A Juggler's Tale (2021)
I often find myself in a situation where the game I hoped to review is a game I'm not done playing, so I'll have to switch over to something shorter on my backlog. That's how I happened to play A Juggler's Tale, a game that I actually knew almost nothing about since I acquired it from a Humble Bundle with some other indies. However, it was a pleasant surprise as I really enjoyed this somewhat-random pick from my backlog. A Juggler's Tale is a side-scrolling adventure where you play as a little puppet girl on a journey after escaping her cage at the circus. A Juggler's Tale surpassed my expectations with its story and voice acting, but it sometimes fell a bit short when it came to platforming elements.
The story of The Juggler's Tale is told in rhymes by a narrator putting on a puppet show. We never see this narrator himself, but we do see the audience of the puppet show he puts on. The story he tells is about Abby, a little girl who seems happy and free, but we soon realize that's not the case as she is actually forced to work for the circus. Whenever she's not performing, she's in her cage. The narrator encourages Abby to escape, and so she breaks out of her cage, freeing herself as well as her fellow performer, a bear named Urs. In her escape she's almost caught, but Urs sacrifices his own escape to save her and distracts the circus leaders. After Abby has made a run for it, she gets to finally see more of the outside world. The environment lets us know that this is a hostile place - a war-torn medieval world with ferocious beasts and starving, angry people. However, the narrator is able to influence Abby's journey, as he can pull her out of danger with her strings if she falls.
I was pretty impressed with the art style in this game - the environments were especially breathtaking in some scenes. I like that when the puppet story starts, there's just very simple stage props made of cardboard, like trees. Then, once Abby's story begins, the world becomes realistic and detailed, as if the imagination of the audience is crafting it as the story goes on. The characters in the puppet show are appropriately doll-like, so Abby and the others don't really have many recognizable features. However, the character art used early in the game for the audience shows us a fun, whimsical style that i wish would've been used again in the game. The music was alright, but even now a day after playing it, none of it sticks in my head too much. It definitely had a a proper medieval sound to it that was playful at times and tense at others. Much of the musicality of this game actually came from dialogue that was always told in a rhythmic way.
A Juggler's Tale is unique in its platforming and puzzles mostly because of the extra barrier that is your puppet strings. They are physically holding you and stretch to the top of the screen, which means you're unable to pass underneath any objects as your strings will catch and therefore keep you from moving. This adds an additional layer of challenge, as you have to think of yourself as both Abby and the strings. At the same time, because they reach so high up you can also use them to tap things that are above Abby's height. The narrator talks to Abby directly when she falls or makes a mistake, pulling her by the strings to put her back on her path. Later in the game however, the challenges and puzzles change quite a bit. I won't spoil the story, but I'll just say that there's more that happens beyond what I've described here. One thing that was a little tricky about this game is that often times you're able to grab something, but it's not clear when that's an option. For example, you may see a crate of apples nearby but you have to press grab in the exact right spot to pick one up. It's a little vague at times and felt a little sluggish as a control as well. However, for the most part the game wasn't very punishing so even if you made errors with these controls you could try again right away.
A Juggler's Tale is a really well-told story that takes you through some unexpected twists and turns, with a darker tone that you may expect. It both metaphorically and literally uses the puppet strings as a method to limit and control Abby. The voice acting and poetic storytelling really makes it feel like a proper puppet show in the setting, and made me feel more connected to the characters. It's a short adventure but definitely worthwhile, I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys side-scrolling puzzle adventures in the vein of Inside and Limbo.
A Juggler's Tale is available on PC, Switch, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X|S
Played on: PC (Steam Deck)
Last Played: 12/20/2022
Playtime: 2.5 hrs
If you like Stanley's Parable, you'll like this game as well. It's actually kind of funny how similar the narrators are in both games.