It's the most complex simple game you've played yet.
British game developer Media Molecule is known for four things: adorable characters, great soundtracks, a heavy focus on creation components, and punishing late game difficulty. All four of these elements are on display in the utterly charming, ingenious and joyful Tearaway Unfolded for PS4.
Tearaway Unfolded is the story of a world made of paper, starring a Messenger, named Iota if you choose the male option, or Atoi if you choose the female one. The Messenger is in the service of The You, which is the player, and the whole game is an interactive metaphor for the relationships between creator, creation, and audience. The game even lets you select a different pronoun for the You than the Messenger, so you can play as, for instance, a female player controlling a male character.
The gameplay is centered on 3D platforming and paper-crafting, with the items you make popping into the game like magic. There's some combat too, but it's really not the strength. What makes Tearaway Unfolded work is its art style, sense of humor, central theme, and gameplay that starts simple and slowly ratchets up to be a definite challenge.
Other critics have reviewed this game based on a comparison to the original PS Vita game. Since the sales gap between the Vita and PS4 is enormous, far more people will be experiencing the world of Tearaway for the first time on the PS4, so I'm going to treat it like a brand new game in this review.
Tearaway Unfolded is the first game that shows a player all the bells and whistles loaded into the PS4 and the Dualshock 4 controller. The sheer number of functions can be overwhelming at times, but it's undoubtedly impressive that a game managed to make that much stuff relevant. Some players won't like that level of complexity, but I thought back to when I was kid and obsessed with Super Mario 3. I would have loved the sheer amount of things this game does. There are times in game you practically hear it whispering, "I love you Dualshock 4. You complete me."
Also unique is that instead of trying to immerse the player, the game creates a dialogue with you. The two narrators literally speak both to you and your Messenger, and your Messenger can even toss you things that you can fling at the screen. There's a backdrop of media criticism and classic game homages for the adults, but for kids the sheer amount of control, bright colors, and cute characters will be the draw. It really gives kids the opportunity to easily make the game their own. It was pretty amazing to see butterflies, snowflakes, hats, fish, flames, and various other items that I designed pop instantly into the game. It all reminded me of how cool construction paper is when you're a kid. Construction paper is the best.
Tearaway Unfolded understands the magic of construction paper, and provides you with unlockable web links to download various papercraft characters that you can make in the real world. This element makes this game ideal for parents concerned with the raw consumerism of toys to life games, while making for a good bonding activity away from the TV screen. Also good for kids is that the bad guys, called scraps, are more silly than scary; they're just little boxes with an angry eye that make funny grumbling noises.
The real antagonist is the environments. Due to the heavy use of the Dualshock 4's gyroscopes and touch pad, you've never had a platforming experience like this before. It'll keep you on your toes, and some people are going to find it frustrating that they're not instantly good at it. There's enough sandbox-style stuff that you can take some breaks from the running and jumping and flying and rolling... and dying again and again... if it becomes too frustrating, and I would have preferred not to have to rush through the last third of the game for review purposes because there's a lot to explore. There's also the ability to jump back and forth between levels so you can go back to ones you've already completed, then resume your campaign when you feel up to it.
- Don't make this game a grudge match. It's not the sort of thing that strokes your ego.
- Don't try to do everything on your first playthrough. There are things earlier on that you can't even get without abilities you're given later.
- Use the hint system if you get stuck. That's what it's there for. Also, pay attention to how the menus change when you're papercrafting for features you might not be aware of.
- I had the best luck with my touch pad drawing when I made shapes loosely instead of aiming for perfection. Any tags or imperfections can be sliced off with the knife tool, that has a lot more control.
- Take time with your crafting. The more care you put in, the cooler your game is going to look, because you're actually designing assets.
- Get used to using your light to stun scraps in combat. It makes things so much less annoying.
The touchpad takes some time to get used to drawing on, but if you're going to put any serious time into making stuff in Tearaway Unfolded, the companion mobile app is a much better way to do it. The mobile app is also a good way to keep younger kids engaged, since the later levels will be way too hard for them. Kids will also probably love the optional microphone and camera functions in the game. I recorded my cat Momo meowing. I even made a cave art version of Momo that I then also added to my Messenger's backpack. I really, really love my cat, okay?
But it's the storytelling that pulls Tearaway Unfolded above being just an impressive tech demo for the PS4. It has the same gentle, oddball touch that Little Big Planet did, with mumbles for character voices and whimsical narration; the same goofy, slightly floppy physics, and the same tendency toward randomness, including a Dubstep reference that made me laugh every time they did it. It also has moments of flying the flag for the PlayStation, which I was happy to see because I think Sony needs to do more of that.
There are some flaws I do have to mention, the most notable of which is the camera. It ends up in some downright frustrating places sometimes, and limits how much the player can tilt it around to see better. It's too easy to delete your papercraft designs as well, and I accidentally erased two of mine. It was upsetting. Otherwise, the game runs smooth as silk and solid as a rock. The score I'm awarding is based more on just how well it does the things it does well, as opposed to an indication of a lack of notable flaws. Normally I'd be a lot rougher on that camera, but I think the game should also be rewarded for legitimate technical innovation.
So if your kids are starting to find Skylanders and Disney Infinity too easy, if you're looking for a challenge without a bunch of blood and guts, or if you want a taste of what the Dualshock 4 controller can really do, Tearaway Unfolded is a good choice.
This game was reviewed using a digital copy provided by Sony.
Images courtesy of Sony Computer Entertainment.