Giant Bomb Review

29 Comments

Papo & Yo Review

3
  • PS3N

Minority Media's debut game is at once a beautiful, affecting tale of childhood tragedy, and a generally lackluster puzzle platformer.

I don't think its unfair to say that personal expression plays a huge part in any successful artistic creation. Whether it's a film, music, or literature, many of our most revered talents poured much of themselves into the works that made them so recognizable. So why do we not necessarily expect the same of games? Without diving into that obnoxious, self-indulgent argument of whether or not games can be Art, one can simply say that for many, many years, games have been seen by many--including some of those who help make them--as purely fluff entertainment. Sure, our best games have often come from designers who injected a bit of themselves into what you ended up playing, but outside of a few rare cases, most games have seemed largely content to be viewed as simple entertainment software, meant to be purchased, consumed, and essentially left behind once the next big thing comes along.

Quico and Monster have a friendship, albeit a troubled one.

Papo & Yo isn't content to be mere software. As the debut game from indie studio Minority Media and its founder, Vander Caballero, Papo & Yo explores themes often left to "heavier" entertainment media, but does so in a way that tries to marry whimsical, childlike fantasy to its tragic underpinnings. When it works, Papo & Yo is unlike anything I've played before, a heartfelt allegory of a painful childhood experience depicted in equal measure with traditional storytelling and the mechanics of gameplay. Unfortunately, there are as many instances where Papo & Yo doesn't quite work, where the metaphors and the mechanics don't sync up, leaving the player in stilted, awkward circumstances that disengage you from the experience.

Few of those issues rear their head in the game's early goings, where you are introduced to Quico, a South American boy who finds himself in a strange, fantastical world. Though this world features many of the abject elements of slum life, Quico is surprisingly adept at manipulating it. More on that later.

Quico is joined by a pair of strange friends. Lula is a sentient toy robot who periodically helps out with solving puzzles, while Monster is precisely what he sounds like. The pink-skinned, multi-horned Monster is a peculiar creature. At times, he's a little like Labyrinth's lumbering Ludo, a simple-minded but pleasant giant that tags along for the ride. At others, he's a literal flaming psychopath, hellbent on attacking anything in his path.

Caballero has made no secret that Quico and Monster's relationship is based upon his own relationship with his father, who was an abusive alcoholic. In this case, Monster is addicted to frogs. He eats them, and suddenly his demeanor shifts from chummy to enraged. Your task as Quico is to find ways to push the decidedly lazy Monster through the game's world while simultaneously trying to manage and hopefully cure his addiction.

When Monster becomes angry, it's not a pretty sight. And not just because the frame rate tanks.

It's not often you're faced with an allegory as heavy as that when playing a video game. Undoubtedly the process of trying to combine such barbed themes with a world and play style that effectively takes some of the stinging edge off is a complicated one. To try and tackle this, Minority has crafted Papo & Yo as a lightweight puzzle platformer, rooted in simple jumping and switch-finding puzzles that don't so much challenge as briefly distract.

The puzzles are meant to be unobtrusive to the player, but in their simplicity, unintended complications arise. This is especially true of the game's middle sections, which rely more on the puzzle solving elements than the narrative. Throughout the game, you follow around a mysterious girl who may or may not have the key to solving Monster's ills. She draws doors, switches, gears, and all manner of other gadgetry on the walls in chalk outlines. These chalk outlines become three-dimensional objects somehow, and Quico is able to manipulate them.

Trouble is, that's really all Quico has to do. You enter a level, see the highlighted sections that need to be interacted with, and pretty much just do that until you're out of things to interact with. The only real challenge before you is jumping up to those places. Not because the jumps are difficult to parse, but because the controls are simply too loose to jump anywhere with precision. The whole purpose of Papo & Yo's simplistic design seems to be to keep the player focused on the world around them, but the loose handling forces the player to focus for all the wrong reasons. Instead of taking in the details of the environment, you're hyperfocused on some ledge or rooftop that you keep missing because the controls can't easily get you there.

