Adventure Gamers Awards
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.
The puzzles, however, are hugely satisfying. What they lack in difficulty they more than make up for in creativity. The city Quico and Monster inhabit is covered in glowing chalk outlines of gears and handles as well as swirling runes and other beautiful designs. When activated, these designs often warp the environment in surprising and fantastical ways: walls magically split into thin slices and bend as if they were made of rubber, buildings sprout wings and flap across open courtyards, platforms erupt from the ground. Several times throughout the game I literally laughed out loud with delight as I turned a wheel or pressed a button and something thoroughly unexpected and wild transpired. No, it's not terribly hard. Riven it ain't, but the puzzles are clever enough that you'll still feel that surge of achievement upon solving one that is so essential to the genre. And even though the majority of puzzles revolve around pressing glowing things until other things line up so that you can jump on them, they play with that formula enough that I never got bored.
Much of that variety comes from Monster's presence—he's needed to progress through most areas, which are often bottlenecked by 'Monster' buttons that are only trigged by his proximity. Since players never directly control Monster, you must use the environment to influence his behavior. When he's not angry, Monster tends to wander around a given area in search of fruit. Quico can coax him around by picking up fruit as if it were a carrot on stick, leading Monster towards buttons or other hotspots. When Monster is napping (he seems downright narcoleptic most of the time), Quico can bound off of his protruding belly to reach new heights. That's pretty much the extent of it: Monster's a simple-minded feller, so don't go expecting him to help out without a hefty incentive, and definitely don't expect him to do anything requiring more intelligence or skill than bound around and eat things.
The relationship between Quico and the dual Jekyll/Hyde nature of Monster is the bedrock for the game's emotional complexities. Monster fits more in line with Monsters, Inc.'s cuddly aesthetic than a Lovecraftian horror, and he mostly seems like a pretty sweet guy, so when he turns against you the first time it isn't just intense, it's shocking and even heartbreaking. This "innocence lost" motif is prevalent throughout the game, and it's a gut-puncher.
The game's art excels at conveying those ideas. Quico begins the game dressed in his school outfit and grows progressively more feral; the colorful favela architecture begins to fragment, increasingly leaving real world physics and design behind. Similarly, the soundtrack starts to lean toward the somber rather than the playful. The game never loses sight of the wonder and fun that it starts out with—don't worry that things might turn into a dour drudge—but things evolve in ways that reinforce what's happening emotionally in the game, which sounds so obvious but is actually quite rare in games.
Unfortunately, on the technical side things aren't quite so successful. Despite being built on the cutting edge Unreal Engine, Papo & Yo looks dated. The lighting is pretty flat, the character models lack expression, and the environments rely heavily on reused assets—you'll see the same few prefabricated buildings over and over again in almost every area. Considering the small size of the development team and (most likely) a tiny budget, however, this is understandable. This is a case where a short play-time is a boon, since if it were any longer it might get very tiring walking into yet another courtyard built from the same dirt floors, dilapidated walls, and corrugated iron roofs. It's still a beautiful game, but it would have been nice to see such a fantastic concept look slightly less rickety.
The sound design is minimal—the soundtrack doesn't seem to have a ton of different cues; there's no voice acting beyond short exclamations; and the world is generally rather quiet. Most of the sound effects are shimmery, magical bursts of noise as the world warps and bends as you press buttons and turn handles. It works, but it's not particularly noteworthy. But that's okay. It's a PSN game, so expecting AAA production values would be unrealistic. While it's a little disappointing, it does nothing to diminish the game's real strengths, the storytelling and puzzles.
Vander Caballero and the other developers at Minority Media have done a brave thing. In an industry where juvenile power fantasies are the norm, it takes courage to effectively tell such a painful, personal story, along with a singular vision to tell it in such an entertaining, enlightening way. Papo & Yo is as short and sweet as it is powerful and harrowing. It's not always perfect, it's not even always "fun" in a standard sense, but damn if it's not an experience that will stick with you long after you've moved on. For that alone it's worth recommending. The fact that it's also a pretty darn good game just makes that recommendation even easier. If you own a PlayStation 3, pick up Papo & Yo—you'll be rewarding a notoriously risk-averse industry for stepping out of its comfort zone, and get to experience something new and fascinating as you do.
Editor's Addendum: Less than a year after its PS3-exclusive launch, Papo & Yo was ported to PC. While no new content has been added, the graphics have been spruced up nicely. They still aren't overly detailed, but the backgrounds and characters both look crisp and clean even in high resolution, and apart from the odd momentary hiccup I experienced on the highest settings, the action is animated fluidly throughout. While many control schemes are sloppily ported from consoles, here the new version offers both gamepad support and a customizable keyboard/mouse option, both of which work very well. With only a handful of different action types (use, jump, throw), you'll quickly be up and running (literally) with Quico, and the early pop-up tutorial messages highlight the buttons or keys needed depending on your control method of choice. There's certainly no reason to buy the game again if you have it already, but you really couldn't ask for a smoother port, making the PC version at least as good as, if not superior to its PS3 predecessor.