A Juggler’s Tale review – platformer puppetry

A new indie developer takes influence from Inside and Little Nightmares with a cinematic puzzle platformer where the strings are very much showing.

It’s surprising how few games have used puppets as a theme, considering that controlling any video game avatar could easily be construed as a form of puppetry – especially some games where the developer only seems to want you to play it exactly the way they intended. In recent memory only 2013’s Puppeteer has really leaned into the aesthetic, allowing you to snip at enemies and cut seams in stage sets, as a live audience hollers along with the action.

One element missing from Puppeteer was actual strings. However, A Juggler’s Tale, the debut title from German developer kaleidoscube, makes this a core component of the narrative and gameplay. While it’s not quite as demanding or varied as Sony’s puppet exclusive, A Juggler’s Tale effectively, and efficiently, executes on its strings attached conceit.

The game, staged inside a marionette puppet show within a bar, sees puppet master Jack tell the story of Abby, a caged juggler who flees the circus. Shortly after her escape, the ringmaster hires a group of bandits to hunt Abby down, led by the particularly persistent Tonda. As you progress over the game’s five chapters you engage in minor stealth, chase sequences, and puzzles to discover what it means to be free.

While nominally billed as a platformer, A Juggler’s Tale is primarily a sequence of puzzles stitched together. They’re simple but satisfying, like throwing a ball at a metal object to attract a guard’s attention, allowing you to steal the key hanging from his waist. Others require the removal of obstacles so you can progress without getting your strings tangled up, like setting fire to tree branches or operating windmills.

There’s also some less obvious situations, although most come down to figuring out what you can interact with and deducing its use within the environment – so you’re never stumped for too long.

The gameplay is generally less intensive than most puzzle platformers, which fits the playful, childlike aesthetic and folk-inspired soundtrack. There’s some darker turns, and it’s easy enough to die on certain set pieces which require a degree of experimentation, but the overall experience is pleasant and forgiving – with even the puppet master assisting occasionally, by lifting your strings to nearby ledges when you’re brushing close to danger.

Taking it slow, however, is how you’re encouraged to play. At numerous points, you’re invited to soak in the stunning background vistas, ranging from luscious country fields at sundown to rainy swamps under darkness – all rich with colour and impressive lighting effects. It’s unsurprising that an illustrated children’s book is planned for release next year based on the graphics, as it captures the gothic fairytale simplicity even within a still frame.

The relaxed approach is also likely endorsed because the adventure is very short. There’s only two hours of play here, which is thin even compared to similar titles such as Limbo and Inside. There’s enough visual and gameplay variety to make the journey satisfying but the severe lack of replayability is less forgivable, with the game offering no incentive, like collectibles or new challenges, to warrant a restart after the credits have rolled.

While this might affect your view on its value proposition, the narrative in A Juggler’s Tale is memorable and well paced. The puppetmaster, who initially grates by narrating Abby’s movements with constant, smarmy rhyming couplets, eventually proves to have a more important purpose which makes early irritations somewhat fitting.

Not every element clicks within the bigger picture though. The occasional chase sequences fall flat, especially compared to the likes of Ori And The Will Of The Wisps, because the game’s relatively unresponsive controls aren’t really designed for them. Some of the later puzzles require some trial and error too, but the generous checkpoint system does alleviate these frustrations.

These quibbles aside, A Juggler’s Tale is impressive in how it satisfies despite its compact length. Like the best children’s books it’s clever in its simplicity, gently guiding you from one beautiful setting to another, while scattering rewarding, leisurely mini-puzzles in-between. This isn’t quite up there with puzzle platformers like Little Nightmares 2 or Inside, but as a debut project from a new studio this puppet adventure puts on a fine show.

A Juggler’s Tale review summary

In Short: A charming puzzle platformer which makes great use of its puppet show concept but falls short in longevity.

Pros: Beautiful visual style with plenty of personality. Enjoyable story which takes some surprising turns. Puzzles are satisfying despite their simplicity.

Cons: Only two hours long and with no real replay value. Certain action-focused sequences feel awkward to play.

Score: 7/10

Formats: PlayStation 5 (reviewed), Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, Xbox Series X/S, and PC
Price: £11.99
Publisher: Mixtvision
Developer: kaleidoscube
Release Date: 29th September 2021
Age Rating: 7

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