Papo & Yo‘s deals with the harrowing issues are staggeringly well executed and the strongest elements of the game, providing the player with enough incentive to carry on to its emotional climax.
Visually, Papo & Yo impresses, but this is more a testament to the wonderful artistic direction than it is the engine, which, for the most part, seems unstable. Environments look great but there are repeated textures everywhere. The frame rate tends to hit rock bottom more than I’d like, and screen tearing is also a consistent problem. There’s a nice aesthetic mixture of gritty South-American urbanism and child-like chalk overlays. It’s a joy to watch the world regularly break apart and change in fantastical ways, at one point evoking the film Inception as the player bends the environment in half. The soundtrack contains a similarly artistic flare, blending a distinct regional flavour with the allotted thematic poignancy to great effect.
Persevering technical issues aside, Papo & Yo really stumbles when it comes to gameplay. At its core it’s a pretty basic puzzle-platformer. The puzzles are usually environmental, asking Quico to find a switch and then another (and then another). Often you’re told to guide Monster through areas using his second favourite food, coconuts (his favourite is frogs), but its cumbersome and honestly not that much fun. There are hint boxes in every level, and whilst they’re interestingly designed, they’re ostensibly useless given the lack of difficulty. The only challenge will come from wrestling with the unwieldy controls in the later stages, as the game asks for a level of jumping precision the setup was seemingly not built to handle. The puzzles are somewhat varied, but mostly forgettable – there are some stellar exceptions though. Building a skyscraper-high tower of small homes was an entertaining time, as was directly controlling floating huts by picking up boxes, voodoo-doll-style. But these moments are few and far between, which is itself a feat given the short running time of only a few hours.
Papo & Yo is a strange one to call, it’s a classic head and heart dilemma. Treated simply as video game, it’s an average one, marred by basic puzzle design and the odd technical issue. Treated as a narrative – an exercise in symbolism – and these problems seem to fade away. The actual experience, like Journey, is a bona fide emotional roller-coaster, that keeps you intrigued in spite of itself and whilst I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it to everyone, anyone interested in some genuinely thought-provoking material should consider downloading.