As videogames continue to mature, developers more frequently try to balance the importance of story in relation to actual gameplay. That challenge is no less pertinent when playing Papo & Yo, a puzzle-centric adventure from the small team at Minority Media that balances game and story, sadness and wonder. Schoolboy Quico finds himself in a fantasy world that resembles his own, led through it by a playful girl, his toy robot-cum-jetpack Lula, and the ever-present Monster, a pinkish ogre whom Quico will need to rely on to get past most of the game’s puzzles. Monster is fairly selfish, napping on cardboard and otherwise preoccupied with munching on fruit, and if he eats a most-delicious frog, he turns nasty, and will chase Quico like an enraged bull until he’s calmed down by special blue fruits. It’s not always pleasant, but Quico has to deal with it for just a little while longer as he leads Monster to this world’s high shaman and attempts to cure him of his destructive ways.
Quico’s solution is simple and appropriately childlike, which dovetails with the game’s message. Much has been made of Papo & Yo’s allegory of creator Vander Caballero’s rough childhood with his dependent and abusive father, to the point where you may expect it to saturate the game. Despite that inelegant promotion, that’s not the case; the point is properly subdued, and not every question gets explicit answering. In other words, don’t think you’ll be force-fed melodrama every step of the way – if you do get a little emotional, chances are it’s going to be all you.
What Papo & Yo lacks in exposition, it makes up in imaginative imagery. The relatively realistic favela backdrops are manipulated throughout the game’s puzzles, with magical chalk drawings acting as switches and gears, that can let houses sprout legs and walk, flip, or bend around in order to create or clear paths. Though hint boxes are readily available, most of the puzzles are straightforward and shouldn’t keep you bogged down, save for two or three that mark big moments in the story. Yet that’s where the ‘game’ part starts to drift away; wonderment aside, those not tuned in to the subtext may feel unchallenged.
In addition, some technical problems can put you off the whole thing, as Quico may fall through the world or Monster become unresponsive, forcing you to reload the last checkpoint, though in our playthroughs, those were isolated moments in between solving puzzles. Papo & Yo is otherwise cohesive, however, and a few rough edges don’t detract from an adventure that is as emotional as it is brain teasing, and is worth experiencing whether or not you can relate to the subject matter.