Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Tearaway: The Vita's Iconic Killer App

If anyone's been waiting for the emergence of a "killer app" to justify buying a PlayStation Vita, then Tearaway is your answer. It took a while -- nearly two full years, practically a lifetime for a fledgling console struggling to find its feet -- but the Vita finally has a game that takes full advantage of its unique hardware and which provides a gaming experience unlike any other on any console. Tearaway is the singular game showcasing what the Vita is capable of, and it's the singular game for which it's worth owning a Vita.

Tearaway is, essentially, a 3D platforming game set in a world made entirely of paper. You take control of an anthropomorphic envelope, known in this world as a "Messenger," on a mission to deliver a message to the mysterious face that's suddenly appeared in the sun -- your face, as captured by the front-facing camera on the Vita. You are technically not the Messenger in this game; you are yourself, a sort of godlike figure peering into its world, literally holding the world in your hands. Using your special godlike powers (ie, your fingers) you're able to physically reach into this world and manipulate it, shaping its appearance and helping the Messenger on his (or her) quest to deliver a message to You.

The concept of being a "god" overseeing a world and altering it to your liking has been done many times before. So has the concept of the player being a real person whose computer screen is actually a portal to another world. Tearaway is not entirely unique in this regard, but I've never played (nor heard of) another game that gets you so personally involved in the experience. You're an on-screen character in this game, and every input has you reaching through the fourth wall to physically touch and interact with the world. It's unique, wonderful, and immensely charming, but what's perhaps more surprising is that it's actually a pretty good platformer, too.

When you start the game for the first time, it bypasses any sort of developer or publisher logos, skips the main menu, and takes you straight to a loading screen. "They've switched it on!" a character says once it's finished loading. Another voice joins in: "Where? I can't see them." Next, you're staring at your own face, in real time, as it appears to the voices in the center of a paper sun. As you make preliminary customizations (selecting your gender, hand size, and skin tone), the two voices talk about you: "Do you think we'll be able to get a good story out of this one?" "Only time will tell, but I think we're all going to have some fun!"

The two voices then use a storybook-esque sequence to introduce you to their world, describing it as a world of stories. They've grown tired of hearing the same stories over and over again and ask you to introduce some new ingredients to tell a new story. The display switches to the camera on the rear side of the Vita, showing you your own world before an envelope rips a hole through the screen: "An invitation from our world to yours." You peer deeper into the tear in the screen and witness as the envelope develops a face, a body, some arms, and some legs. The two voices conspire of ways to spice up the story, and conceive of monsters formed from elements of your own world -- black and white newsprint.

As the "scraps" swarm around your newfound Messenger, the game instructs you to press your fingers to the rear touch pad on the Vita, causing your fingers to rip through the floor of the paper world and thus allowing you to swat the scraps away. Having rescued the Messenger, he or she (depending on what gender you picked for the Messenger) notices your face in the sun and sets out on its mission to deliver its message to you. "Head for the sun!" the voices say, as you gain control of the Messenger and begin the game in proper.

Gameplay takes the form of a linear adventure/platformer, the likes of which has you exploring the world, navigating treacherous terrain, meeting NPCs, and solving minor puzzles along the way. The inventiveness of its world is genuinely interesting, and thankfully there's plenty of variety in Tearaway's scenery, music, and gameplay mechanisms to keep the game from ever feeling stale or repetitive. You start the game with the barest of possible input controls, and as you progress through the game's various locales you unlock new abilities such as jumping, rolling, taking pictures with a camera, and using a squeezebox to blow objects away from you or to suck items towards you.

Each of these new abilities is presented in a creative context within the setting. At one point you discover a black stone platform rumored to be controlled by "the Yous." It's sort of a mythical object about which the locals know rather little. As you approach it, you realize it's the X button on a PlayStation controller -- pressing the X button on the Vita lowers the platform, allowing your Messenger to step onto it, and releasing the button raises him to a new level. You've now learned how to jump.

Earlier in the game, the locals ask for your help in the "drumming ritual" to awaken the orchard and get the record player working again -- they introduce you to certain types of surfaces that allow you to tap on the rear touch pad and bounce your Messenger into the air, like hititing a drum head. The act of using the "drums" to navigate the terrain becomes a crucial part in that level's soundtrack and your ultimate goal of getting the music playing again.

