My first draft of this review started with the words “Tearaway isn’t just a game.” That’s because when I wrote that first draft I apparently didn’t care about saying anything interesting or all that perceptive. Tearaway is totally a game. You push buttons and move joysticks and in response things happen on a screen—that’s how much of a game this thing is. It should be played and when it is played it will probably be loved.
The reason it isn’t “just” a “game” though is because it wants to recreate itself in the real world. It wants you to take what you see inside this game, the characters and objects and backdrops, and introduce them into your physical surroundings. Everything in Tearaway looks like paper, and throughout the game you’ll unlock printable patterns that let you reassemble the game. Get on your computer, log into your account, load up a pattern and get printing. After a little bit of scissoring and folding and pasting you’ll have a three-dimensional replica of the two-dimensional business from inside the game.
Tearaway regularly ignores the wall between game and player, referencing you directly in the game world in both word and image. By urging you to bring what you see into actual existence, though, it eliminates the physical gap between you and the game. It’s a gimmick, but an exciting one that inspires creativity within players often derided for oblivious passivity. As 3D printers grow cheaper and more common-place, this sort of interaction could come to redefine how games are experienced. In Tearaway, it’s just a neat little sidebar to an adorable game.
Tearaway has all the charm, artiness and mixed-media visual appeal of Media Molecule’s other platformer, Little Big Planet. Little Big Planet remains a tremendous achievement, perhaps the best game about making games, but Tearaway is more enjoyable as a game because it focuses primarily on play instead of creation. It wants to get you interested in arts and crafts, and regularly asks you to draw new objects within the game and decorate various characters, but that’s all incorporated into the game’s story. It’s not an overwhelming possibility space like Little Big Planet’s creation tools, but the levels and story comprise a unified whole and not just a long (albeit charming and well-crafted) tutorial.
Tearaway also shoulders the burden of showing exactly what a Vita is capable of. This should be the first game everyone who gets a Vita plays from here on out. It unobtrusively shows off every aspect of Sony’s handheld, using the camera, microphone, touch screen, rear touch pad and motion sensing system to interact with the paper environment in different ways. Your heroes, the ambulatory envelopes known as Iota and Aoti, often need your fingers to help them out of a jam. You’ll tap the rear pad like a hand drum to propel the paper creatures into the air, or slide along the pad as a digital finger breaks through the paper ground and pushes massive obstacles aside. In the small gaps between “your” “finger” and the upturned edges of ruptured paper you’ll see flickers of your real physical surroundings as captured by the Vita’s camera.
Always overhead is a sun with your face in the middle like the Teletubbies sun all grown up, staring down benevolently while unintentionally endangering the paper craft world by puncturing the walls between our realities. Tiny paper goblins called scraps stream out of that portal, hassling the locals and posing the primary physical threat to Iota and Aoti. Combat is relatively sparse, largely limited to open spaces you trot into without fanfare as you explore. You can attack the scraps by rolling into them, or use a magical squeezebox to suck them up and spit them out, but for the most part you’ll play defensively and let the scraps stun themselves through mistimed attacks. At that point you can pick them up and either toss them into their brethren for a double kill or send them plummeting off one of the game’s frequent precipices. It’s a violent end either way, but an almost friendly style of violence, once that bears little resemblance to any real-life form. Also unrealistic is the almost non-existent punishment for losing a fight—your character has two hit points, but “dying” simply means disappearing for a second and reappearing at the exact spot where you fell. Scraps maintain whatever damage they’d already taken, so there’s literally no downside to dying.
Again, though, combat isn’t the dominant activity in Tearaway. It’s about exploring and appreciating this amazing world that Media Molecule has created. As you walk through the gorgeous environments that appear to be built out of construction paper, meeting cheerful but odd characters while collecting confetti and searching for hidden presents, you won’t even care that there’s little in the way of a challenge. The most challenging thing about Tearaway is finding something to dislike about it.
Tearaway is simply beautiful. It’s elegant in appearance and design, with an aesthetic that resembles no other game, mechanics that flaunt every feature the Vita has to offer, and a pacing and structure perfectly suited for the portability of a handheld. It might aspire to be more, but it doesn’t forget that it’s a videogame, first and foremost.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games section and reviews games for the Boston Herald.