What is the concept? As the 2006 film Pan’s Labyrinth demonstrated, delving into the psyche of a traumatized child can present a remarkably poignant experience. Like Guillermo del Toro’s film, recent PlayStation Network release Papo & Yo delivers a similar perspective, exhibiting an oft-callous world tempered by the fantastical daydreams of a coping mechanism. When we first meet the title’s protagonist, Quico, he’s recoiled in a corner, in the ominous shadow of an off-screen threat. An impish girl precipitously appears, beckoning the youngster away from danger and toward a chalk outline on the wall, offering a portal to an allegorical realm.
Once Quico enters this world, he’s empowered with the ability to move massive buildings around, while his abusive father is reduced to a sleepy, simple-minded, and occasionally enraged creature (albeit named “Monster”). Throughout Papo & Yo’s journey, additional chalk marks indicate the presence of puzzles, which serve to break up light platforming sections. While environmental manipulation is a common motif to Papo’s posers, players also interact with the paternal behemoth, either pacifying him with coconuts or prohibiting his consumption of anger-inducing amphibians. During the title’s three to four hour playtime, players continually glean insight into the dysfunctional relationship between father and son, making Papo & Yo one of the more affecting games in recent memory.
What are the game’s strengths? From the luminous pieces of graffiti with dot the landscape to imaginative sequences where houses spout legs and lumber about, Papo & Yo is teaming with visual creativity. Although Brazil’s favelas could have been rendered as locales drenched in desolate squalor, the title avoids the depiction of a stereotypic shantytown, endowing cities with vibrancy. Even, Lula, a toy robot who augments Quico’s jumping ability, is depicted in an endearing manner, clinging to the back of the boy’s neck in an unshakable and consoling embrace. Complementing the game’s graphics are strains of cheerful samba, prohibiting the game from ever wallowing in unremitting pity. Disappointedly, Papo’s rudimentary animations don’t convey much pathos, foregoing an opportunity to add any additional sentiment.
As players are mollifying Monster with glowing coconuts, an alarming sentiment is bound to seep in. Fearing an outburst that can send the creature into a wild rage, the title furtively places you in the role of enabler, desperately trying to numb the savage beast. Like a number of other key plot points, this moment is left up to player to discern, instead of being delivered though a heavy-handed cinematic. As such, its impact is more potent and feels much more organic that a preordained plot point.
What are the game’s weaknesses? Woefully, Papo & Yo’s mechanics aren’t as accomplished as its narrative elements. Jumping across a gap that’s even slightly raised typically spells failure, as Quico lacks the ability to pull himself up. Getting ensnared on environmental elements occurs with worrisome frequency as well. Guiding Monster to a designated area can often be vexing, as the game’s trigger points can be rather finicky. Even after a post-launch patch that alleviated many of the game’s debilitating framerate woes, the game still sputters about occasionally.
Considering the game’s narrative ambitions, graphical oddities are fairly easy to overlook. However, the game’s linear design is less forgivable. Regretfully, Papo & Yo’s impact is undermined by a rigid sequence of simple puzzles and unassuming environmental navigation. In essence, a majority of the game’s challenges revolve around activities such as activating switches and moving blocks. Although the game’s hints at Inception-esque environmental manipulation, the concept never transcends tasks such as the triggering and unification of a pair of hidden staircases. Ideally, a child’s imagination would dismiss gravity or offer intriguing Escher-like structures to traverse.
Is it worth the money? Although Papo & Yo offers an emotive expedition with a stirring storyline, the game’s puzzling fails to match the ambition of its gripping plot. For those fascinated by the narrative possibility of interactive media, the title is certainly worth a try. Considering the industry’s partiality for visceral bloodletting and fanciful diversion, an exploration of familial dysfunction feels wondrously fresh. Yet disappointingly, the game’s tedious and sporadically unpolished mechanics sully would could have been a truly stunning experience.