On Vita, Tearaway achieved the impossible. It made sense of its host hardware’s muddled featureset, using touch, tilt and onboard cameras in creative ways. It was the game the struggling handheld was crying out for, showing the design potential in a suite of features many had written off as gimmicks. Tearaway and Vita were inextricable.
No longer. Tearaway Unfolded is a strange prospect. Console ports of handheld games are rare enough, but Media Molecule has given itself the task of rebuilding a game designed for a unique mix of hardware features on another, very different, device. The studio’s solution is to move things over where it can, invent new ones where it can’t and, elsewhere, to sort of fudge it.
Take, for example, the use of camera. On Vita, since the lens looks up from the palm of your hand, Tearaway can show a close-up of your face in the sky – vital in fostering the relationship between the player (referred to as ‘The You’) and the protagonist (Iota if you pick male, or Atoi for female). On PS4, glancing up at the hole in the heavens reveals not the smiling face of a benevolent god, but a wide-angle, low-res shot of a distant figure with their feet up, assuming you have a camera hooked up at all. Atoi or Iota isn’t forming a bond with a living person, but their coffee table.
Touch controls are also lacking, both within the game world and without. The DualShock 4 touchpad is no match for Vita’s touchscreen when sketching items into life on the cutting mat. Our creations on Vita were never perfect, of course, but that was all part of the charm; here, using a workspace that’s one-fifth the size has you blaming the hardware instead of your unskilled fingers. Second-screen support (on a smartphone, tablet or, weirdly, Vita) goes some way to remedying that, and also lets a second player plaster the scenery with photos and fill the air with custom-made confetti. For the solo player, however, switching back and forth takes you out of the game world further, and the second-screen connection drops after a few minutes of inactivity, too, taking your previous creations with it.
The Vita game’s deliciously fourth-wall-breaking use of the handheld’s rear touch panel – where a tap on the system’s underside would see a rendered finger burst through the game world’s floor to interact with it – simply can’t be replicated here. Nor can the way you would tap the rear touch panel to beat a drum skin and propel Atoi or Iota skywards. Touchpad presses serve the latter purpose in functionality if not emotion, but the former mechanic is gone. To replace it, Media Molecule does exactly what it did on Vita: finds a way to use a feature other developers have largely ignored.
Yes, it’s the light bar. The design high-water mark for the PS4 controller’s battery-sapping glow has, until now, been mimicking a police car’s lights in GTAV. That it has now been supplanted by serving as the justification for Unfolded’s Guiding Light (which relies on the gyros for function) says only that this hardware feature has been given a gameplay purpose at all. Still, it is brilliant: as well as lighting the way in dark areas, it’s used for spellbinding enemy Scraps and suckering them into walking over sheer drops, restoring a damaged world to its papery glory, and sending NPCs into raptures. It’s smart, flexible and goes some way to restoring the bond between your world and the game’s.
So too does the use of the pad’s built-in speaker. While you can, as before, pick up and throw objects within the game world, tilt the DualShock 4 towards you and you can fling an enemy or projectile out of the screen and into the controller, allowing you to hit targets Atoi and Iota can’t reach. It’s handy in combat, and powers some new puzzles, as well as a bizarre game of football between two teams of Scraps, with welltimed throws stunning the opposing team for an easy score. Shake the controller before throwing, meanwhile, and you’ll hear your quarry rattling around inside. There’s even a new use for the touchpad, despite its functional similarity to Vita’s touchscreen. Your swipes create directional gusts of wind, used to rotate platforms, unfurl makeshift bridges and power flight on the back of a paper aeroplane, allowing you to see familiar areas from new angles, albeit at high speeds.
This reveals the problem at Unfolded’s heart: there is enough mechanical novelty here to power a sequel, but this is a remake, and the PS4 game can only suffer in comparison to its brilliantly realised forebear. By focusing on hardware features, Media Molecule has also overlooked some of the fundamentals of turning a handheld game into a console one. The protagonist is a tiny presence onscreen, making busy combat sections and the late game’s precision platforming a chore. While 1080p resolution on a big screen does wonders for this tactile papercraft land, the framerate can struggle to keep up. And the camera’s a disaster at times, getting stuck behind scenery or framing a scene in such a way that two platforms with a fatal drop in between look like a single stretch of solid ground.
Yet for all its little stumbles on the journey from Vita to PS4, and its odd mix of new ideas and an old world, Unfolded retains one of its progenitor’s most vital ingredients: buckets and buckets of charm. This, after all, is still a game in which you delight a squirrel with a wonky paper crown, and fix the swelling on a pig’s eye before riding it across a field to a love interest – and now you can also trap a baddie in your controller and tickle it, or snap selfies while soaring through the sky on a paper plane. Anyone who can’t fall in love with that little lot is in need of a new heart. And if you don’t mind it being flat, the wrong colour and a little out of shape, we’d be only too happy to oblige.