Paper Beast was already a critically acclaimed VR title from Pixel Reef studios, so the surprise of their brand new Folded Edition - a non VR version of the game - is a welcome one. Especially considering the game's reputation. It is already one of the most surreal VR games released this year, by one of the most famous game designers of all time. Paper Beast has a lot to live up to, and the question now is whether or not it is able to be as engrossing as it really seems.
The Return of Chahi
The heart of Paper Beast really comes from game designer and director Éric Chahi. Practically an auteur in the vein of Hideo Kojima and David Cage, Chahi spans a career that is already over thirty years. Most in the gaming world know him for his now cult classic, Another World, but Chahi has worked on three games since then, including his last title, the 2010 release From Dust. The ten year gap is nothing surprising from Chahi, who has spent most of the 2010s working on a 3D Interactive Lava Simulator for the Volcano Museum La Cite du Volcan.
Paper Beast, and subsequently his new studio Pixel Reef, is mostly based on his work through 3D interactivity. This explains a lot of the mechanics and design philosophy found in Paper Beast; interactivity with the world is minimal and simulated through simple controls that grab what you need. For better or worse, Paper Beast is able to accomplish this, and combining Chahi's art direction and unique scenarios, really plays to the strengths of Paper Beast.
Paper Beast is certainly the type of game we can expect from Chahi; imaginative, unique and charming all rolled into one package. Aesthetically it is simple but gorgeous; sand-swept deserts and babbling brooks of water dot the landscape filled with all sorts of odd paper creatures. There are predators, prey, pests and more to interact with; an alien ecosystem that thrives in this wondrous oasis that is right at home with the imagination of Chahi. It is a harsh world; but a world filled with life and vibrancy that is hard to ignore.
A Ghost in the Machine
Like most of Chahi’s catalogue, Paper Beast is a simple adventure through what are sprawling set pieces to feast your eyes on. Paper Beast has two gameplay modes, your standard storyline and a sandbox mode, and both demonstrate the overall strengths and weaknesses of the entire project.
The story itself is a subdued, slow experience that focuses heavily on atmosphere. The whole premise is basic but high concept; you are someone stuck in a simulation that has seemingly gone awry, where these paper creatures and other oddball creatures inhabit the world while strange occurrences happen throughout your travels there.
This sort of ‘simulation runs amok’ scenario is perfectly played out. You get the widespread desert vistas juxtaposed with starry nights. You have glowing cubes dotting the landscape like illuminating bricks. You witness one moment a parade of creatures led by a giant Paper Elephant, then in another moment a giant black hole spewing code and magnetic tape at you.
One great touch is the use of an almost out of place Pop-Punk song from Japanese band TsuShiMaMiRe throughout the story. The high-energy of their songs are not only the only verbal sounds you hear, but a stark contrast to the more melancholy musical cues dotted throughout the game. The sound design also helps in selling the artifice; most of the noise is a mix of crinkled paper and cardboard on top of radio noise and wifi waves; creating this natural-sounding world filled with artificial effects.
Paper Beast is a world where the artifice of the environment is clear, right down to the numbers and letters that spew out of the world and dot along the sky like the Matrix gone mad. The extent as to how or why this world is the way it is, however, is not even explored, leaving a sense of ambiguity throughout. Chahi is a master of non-verbal storytelling, and Paper Beast is just another example of how powerful that can be, providing meaning without a purposeful subtext to its narrative.
Paper Thin Puzzles
While the strengths of Paper Beast are in its ambiance, horror and whimsy, its weakness is how mundane the game actually plays. Fundamentally Paper Beast is a puzzle game, where you navigate the aforementioned set pieces while solving a few physics and placement puzzles with the paper creatures you find.
A lot of the puzzles are cut from the same cloth; help navigate the beasts from point A to point B while avoiding obstacles along the way, from predators to obstructions. Once you get the creatures where they have to go - usually a tree or some plant that slowly grows in their presence - you are whisked away to the next scenario. Each new area creates a new puzzle with unique elements, though the premise for each area is ultimately the same.
There is actually no wiggle room with the puzzles either; following the old school adventure game logic of having a singular solution. Since a lot of them also have a physics-based component as well, this adds a bit of frustration when it comes to grabbing and moving objects, beasts or other items to the correct location to move forward. This makes the puzzles, while slightly imaginative, a bit boring and pretty easy to get through.
Paper Beast really has no challenge or depth to its gameplay. To put this in perspective, consider Chahi’s best known title, Another World, as a comparison. Another World took the tropes of adventure-platforming and created a cinematic experience that blended the two together perfectly, with the right amount of challenge and depth to compliment its own, non-verbal story. Every action the player takes in Another World serves a purpose beyond going forward to the next scene, but actively engaging the player with its mechanics.
Paper Beast, in contrast, lacks the depth and ingenuity to sustain the gameplay portion. It is a surreal, non-verbal story that still resonates well, but it is not complemented by the puzzles as much as they are by the set pieces and actions of the creatures' own AI. Your interaction with the world is proactive in actions, but passive in personal effect. In essence, the player's engagement is ultimately more minimal and self-serving.
The only other gameplay mode is a more standard Sandbox mode, where you can unlock different beasts, plants, objects and other features while playing through the storyline. The inclusion of sandbox mode is a welcome one that fits the theme of the simulation, but outside of creating your own elaborate environments, weather hazards, and creature populations, it doesn’t hold much attention beyond the first few hours of flexing your creativity.
Though the gameplay in Paper Beast is paper thin, the overall package is definitely memorable. The hallmarks of Chahi are on display and the games visuals, sound design and atmosphere are well worth exploring for yourself. If there is any regret to be had, it is the fact that Paper Beast is clearly best experienced on a VR headset.
I have no doubt that fans of general arthouse games will enjoy Paper Beast - Folded Edition, though it is certainly a tough sell for someone looking for something more meaty with their gameplay. Regardless, Paper Beast is an experience worth playing, and for anyone looking for something more casual and surreal should check it out.
TechRaptor reviewed Paper Beast - Folded Edition on PC via Steam with a copy provided by the publisher. It is also available in VR form for Steam and the PlayStation 4.
- Imaginative World and Ideas...
- Great Use of Sound Design...
- Excellent Non-Verbal Storytelling...
- Good Arthouse-Style Experience
- ...Lack of Puzzle Depth
- ...Loses Some Charm Outside of VR
- ...Mediocre Sandbox Mode