The PlayStation Vita still aches for a definition. With Uncharted: Golden Abyss and Gravity Rush, the Vita seemed poised to deliver a console-quality experience on the go. Two years in and the Vita appears to have traded higher budgeted, first-party software for a cornucopia of independently developed games. As of last week, the Vita can properly Remote Play PlayStation 4 software too. Coming to a conclusive definition of the Vita’s purpose is the equivalent of chasing a Unicorn. Either it doesn’t exist or it’s somehow eluded discovery.
Tearaway is a unicorn. It’s an original concept from a world class team created specifically and exclusively for the Vita. It’s beautifully rendered in a paper craft art style all its own, and its theme and disposition are unique in its field. Best of all, it interprets the hardware’s peculiar control options not as a dutiful obligation but rather as leverage for original ideas; there isn’t a single part of the machine that feels wasted. Tearaway comes together by showing its patron a good time, and it’s intimately focused on driving that final point home.
It begins with an envelope. A messenger; “Iota” if the player identifies as male and “Atoi” if the player identifies as female, Tearaway’s protagonist is a giant envelope head with paper scrap limps and infinitely customizable facial features. Whether he or she has more than a couple eyes, is draped in clothes cut from construction paper, and topped off with flaps of hair of any color is a decision left to the player. Tearaway’s opening act introduces a sense of ownership over the protagonist that gives way to sharp customization of the game’s world, and it’s this theme that serves as the lifeblood of its body. Tearaway will feel like your game any way it’s played, often in spite of its discreetly calcified backbone. Its core will remain the same for everyone, but everything around is constructed to feel informally personal.
For example, the most featured character next to either Iota or Atoi is You. Literally You, and typically in the form of the sun and always your real-time face via the Vita’s forward-facing camera. At various points over the messenger’s journey, non-playable characters will refer to You as an ambiguous force of nature, and You(r) relationship with the messenger becomes the crux of Tearaway’s narrative. As the game proceeds on, so do the inventive new ways in which it incorporates You into its framework. It even finds an inventive way to incorporate your voice inside its presentation. Giving away Tearaway’s closing chapter is a sin I’m not willing to commit, other than to say it’s perfectly executed and will likely be my favorite of 2013.
Tearaway’s energetic pledge to personalization isn’t limited You. As its papercraft theme implies, there’s plenty to do inside of its world. Several times throughout the game you’ll meet a character in particular need of a particular bit of customization. Sometimes it’s as simple as slapping a mouth sticker on a badger with no mouth, but other times it requires a bit more creativity. One instance required me to design a snowflake. I drew on blue construction paper on the Vita’s touchscreen and then used scissors to automatically cut it out before layering a neon green design on top of it. Tearaway then proceeded to use my snowflake as every snowflake falling throughout its proceeding snow level. If I ever found an identical snowflake in real life I don’t know if I’d be as impressed as I was when I saw my goofy snowflake populating every facet of that area.
Virtual papercraft is only as interesting as you choose to make it. When a NPC requests a “scary eye” you can put in the least amount of effort possible and present them with a black squiggle and slap it to their forehead. Or you can take your time and design something that actually resembles a scary eye. It doesn’t matter, you proceed onward either way, but again, it’s the sense of ownership and personalization that seeks the define Tearaway’s experience. Seeing a giant beast sporting a pair of eyes I just made was equally adorable and gratifying.
Tearaway’s charm isn’t limited to papercraft and silly faces. The majority of the game behaves like a 3D platformer, complete with the usual trio of running, jumping, and beating up bad guys – the latter serving as Tearaway’s go-to pallet-cleanser. Scraps, brown colored boxes of limitless aggression, serve as the game’s sole opposing force. At first dispatching them is simple; make them miss an attack and then throw them into something. Later, taller Scraps require the messenger to roll into a ball and take out their stilts. Toward the end a vacuum device, the squeezebox, is required for sucking up aerial Scraps and spitting them away. Cool touch mechanics eventually play a role too. Combat is never especially complex, but eliminating a mess of Scraps in a bunch of different ways is fun enough – and they make a hilarious noise when thrown off of a ledge.
