Papo & Yo is impossible to describe without first understanding the story of its creator, Vander Caballero. The game itself begins with a splash screen dedicated to his mother and sisters for “surviving the monster in my father.” What follows is a childhood allegory told in broad, Chestertonian strokes about the relationship between a son and his abusive, alcoholic patriarch. It’s autobiographical unlike any other game in recent memory, and thankfully, both the candor of its metaphor and the authorial indulgence of its story strengthen the experience rather than overshadow it.
Unfortunately, the poignant and memorable journey at the heart of Papo & Yo is somewhat overshadowed by technical frustrations and a lack of compelling design. It is worth playing- especially perhaps for those who’ve had similar life-experiences -but only once.
The star of the tale is Quico, a young South American boy who is introduced hiding in a dark room, recoiling from loud, indiscriminate noises. A chalk drawing on a nearby wall glows with light and Quico escapes his distressed home to a fantasy world inspired by Brazilian favelas and street art. A young girl leads him through the empty streets and boroughs, showing him how to use the chalk drawings on the walls to manipulate the environment and solve simple puzzles. Along the way, he also meets Lula, a toy robot that allows Quico to double-jump, a’la Ratchet & Clank, and Monster, a hulking, quasi-mammalian beast that dutifully follows along with Quico in exchange for coconuts, and his favorite snack: green frogs.
But after Quico sees Monster chow down on a frog for the first time it becomes apparent that Monster’s “noms” de rigeur are more than just a treat, but an addictive substance that drives Monster into a literal fiery rage. Quico, desperate to help his normally somnambulant buddy, sets out to find a shaman who can supposedly cure Monster of his frog addiction.
Quico and company’s methods for completing this quest take the form of light puzzle-platforming. The chalk-outline aesthetic is used to indicate switches, levers, and platforms that need to be manipulated to fashion the paths that Quico uses to move forward. The design is extremely basic, such that calling them puzzles feels overly generous. It’s little more than a series of differently shaped turnstiles that shuffle the player through after going through the proper channels. There’s little build to the puzzle mechanics here, it’s all about finding switches and other instigating agents, placing the proper element, be it Quico, Lula, or Monster, in the proper place, and then exploiting them to open up the next area.
There’s very little in the way of lateral thinking or applying previous puzzle logic to the next obstacle, and it makes Papo & Yo’s gameplay feel very disconnected from itself, despite the common artistic elements. The flat difficulty curve ends up making the 3 hour journey feel longer than it is, despite the relative ease of progression. For this reason, it’s likely that younger players will derive more enjoyment from the gameplay than older ones, but by and large Papo & Yo’s design occupies the unfortunate space between overly-simple blandness and mechanical disjunction.
Papo & Yo’s visuals are acceptable and, understandably, reflective of its meager budget. The environments are rendered with a modicum of grimy detail, and each of the principal characters is animated well enough to navigate around the environment and convey necessary visual information to the player. It looks fine enough for what it is, although the art-style will prove hit-or-miss depending on personal taste. Monster, arguably the most important element of the game, looks both unique and impressively animated, which works mightily in its favor.
However, no amount of budgetary understanding or artistic strength can redeem the game of its extremely dubious technical performance. The framerate is inconsistent throughout, and when Monster enters one of his frog-induced conniptions it goes a full 90 degrees Southward. Other problems like screen tearing, poorly framed invisible walls, collision and clipping problems, game freezes, and camera hitching rotate to frustrating prominence throughout. These issues don’t often compound one another, but when they do it pulls the game down from tolerable to actively off-putting.
Fun is neither a part of Papo & Yo’s focus, nor its ultimate value. The game exists to engage a part of its audience that knows or supposes what it’s like to share the company of a loved one who is destructive. In that sense, it’s a profound success. Quico’s- and by extension Caballero’s -fantasy of escaping and dealing with his abusive father remains totally compelling throughout, even when the game mechanics don’t meet it halfway. Thankfully, it leads to a subtly shocking and immensely cathartic conclusion that absolves much of the tedium it takes to reach it. While the game’s technical flaws and uninspired puzzles can’t be ignored, Papo & Yo’s conceptional core is one of the bravest and most satisfying that gaming has seen in years.
Papo & Yo is a title of binary worth; not worth ignoring its issues, but still worth seeing through. While the trip it takes to reach the emotional highs of the story’s payoff is indefensibly turbulent, there’s no denying that they are indeed dizzying.