By Sterling McGarvey
Papo & Yo (opens in new tab) is a game that takes huge risks. It's a tale about abuse and the loss of innocence, all manifested through a child's imagination. This PlayStation 3 exclusive platformer and puzzle game uses symbols and metaphors just as handily as it utilizes makeshift staircases and levers. It's undoubtedly one of the most unique and personal games to come along in some time. Yet, on many occasions, it suffers shortcomings that prevent it from delivering a truly powerful impact.
It's the tale of a boy named Quico, who lives in a lower-class South American neighborhood. He sees his world through surreal, chalk-drawn symbols. One day, he encounters an elusive girl who leads him on a journey to find a mystical shaman. And, along the way, he has Lula, his flying toy robot, and most importantly, his bulky and fierce friend, Monster, to help.
But there's a problem. Quico can lead Monster from spot to spot (mainly for him to step on levers and unlock gates) by toting a few pieces of fruit, but Monster's favorite food is frogs, which drive him into an uncontrollable rage that consumes everything around him, including Quico. Monster's rage adds a real tension and terror to the proceedings, and that seems to be a deliberate gesture. It's a real walk on eggshells to prevent frogs from getting into Monster's hands, lest he go completely mad.
There's a real sense of awe within Papo & Yo. In many instances, there are great opportunities to look around and appreciate the vibrant, imaginative, and colorful art style on display. And as you work your way through its puzzles, which are designed to open up and toy with Quico's surroundings, the game does an excellent job of conveying a sense of accomplishment and reward, chiefly through providing aesthetically pleasing cutscenes. It also uses that sense of accomplishment in the later stages to portray a feeling of loss to a powerful effect.
It's unfortunate that for the many powerful emotional beats that Papo & Yo executes so effectively, its mechanics can't match. The gameplay starts off dazzling, and you'll be smiling ear to ear as you magically create a makeshift bridge by manipulating a group of houses to stack together. However, the charm wears thin near the end, as the variations on puzzles -- plus the temporary loss of certain important abilities, like double jumps -- can't mask a lack of gameplay variety.
Also, despite its many charming qualities, Papo & Yo is unwieldy to control. It's clunky to steer Quico, and while it's easy to forgive in the early-to-mid stages, it's a burden toward the end, as the game demands more precision from your jumps than the mechanics can easily satisfy. As a result -- and there's a glaring example near the end -- Quico will fall off a ledge, get trapped in a canned animation, and then you'll have to start the process over again. It's a moment that should feel tense and uneasy, and instead, it feels tedious, if not completely aggravating. Worse, the redundancy of the section desensitizes you to a disturbing element of the game: a vulnerable child staring down severe harm. While the final stage is emotionally gripping, the later stages you endure to reach it may leave you wondering if it was worth it.
While most gamers who pick up Papo & Yo shouldn't experience any major glitches thanks to a day one patch that fixes a particularly egregious bug, it's worth noting that elements of the game are still uneven at times, and it remains to be seen, as of review time, if the launch day update addresses the small issues that pile up over its five-to-six hour-long playtime, such as unstable ledges that Quico falls through, especially in later levels.
Papo & Yo is undeniably one of the most unique PSN games you'll encounter. It makes brilliant use of symbols, metaphors, and beautiful presentation to tell a very dark and personal story about abuse, addiction, and consequences. And in that sense, it renders the gameplay issues -- from unwieldy controls, tedious late-game segments, and slightly one-note mechanics -- all the more unfortunate. It's a game that’s as frustrating as it is dazzling. If you're willing to approach it with the understanding that it's a decidedly uneven experience, it's one worth considering, especially if your game tastes skew toward the unconventional.
PS3 score: 3/5
Colorful, vibrant visuals
Sense of awe in puzzle-solving
Unique approach to mature topic
Aggravating lead-up to finale
A little unwieldy to steer
Gameplay can feel a little one-note