Tearaway is far from the feckless ruffian its title suggests. Sure, it's occasionally a little scruffy around the edges, but this is a thoroughly good-natured game, a genteel, happy adventure that frowns upon rowdy behaviour. Its name, then, can only refer to its recklessness in design terms: it plays fast and loose with genre traditions, breaking rules with irreverent exuberance and twisting existing ideas into strange new forms. In that light, it sounds like an unlikely standard bearer, but the result might just be Vita's best game to date.
It's certainly the most effective use of the handheld's feature set. Media Molecule uses Vita's two cameras, both analogue sticks, every button, its gyro sensor, and the touchscreen. It even champions the rear touch pad, so cruelly shunned by most developers, making it an integral part of its systems rather than an occasional gimmick. It's a game that simply wouldn't work on any other hardware, and how many other Vita games can you honestly say that about?
All of which makes it sound absurdly complex, but at heart Tearaway is a simple, accessible game. You control Iota or Atoi, a male or female messenger - we opted for the latter - with a mysterious letter to deliver. Your job is to guide them on their journey, controlling them directly with the left analogue stick, or literally giving them a helping hand, with your fingers prodding and poking at the game world from your position on high, an omnipotent outsider looking in.
"It sounds absurdly complex, but at heart Tearaway is a simple, accessible game."
It isn't the first time this month we've seen a link between worlds, though the ties between the world of Atoi and You (that's you, cast as The You, just to confuse matters) feel very different. To some, such bold acknowledgement of the player may have a distancing effect; others may enjoy the greater intimacy it offers. Usually, your role in a game's story is unseen, as a puppet master behind the scenes, pulling the hero's strings. Instead you're thrust centre stage, and that heightened sense of involvement is one of the secrets of Tearaway's success.
Its world is another. While the handmade look isn't a totally new idea, no game looks quite like this. Everything in Atoi's world is made from paper, but more importantly, everything moves and behaves like it's made from paper. It's an astonishingly coherent, consistent aesthetic, and it feels so tangible that you'll wish you could physically play around with it even more than you're already able to.
Outside the game you can do just that, with a total of 58 papercraft models - from pigs to elks, carousels to standing stones - to print off once Atoi has discovered them. They're automatically uploaded to your personal online collection, which also hosts any photographs you've uploaded. With an in-game camera that offers a range of lenses and filters, not to mention the sheer number of gorgeous moments, strange creatures and wondrous views to capture, there will likely be plenty of snaps to share.
Media Molecule stuffs the game's first act in particular with new ideas. It asks you to drum your fingers against the rear touchpad to prompt bounce pads into pushing Atoi across gaps and up to higher areas, or rip through thin sheets to move platforms and obstacles. You'll also need them for battling the real tearaways of the piece, the one-eyed Scraps. These messy little paper cubes are a rowdy, aggressive nuisance, but they're easily dealt with, particularly with some assistance from You. Give them a sharp poke from underneath and they'll splat against the screen, from where you can knock them off with your thumb.
In truth, the combat doesn't develop a great deal throughout: different enemy types are introduced from flying Scraps to others that need flipping over, while a handful of areas offer a very different spin on environmental takedowns. But it never feels particularly elegant or exciting. An element of mild peril is welcome, but the Scraps are little more than occasional irritants, a pest that can be quickly dismissed. You're left waiting for more varied encounters that never arrive.
The same, to a lesser extent, could be said of Tearaway's environmental puzzles. While there's a beguiling tactility to your interactions with the world that never really goes away, you will have seen most of the best ideas within the first few hours. Tilt controls are used well in some late-game sequences, though at no point will you wonder how to progress, not least because everything you can interact with is highlighted.
And those hoping for something to test their platforming skills may well be left disappointed by the almost total absence of challenge. The only difficulties come through occasional fussiness with the controls: you'll nudge the rear touch pad but it won't bounce Atoi high enough, while tilting the device can leave you with a less than helpful view from which to gauge jumps.
"It's a game that invites you to simply enjoy the journey."
Yet such issues are rarely enough to impinge upon your appreciation of Tearaway's world. Indeed, it's often at its best at its quietest, the moments where you pull your camera out to take a saturated landscape shot, or you head to the craft table to cut out a tie for a scientist or a crown for a squirrel.
It's a game that invites you to simply enjoy the journey, and the fact that the myriad side objectives are left for you to discover - rather than being highlighted on a map, or pointed towards by a pushy NPC - only spur you into seeking them out. The wonderfully off-kilter soundtrack that accompanies you on your travels is further encouragement to go off and explore at your own pace.
And then comes an ending that wraps things up so beautifully that any complaints seem churlish. It manages the rare feat of forcing you not only to re-evaluate your time in its world, but your place in the narrative itself. Its message is both literal and metaphorical, touching upon themes it's impossible to discuss further without giving the game away. Suffice to say, it only gets more profound and moving the longer you roll it around in your brain.
It's also a celebration - of crafts and craftsmanship, of players and protagonists and the connections they share, of journeys and endings. You'll put the Vita down and reflect upon the time you spent shooting hoops with gophers, sucking up enemies with a squeezebox, reuniting a monster with its mother, and gambolling through pastel fields astride a pig you've just given a homebrew makeover: fond memories indeed.
Yet if there's one moment that perhaps sums up Tearaway best, it's a piece of narration from the inimitable Richard Ridings, a line that seems to double as a mission statement for Media Molecule. "Embracing new ideas!" he shouts. "You can't say we're not trying!" Even among those who find Tearaway too slight or too easy, there can surely be few arguments with that.
A gorgeous, inventive adventure, Tearaway isn't just Vita's best new game, it's one of the most original things you'll play all year.
- Vita's best game to date
- Hugely imaginative
- Astonishing aesthetic
- Combat could be deeper
- Not particularly challenging