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Papo & Yo (PlayStation 3) artwork

Papo & Yo (PlayStation 3) review

"Because alcoholics can be monsters, guys! Get it? Do you get it!?"

Game developer Vander Caballero did not have the happiest of childhoods. His new game, Papo & Yo, quite transparently analyzes the relationship its creator shared with his alcoholic, abusive father. A giant pink creature named Monster fills in for Caballero’s father. He loves coconuts and he loves frogs, the latter to the extent that he can’t resist them in spite of the fact that they turn him into an angry, violent beast. Caballero himself is represented by Quico, a 10-year-old boy.

So Quico is an abused son and Monster is an alcoholic father and frogs are alcohol and none of this is a secret. The opening lines of the game are “To my mother, brother, and sisters, with whom I survived the monster in my father.” If you watch the live action launch trailer for the game, you’ll see Quico’s drunken father literally turn into Monster. Papo & Yo’s metaphors are laid out in the open before you even start playing.

Most of the time, Monster is gentle. When Monster is asleep, Quico can use his slumbering friend’s belly to access hard-to-reach places. He can also lead Monster around with coconuts to get him to stand on switches or just move to advance to different areas. Monster is usually either indifferent or actively kind to Quico. If Monster eats a frog, however, he turns violent and will attack anyone around him. When angry, Monster is just slow enough that you can manage to run away from him. Angry Monster is terrifying until he actually catches you, at which point--instead of hurting or killing you--he’ll simply rough you up a bit and toss you aside. Quico can’t take damage or die, so Monster’s violent outbursts are more of a nuisance than a threat.

Monster isn’t really an enemy. Quico cares enough about him to want to help him overcome his addiction by seeking out a shaman who might be able to help him, so the two set out on their journey. The game takes place in what appears to be a Brazilian favela, with colourful-but-worn houses, detailed graffiti, palm trees, bright sunlight, and a mysterious lack of people. It’s the kind of setting you don’t see used much in games. The mostly peaceful atmosphere is supported largely by the music, which is one of the game’s biggest strengths, featuring soft-yet-energetic acoustic guitars and the occasional violin for dramatic flare at the right moments.

Visually, the game has a nice style, despite being unpolished in a good many places. Some animations are unnatural-looking, and puddles of water behave like Jell-o. Fog effects look positively retro, and characters don’t move their mouths when they talk. It could also have used a bit more work on a technical level, since the adventure features not-uncommon-enough instances where the characters become stuck on geometry or Quico fails to respawn after falling into a bottomless pit.

Gameplay consists mostly of puzzle solving with some very light platforming. By interacting with gears, keys, or other things that appear to have been drawn on walls with chalk, Quico can manipulate the environment. Pushing a gear into a wall might cause a door to open, or turning a key might make a house briefly take flight before finally settling on top of another house. Pulling on a loose “thread” may cause a wall to unravel and expose whatever is on the other side. Papo & Yo creates a semi-realistic world where everything is just a bit off, and it’s better for it. If, like me, you’ve ever fantasized about plucking a building out of the ground and plopping it down somewhere else, just for the heck of it, this game will scratch that itch.

The interesting things that happen when you pull levers or push buttons make puzzles fun to solve, but none of those puzzles are especially challenging. Most puzzles can be solved by taking a look around to examine the objects in your immediate vicinity with which you may be able to interact (easily identified because such objects resemble white chalk outlines) and simply poking everything in whatever order you can manage. Touch whatever you can, basically, and the puzzles will solve themselves. Every puzzle also has a hint box that will essentially tell you the solution, but you’ll never need that assistance. Drunken Monster chases aside, there seems to be a disconnect between the story and the gameplay. With only a few exceptions, puzzles themselves don’t really seem to mean anything.

On the surface and even when one digs deeper, the story of Papo & Yo is simple but effective. The handful of supporting characters are endearing, and a few powerful moments will certainly touch you. What Papo & Yo lacks in subtlety, it makes up for in sincerity. And, boy, does it lack subtlety! Besides flat out explaining to you what the monster is and what the frogs are at the beginning of the game, the few remaining metaphors are so literally explained near the end of the game that they stop being metaphors altogether. The ending itself is bittersweet, though pretty predictable if you’ve ever read a sob story about alcoholism. The absoluteness of the lesson at the end is questionable, but it’s easy to accept as a personal story about one man’s life. Without giving too much away, it seems to leave the impression that it’s saying “This is the way this has to be,” which really is only really acceptable if it means “This is the way this has to be for me and my father” and not “This is the way this has to be for everyone.”

Papo & Yo is a game that puts little faith in the player. It doesn’t trust you to read subtext and it doesn’t trust you to be able to solve puzzles. It beats you over the head with its message, but that’s kind of OK because it never pretends to be subtle. The story about an abusive relationship between father and son probably could have been better told with a lighter touch, and the puzzles could certainly stand to let you actually solve them instead of just ride through them, but if you can forgive those shortcomings, Papo & Yo is a unique game and a worthwhile experience. It’s just not the shining example of games as art that it perhaps could have been.


Roto13's avatar
Staff review by Rhody Tobin (August 17, 2012)

Rhody likes to press the keys on his keyboard. Sometimes the resulting letters form strings of words that kind of make sense when you think about them for a moment. Most times they're just random gibberish that should be ignored. Ball-peen wobble glurk.

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