Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
ESRB rating: Everyone 10+
Release date: Available now
When we play games, we don’t usually think too much about the story behind the story. There are plenty of games in which a writer’s personal experiences have been used as inspiration for their stories, but seldom have they been more prominent than in Papo y Yo, a colorful, evocative kids game with a very adult message.
You play as Quico, a young boy who’s hiding in his closet from a lumbering creature that we only see in silhouette. When Quico finally opens the door to his hiding place, he sees a strange girl making chalk drawings on the wall. She disappears through them, and Quico follows, leading him into a picturesque mountain town where all sorts of magical things happen. As he moves through the town, Quico meets Monster, a very large creature with a rhinoceros horn in the middle of his face. Monster is a docile, friendly character who likes coconuts and long naps. But he also likes to eat frogs, which turn him into a vicious, fiery beast. Quico wants to help his hulking friend, so he and the mysterious girl with the magic chalk set out to find a way to cure Monster of his frog problem.
Papo y Yo is a third-person puzzle-platformer in which you guide Quico through the town, interacting with the bright white chalk designs left on the walls and ground by his companion. These drawings can rearrange sections of the landscape, even make entire groups of buildings disappear. Manipulating your environment is the primary puzzle-solving mechanic as you shepherd Monster through the town. Timing is especially important in many of the puzzles; Monster in his normal state will force you to drop anything you might be carrying, and he’ll grab you and toss you across the scene if he catches you after eating one of the poisonous frogs. You get some help in your adventuring from Lula, a flying toy robot that Quico carries on his back. Lula can be sent to activate chalk designs that are out of Quico’s reach, and his jetpack allows Quico to make longer jumps than he could manage on his own.
Developer Minority’s creative director Vander Caballero has based the story of Papo y Yo on his experiences as the child of an abusive, alcoholic father in South America, and the symbolism is obvious, although the last few scenes tie it up in a nice bow for those who still haven’t made the connection. Puzzle solutions are always very simple and intuitive, but the actual solving can be frustrating, especially when it involves avoiding the evil version of Monster; all it takes is one misstep and he’s got you (Quico never dies, but he takes quite a beating if he’s caught). But should you need a nudge in the right direction, puzzle-wise, the game includes a cute hint system — tips are written on the inside of cardboard boxes that you place over your head to read. Graphics are attractive and colorful, and the town is modeled in considerable detail, although it seems to be devoid of inhabitants. The pace is fast (you might only need five hours or so to reach the end of the journey), and composer Brian D’Oliveira delivers a lovely, delicate soundtrack using guitar, pan flutes and native percussion.
Papo y Yo begins as a game designed primarily for children, but as the themes of the story start to get dark, it turns into something that’s likely to scare some youngsters, so parents should be sure to play along with their kids. Adults, on the other hand, will most likely be more frustrated than scared. Clipping problems abound, allowing Monster to reach straight through supposedly solid structures to grab you or whatever you might be carrying. Gameplay is very simplistic and linear (search a new area for chalk markings, interact with chalk markings, solve the puzzle, repeat until done). Sometimes the camera perspective shifts without stopping the action, which could have you moving in the wrong direction at an inconvenient time. And there are images in the last few scenes that are almost disturbingly dark, perhaps too much so for younger players.
Some say that stories in videogames aren’t all that important. Spending some time with Papo y Yo might change their minds. Very seldom have there been games that have such an obvious personal genesis than this one does. It looks good, the puzzles are simple yet creative (moving entire buildings just by lifting boxes or pushing cogs is a fun variation on the switch/keycard paradigm), and the pace is just right. But a few graphics glitches and a plot that ladles out its point way too thickly at the end conspire to make Papo y Yo frustrating for adults and scary for younger kids.