Technical glitches and bugs have a tendency to get in the way as well. The frame rate can be dodgy, and there's no shortage of screen-tearing glitches to be found, but those are the kinds of forgivable things you can ignore when you're truly engaged with a game. Less forgivable are the bugs that sometimes take you right out of the game and force you to restart progress. Some of the bugs I experienced were fixed via a day-one patch, but others stuck around, including a couple of reproduceable world progress glitches that required a restart to fix.

These issues are less of a problem in the early and late goings of Papo & Yo, because these are the areas where the puzzle-solving largely gives way to the story. Caballero once told me in an interview that his ultimate goal was to tell his stories using mechanics, and in these sections, the story is told effectively. Quico's exploration of his imaginary world effortlessly blends into the gameplay, mixing metaphors and interactivity in a way that's simply beautiful. It's especially true of the end, which I will only say provides a pointed, heartbreaking catharsis to the events that have come before.

Even with its flaws, Quico's imaginary world is worth visiting.

This is not a game afraid to hide its pain, though it does occasionally have issues expressing that pain with clarity. It's something that nagged at me throughout Papo & Yo, specifically the relationship between Quico and Monster. Monster, by all appearances, is meant to be a friendly character, someone that Quico loves and shows affection toward. However, the game's story doesn't always use this relationship to great effect. Too often Monster is simply a tool you use to get to the next level section, or something you have to calm down to avoid injury. While there are moments where Monster will occasionally step in to rescue Quico from some peril, too often Monster feels like a means to an end, rather than a full-fledged character to attach to. He's less a best friend than a looming, undefined presence. It's possible that's true to Caballero's experience with his father, but without a more identifiable attachment to Monster, it's tougher than it ought to be to connect with the emotions the story actively pushes you toward.

Which isn't to say you won't be affected by it at all. It might not dig as deep as it seemingly could have, and the technical issues are perhaps a bit too prevalent to ignore, but in an age where indie games are finally beginning to bloom as a way to experiment with narrative, Papo & Yo still feels like a brave step forward into uncharted territory. And as with all first steps, it's something of a clumsy one, perhaps unsure of itself and its own limitations. Caballero and his team have crafted something in Papo & Yo that I believe is a wholly worthwhile experience, if not an entirely successful one. They've shown that they lack neither the creativity nor the conviction to push gaming to more personal, more uncomfortable spaces. And even if the first fruit of that labor turned out flawed, the ideas behind it are still worth cheering for.

Alex Navarro on Google+
29 Comments
Edited by StrikeALight

Papo and BOOM! HEADSHOT.

Posted by wumbo3000

Lots of reviews hitting this week! Games are finally coming out!

Posted by Milkman

From the Quick Look, it seemed like an interesting concept but kind of a technical mess.

Edited by Gunslinger0130

Good review Alex, downloaded the game but haven't played it yet. Just as an FYI, you might want to add an 'ing' to the end of 'begin' in the second sentence of your last paragraph. 

Posted by mrcraggle

I thought for sure Ryan was gonna review this. How does Alex have time to get through this, Sleeping Dogs and Sound Shapes in such a short period yet produce such in-depth reviews?

Posted by Animasta

wait, the studio's name is actually minority media? That sounds really pretentious to me

I mean the game sounds really interesting and I'm bummed I can't play it, but I dunno.

Posted by Video_Game_King

How did I know it was you? HOW DID I KNOW IT WAS YOU!?

Posted by JoeyRavn

After watching the Quick Look, this is exactly what I ended up thinking about the game: unique and personal story behind it, but unpolished gameplay. Boy, didn't I get told for criticizing an indie game! But I stand by my gut reaction. The game looks extremely charming, but not very fun to play. I guess a few patches could polish the rough edges a bit... I guess.

@mrcraggle said:

I thought for sure Ryan was gonna review this. How does Alex have time to get through this, Sleeping Dogs and Sound Shapes in such a short period yet produce such in-depth reviews?

Between this and the fact that he seems to be the less changed from the Gamespot days... he's definitely a robot.

