If I were a cynic, I'd say that Tearaway is a bit gimmicky. Vast swathes of your time will be spent wrangling virtual paper in an attempt to cut out fibrous paraphernalia for some dude or another in exchange for confetti. Here, a crown. There, a new mustache. Same motions, different goals. If I were a cynic, I'd say that the absence of any real fail states -- fall just the right way and you will be delivered to where you were trying to go in the first place -- makes a lot of the platforming feel superfluous, an attempt to break up the monotony of personal expression and little more. If I were a cynic, I'd tell you that it tries too hard, that Tearaway is as earnest as a seven-year old and it is so fluffy you could die.
If I were a cynic, I'd also remark that Mario games are just a lot of bouncing, JRPGs are weirdly melodramatic and dating games creepy examples of otaku wish fulfillment.
But, I'm not.
So what I'm going to tell you instead is that Media Molecule's Tearaway is a 3D platformer so enchanting you'd have to be the sort who resents Pixar movies to be able to even fathom hating it. Calling Tearaway a "3D platformer" feels weird, though. I mean, at heart, that's really what it is: bouts of exploratory jumping interspaced with arts & crafts time. But the description feels too clinical to properly frame Tearaway's darling papercraft world. Delight. Wonder. A piece of wholesome, household magic. Those words work so much better.
One of the best things about Tearaway, perhaps, is how all this charm isn't simply being buoyed by audiovisual excellence. Sure, it's a luscious, Technicolor world that is less a digital construct and more an almost actual, tactile universe encased in your PS Vita. Sure, it's got a rocking soundtrack that utilizes everything from folk to electronic to the swish of scissors in motion. But it's also stunningly brilliant from a technical standpoint. Rarely do you encounter a game that so neatly and perfectly incorporates every function its platform commands.
Tearaway does great things with the usual suspect. The frontal touchscreen is used with gleeful abandon. Almost everything in the game can be poked and prodded to elicit an adorable response of some variety. Presents can be opened by thumbing ribbons, enemies and crinkles in the landscape squished with the same digit, and winding roads unraveled with a flick of a finger. The main use of the touchscreen, of course, involves haphazardly designing and producing flattering attire and facial hair out of a rainbow of construction paper. Like you used to do in kindergarten except with little, living things.
What Media Molecule did with the rear touchpad, though, is probably more impressive. At certain junctures in the game, you can sort of but not quite stick your fingers into Tearaway. Touch the back of the Vita and a digitized finger corresponding to the hand size and flesh tone you've selected will split the skin of the land to allow you to do everything from propelling enemies away from your Messenger to virtually moving mountains. It's a simple yet masterful conceit, one implemented with such creativity that I ended up getting a little frisson of excitement each time I knew an opportunity to interact with the world was coming up.
While the focus is on the multi-touch display, Tearaway also makes deft use of the in-built gyroscope, the cameras, and even microphone. Regardless of whether you're talking about the way the game slyly uses the environment behind the rear-facing camera as a distant backdrop or how it lets you record a menacing voice (Mine shouts, "Mewmewmewmewmew!") for a scarecrow, there's a sense of finesse permeating your every interaction with Tearaway. No awkward "Hey! Come check out how ah-maaaazhingly novel the Vita and our game can be, guys!" scenarios here, thank god.
Your main link to the world -- a sugary-cute envelope creature adorned with malleable features, bandy paper limbs and all that is good about the universe -- controls just fine too. And adorably. You move by wiggling the left analog stick about, jump by hitting x and communicate with the world with the square button. Atoi or Iota -- the names differ depending on your Messenger's chosen gender -- will, in turn, squeak, gasp and trill in answer to every jump, flung object and unusual happenstance in the game.
(Bonus observation: the idle animations for the Messengers are just heart-wrenchingly cute. From time to time, they will turn around to stare at you, starry-eyed and effusively adoring. It's enough to make you want to wrap them up in a hug forever. GAH.)
There are undertones of Michael Ende's The Neverending Story in here. Like Bastian Bathazar Bux, you're no passive observer. You're more than just the page-flippy hand, more than just the person behind the controls. You're a part of this fantastical domain. Right from the beginning, Tearaway makes it a point to impress upon you that fact upon you. The massive quest around which the entirety of your experience with Tearaway will revolve? It's an attempt by your Messenger to get a special message to You. Yes. You. The player. Not some character you're supposed to pretend is representative of you. YOU.
(Incidentally, Tearaway players are reverently referred to as Yous in the game which, I think, was pretty charming.)
