I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say that video games tend to be a form of escapism for most people, myself included. And it’s not that I have a bad life that I need to escape from, but we all need a little time off from the real world now and again, and video games allow that to happen. Whether you’re fighting off a Reaper invasion, waging small scale war with 16 people culled from the internet, or smashing blocks and hopping on Goomba’s in the Mushroom Kingdom, video games provide a certain escape that’s not really achievable in other mediums.
But I’m not sure that I’ve played a game like Papo & Yo before, which is as much about escape as it is about healing. The game deals with some heady issues, and while it’s not overt in exactly what those issues might be, at least not until its final act, you’ll be able to pick up on the dire situation the boy protagonist of the game is in early on. In fact, the game’s creator, Vander Cabellero, starts the game off with a small text message that relays to the player that he grew up in a similar situation to the boy featured here, which lends just a bit more weight to everything that’s coming.
The gameplay of Papo & Yo puts you in control of a small boy, running through a fantasized version of Columbian favelas, solving puzzles and overcoming obstacles in order to chase down a young girl that seems to know a little more than you do about what’s going on. The boy isn’t alone in this adventure though, and is often accompanied by a large, flesh colored monster, that does little more than sleep and eat. You can’t control the monster directly, but can often persuade it to follow you around if you’re holding food, and you’ll occasionally use the monster to reach heights that are out of reach.
The monster also has a problem. An addiction to small, green, poisonous frogs that’ll occasionally pour out of sewer pipes scattered about the stages. When the monster is near one, he’ll immediately beeline towards it, ignoring any other promises of food given by the boy. Upon consuming a frog, the monster goes into a fiery rage, literally. When this occurs, the monster will then do nothing but seek out the boy and try to harm him, and while you can’t necessarily be killed in Papo & Yo, the monster will become a constant source of aggravation for the player as he’ll toss you around violently if he lays hands on you.
You can only calm the monster down by finding a piece of blue, rotten fruit, which will subdue the monster and transform him back into his more docile state. As you might have guessed, the game incorporates a number of puzzles that involve manipulating these two states to proceed, providing the player with some harrowing moments of danger and escalation that manages to drive the point home that the developer is trying to express.
However, while I definitely applaud the method of the storytelling featured in Papo & Yo, and the personal message by displayed by the developer, it’s unfortunately not a very polished experience for the player. There are a fair number of technical hiccups that present themselves on a frequent basis, like severe drops in framerate and screen tearing anytime you start to move the camera around quickly. And while the character movement is easy, and the platforming is never so hard as to be frustrating, other small things like picking up objects can be a little hit or miss. There’s a section where I needed to quickly pick up and eliminate frogs before monster could get a hold of them, and it had me nearly pulling out my hair due to the boy’s inability to grab hold of one of the little creatures, regardless of how many times I’d press the square button on the controller.
Other things about the game just look a little sloppy, like the constant clipping of your character and the monster through objects in environment. There’s a lot of stationary stuff on the ground, like soccer balls that are meant to add flavor to the world around you, but you’ll move right through them like a ghost. The same can be said of corners and some larger objects, which just looks bad for a modern game. And the texture work, that of the monster in particular, tends to look like it got stuck loading in, making everything feel a little flat and plain.
The puzzles, another core mechanic in the game, are thankfully interesting. And they never felt broken or unachievable, and while a few would have me scratching my head, I never really got stuck. Papo & Yo also contains a number of optional hint boxes scattered about the worlds that will clue you in on what to do, but never give you a list of instructions, still allowing the player to mostly figure it out on their own.
And the manipulation of the world around you looks great, even if the graphics aren’t that inspiring. Manipulating small boxes in order to move entire houses is pretty wild, and then using those houses to construct an entire bridge that you can then manipulate like an abstract snake feels very unique.
Still, it’s hard to get over the technical issues the game has, and it’s also not a game that I can see myself playing through again now that the message has been delivered. There’s some replay value to the game in the form of the trophy list, but once you’ve seen the story, there’s little reason to revisit the world. And while polishing the game up a bit more would do little to impact the replay value, it would certainly have provided a more lasting memory than what Papo & Yo currently delivers, which is a shame because otherwise it’s a game that is definitely worth experiencing.