Media Molecule's LittleBigPlanet series is well-regarded for folksy charm and warm and generous attitude to handicrafts. The studio's third game, Tearaway on the PS Vita, reinforces the notion that this is Media Molecule's niche and it's pretty happy with it, thanks for asking.
Like LittleBigPlanet, Tearaway is a platformer with adorable character design, jaunty music, bucketloads of whimsy and production design anchored in the decorative arts, this time papercraft. But Tearaway has problems, problems all the more frustrating for the promise the game shows, and for the times it comes close to meeting that promise.
The set-up is simple, classic. Players control an 'envelope' named Atoi (or Iota, if you choose the male). Atoi has appeared in the papercraft world of Valleyfold at the same time as a hole has been torn in the sun by the god-like 'You' (the You being, well, you, as snapped by the Vita's grainy front camera). Goal established by the process of deduction, Atoi makes her way towards the 'You', guided by two omnipresent narrators and the paper model citizens of Valleyfold. Causality is loose and the story shaggy, acting more as a framework for meetings than as a fully-contained linear narrative.
Not that there's anything wrong with that. Tearaway's characters are cheery and broad, most triggering small vignettes that encourage the player to do 'good deeds' and to put an individual mark on the world with decorations. Sogportians, Mummers, squirrels - all make friendly jokes and share their optimism about the situation, building a welcome sense of community within Valleyfold. Their absence is felt in the emptier second half.
Tearaway's aesthetic is similarly enchanting. Built entirely from paper and glue, Valleyfold is filled with clever details and stunning big-picture design, an impressive expansion of the organised clutter of LittleBigPlanet's side-scrolling worlds. Water is made up of ribbons of blue paper that move as a single sheet when undisturbed; mushrooms move in sync with the left thumbstick, as if the world hangs on Atoi's every move; pigs have concertina necks in order to facilitate more fluid movement. This attention to detail makes Valleyfold feel like a love letter to papercraft, much like the LittleBigPlanet series was to handicraft. That love letter is solidified by the game's graphical presentation, its extensive draw distance and vivid colourisation giving Valleyfold's environments depth and life.
When it comes to playing, though, Tearaway's a bit rough. The platforming is usually easy to handle and navigate, if a bit low stakes as a result of the forgiving checkpoints and wide platforms early on. Similarly, puzzles are usually fairly simple and emphasise co-ordination over comprehension, timing and speed over mental busywork. It's a style much better suited to younger players, and the easy-to-follow difficulty curve reinforces that.
In the move to third-person platforming, though, Media Molecule has made some of the mistakes that often plague that perspective. Enough fixed-perspective cameras obscure vision in the later parts of the game for it to be a problem (The Caverns are particularly poor for this), and the scourge of platform jumping in fully three-dimensional space also rears its ugly head in the third act.
This would be acceptable if they were just traditional bugbears, gnawing away at our patience from time to time but ultimately warranting little mention. But, this being a PS Vita game, Tearaway has to engage the system's gimmicks, just like every other game since launch. And, just like every other game since launch, the results are mixed. At best.
Some features work well. The rear touch pad isn't often used for precision targeting, and its implementation is better for it. Similarly, players will adapt quickly to pulling back tabs with the front touch screen. These features also allow for cool little interactions with Valleyfold's residents, whether it's recording a terrifying growl for them to use or taking a photo of a real-world pattern to slap on them.
In other cases, implementation is clumsy and frustrating. The touch screens make character decoration and decoration creation finicky and imprecise, and those same screens can be maddening to use in high-pressure platforming scenarios. Worst of all, though, is the implementation of the Vita's Sixaxis capabilities in the third act (a pattern emerging). Tearaway puts the Sixaxis through its paces, but makes some already-tough platforming downright diabolical in the process, literally forcing players to turn the screen away while making tough jumps.
These troublesome mechanics don't overwhelm the game - after all, the majority of them only become prevalent in the third act, which demands precision platforming. But they cast enough of a pall over the experience that other issues become more noticeable; mainly, the struggle to achieve full thematic coherence.
Like LittleBigPlanet before it, Tearaway is about creativity - the power of making your own stories, the challenge of making those stories, the worlds of imagination from whence those stories come. But Tearaway's not as consistent as its spiritual predecessors when it comes to presentation of those ideas. The seams are showing, be they in the narrators, who only seem to act as meta-fictional devices, or in the 'scraps', enemies that have sprung from the hole in the sun and out-of-place warnings against your interference in Valleyfold.
Tearaway spends its time emphasising our imperative to create, and its full-hearted advocacy for the creative spirit can be seen in the game's delightful writing, charming design and willingness to give all the tools at its disposal a thorough workout (not to mention the templates for paper models that you can find in-game and download from a website, a neat addition, particularly for younger gamers). It doesn't always result in a coherent or entertaining game, but when those elements click, Tearaway is an enchanting little platformer and a promising heir to LittleBigPlanet's throne.