It’s no secret that narrative in games has been one of the more debated aspects of recent titles.  Can a game craft a truly engrossing story?  What has been lacking in past tales that present games have been improving upon?  Does the focus on gameplay hinder story or can a balance be met?  Downloadable title Papo & Yo is hoping to tell the harsh story of an alcoholic father in a surreal world.  Narrative and allegory is the focus here, and while the story does in the end succeed in eliciting the emotional effect it desires, unfortunate gameplay issues and less engaging story beats mire the path to that point.

Papo & Yo tells the tale of a young boy named Quico, playing with his friend Monster, a hulking pink beast topped off with a horn.  Unfortunately, Monster has an addiction to poisonous frogs, which drive him into a blind fury, causing him to hurt anything in his path, even Quico.  Quico sets out to find a cure for Monster’s addiction, and together, the two solve a number of puzzles through South American favelas that become increasingly bizarre.

It’s no secret that the game is a metaphor for the alcoholism the game’s creative director and writer Victor Caballero’s father was consumed by during Caballero’s childhood.  Quico, a child who believes a young girl’s promise that there is a shaman who has a mystical cure to abate Monster’s addiction, will do whatever he can to save his friend, and the tale takes a number of sad turns.  Particularly knowing who these characters represent, Caballero drives home the point repeatedly that this relationship is one built on love and a refusal to give up.

You can jump off Monster for some extra height, but it can be difficult just to climb onto him.

Unfortunately, the story does not pick up true steam until the end of the game.  I still felt anguish every instance the angered Monster attacked Quico.  The young boy elicits a screech that no child ever should, and I wanted to avoid hearing it whenever this was manageable.  Still, the story through much of the game feels less impactful then I wish it was.  The core relationship feels lost at times because of the game’s nagging technical and gameplay issues, and only on occasion during the short campaign did the message work for me.

I believe this was an admirable and brave subject to tackle, and in the end, the emotional payoff is fantastic.  The game’s final sequences build a thematic and narrative climax that simultaneously resolves this fictional relationship as well as the real life one driving its existence.  I felt the pain and struggle in what the end of the game asks of players and, in a way, of what it asked of Caballero. No matter your experience with alcoholism the sentiments established are strong and impactful.  I simply wish the entire game could have taken this approach, because for some the push to complete the game may not be there.

That lack of desire to complete the game will likely come from the major technical problems that plague Papo & Yo.  Quico controls awkwardly, making platforming a hassle thanks to a jump that feels off and is animated strangely.  Monster will frequently clip into the environment, and I had to restart my game on more than one occasion because Quico would become trapped in the environment.

Lead Monster around with some tasty fruit in order to solve the game's many puzzles.

From tearing to strange collision issues, both technical and mechanical bugs appear in an abundance that unfortunately damages the overall experience.  Puzzles are often quite simple, and while I did not mind the lack of challenge, no sense of true accomplishment in conjunction with these issues prevented me from discovering a title as strong as what I found in the last 20 minutes.

The world players explore, both the more grounded and the more fantastical, presented some interesting environments I have rarely seen used or connected, though it lacked some polish.  Monster carries little detail to him, perhaps making him more imaginary, but the entire world begins to blend together with few memorable set pieces.

On the other hand, Papo & Yo’s soundtrack carries the mood perfectly at every step.  Predominantly an acoustic sound, guitar strings are smoothly strummed and the sounds of South America provide a wonderful backdrop.  Where the story’s pacing fails the music succeeds in eliciting the emotional beats of this dark narrative in a fairytale wrapper.

Monster will come sniffing around if you have a frog or some fruit in hand.

I strongly respect what Victor Caballero and his team at Minority Media strived for in Papo & Yo.  A haunting ending demonstrates the harsh realities of alcoholism and how it can impact a relationship even as close as a father and son.  Sadly, a number of issues make it a struggle to reach that satisfying conclusion.  The story’s pacing fluctuates with random slow-motion scenes focused around a car.  These moments are likely lifted from Caballero’s life, but their insertion feels random and does not explicitly add much to the core relationship.

If more attention had been paid to making Quico depend on Monster with puzzles that felt engaging and not so simple, Papo & Yo would have been easy to recommend.  Gameplay often hinders a game’s ability to tell an engaging story.  Here, that is sadly true as well, but such dedication to the primary metaphor similarly hampers the game’s mechanics, making for an experience that too often falters despite its lofty goals and ultimately impressive message.

 

Here’s the Rundown:

+ Emotionally powerful conclusion
+ Beautiful and catchy soundtrack
+ Attempts to tackle a subject few games have, but…
- Most of those attempts don’t succeed
- Gameplay is buggy and often too simple
- Technical hindrances take you out of the experience 

6 and 6.5 represent a game that doesn’t do anything spectacular or drastically fails to meet the high expectations people had for it. These scores are for games that you would only recommend to diehard fans of the series or genre, something that the average gamer wouldn’t miss very much if he/she skipped it. A game in this range has rental written all over it.

Papo & Yo was developed by Minority Media and published by Sony Computer Entertainment.  It was released on August 14, 2012 for the PlayStation Network for the MSRP of $14.99.  A copy was provided by the publisher to RipTen for the purposes of review.