The progression through "levels" is paced such that, just as you become familiar with one of your new abilities or items, another one is introduced. It's fun to feel your Messenger evolving and powering up over the course of the game, but levels also tend to feature their own unique mechanics. One level has you riding a fast, rambunctious pig through an obstacle course; another has you pressing the face buttons on the Vita to depress or protrude platforms from walls; another lets you tilt the Vita to rotate platforms as you jump across them; another introduces glue to surfaces, allowing you to walk along walls. Later parts of the game feature various combinations of these mechanisms working in tandem.

The real flavor in Tearaway, though, is how much influence you have in customizing various aspects of the paper world. One of your first tasks in the game is to make a crown for the king squirrel, which takes you to a cutting board where you can cut and assemble different colored pieces of paper to create new things. When you've made the crown for the king squirrel, you get to place it on his head, and when he shows up later in the game he's still wearing that crown you made for him. Throughout the entire game, you're given opportunities to further customize the appearance of the world: how will you make the snowflakes look like in the snowy mountain? What kind of face will you give a scary monster? Each of your creations becomes an integral part of the world, shaping it based on your own artistic vision and creativity.

As is par for the course with these types of games, there's a ton of hidden discoveries to find and optional challenges to hunt down. Scattered through this world are collectible bits of shredded confetti, often used as a visual guiding system for where to go next, but confetti also doubles as a type of currency. You use confetti to buy new camera lenses and filters, as well as different types of pre-made eyes, mouths, and accessories to customize your Messenger's appearance. In each level you can discover hidden presents, either by exploring obscure places of the map or by solving a character's challenge / request, which grant extra confetti. Finally, you occasionally encounter things in the environment completely devoid of color -- take a picture with them and you'll return them to their full color. Each level has a completion meter that will show how much of everything you earned, possibly enticing you to use the game's free chapter selection to go back and try for 100%.

It should almost go without saying that Tearaway's audiovisual effects are tremendous. This is a vibrant, colorful world brought to life with playful animation and excellent sound effects. Much of the world feels genuinely alive because of how everything reacts to you -- approach some flowers and they'll bloom before your eyes, or watch as mushrooms tilt to reflect your motion on the joysticks. There are some pretty clever water effects going on as well; it's pretty ingenious how the designers created waves of water crashing on the shore of a beach and ripple effects as you walk across a puddle. It looks fairly realistic, which is quite impressive considering it's all paper.

There's quite a lot of interesting scenery in this game with a nice range of locales. The game starts in a series of colorful plains and hills before moving onto an orchard and farm. Next you're ascending a snowy mountain, then you're exploring some crystalline caverns and underground fissures. Next you're on to a coastal city and a highly technological science lab. In the third act, the game goes into a surreal realm "between the pages." It's a delight simply to look at how everything was constructed and to imagine recreating it in real life, and the constant change in landscapes keeps everything fresh and interesting throughout the entire game.

The visual style comes complete with a wealth of paper sound effects -- any time anything moves, you hear the sound of paper crinkling and rustling, and that adds a great feeling of authenticity to the experience. The music, meanwhile, is a real pleasure to listen to -- I've listened to the soundtrack on repeat all while writing this review and there's not a single track that I don't like. The soundtrack is often infused with an organic folk-like feel in terms of instrumentation. Parts of it sound comical and whimsical, while others set a very bleak, foreboding tone. I've embedded some of my favorite tracks below, but others worth sampling include The Orchard, The Barn, Lament and Hornpipe, Elevate This, and Desert Pig Ride.

As I've already mentioned, you play a very prominent role in this story. The goal of the game is not to collect items or to rescue the princess -- it's to unite your playable character with yourself. The playable protagonist's motivation for everything he or she does is to reach you. The story in Tearaway feels so personal because of the way it incorporates you into its world and the quasi augmented-reality moments when you get to take pictures of things in your environment to see them imposed on surfaces of the game world. It's a journey that you and your Messenger share along the way, with touches of your own personality here and there, and the ending has to rank among the most touching game endings I've ever seen.