Your fingers also have quite a bit to do in Tearaway. Some places on the map will have the PlayStation button/shape symbols synonymous with the Vita’s rear touchpad. It’s here that your fingers can punch through the screen and interact with objects in the messenger’s world. In more complex puzzles, fingers can be used to block waterfalls or shift around giant platforms, but more often fingers can simply aid in a jump or some other context-sensitive instance. Areas with fingerprints textured on the screen require use of the Vita’s front facing touchscreen, and include everything from stretching out rolled-up platforms to popping off Scrap-killing trap doors. Tearaway hits its platforming stride when finger play and basic movement are rolled off in quick succession, ensuring an experience that’s as atypical as it is enjoyable.
Console controllers and touchscreens on mobile devices have come to define modern platformers, but Tearaway is the only one (that I’ve played, anyway) that’s successfully merged the two worlds. It combines the proper context from pushing buttons with the benefits of a swiping and touching a screen without feeling compromised or restrained. If any complaint can be levied against Tearaway’s gameplay, it might be too easy to veterans of traditional platforming. With frequent checkpoints and non-respawning Scraps, death has little consequence in Tearaway’s world. On one hand that might sound disappointing, but on the other death doesn’t belong in Tearaway’s mission. Rationalizing might lead you to believe it’s simply created for younger gamers, but it actually seems focused on establishing a constant theme and the consequence of reproducing established progress goes against that focus.
A fair bit of Tearaway is also centered on collecting confetti. Each level contains a finite amount, and off’ing Scraps and finding it out on the field are the primary means of acquisition. Finding hidden presents and doing favors for NPC’s also results in more confetti. There are even weird one-off sequences featuring Tearaway versions of basketball and Pong. Confetti is used to unlock more stickers for customizing the messenger (or NPCs), or used to unlock filters for the in-game camera. Selfies and anytime photos can be a large part of Tearaway, and the filters and lenses available can incorporate its beautiful environments into Instragram-ready portraits. Is this stuff for everyone? Probably not, but fiddling with the camera and the wealth of options is another card in Tearaway’s stacked deck.
Tearaway’s most obvious asset is also its most endearing. The papercraft art style that’s come to define the game since its announcement is an unwavering and admirable commitment from Media Molecule. What I originally thought was a frame-rate drop, for example, was actually a deliberately stunted animation, as if stop-motion photography was capturing an unfolding paper creation. Desert landscapes, science labs, frozen icecaps, and illuminated caves are all adorably paper-ized and never “break character” from the papercraft theme. My favorite level wound up being Maypole Fields, a considerably large open area with dynamically changing seasons depending on what area the messenger’s occupying. Tearaway also does well to remind us how great Vita games can look when appropriate resources are applied to creating games.
The overt presentation sparkles, but Tearaway’s best resource may be how well it conceals its intentions. When a sheep asked me to take a picture of something cool, I photographed my laptop bag and that wound up as his new wool. In another section I took a picture of a painting done by my grandmother and wound up seeing it plastered all over the level. It wasn’t until I was almost finished with the game that I started poking around in the options menu and found out I could upload my paper craft creations and print them out in real life. Tearaway is determined to show the player a good time, even if you’re not quite sure how it’s going to play out.
Tearaway doesn’t feel like the next Super Mario 64 (as recent conjecture might imply) or the next LittleBigPlanet (as an informed mind might suspect). Its agenda stands unique among its peers; no product on any brand of major hardware has sought to merge seemingly disparate ideas as cohesively and conveniently as Media Molecule has done with Tearaway. How fitting that Sony’s best game for the holiday season would appear not on the PlayStation 4 (or PlayStation 3), but rather on a handheld machine in search of an answer.