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Tearaway hands-on: Media Molecule turns trash into a PlayStation Vita treasure

LittleBigPlanet developer Media Molecule's next game, Tearaway for the PlayStation Vita, is refreshingly different from its previous work. Part papercraft adventure, part "buddy movie" co-starring the playable messenger Iota and the godlike fingers of the person playing, Tearaway plays nothing like the developer's side-scrolling, make-your-own platformers.

And, thankfully, Iota shares none of the jumping floatiness of Sackboy. The game is a tight, simple to control 3D romp through a beautiful, stylish world.

Tearaway is an adventure constructed entirely of paper. Protagonists Iota and his newly revealed female equivalent Atoi have paper envelopes for heads. Enemies, environments, platforms and power-ups are all built from the same flat, floppy, folding materials. Objects in the environment animate with a slight stutter, lending the game a stop motion animated feel.

The game's director, Rex Crowle, says the inspiration for Tearaway came from the "titanically messy desks" at Media Molecule, some of which were filled with piles of rubbish. Media Molecule wanted to realize that concept with a game "world that's really tactile and touchy-feely."

Smart use of the Vita's front touchscreen and rear touch pads help to deliver that tactile feeling. While much of Tearaway's controls are focused on using the Vita's analog sticks and buttons to move Iota and Atoi, players will occasionally need to turn pages or poke a finger through a wall using the handheld's touch-sensitive capabilities.

In a new level shown at a Tearaway preview event in Hollywood, Media Molecule introduced us to Atoi, the game's second playable character, and to Sogport, a paper island surrounded by a sea of "infinitely deep" glue. Sogport is "the kind of place that really needs an adventurer to help them out," Crowle says. While Sogport's deep rivers and reservoirs of glue are fatal should Iota or Atoi fall in, a light smearing of glue on the environment presents them with an advantage: the paper messengers can stick to walls and ceilings with a thinly applied layer of glue, leading to some clever level design.

In a Sogport level named "Wendigo Fissure," Iota will be hunted by a series of Wendigos, giant furry creatures that relentlessly pursue the paper messenger. Players will need to outrun the monsters by sneaking through tight passages too small for a Wendigo, aiming to trap those giant beasts inside cages made of giftwrap. Wendigos have a taste for pearls, we learn from a talkative paper oyster, who offers to give Iota pearls as bait. What follows is a series of chase sequences in which Iota leaps over platforms, climbs glue-covered walls, uses plants made of paper to bound over obstacles and lure Wendigos into gift-wrapped cages with pearls.

During select moments of "Wendingo Fissure," when Iota reached brightly glowing circular platforms, we were able to use our "godlike powers" — touch-based controls that modified the nature of the game world. In one instance, four layered pieces of paper needed to be unfurled down, creating a platform for Iota to walk across. Other examples of godlike powers include the option to poke holes in the environment or bump objects out of the way with the tip of a finger.

While Iota and Atoi don't have many moves at their disposal, relying on running, jumping and rolling in a crumpled ball to move through Tearaway's world, other in-development levels show Media Molecule is exploring intriguing, gameplay-extending ideas.

In one unfinished level we played, Iota was equipped with an accordion that can blow out and suck in air. He can use that accordion to spin fans attached to tilting and spinning platforms, switches and gears. Players must puzzle out how to use a combination of the accordion's inhalation and exhalation to solve a series of platform challenges, each one different from the last.

We also saw that same accordion used to fold up and flatten out a painting — which then turned into a pop-up book-like world which Iota could enter.

Another experimental level showed a special type of purple paper that players could poke virtual fingers through. Using a top-down view, we had to use our right index finger to poke a hole through that paper and pull down a hook, which in turn unfolded a platform for Iota to walk across using the left analog stick. The combination of those two movements required a dexterity akin to patting one's head, while rubbing one's stomach.

Even in some of these unfinished, unrealized levels, Tearaway is beginning to show its inventiveness as a platformer adventure, reminding us of the better parts of Nintendo's Super Mario 3D Land.

Tearaway's style and gameplay concepts show exciting promise. The paper world is fully realized, even in animated cut scenes that look and behave like children's pop-up books. Combined with the puzzle-platform expertise of Media Molecule's game designers, Tearaway is one of the major reasons to be excited about the PlayStation Vita's forthcoming library.

Tearaway is slated for a 2013 release.

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