Papo & Yo is the story of Quico, a young boy in a fantasy world inspired by the favelas of Brazil. You'll meet a manic-depressive Monster that will help you one minute and chase you down the next, a robot toy that comes to life, and a young girl who is leading you to your final goal. It's relatively simple on the surface, but that belies some truly interesting undercurrents; Creative Director Vander Caballero based the narrative on his own childhood, specifically the relationship between him and his abusive father. I'm torn on whether or not his revealing this before the game released was for the best. Part of me thinks that leaving it up to interpretation at first would have made the game's latter parts more intriguing as the curtains of allegory are lifted to show the real events that they represent.
Even though certain moments didn't have the punch that they might have had if Vander's basis for the story had not been explicitly stated up front, I think the overall game gave me more pause for thought than it otherwise would have done. I've never before played a game that was such a clear window into the developer's life. At times I felt like I was peeping into a person's diary, or looking at an artist's painting and trying to interpret what that meant about his/her life. All of this is fairly common in other media, but is a road much less traveled in video games. Playing through the entire game gives an insight into not only what transpired between Vander and his father but also how he dealt with it. This allowed the narrative to affect me and stick with me to a much greater extent than it normally would have, but it makes me wonder how I'd rate the game if that meaning was missing, and maybe that's why it was stated up front like it was. Regardless, the end result is that I'll remember Papo & Yo's narrative for years to come, and that has got to be a plus.
Playing as Quico your goal is usually to get yourself and/or Monster to the next destination and pass through the area. Chalk mechanisms drawn on the surfaces of the favela become gears and switches which you can interact with to pass through the stage. Some of these switches require Monster to stand on them, or can be activated remotely using your robot Lula. If you ever find yourself without a clue on how to proceed there are cardboard boxes with clues inside that will point you in the right direction without explicitly giving the solution away. Clue boxes are often superfluous, though, because some of the puzzles really just involve interacting with any chalk mechanisms you see until things open up as required. There were a few moments where I couldn't figure out how to move on for 5 minutes or so, but most of the time the answers were obvious once I had fully explored the area.
Getting Monster to act how you want him to is all about learning some simple rules. If he's calm he'll run towards coconuts, so you can easily guide him by picking up coconuts and throwing them wherever you want him to go. On the other hand, if Monster eats frogs he'll become enraged and will charge after you, at which point you have to become the bait yourself. These moments are always hectic and heart pounding as you try to outrun what amounts to a giant bipedal rhinoceros on fire. Blue coconuts will change Monster back to his less angry form if you can find them, but they won't always be available. Other than interacting with Monster, the rest of Papo & Yo plays as a fairly standard 3D puzzle platformer. The jumping feels stiff but it rarely impeded progress. The platforming can be fun in its own right, but I don't count it as the selling point of the game.
Another thing that won't sell you on this title is the technical aspect of the presentation. I noticed quite a bit of clipping, pop-in, and glitchy animation. One particular clue box actually dropped me through a hole in the game world whenever I picked it up, sending me into a never-ending “not really anywhere” zone that would force me to re-load from a previous save point. On the positive side, though, the game has great style. Even though a number of puzzles just involved pressing buttons, I always enjoyed seeing what those buttons would do. Favela buildings skitter around on chalk-drawn legs, or walls peel away like onions; it really feels like a child's imagination let loose on the setting. This is especially true for a number of puzzles that involve moving houses around like toy blocks in order to make a bridge or a platform. The voice overs aren't in English, so it's hard tell how good they are, but nonetheless they sound appropriate. The music also helps to convey the feel of a favela in Brazil, something that's underpinned by the intricate artwork on many of the buildings themselves.
Like many unique PSN titles the most easily criticised aspect of Papo & Yo is its value. It only took me three hours to complete, and there's little reason to go back through the game, other than to acquire trophies and some collectibles. That said, I probably will re-visit Papo & Yo one day, because I find the general concept and plot so intriguing, but I'm not sure that everyone who plays through it will feel quite the same way.
Using media to express something meaningful about yourself or the world around you is one of the qualities that takes something largely commercial - like a movie - and makes it a work of art. It's great to play a video game that makes use of this philosophy. If it weren't for that, I think Papo & Yo would merely be an average PSN title, but underlying themes and narrative makes it well worth a look. I can't say that every person who plays it will be as affected by the story as I was, but even without that it's certainly enjoyable enough to give it a shot.
Update: John O'Leary of TriplePoint PR has informed me that a day one patch will be available that should fix the specific "falling through the world" bug I mentioned as well as a number of other minor adjustments. However, it is our policy that a review should remain as written when published so this review's main body and score will not change as a result.
This review is based on a digital copy of Pspo & Yo for the PlayStation 3, provided by the developer's PR firm.