I think we need a full confession before we begin – jugglers scare the life out of me. Whilst many will be scared stiff by the clown, for me, it’s the juggler. I think it’s the outfits, the smiling, the balls and the throwing of numerous objects. In a word, they are terrifying. It was therefore with trepidation that I took on A Juggler’s Tale, but thankfully there is very little juggling to be had. You see, instead we are taken on a poetic adventure across many lands, going from the circus to the dark woods and into the stormy sea. It’s a fairytale narrated by a kindly man. But not everything is as it seems.
The word ‘puppet master’ is often used as an analogy to describe someone behind the scenes, pulling the strings and manipulating the world and the way it’s being run. Here in A Juggler’s Tale it means what it says; the game begins with a puppet show in a little miniature theatre, the curtains open and Act One is introduced. The story follows the main character – a little girl called Abby – who is a juggler for a local travelling circus. She is almost like a prisoner held captive by the ringmaster, held in a cage every night after the show. But Abby escapes and ventures into the world, all as the ringmaster and a bunch of thugs led by Tonga follow, hot on her heels…
What makes this story different from the rest is that the tale is being narrated by the puppet master as Abby progresses; commenting on the world in rhyming couplets and not just giving Abby advice, but saving her from scary predicaments. But soon – around Act Three, in fact – the story and setup take an almighty twist as it questions who is in control and whether you are being led by an unreliable narrator. This change in the story and the world rules works brilliantly for A Juggler’s Tale, kicking the narrative just as you begin to get comfortable. Further to that, it resolves itself in a very satisfying way – I love the ending and what the game stands for.
Gameplay-wise A Juggler’s Tale plays like a normal platformer, but with limited options of things you can do. You can jump of course, and you can use objects like pushing a crate, operating a lever or climbing a ladder. You can pick up rocks too, aiming with the right stick in order to throw it. But the big thing that makes this different from any other platformer is the fact that you have strings attached.
These reach up into the sky, so certain areas are impossible for you to navigate through; A Juggler’s Tale is able to add in puzzles which work these strings into the action. For example, in one area you come across a working windmill whose sails are in a position that catches on your strings. To progress you’ll need to get the windmill working in your favour, so that the sails move you around. It’s all about directing the flow of water so a cow – who is attached to the mill – moves to drink from a trough, thus moving the sails around and clearing the way forward. These simple mechanics are a great addition to A Juggler’s Tale and even though you’ll be left cursing the strings with all your heart, kudos goes out for how it has all been implemented. Yes, there are a few annoying stealth sections and a tricky boss battle to contend with, but overall the game mechanics are good with an appreciated amount of checkpoints.
Visually and A Juggler’s Tale is stunning. In fact, design-wise it is immaculate. The game employs the 2.5D world to amazing effect, working a bit like Inside crossed with Little Nightmares but still able to create a whole new thing. There are some real standout moments too – like when Abby travels through the countryside, working through golden wheat and beautiful bruised skies. It’s exciting to see what the small team behind A Juggler’s Tale has been able to do in terms of the visuals. What’s more, these assist the story beautifully, giving that same sense of wonder Abby has on her travels.
The soundtrack is just as good, delivering peaks and troughs in the score throughout the tale. It’s helped by the narrator who feels like a classic storyteller, making us feel comfortable with the tale he is helping unfold; we can close our eyes and go on this journey with him. Nicely, when the game takes a turn his role is made even more pivotal, making the change with pitch-perfect performance.
From start to finish A Juggler’s Tale is hugely enjoyable. It tells a classic fairytale-type of story but then turns the format on its head, leaving you to wonder about the power of stories and who controls them. It’s a short experience that will take you just a couple of hours to complete, and it’s a shame there is no real replay value, but for me the length is perfect – as are the visuals and storytelling.
If you want to see what happens when fairytales go wrong then A Juggler’s Tale could be for you.
Head in to A Juggler’s Tale by visiting the Xbox Store