Since time of writing, Papo & Yo has been ported to PC. This article is based solely on the PS3 original; see addendum at review's end for comments on the PC conversion.
When will this incessant onslaught of autobiographical magical games dealing with painful real-world issues of alcoholism and child abuse ever end? Come on, developers, we've had enough. Just once, just once, I'd like to have a game about a stubbly space marine shooting some aliens or some crap. Enough already with the heartfelt depictions of childhood innocence and the complex emotions of a dysfunctional father-son relationship through allegorical gameplay mechanics and gorgeous surrealist visuals. Seriously. I'm done with it. Blech.
Wait a second. Sorry. That's the intro to my review for Papo & Yo on Bizarro Adventure Gamers, where store shelves are lined with games that aren't about loot and killstreaks. I forget myself sometimes.
In this world, Papo & Yo is a rare thing indeed. This PlayStation Network downloadable title from Minority is a brave piece of storytelling as well as a great environmental puzzler with platforming elements. On the surface, it's a game about a young South American boy named Quico and his sentient toy robot Lula exploring a Sao Paolo-like favela and befriending a friendly monster named... well, Monster. Quico leads Monster around the city, occasionally requiring the creature's size and strength to overcome an obstacle as he follows the trail of a mysterious young girl who seems to be alternately warning Quico and beckoning him. The world is bright and warm, the music is innocent and playful, and the gameplay is bouncy and magical. At first, anyway. Over the course of the game's four or five hour length, not everything will go quite so smoothly.
You see, Monster has a problem. He's generally a nice guy, if a little lazy, as likely to help Quico out as he is to just slump into an impromptu nap wherever he can grab one, but when he sees the frogs liberally scattered around the city he can't help but go hunting. And when he gets his hands on one and eats it—well, let's just say he more than lives up to his name. The first time Monster turns on Quico, bursting into flames and tossing him around like a ragdoll, it's shocking and painful. The abrupt shift from Monster-as-friend to Monster-as-assailant is the central mechanic of the game: the player has no way to attack or hurt Monster—the only option is to flee and seek out the "rotten" fruit that, for some reason, calms the beast down.
It shouldn't be a surprise that a game which literally opens with its young protagonist huddling terrified in a closet goes to some darker places than its whimsical exterior might suggest. Lead designer Vander Caballero has been clear in explaining what the game really is: an allegory for his difficult childhood growing up with an alcoholic father who could swing between a warm, caring man and a violent, abusive monster. The metaphors aren't difficult to parse, and they're not meant to be. Rather, they're an effective way for Caballero to explore some very dark memories without drowning players in dreariness.
This is a game that leverages childish imagery in much the same way that the film adaptation of Where The Wild Things Are did: it's a game about childhood, not necessarily a game for children. (There's nothing expressly unfit for children, mind you, and in America the game is rated E for Everyone). By far the game's greatest strength is its storytelling, staunchly minimalist and fearlessly emotional. Led by a mysterious, elusive young girl in tribal face paint, Quico embarks on a rather vaguely-outlined quest to visit the city's "temple" in order to heal Monster's dangerous split personality. The "quest" storyline is fairly standard stuff, but the clear allegorical nature imbues it with a surprising amount of depth; when Quico must hurry to find and squash all of the frogs in a given area before Monster can reach them, players know that they are experiencing the story on two levels: an intense if charming bit of fantasy, and a raw depiction of a child smashing his father's stashed bottles in a desperate attempt to keep him from lapsing into drunken abuse.
Fortunately, the surrounding game is pretty great too. It's a platforming adventure in which the puzzles are all spatial—how do I build a bridge to cross that chasm? How do I manipulate these gears to open that door? Caballero has cited the PlayStation 2 classic ICO as an influence and it shows in the combination of escorting your AI companion, leaping around a surreal world, and solving mechanical puzzles. You won't be asked to pull off amazing feats of dexterity or combat prowess—there's no combat at all, in fact. Rather, the emphasis is on exploration and experimentation. The action here is almost always in service to the puzzles, which are in turn intrinsically woven into the story.
Quico can run, jump, even fly momentarily with the help of Lula's jetpack (why didn't I have toys like that growing up?), and he'll do plenty of all three throughout the game. The controls are standard: move Quico with the left analog stick, the camera with the right. Nothing surprising there. Most of the game is spent leisurely exploring, leaping around from rooftop to rooftop, only occasionally (perhaps 5-6 times throughout the game) dipping into more intense sequences when Monster becomes enraged. The platforming can feel a little loose at times, and the inability to grab ledges or mantles is sorely missed, but it all works and there aren't many moments that require pinpoint precision control anyway, so this is far from a major flaw. It's more than serviceable, and I never found myself more than momentarily frustrated by the controls. It helps that there's no real "death"—a fall simply sends you back to the last platform or occasionally the beginning of the area, and Monster's attacks never kill you, only fling you around. The action elements could be better, but they're far from bad.Continued on the next page...