The game starts off with you, Quico, a young boy hiding in the closet as a chalk drawing appears on the wall. Quico walks through the drawing and is transported to a seemingly never-ending South American shanty town which looks every bit real and regular at first sight.
A young chalk-wielding girl guides you through the shanty town telling you that you are cursed. She draws all kinds of ropes, gears and other things around the environment. Using these chalk drawing implements you drastically transform your surroundings in order to make your way through the town and to find the girl who has brought you here.
Along the way you come across a robot, Lula, which will help you activate switches from afar and float a bit when you jump. You’ll also come across Monster, a giant pink/purple rhino-looking character that hulks over the main character but becomes your companion through 3/4ths of the game.
Papo & Yo plays as a puzzle platformer as you transform the shanty town into a kind of ghetto Wonderland with buildings that fly and planks of wood that crawl. You also transform buildings into sets of stairs or platforms as you go along. Despite it’s minimalistic presentation the shanty town environment is really visually appealing. The unpopulated setting feels blank in a sense as houses seem crashed together in a haphazard setting but with the environment manipulation it feels like there are endless possibilities for moving through the environment.
Often times there is a ‘wow factor’ to the puzzle solutions as you interact with your environment in a very imaginative and childlike way. That said, solving puzzles often feels elementary as there are linear routes to be taken and singular objects to be interacted with. It won’t be often that you have to sit and think about what to do next if you are even relatively experienced with puzzle games.
Monster adds another layer of complexity to puzzles. The frog -addicted behemoth becomes enraged whenever he gets his hand on a frog and will burst into flames and chase you down and hurt you. However, without a health bar to watch on your character it becomes more of a nuisance than an obstacle. That is too bad because though Monster comes off as very imposing without presenting any real threat he feels toothless. To calm him down you just give him a special blue fruit that makes him cough up the frog.
However, there are times in the game where you’ll have to figure out ways to keep Monster from eating frogs all while leading him through the town by tempting him with fruit. There are monster specific-switches that act as checkpoints from bringing monster to a certain area. To unlock the next part of the level, you will have to carefully guide monster from point to point.
The game runs about 4-5 hours and variety of gameplay isn’t one of it’s strongest suits. However, the rabbit hole goes deeper on this seemingly playful title. The game presents itself as a playful romp through a shanty town in a kids imagination but the symbolic nature of what’s going on inside of the game gives it added depth belying that of its central mechanics.
The developers at Minority have made it no secret that the game is the brainchild of Creative Director Vander Caballero. Quico’s interactions with Monster represent a conflicted relationship between son and father. The game tips that hat pretty early on as it sometimes forcefully depict incidents in that parental relationship intersperse through the first couple of chapters of the game. The reasoning behind that conflict becomes resolved as you progress looking for a ‘cure’ for Monster’s anger and you get to know a lot more about the relationship between the father and son.
It actually makes for quite the reveal as game mechanics are made into metaphor and shown on screen to give you an idea of what’s been going on the entire time. However, I felt like it was slightly forced. The final sequences of the game turned my ghetto Wonderland into a simple ghetto. I’d picked up on the subtle hints to what was going in the game and the last couple of sequences were trying to cram the symbolism down my throat. When the metaphors were laid bare it became very glaringly obvious what everything meant. This ruined some the magic of the game’s imaginative take on relationship conflict. It felt like the game thought I was dumb and I wish it had a little more faith in me to pick up on its subtleties.
The musical score for the game is well crafted and the bombastic soundtrack feels at home in a little shanty town in South America. It blends so well as to feel natural. There was, unfortunately, an occasional musical glitch that affected a song and made it sound patchy.
In terms of visuals, there were jaggies and screen tears from time to time but it felt about right for the most part. The only irritating hitch was the frame drops which happened often I was coming into a new area. It doesn’t make the game unplayable but it is noticeable. That said, the artistic style of the game felt well-suited for the kind of story it was telling. Monsters in particular felt incredibly well designed and perfectly represented what they designers were going for. Still, recycled environments and the natural environment overall felt like it became too familiar by the end and lacked variety.
Overall I would say that Papo & Yo succeeds in distinguishing itself in a genre flooded with games. The title really tries its best to reach down into the heart of the player and shake the child inside which I really admire it for. It’s strange that the title comes off so playfully with such a dark theme hulking over the game. This contrast is what makes the thematic reveals throughout the game so powerful. The setting really shows some imagination and its strict contrast to the reality of poverty and abuse.
When I walked away from Papo & Yo I was disquieted by what I’d experienced but not in a bad way. It takes a brave game to confront the subjects Papa & Yo addresses and for that I salute the game. It instructs a deeper conversation through mechanics and metaphor than most games have the gall to attempt.
Technical hitches aside, it seems like the kind of game that is perfect for a downloadable platform as it is very personal and different.
- Deeply symbolic narrative drive home a solid story
- Environment manipulation feels like it takes a note from Carol Lewis
- It isn’t afraid to be different
- Glitchyness can get in the way of enjoyment of the game
- In an environment so rich for platforming you feel forced to walk it instead
- Story gets heavy handed in the final chapter