Reading the Message, once it's delivered, is a story of everything the Messenger went through to reach you. The end-game synopsis evokes feelings of nostalgia from events that transpired mere hours ago as you get to look back at the influence you had on creating and designing the look of this world, while seeing into the thoughts and feelings of the Messenger for the first time. The Message concludes by saying "You've seen my world, but I've only imagined yours," followed by a request for you to create the Messenger in your own world, thanks to an online service that lets you print out paper-craft blueprints for all the blank objects you photographed. The ending brings the theme of uniting the two worlds full circle, and having the opportunity to bring the game into your own world makes the ending resonate like few other game endings ever have. 

But, despite all of Tearaway's immense charm, no game is perfect, and it therefore fails to escape the wrath of my critique.

First on my list of complaints is that the whole game feels way too easy. Perhaps that's not a valid criticism, considering this game was designed with kids in mind, but there are literally no consequences for dying. There are "checkpoints" placed every five feet, so if you fall off a ledge during a platforming section, you'll be placed five feet away from where you fell. There are very few sequences that require you to perform a series of actions in a row, so failure only requires you to retry a single action at a time, nullifying any sense of satisfaction that comes from struggling with a tough scenario and finally besting it. You have no "lives" and lose no resources when you "die," and there are times when you can miss a jump and actually respawn ahead of the jump because you got just close enough to the ledge to trigger the next "checkpoint," completely removing any challenge from the jump itself.

Combat feels like an obligatory afterthought and doesn't contribute a whole lot to the gameplay. There's enough variety to keep it from feeling repetitive, but it's not very satisfying, either. Further compounding the easy difficulty, if you get hit too many times in a fight and "die," your progress in the fight persists even after you respawn; dispatched foes remain dispatched when you come back to life at full health, so once again there are no consequences for failure. Combat isn't very challenging in the first place, but it becomes even easier when you get the squeezebox and can suck up scraps and blast them at enemies without even having to wait to dodge their attacks.

The game has a pleasant, steady progression as you unlock new abilities and encounter new mechanics in the environment -- nothing outstays its welcome or gets to feel repetitive -- but the full game is pretty short in length. I think I beat the whole game (at 91% completion) in about six hours, and it felt like the game ended just as it reached its stride. As much as I appreciate games not being bloated with repetitive filler content, it would seem like there was still room for more content and story to be told in Tearaway, and I felt a little disappointed when I realized it was over so quickly. Maybe it's a sign of how good the game really is, that I wanted to see more of it.

Linearity has gained a negative connotation in video game criticism, and Tearaway is yet another case of a linear game that would've benefited tremendously from a little less linearity. The game is at its best when it gives you open spaces to explore, like the area surrounding the barn, or the vast desert, because it gives you a better sense of place and agency within the game. When you're stuck following linear paths with fixed camera angles, it takes a bit away from the immersion. If the game had featured a few bigger environments, or perhaps a hub system that let you go off in different directions, I think it would've been a much more engrossing experience.

Finally, as great as it is that the game incorporates your real environment into the game, that's also a bit of a downside. When I started playing, I was lying in bed in a pitch black room, so when the game went to show my face in the sun, all I saw was a black circle. I had to deduce through the characters' dialogue that they were supposed to be looking at me and not a black circle. There are times when the game asks you to use the microphone to "speak" to NPCs -- one prompts you to emit a terrifying roar, which then gets used in the game -- which I couldn't do because I was sharing a hotel room with other, sleeping people and didn't want to wake them. It also felt a bit awkward taking pictures of my surroundings in public, so I often settled for taking the most boring, discreet pictures of the floor or what happened to be right in front of me, instead of what would've been the most interesting.

Playing Tearaway was a tremendous experience for me, and these criticisms can, for the most part, be regarded as minor nitpicks. In terms of pure 3D adventure platforming gameplay, I don't think Tearaway quite reaches the heights of Super Mario 64, since it could stand to have a little more content, more reward for hunting down hidden secrets, and any semblance of challenge. The way Tearaway uses the Vita's hardware to augment the gameplay with your own reality, though, is truly unique and special, and that puts it right back up there in contention with Super Mario 64. It's easy to recommend if you own a Vita, and if you don't have a Vita, this might be the game that finally makes it worth owning one.

It's just a shame that the game was actually good; had it been a disappointment, then I could have made a clever quip about its world being paper thin and my enjoyment falling flat, or that "Its premise sounds good on paper, but..." Instead I'm left with something a little less witty in closing with "Tearaway is one for the books."

No comments:

Post a Comment