In a time where sequelitis and low risk cash grabs are the norm in the video game industry, should we as consumers pass on a game that aims to do something much different but falls short in places? With games such as Journey and Limbo, one can’t say that mechanically Papo & Yo (P&Y) is the most original game; yet when paired with its somber, emotional story and fantastical art direction, it’s easy to overlook many small flaws to experience one of the most gripping games out so far this year.
Minimalism isn’t quite the right word to describe P&Y’s story, as many will want to do when they rightly compare it to Ico. Whereas the latter has a very ambiguous nature, going so far as to rarely have any dialogue or any interaction between the two characters besides constantly yelling “Yorda!”, P&Y instead chooses to intersperse limited but powerful dialogue throughout the game. Each moment feels like a bread crumb that I’ve been solving puzzles hungrily to get to, and each time it’s as satisfying as the last.
The story follows Quico, a young boy meant to emulate the creator, Vander Caballeros, and his childhood memories of growing up around an abusive alcoholic father. Indeed throughout the 4-6 hours it takes to complete the journey, countless hints both subtle and overt are presented to the player to point out the demons with which Caballeros is exercising with this game. Most players will quickly realize that Monster (Quico’s father) turning into a raging beast after eating a vibrant tree frog is an allusion to alcohol. Quico can splatter these frogs against a wall, destroying them, which is very reminiscent of pouring an alcoholic’s booze down the drain in an attempt to save them from themselves.
The unique world of Papa & Yo
However, as convenient as it is to compare the subtleties of the narrative to the intended implications, one of the most precious aspects about the game is the flexibility in its story. Alcoholism and the pain it causes is not the only way to interpret this game; indeed, a reflection upon its meanings can bring out certain demons from your own past, creating a poignant connection rarely found in the medium. What Caballero managed to get right is perhaps the hardest: a game that is both emotionally satisfying and contemplative. Unfortunately, while the story is great, the gameplay can be less stellar – and gameplay is king after all.
In essence, Papo & Yo is a puzzle/platformer, albeit a pretty simple one. Many parts of the favelas can be manipulated with a magical chalk to morph into makeshift bridges and it’s these moments that, while generally easy to figure out, still offer a childlike sense of wonderment. Even the hardest puzzle will likely only take a few tries, and considering the forgiving nature of the gameplay, this means little time spent frustrated. However, some advocates of games in the genre might find it boring – with which I can’t completely disagree with. It’s important to have a strong connection with the story to enjoy the actual gameplay. As is the case with Journey (though to a lesser degree), I would argue that the gameplay acts as more of a speed bump for the game’s tale than the focus. This approach certainly could turn potential players off, but since when is being more accessible a bad thing?
Alcoholism runs deep within Papa & Yo
Sadly the platforming in P&Y is less forgiving to the point that it can, at times, bring the overall experience down. The hit detection feels inconsistent and when coupled with the inability to grab onto ledges if a jump is slightly off, pacing and enjoyment can be marred. Add in only being able to alter your mid air movement a little, and certain platform heavy sections of the game can be much harder than they should be. I specifically remember an instance where a raging Monster loomed below me as I clumsily jumped from floating block to floating block hoping that I wouldn’t be one inch off and have to start back from the beginning. I was not so lucky.
Such moments, even if not on purpose, do well in creating an enormous amount of hand-sweating tension. Although you cannot die, even from a terrifying chomp from Monster, the heart wrenching scream each time a mad Monster catches up to Quico was more than enough reason for me to desperately try not to let him, and the tremendous sound design doesn’t stop with a shriek. Great care was obviously given to selecting songs with a familiar Hispanic vibe and a tempo suited to each situation, and though not abundant the ambient noise also adds to engrossing setting.
While it is open to interpretation, the bulk of P&Y takes place within the mind of Quico ala Where The Wild Things Are or Pan’s Labrynth, so the world feels alive and magical, which is significant because the graphics feel much more ordinary. The overall art direction is great, but where the problems lie is in the execution. The character models are not as crisp as they should be, environments lack detail yet still at times look blurry, and glitches such as clipping occur. To be sure, graphically the game needed much more polish and even the aesthetics of its style cannot fully save it.
For me, I encountered no bugs or glitches aside from previously stated graphical issues and some frame rate slowdown. The game jumps from 30-60 FPS, more frequently playing in the slower spectrum. It isn’t too noticeable unless you are zipping around or sharply maneuvering the camera, in which case a hiccup is expected. Though my run was bug free, some have reported issues resulting in having to restart a chapter or even reinstall the game, but it appears the patch (released day 1) fixes most, if not all, of these problems.
Frogs harm yourself and others
So what makes a game memorable? Is it tight controls or intuitive gameplay? Stunning visuals or a superb soundtrack? Or is it something much less tangible, like the feeling of ecstasy when you manage to save the day or a sense of melancholy that lingers over an ending that sincerely touches you? Papo & Yo doesn’t excel in some important areas, but after completing the story I sat in my chair just thinking about and feeling the impact this PSN exclusive title had on me and I was sold. Shouldn’t that alone be enough?
Powerful and mature story
Whimsical art style
Written by Anthony Scroggins
Anthony is an up and coming writer, he loves games that provide a deeper meaning. You can follow his daily life on Twitter @McScroggz, keep up with his shenanigans on Facebook and all his latest gaming and writing blogs on MyIGN