Hanging on by a string
Charlie loves B-movies, and who can blame him? There’s a level of camp and cheese that catapults poorly made cinema into the world of endearingly awful. So when our good ol’ Charlie happens upon a drive-in boasting a classic B-movie marathon, he pulls in right away to partake in the terrible goodness. But all that flick-watchin’ is serious business, and Charlie soon succumbs to sleep, whereupon he is whisked away into the very films he loves in the role of the hero. Armed with a trusty baseball bat, proximity traps, and any number of firearms, Charlie must make it through the benchmarks of less-than-mainstream film, lest he be Nightmare on Elm Street-ed (killed in his sleep) by the very cinematic villains and monsters he has come to love. Tragic.
There’s a cartoony style to Clash of Puppets that blends with a mostly linear take on classic 3D platformers. Putting elements like mechanics and gameplay aside for the moment, it’s important to note that this is a good-looking game, especially for its light-hearted, kid-friendly style. No, it isn’t the most beautifully developed experience in the history of mobile gaming, but there are enough subtle touches, clever lighting, and immersive additions (why is fog so spooky, anyway?) that you’ll probably take note. Charlie is pretty damned cute, and as far as heroes go, he’s likable.
Really, he falls under the strong and silent type that developers seem to like so much, but there is a lot to be said for the star of the show being an everyman. Even if it isn’t a major plot point and even if we are talking about a game where cute puppets beat up other cute puppets, there’s something about an ordinary person thrust into extraordinary circumstances and rising to a challenge. On some level, no matter how small, we tend to see ourselves like this – to view the world of the character through our own eyes. Or maybe I’m just reading waaaay too much into it and it’s little more than a silly distraction. Either way, the means to think this way is apparently something that can happen.
Whereas we’ve come to expect a certain level of control over the camera in our games, you’ll be forced to make jumps and fight adversaries from a fixed perspective. Think of it like a 2.5D universe with ever-so-slightly more leeway in terms of area. That is to say, that though ancient yet beloved platformer design choices (the double jump, the suddenly snapping spike traps, etc.) find their way into every nook and cranny of Clash of Puppets, combat takes place in a more three-dimensional fashion. Adorable puppet versions of werewolves and Frankensteins pop out from every corner and you must dispatch them quickly or be overrun. This represents no small challenge as melee necessitates a close approach, but enemies feel cheap once they get their hooks into Charlie. It’s not uncommon for a mere two foes to take you down with ease, which, while frustrating, does provide some serious challenge.
The same goes for spike traps that don’t really seem to follow any sort of pattern beyond popping up the moment you try to avoid them. This could be chalked up to a lack of patience, but instead we will blame it on the less-than responsive and sometimes confusing virtual control scheme. To the developer’s credit, they have steered clear of a static virtual joystick for Clash of Puppets, but the closeness of the melee and firearm buttons is such that you’ll often hit one or the other when you don’t wish to. Additionally, cool as they may be, guns play a diminished role to the powerhouse of melee combat. Certain weapons – like the electricity gun – do provide pretty cool passive effects such as chaining between enemies, but a well-timed jump and bash with the bat provides a more effective means of defeating your puppety enemies.
Levels begin to blur together once you realize that you’re executing the same objective repeatedly. Smash a box here, find a gear there, rinse and repeat. The more enemies on the screen at a time certainly adds a layer of strategy in the guise of timing and priority, but we’re hard-pressed to think of a single B-movie that was about sussing out drawbridge equipment in a spooky vampire castle courtyard. For that matter, it’s unclear why exactly Charlie and his enemies are puppets. Anthropomorphizing objects, animals, etc. has a long and rich tradition within the world of gaming, but when there isn’t any particular reason for doing so, it comes across as gimmicky. Certainly younger gamers will appreciate being able to tell their folks that the violence is OK because we’re just talkin’ puppets, but it is otherwise a fleeting thought of, “Oh, cute” that quickly makes way for, “Why are these puppets puppets?”
Making your way through the three main areas of the campaign unlocks various Survival mode stages that pit Charlie against waves of enemies. Without a “story” serving as a weak sort of glue, Clash of the Puppets really begins to shine. Survival mode is not only a blast to play through, it sharpens those virtual button mashing skills and makes the campaign all the more enjoyable once you’ve mastered traversal and combat on a more frantic scale. Like the main campaign, there are three areas with which to hone and experiment with your skills.
What is, perhaps, the most exciting aspect of Clash of Puppets is its utter lack of microtransactions. Given the arsenal choices and fairly lengthy campaign, it would have been easy for Crescent Moon to toss in a few goodies locked behind a 99 cent wall. Nobody ever said that games which implement these costs force you to spend actual money, but when the gaming landscape steers more and more to apps and games that can only be fully experienced upon ponying up real-life cash, it’s refreshing to play a title for which money is an afterthought. This not only makes the cost of admission totally doable, but will keep you feeling good about it as well. Maybe it’s just me, but when a game isn’t just a thinly veiled attack on your wallet, there’s a purity that cannot be understated.
Though fairly fun when it comes to Survival mode, Clash of Puppets probably won’t sate gamers looking for a deep experience. The lack of microtransactions is definitely a high point, and it’s a wonderful introduction to the world of 3D platform titles for kids. But when it comes down to questions about why exactly everyone is a puppet and why objectives are so repetitive and limited, it’s hard to justify picking this one up.