Papo & Yo fades in with a dedication from creator Vander Caballero, white text laid bare on a black background: "To my mother, brothers and sisters with whom I survived the monster in my father." The vulnerability of this statement is an indicator of what players are in for: a personal narrative of heartbreak and parental abuse, told through a three-dimensional platforming puzzle game.
The way in which the story's somber thematic tone clashes with the fairytale whimsy of the visuals is Papo & Yo's selling point. Papo & Yo takes place in a realistic representation of a favela. However, white phosphorescent switches frequently intrude into the scene, indicating where the player can bend the building block shanteys of the favela into impossible shapes.
The first half of Papo & Yo follows a basic puzzle platformer formula: enter a new environment, trigger all of the white switches, and hop through. Eventually you meet an oafish beast. The player is then responsible for guiding him through the increasingly abstract environments. Eventually the monster encounters an item in the world that enrages him, ensuing in a fiery race towards the player with a violent hunger in his eyes. I'll leave it up to the reader to determine how symbolism is at work here, but the first time the beast turns on Caballero's character is achingly sad, especially when interlaced with short vignettes of a singular scene from Caballero's real life with his real father.
Unfortunately, the gameplay does little to expand on the ideas and emotions presented in the narrative, and is frequently frustrating. The puzzles in Papo & Yo never take long to figure out, yet often take five or more minutes to properly execute, relying on specific timing and character placement that can be easy to miss. Players will memorize the location of the "restart checkpoint" button for when the monster gets confused, lost, or stuck in the level geometry. Papo & Yo also rarely surfaces the location of important items in new areas. I had to run away from a fiery beast for two minutes in the final level as I searched for the blue fruit that turns the beast back to normal.
Papo & Yo leaves me conflicted. On the one hand, I couldn't be happier that Vander Caballero turned to video games as his means for self-expression. Unfortunately, the uninspired, frustrating gameplay adds nothing to the heartbreaking story contained therein. Papo & Yo provides a vision of where games should go with regards to tone, but the gameplay is a frustrating tour through the growing pains of early 3D platforming games.