Trying to review a game like Minority’s Papo & Yo in the traditional sense is an exercise in futility. It might be a work of entertainment, but there’s so much of the author’s personality ingrained in the experience, so much artful execution of the bigger thematic ideas, that the puzzle-platformer really has more in common with a painting or some other piece of visual art. It’s just that this one happens to be interactive, and sometimes even challenging. Ultimately, however, the game portion of Papo really plays second fiddle to its more experiential qualities. It’s a risky move, but in the end it turns out to be for the best. You’ll puzzle through Quico’s three-or-so hour “Adventure with Monster” in a surrealist take on Brazil’s favelas, and you’ll walk away with that rarest of all video game rewards: an emotional response.
In order to fully appreciate Papo & Yo it helps to understand where it comes from. The game is the brainchild of Vander Caballero, a AAA veteran from EA’s FIFA and Army of Two teams. Caballero and his siblings had a rough childhood at the hands of an alcoholic father. Papo & Yo is very much a response to that, with easily drawn parallels between the game’s Monster and its rage-inducing love of frogs. Many of the puzzles you encounter are built around keeping the Monster’s inner urges at bay, and escaping its clutches whenever a frog is consumed.
You accomplish these and other tasks by manipulating the environments in completely fantastical ways. There’s a surreal flavor to your surroundings, with reality-rooted imagery of the favelas sitting alongside misshapen tracts of land, chalk-drawn gears on walls that you can physically interact with, and buildings that come to life with the turn of an oversized phantom key. In one early puzzle, you’ll explore a large, open environment for small huts with keys protruding from them. Each time you turn a key, the building sprouts legs and scurries off like an insect to line up with the others. Finding and turning all of the keys assembles the buildings into a line, allowing you to jump across their rooftops and into the next area.
There’s definitely a rising challenge as the story unfolds and additional concepts such as the Monster, or your jetpack-bearing, piggyback-riding robot Lula, are introduced, but again, it’s the story that remains front and center. Your final minutes before the credits roll abandon the puzzle focus almost entirely, amounting to a powerful coda. Quico’s journey is largely driven by a push to guide Monster to the local shaman, who can cure it. The subtext here isn’t particularly tough to decipher, though there are truths revealed as the story unfolds.
The presentation in Papo & Yo is a standout. Not just the surreal art design, but also the execution of those ideas. The sun-baked landscapes you’ll explore — as well as the more out there locations — are remarkably well realized. There’s also something undeniably satisfying about pulling on a lever and watching as you manipulate a multi-story stack of buildings into a path that you can follow. The music and sound are also used to great effect, adding to the mood and the sense of place.
Functionally, Quico is as responsive as you’d want him to be. Perhaps overly so at times, such as when you need to negotiate narrow walkways, but this is nothing more than a minor quibble since there’s no real sense of failure in the game. You may become stumped on one puzzle or another, but any danger, even that which Monster represents, is of minimal concern. There’s no “death” or anything like that; at worst, you’ll be tossed around like a rag doll or warped back to a default location. Even the threat of being stumped is a minor concern, since every puzzle includes one or more cardboard boxes that you can wear, Solid Snake-style, to get some hints.
Papo & Yo is an exceptional experience, standing in equal parts as both a game and an interactive art piece. It’s the latest in a long line of truly adventurous publisher exclusives for Sony, following the likes of Journey, Flower, and Datura. The game that sits at the heart of Minority’s work is cleverly put together and fun to puzzle through, but the presentation is what sells it. Papo & Yo may be difficult to review as a video game, but it nonetheless amounts to a valuable and rewarding experience for anyone who harbors an interest in seeing the artful side of console play pushed forward.
Score: 9.5 out of 10
(This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 3 on a copy provided by Sony Computer Entertainment)