Art in games is a tricky thing, balancing fun with meaning is a very hard thing to do and actually creating something that both entertains and touches someone is a tall order. Papo & Yo, today’s PSN release is trying to do just that with a somewhat autobiographical telling of the Creative Director’s experiences growing up with an alcoholic father and his abuse. It’s obviously very heavy subject matter and press and public alike have been curious to see if it can be pulled off in a game. Well I’ve played through it and while the points it was trying make certainly got across I don’t know if I would call it good. For all its meaning there are some significant problems here and I’m sad to say Papo & Yo-both as a game and as art-ends up missing its mark.
So we’re going to start with the story and writing as that was pretty much the whole point of this endeavor. The basic story is that the protagonist, a young boy named Quico, while hiding in a closet from a monster gets transported to a strange new world. Here Quico-along with his robot monkey companion-encounter a slow-witted monster which they befriend, unfortunately he has an addiction to frogs which cause him to go on a destructive rampage whenever he eats one. Your goal is to escort him to a temple so he can be cured. So right off the bat you’ve probably already figured out what represents what in that brief summary of the game’s premise and to be fair it works quite well as a representation of a traumatized child’s escapism from what is a genuinely terrible situation but the game doesn’t seem to trust you with these metaphors. It’s been made very clear from the previews and press coverage of this game that the monster is Quico’s father and the frogs represent booze and his abuse of it; it can be assumed if you’re even interested in this game you already knew that fact. Despite this strong establishing of that metaphor, the game feels the need to explicitly show that “yes, the monster is the dad” on no less than three separate occasions (and they’re not all just at the end of the game), it even goes so far as to treat it like a big twist you never would have seen coming. I can’t give specific examples without spoiling parts of the game but being so blatant with your metaphors not only makes it lack subtlety and impact but feels extremely condescending to the player who figured out what you’re yelling at them an hour and a half ago. Ironically I think that if I had gotten to go into this game with absolutely no prior knowledge of it, I would have found a bit more enjoyment in the story but sadly that wasn’t a possibility.
The other thing that was selling people on this game in previews was the beautiful presentation and thankfully that’s a promise that’s kept…mostly. The environments are all designed to look like Brazilian favelas (multi-level shanty towns) and while obviously a symbol of poverty they also have a rough-hewn charm and beauty that makes for some pretty and interesting environments. Things are equal parts colorfully sun-dappled and grimly gray with much of the world cut apart and transected by sterling white chunks and chalk lines that seem to represent a child’s imagination and how it can transform the world around them. Everything floats about and has this great frozen in time kind of feel, it reminds me a lot of the better parts of Alice: Madness Returns and that is very much a good thing. Overall the art design in this game is fantastic but where it fails is the execution, the Unreal Engine 3 is a fickle mistress after all. Aside from expected minor clipping here and there, you’ll also see terrible frame rate drops, ugly texture pop in, and minor screen tearing all of which will take a pin to your bubble of immersion and launch you right out of the story you were trying to be engaged in. As for the sound design I have nothing specific to say, it was fine for the most part but maybe a little sparse in the beginning which actually added a little to the mysterious quality the game was aiming for.
Gameplay was always just going to be a way to convey the player through the story but with the whole monster & boy dynamic I was hoping they might do something interesting, I was sadly wrong. Gameplay mainly consists of a lot of finding that thing, jumping to that thing, and interacting with that thing; throw in a little “lead an NPC around by carrying a thing” gameplay and you’ve got Papo & Yo covered. On the plus side the platforming feels pretty good, Quico is quick and agile and generally goes where you tell him to. For parts of the game he has a hover ability which is a lot of fun to use and again just feels nice and smooth. On the negative side the puzzles are not all that hard and not that well designed; solutions generally were very obvious and it was just a matter of execution. When I did get stuck it was mostly because the game wasn’t providing enough information which can be frustrating and not the good Portal kind of frustrating. The gameplay felt like a slog here, when I wasn’t annoyed I was bored, and as the story started to show it wasn’t going anywhere I was just pushing through it for the sake of completion. While the gameplay is solid there is just nothing new or engaging here, it does tie into the story well but that wasn’t enough to make it interesting.
I went into this game with some high hopes and was very curious to experience a story of personal trauma in an entirely new way but the pieces never quite came together. For as much as I most certainly have tons of sympathy for the horrible situation upon which the story is based, I still feel like it’s poorly written and condescends to the player quite a bit by belaboring its primary metaphor. The presentation is the highlight of this game but for as much as I enjoyed the visuals the technical bugs kept gnawing at me. The gameplay while solid is uninteresting and does absolutely nothing we haven’t seen before. Papo & Yo did make me feel both for Quico and for all those who suffer and have suffered in that situation so it accomplished its goal but I still feel like this story could have been told better. There are certainly high points here and putting the quality of the story telling aside the lessons it teaches and the perspectives it shows are genuinely interesting but it fails to deliver overall as a game and narrative experience. Despite my sympathies I have to do my job as a reviewer and objectively I don’t feel this is worth the $15; I didn’t have fun playing it, the graphics are buggy in a way that hurts the story, and I felt the writing was sub-par. It’s a sad and personal tale that unfortunately has a lot of its poignancy diminished by the game that tells it and for that Papo & Yo gets a 2 out of 5 stars.