Tearaway for PlayStation Vita
Pros: Unique graphical style, fun interactivity
Cons: Weak enemy encounters, short
Sony deserves major kudos for stepping up their game development this last generation. While their many studios have always proven to be extremely capable they’ve devoted more resources into creating new big budget franchises lately than both Microsoft and Nintendo by a wide margin. One of these series is Little Big Planet. Personally I’ve never been a fan, but the focus on creation and interactivity was commendable. Tearaway was made by the same studio, and was released to significant fanfare on the PlayStation Vita handheld system late last year. Unlike Little Big Planet this was a fully 3D title, but the central focus was still on creation related to each player’s individual experience. I figured it was worth a shot. I didn’t find Tearaway to be the revolution it has been heralded as, but it’s definitely one of the best games on the platform.
In Tearaway you play as a letter that’s intended to be delivered to you the player. This avatar is called Iota, and the game begins as he (or she) sprouts a body and becomes what is referred to as a ‘messenger.’ The world in Tearaway is almost entirely composed of paper. I say ‘almost everything’ simply because the sun, which is a live feed from the front facing camera on the system (showing the player’s real world face in the center) is the only thing that’s not. Your goal is to guide Iota through a series of environments so that he can climb to the highest point in the land and finally deliver his message to the sun. Admittedly the premise sounds weird, but the execution is charming beyond belief.
Tearaway is two parts 3D platformer and one part paper craft simulator. In this game you guide Iota through various environments wherein you move him with the left joystick and manipulate the camera with the right. In the beginning he lacks the ability to do anything besides walk and run, but as you progress new skills are unlocked (including the standard jump) and the environments become more complicated as Iota becomes more dynamic. The game makes heavy use of the Vita’s hardware features which include tilt and the ability to snap pictures. The most commonly used are the front and rear touch screens.
Specific areas of the game feature special sections of the ground that are white but textured with the PlayStation shape logos. Touching the rear touch pad will cause digital representations of your finger(s) to rip through the environment into the game world. You can manipulate the terrain with these; most commonly will use your fingers to move blocks or other objects so that Iota can progress. Other areas feature paper with reflective fingerprints which you can touch and drag on the front screen to reveal items or unlock the path forward. These are decent features, but the rear touch pad in particular gave me problems because it never felt entirely accurate. At times I had to resort to wildly swiping my finger across the the sensor on the back of the system to get it to register.
You will frequently be tasked with designing various elements that are used directly in the game. Characters will often request that you design facial features for them such as mouths, mustaches, or even eyes and it’s a delight to see your creations rear their head throughout the adventure. You can even customize Iota’s face and add decorations to his clothing if you want. When tasked with decorating you are taken to a screen that functions as a craft desk. From here you can select different colors of paper, and you use the touch screen to trace what you want cut. You have several options and can cut decorations from other paper which stick when you add them. It’s surprisingly intuitive and I was surprised at how much effort and time I took to make my creations. I’m not artistically inclined but I absolutely loved this feature.
The paper craft elements are implemented in an extremely compelling manner. It’s unfortunate then that the main gameplay is very basic. The environments are interesting to explore, and emphasis on personal creation is excellent, but the basic design leaves a little to be desired. The platforming elements just aren’t compelling. For a game that emphasizes creativity above all else it’s disappointing that the basic gameplay doesn’t convey this same level of imagination. Enemies are called ‘scraps’ here, but they never serve as much of a threat. You’re often tasked to destroy all nearby scraps, but this causes pacing issues because combat just isn’t very interesting. These enemies are dispatched in a few different ways, such as by throwing or using the touch screen, but when you die (after taking two hits) you continue from where you left off with virtually no penalty. To be honest combat feels like an afterthought and Tearaway would be better without it.
Tearaway doesn’t impress in the amount of polygons or geometry that it pushes, rather, in the art style and how it is implemented. The tech behind the engine is impressive, but the developers did an absolutely incredible job of selling the paper theme. From simple screenshots it looks extremely charming and memorable, but in motion it’s breathtaking. The developers put a ton of work into every visual aspect imaginable. Subtle visual cues such as paper strips signifying wind, and the way the paper grass moves against it is incredible. The environments take on a pastel appearance, but it matches the style impeccably. The developers implemented a style of animation which is very similar to stop motion. It looks amazing as you watch characters move within this world with the aforementioned method, and it truly sells the world to the player. The graphics overall are incredible.
The soundtrack is quite good as well. The music represents some of the best instrumentation I’ve heard in a video game which fits the folklore themes this title conveys. It’s really enjoyable, but this is one of those cases where it’s not particularly memorable. Still, everything fits, and I enjoyed all of the music a great deal. The sound effects are the highlight with realistic paper ‘swish’ sounds and scissors as the game cuts out your personal creations. It’s all very pleasant. Controls are pretty decent; Iota moves responsively to all joystick and button inputs. The only real problem I have is with the rear touch pad. You basically have to predict where your fingers will register on the screen, and I had a lot of difficulty with it. As I said before I had to swipe my finger across the touch pad several times in order to even figure out where to press, and this was mostly an exercise in frustration. Everything else works well, but the implementation of the rear touch pad could have used a little work.
If the Vita lacks one thing it’s games that take advantage of the unique inputs this little device offers. The creative elements are amazing here, and alone could sell most gamers on the platform. The big problem I have is that the developers spent more time creating a world and style than they did a game. Tearaway is an incredible journey that’s charming and memorable, but it’s a short lived one that doesn’t present any challenge whatsoever. Still, I recommend it.