Littlebigplanet has always been one of those games I've liked more in the abstract than in action. A whimsical platformer built around customization and sharing? Cool! Oh, but the floaty controls and lack of real consequence for failure... well, perhaps LBP would work better as anything but a platformer. Handily, that's precisely what Media Molecule's new Vita adventure Tearaway appears to be: Littlebigplanet minus the fussy jumping bits.
That's probably an oversimplification. Tearaway is much more structured and story-driven than LBP, whose pre-made stages tend to feel like an afterthought. You know, "Oh, we made this great customization engine, but we'd better throw some levels together to Trojan Horse this thing into the market." Maybe that not entirely fair, but the difference between the two games in that regard is rather striking. Tearaway -- at least in the demo I played -- eschews the act of player creation in favor of a more traditional adventure with interlocking puzzles, tiny fetch quests, and hard-to-find secrets. It does include some platforming parts, and as you might expect they're fairly clumsy. As in LBP, platforming feels almost like an afterthought... but since it's not the core of Tearaway, that's not really a strike against the game.
Instead, Tearaway revolves around action-driven puzzles and adventure elements. The demo Media Molecule was showing off at Sony's E3 booth had a fairly linear focus, which may or may not be indicative of the entire game, but even within that rigid framework the game offered plenty of variety and points of interest. Perhaps I'm simply a sucker for whimsy and charm, because those seem to be the primary weapons in Tearaway's arsenal. The world has a picture-book quality -- very similar to Paper Mario, but (and it pains me to say this, as a huge Paper Mario fan) much more imaginative and eager to properly explore the ramifications of a world made of paper than simply, "Look, sometimes Mario can be a paper airplane."
Tearaway also plays up the fact that it's a video game by using the Vita's cameras to give peeks into the world beyond. It's not really AR gimmickry, and you shouldn't be embarrassed to play Tearaway on a bus; instead, the game world occasionally peels away to reveal a portal to the reality beyond, with your very own ugly mug (or lovely visage, as it may be; I can only speak from personal experience) looking beatifically down upon the tiny hero. Sometimes, you'll need to pinch the touch screen or draw little circles with your finger as if you're spinning records like the world's most twee DJ. It's pretty mild stuff compared to the game-ruining interface gimmicks that tend to appear on Vita, just enough to lend the papercraft world a sense of tangibility.
Tearaway also feels idiomatically British in a way that games from the UK rarely do. It places tremendous emphasis on English fantasy lore and folk traditions. I mean, at one point, you're gathering wassail, for crying out loud. It's always struck me as strange that we see so many Japanese games steeped in Japanese mythology, but the most tribute we see to folklore of the UK tends to come from... Japanese games, where creatures like Dullahan and Cait Sith sit side-by-side with Hindu gods and the beasts of the Chinese zodiac. Tearaway neatly steps into this void to create a lighthearted little world of nature and faerie tales, and it really sets the game apart. Rather than shying from its culture origins to appeal to an international audience as blandly as possible, it plays up its heritage to make itself feel at once otherworldly and yet -- at least for those of us outside the UK -- grounded in a reality that tugs at a perhaps subconscious familiarity with these themes.
Just how far can charm and a clever art style take a game? I suspect Tearaway intends to answer that question. It doesn't seem like deepest or most substantial game I've played -- though admittedly by the end of the demo consisting of the introductory stage, I'd barely even earned basic skills like attacking and jumping -- but with its bold visual style and distinct personality, I can see myself playing it through to the end. Even if the platforming is as clumsy as ever.