Seriously, that's the sum of it. It's not just a setup, not just a casual attempt at immersion, an idea that is to be discarded as soon as it is humanly possible -- I am looking at you, Burial at Sea. Tearaway, though it does tread some wondrous territory, has a vice grip on this core narrative. When the dust clears and everything is said and done, it's still about you, your Messenger, the story that you build and the journey both of you will share.
And what a journey it is. Tearaway opens in a dainty, sun-dappled glade. Unfortunately, the occupants aren't exactly in the most idyillic mood. Scraps, the misbegotten cylopean sons of discarded newspapers, have invaded their world and are terrorizing the lot. Since the Scraps originated from our world, it's naturally your prerogative to exterminate the pests in the kindest way possible. Things escalate from there. Before you know it, you're festooning a pig with racing stripes and slaving to make a talking gopher more dapper. You're designing snowflakes and mustaches and racing madly around your apartment to find an appropriate texture for a critter's makeover and dancing on planets. And taking pictures. Monstrous amounts of pictures.
Early into the game, a series of events lead towards the acquisition of a camera. A sometimes plot device, Tearaway will occasionally demand you make use of the contraption in order to proceed along the narrative or to acquire more confetti. (Confetti is used to either purchase decorative ornaments and new facial features for your Messenger or to pick up more lens and effects for your camera.)The rest of the time? You'll likely be using that camera voluntarily and copiously. I certainly did. Which was weird because I generally loathe photography. Friends and family are constantly berating me for the dearth of travel-related snapshots. But, with Tearaway, however, I couldn't resist. I was taking photos of everything, of every person my Messenger Atoi and I encountered. We arranged ourselves near ledges, next to snowdrifts, besides interesting animals and weird architecture -- all for the sake of photographic documentation. The only thing we didn't do was play with the various filters and lenses because down with Instagram, that's why.
We. Not I. It still weirds me out as to how quickly Tearaway evoked an emotional rapport between Atoi and I. By the end of the game, I was actively apologizing whenever I scared my envelope-skulled girl and flinching when I made her miss a jump. I spent far too much time meticulously contriving the perfect looks for her. Those cat ears in the screenshot? Totally made by hand. Once, I even caught myself murmuring words of encouragement during a particularly difficult stretch, eager to be supportive to my partner -- a thing made of cunningly strung together bytes. Wild, huh? That's what happens. Love cultivates love and Atoi, for a carefully manufactured product of a hundred minds, is incredibly good at demonstrating affection.
In a time outfitted with unnecessary amounts of punching and half-hearted shooting, Tearaway's a vivid reminder that sometimes the best things in life are also the simplest, that next-gen graphics aren't integral to video games. Tearaway's got a heart so big it barely fits into the Vita. How much you're going to enjoy this game is going to depend on how willing you are to share space in your heart with its. So, give it room. You'll be surprised by how delightful its company can be. I know I was.
The Nitty Gritty
- Visuals:If you can imagine a world built out of colorful construction paper, designed by hand rather than machine, and peopled with little papercraft people and animals, you can envision Tearaway. There's a deliciously organic imperfection to everything in the game: little wrinkles in a paper lake, a crooked fold on a squirrel's face, an irregular circle of leaves on a pine tree. Excitingly, Tearaway's papercraft aesthetics aren't just for show. Stuff really is paper here. Instead of actual waves, we have tendrils of blue-white paper or lakes of glue, mountain faces that work exactly like pop-up books and swathes of glue on wall for you to scamper upon.
- Music and Sound:There's a song that I can't tell you about singing quietly in my head and it's not because it is nauseatingly catchy the way Gangnam Style is. It is soft and sweet and just one of the many, wonderful things you'll hear. Tearaway's soundtrack is a riot of diverse and incredible tunes. Electronic, folk, stuff that I can't put a name to because no one ever gave me an education in music -- it's all tangled up in the game like yarns of genius made audio. Also, cutest. sound. effects. ever.
- Interface:By and large, Tearaway's buttery interface is the kind of thing any good PS Vita game should aspire to grow up to be. Moving your Messenger around? Totally a cinch. Seamlessly navigating the myriad of ways Tearaway makes use of the Vita's many features while moving your Messenger around? Still totally easy. As an added bonus, Tearaway features clear visual cues as to what you probably should be doing without ever coming across as obtrusive.
- Lasting Appeal:Unless you were very, very good about mining your surroundings for hidden collectibles and out-of-the-way secrets, you're probably going to have reason to come back to Tearaway after the main story is over.