Thursday, December 12, 2013

Indie-Cember: Papo & Yo

Papo & Yo 
  • Publisher/Developer: Minority 
  • Lead Designer: Vander Caballero 
  • Release: 
    • PlayStation 3, 14 August 2012 
    • PC, 18 April 2013 
  • Genre: 3D Action (Platformer/Puzzle )
  • Players: 1 
  • Rarity/Cost: DLC, US$15

It's curious how the video game creation market has been all but monopolised by certain powers. Namely, America, Japan, and Western Europe are the main offenders in this arena. Surely there are other corners of the world with stories to tell, no? I sure hope so, because I'm starting to notice the likes of Call of Duty over there portraying white America with an increasingly holier-than-thou attitude with each successive entry. It's not like the American way isn't worth defending, even vicariously through a digital power fantasy, but the more non-Western European-ethnics I'm given the opportunity to gun down, the more I want to distance myself from that paradigm. And that's not just me saying that: these thoughts are also echoed by a mister Vander Caballero:
When I was playing Call of Duty and you landed [in the Brazilian slums] with a shotgun and you were killing everyone, I was like 'Oh man, that's so impolite! That's so disgusting!' And it makes people afraid of the favelas. [1]
Who is Vander Caballero? He just so happens to be the lead designer of today's subject Papo & Yo, and it turns out that hails from Colombia. Although, his studio is based in Montreal, Canada, so partial credit there. Confusing the cultural potpourri even further, Papo & Yo appears to take place in Brazil, or some fictional counterpart thereof. Bear in mind the game's title is Spanish -- as in not the language spoken in Brazil. Yo soy confused.

But enough trying to make sense of where Papo & Yo came from; let's look at it as a game like we're supposed to. Papo & Yo chronicles the adventures of a boy named Quico through a series of fantastical favelas in not-Brazil. Of the things this game does to spice up your journey, the first you'll notice is that to advance to new areas, you have to manipulate the environment. This activity takes the form of pushing switches or pulling levers, which cause events like stairs made out of white light to appear for you to climb up, or entire houses to fly up and out to a new location so you can use them as a bridge. One of its more memorable moments (or at least the one I spent the most time on) is when you move houses to form a tower, which you can lower and use as a bridge to find even more houses to extend the tower-bridge, and once it's long enough you can leave the section in the same manner. I simply loved this whimsical approach to making an adventure out of the ordinary, and is living (not literally "living", mind you) proof that just because one uses a video game setting based on the real world doesn't mean it has to stay grounded in reality. And while I'm on the subject, I simply have to give a tip of the hat to composer Brian d'Oliviera, whose soundtrack is appropriately whimsical and distinctly South American, and also happens to be the first game soundtrack I ever bought.
Further puzzle elements are introduced through new characters. First is an animate toy robot named Lula, who can trigger switches from far away, and even give you a hover-jump ability. Said hover-jump extends your lateral jumping range something useful, but doesn't do much for how high you can jump. And Quico's jump height, or lack thereof, was a real point of contention for me. Look, I'm not expecting him to jump several times his height like Mario. I mean, it worked in side-scrollers like Super Mario Bros. because verticality makes for more exciting 2D levels, and when you're in a 3D environment and you have the ability to walk around obstacles, it's okay to put that kind of realism back into play. But shouldn't he at least be able to climb up ledges or something?

After the first half-hour or so, you are then introduced to the Monster. Typically, he's a gentle giant simply on the lookout for coconuts to eat and places to sleep, and you can get him where you want to by manipulating these elements. They were even nice enough to add a thought-bubble so you know what Monster is focused on. But then frogs come into play, and hoo boy, now the game shows its true colours. See, Monster is addicted to frogs, and when he eats one, he takes on a fiery form and starts hunting you down. But the worst he can do if he catches you (outside of cutscenes) is to toss you around, giving you another chance to run away. That's right, Quico can't get hurt, not even from taking a long fall. I'm not saying that implementing a damage system would've helped this game in any way, or hurt it for that matter. But it certainly would make this otherwise kid-friendly game even more scary.
Although, when you take the game's backstory into account, it becomes a stretch to call it "kid-friendly". See, the game opens up with a dedication to Vander Caballero's family, with the exception of his alcoholic father who had abused some or all of them in some capacity. In real life, apparently. Occasionally, the linear level-to-level progression is interrupted by brief cutscenes depicting Quico and his father in some dark situations. And again, there's the whole business of Monster being addicted to frogs. So, put that all together, and what do you get? The Monster represents Vander's father! Don't worry if you couldn't figure it out by my description alone, the game is really, really not subtle about it. Which is not to say it doesn't have genuinely moving moments, but I've managed to finish the game in about three hours, so why bother spoiling any of them? (NB: There are collectible hats which you can... collect to earn a Trophy/Achievement, but for some reason they don't show up until you beat the game and play again.)

I should note that I played the PC port of this game, and as such this review has been shaped by that version. I understand that the original game for PlayStation 3 had numerous technical issues which were ironed out for the PC edition. We're talking game-breaking bugs here, like crashes, collisions, and other situations which force you to restart. However, I am unable to corroborate those claims, for the most part. I mean, come on, as a gaming platform Windows is about as stable as a house of cards. #PCGamingMasterRace  So either way, caveat emptor, I guess. But bear in mind: A) this is Minority's first game, and B) making a well-oiled machine of a game apparently came second to telling a great story, and you'd be surprised how rarely that is the case in gaming these days. That someone out there could manage to not only use such deep subject matter to base a video game around, but interpret it in such an imaginative way, is deserving of our utmost respect.

+ An emotionally-charged story.
+ A whimsical favela-meets-glowing-sketches visual aesthetic.
+ A beautiful soundtrack.

- Not much in the way of challenge.
- Various technical problems in both the PS3 and PC versions.

Controls: 3 frogs out of 5
Design: 4 frogs out of 5
Graphics: 4 frogs out of 5
Audio: 5 frogs out of 5
Value: 3 frogs out of 5
The Call: 85% (B+)

[1] Orland, Kyle (2012-03-14). "Papo & Yo explores abuse, fear, and poverty through… block puzzles?". Ars Technica.

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