I do not know how many games are originally conceived as a second-year student project but this is one of them. The founding members of Munich-based developer Kaleidoscube met whilst studying at the Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg and originally produced a vertical slice of one chapter of the game for a project submission. Always envisioned as a five-chapter experience, they have continued to work on their labour of love and this year have completed the production to submit it as their graduation project.
After teaming up with publisher Mixtvision the finished article is now also being released to the general public. Ask yourself, what is freedom, and can a puppet ever be truly free? Let’s manipulate some marionettes and try to find out in the XboxEra review of A Juggler’s Tale.
After a scene-setting introduction delivered in the style of a graphic novel, we enter the 3D side-scrolling show of a puppeteer/storyteller known as Jack. Jack narrates the story of Abby a young juggler who is held captive in a Circus by a wicked Ringmaster and forced to perform for crowds during the day only to be locked alone in a cage at night.
Abby soon seizes her chance to outwit her tormenter and escape her predicament only to discover that freedom in the outside world is hard to maintain. With a group of hired bandits led by the terrifying Tonda hot on her trail Abby must navigate a beautiful yet damaged medieval world, overcoming many obstacles and relying on the kindness of strangers including the person playing the game to retain her independence and gain real freedom (if there is any such thing for a puppet.)
To say any more about the story would spoil things so I will let you discover it for yourselves. I will point out though that Jack not only tells the story but as the puppet master controls what all of the puppets are doing. If Abby does something that Jack considers to be silly such as falling in a river, he soon pulls her out and tells her how lucky she is to have him looking after her. It quickly becomes apparent that he has an unhealthy control fixation regarding the little juggler, possibly more so than even the ringmaster, and when other forces such as the player begin to influence her activities, he gets more than a little bit upset!
The Show must go on
Each act starts with the curtains opening onto background scenery straight out of a puppet show. As the gameplay scrolls from left to right (at least for the first four acts) the graphics become a 3D environment that is a joy to behold. At the end of an act, we return to the scenery and the curtains close just like a real puppet show.
The game is described as a ‘Cinematic Puzzle Platformer’ and it certainly lives up to that description. This is a truly beautiful graphical experience with sections of the game world looking like live-action reproductions of landscape paintings. Butterflies can be observed fluttering above plants at one point and a cornfield even has a murder of crows wheeling in the sky above it. These touches, like the sound of crickets and birds in the background, do not influence the actual game but show that deep care and attention have gone into the environmental design of this experience. Having to navigate a calm sea that becomes a raging storm was a particularly impressive section with the graphical and sound design being used expertly to create an immersive in-game atmosphere.
The Ties that bind
Although it uses the standard tropes of a game of this type such as walking, jumping, climbing, throwing, pushing, and pulling, etc. the thing that sets A Juggler’s Tale apart is the fact that you and your pursuers have strings controlling your movement. This brings a unique aspect to the gameplay that gamers do not usually have to consider. It is not possible to just walk under objects impeding your progress as this causes your strings to become taut and then prevents you from going any further. This mechanic has to be considered at all times and many of the puzzles in the game are based around this concept. Interacting with an environmental object to move the sails of a windmill or burning a spooky tree branch to get them out of her way are a few of the types of actions required regularly to make room for her strings and allow Abby to progress across the game world. As the story continued it became clear that the strings of her pursuers could be used to hamstring them too and opened up a whole new way of thinking about how to evade capture.
Exploring this Brothers Grimm-influenced fairy tale world is fun and involves not only platforming and puzzle-solving but also features stealth sections, heart-pounding chase sequences, and trap avoidance conundrums. Puzzle difficulty is certainly on the relaxing side but I did come across some far trickier timing-based objectives in the final third of the game.
Abby is designed as a very cute marionette who kicks her heels when she is not moving, juggles when walking across some of the tightropes, and moves in such a dainty fashion at times that the line between her being a puppet and a real little girl gets seriously blurred. It is possible for Abby to die in-game as I found out when I came across a very creepy giant Spider in the forest but she just respawns in the same place to allow her another chance to progress.
Talk to me
The quality of the voice acting should also be given a special mention as Jack changes over the course of the story. From an overconfident creepy uncle type of vibe initially, the actor’s performance completely changes until he becomes an almost psychotic spurned maniac in act four raging against the injustice of his situation. I don’t think that I have ever listened so closely to what a narrator is saying before.
The musical soundtrack is also lovingly crafted and pays homage not only to folk and medieval music but also to stage shows and cinematic scores. There is even a song written especially for Tonda and his gang to sing while they troop back to camp at the end of the day which is another example of how much of a labour of love this project has been for the development team.
This is a fairly short experience having been designed to be played over two to three hours but it is perfectly formed within this timescale so you do not feel cheated by the game length. The developer considers the game to be for fans of Limbo, Inside, and Little Nightmares so if you enjoyed those games, you know what to expect here (apart from the freaky ending of Inside which still makes me shiver years later).
In terms of accessibility options there is not anything special available but coming from such a small development team that is not unusual.
I came across two glitches that broke the game for me in my playthrough which both involved falling onto certain surfaces at certain times but I just restarted the game and was able to continue. I reported them to the developer and they stated that these are known issues which will be fixed in a day one patch.
In conclusion, A Juggler’s Tale is a compact but perfectly formed cinematic experience. It is beautiful to look at and has an immersive atmosphere with a level of detail that pulls the player into its world. The focus here is on story with the game being pretty relaxing to play for the most part. It also offers a unique gameplay mechanic in the form of a puppets strings limiting traversal options within a puzzle platformer environment. At only £12.99 this tale of empowerment and hope is well worth investigating.
Played on Xbox Series X