Posted by 1960sSpiderman

Maybe he's more of a freelancer than a full-time employee so he gets paid by the review rather than a steady paycheck? That would explain the mass of Alex reviews and so few from anybody else.

Posted by Alex

@1960sSpiderman: Nope! Full time just like everybody else. I'm just good at churning through games, I guess.

Staff
Posted by Xtrememuffinman
@Alex: Is the game short? The Quicklook really piqued my interest, but I'd rather play a really short janked up game than sludge through a long one. I'll buy the game if I can burn through it fast enough.
Posted by kennybaese

I think I'm definitely going to check it out at some point soon. The story stuff in it seems interesting enough that I'll probably be willing to forgive the technical issues.

Posted by Alex

@Xtrememuffinman: I'd say it's a little over four hours.

Staff
Posted by FunExplosions
And even if the first fruit of that labor turned out flawed, the ideas behind it are still worth cheering for.

Except I bet this studio is going to go under, sadly enough. Dat recession.

Posted by The_Moose

trusted!

Posted by mutha3

Awesome review, Alex. You convinced me to pick it up, and I wasn't even interested before I read this.

Posted by Subjugation

Man, they sure are turning Alex into the workhorse.

Posted by dropabombonit

Great review as always Alex. You summed up my thoughts on the game perfectly. Papo & Yo has technical problems but I think the story was good enough that I played through it in one sitting. I feel with a little more polish this game could have been something special like Journey

Posted by thatpinguino

Its a shame that this review had to have a score, the text says worthwhile and interesting story and characters, but simple and unfun puzzles. Whereas the score says mediocre. But then that is why you read the reviews.

Posted by DanTheGamer32

@thatpinguino: 3 stars =/= mediocre

Posted by thatpinguino

@DanTheGamer32: It isn't supposed to mean mediocre but most people take it that way.

Posted by Christoffer

Hell of a review. Alex is the best writer of the staff, no doubt.

Posted by EverydayOdyssey

Great review, Alex. I am still on the fence with this game - it seems interesting, but I am not sure I will find it fun, which is what I am looking for at the moment. I'll have to check out the quick look too. Once again, fantastic review.

Edited by Brackynews

@mrcraggle said:

I thought for sure Ryan was gonna review this. How does Alex have time to get through this, Sleeping Dogs and Sound Shapes in such a short period yet produce such in-depth reviews?

Well... I'm betting this was rhetorical for the sake of praise, which is cool. Still, Alex does not have to spend 3-6 hours every week on podcast audio and e-mail selection, nor Ryan's other responsibilities like TNT hosting, merchandise, QL hosting, guest scheduling (QLEX), moving his beyonce into their house, blocking people on Twitter, and there's a PAX Prime panel coming up in 12 days that probably needs some attention.

I'm just guessing. Could be off base. ;p Point being, they are all top men doing their part.

Posted by Scotto

Three stars sounds about right, from what I saw in the QL. Some interesting metaphors at play, a couple of somewhat interesting mechanical ideas, wrapped in a pretty dull looking gameplay experience.

Edited by sixpin

@Alex: Great review Alex. I played through the game yesterday and found it somewhat difficult to nail down how I felt about it. The comment you made about the game's mechanics getting in the way of the story on occasion really clicked for me. I think that the game is a great experience, one I'd recommend people at least try, as it really shows a lot of potential. I didn't have as much trouble with controls or glitches (only one restart required), but I played it post-patch obviously.

One thing I'll add is after you finish a first play through of the story, they have this replay gimmick for collecting hats that kind of bummed me out a little. It just seemed way too videogamey for something with such focus on emotional gravitas.

Edited by sickVisionz

Good story and bad gameplay strikes me as a title that could have actually been good if it was more in line with stuff that's more of an interactive movie than a game like Heavy Rain or the Walking Dead.

Ultimately, a game has to be played and a great story seems like a total waste of everyone's time and effort if it's matched with lackluster gameplay.

Posted by HerbieBug

Fantastic review Alex! Very informative. :)

Posted by SpartanHoplite

intresting lookin game, i'll try it.