A Juggler’s Tale, by German studio kaleidoscube, came out on September 29, 2021, published by German publisher Mixtvision. The game is a cinematic puzzle platformer and centers on a European-style fairytale about a young circus performer named Abby, who escapes from the circus and seeks freedom. What makes the game particularly unique though, is that Abby, along with all of the other people in her world, is a marionette, complete with strings rising up into the heavens. Puzzles often utilize these strings, forcing players to view Abby not just in the context of her world, but also as a character aware she’s in a fictional world.
To really complete the game’s presentation, a narrator presents Abby’s story to the player through cute rhyming couplets. The narrator begins as just a simple disembodied voice presenting the story, but quickly they become more present in the story of the story, often saving Abby from dire situations, establishing her dependence on them. As the game progresses, the narrator takes on a larger and larger role in the story, eventually becoming their own character in the story for Abby to interact with.
Immediately, likely even from the images, you have seen so far, you will notice how utterly gorgeous the game is. Puzzle-platformers are no strangers to pretty visuals, but the way A Juggler’s Tale uses color, lighting, and landscapes creates some truly incredible moments that elevate the game past just a standard platformer. A good portion of the early game takes place at night though, which does hinder some of the visuals of the game. The game does utilize fire at times to create some puzzles that are both nice to look at and also fun to play, but perhaps a little too much of the game happens under the somewhat monotonous dark-blue lighting.
Additionally, the game has a pretty phenomenal soundtrack, featuring a traditional medieval sound. The game uses its score rather sparingly, which helps to make it even better. Because the medieval sounds of the score can be a little overbearing in less exciting moments, the game often uses no music in the calm moments, to elevate the music in the high-tension puzzles. The menu song does have some weird mixing, with different instruments appearing exclusively on the left or the right side, but all of the other songs have wonderful mixing and sound design.
To touch on the puzzles (which maybe I should have done earlier, as this is a puzzle-platformer), they…are there. Listen, puzzle-platformers are obviously known better for their narrative and cinematic elements, and the puzzles in A Juggler’s Tale aren’t bad, but they’re definitely not particularly noteworthy. The basic puzzle mechanics mostly center around your ability to push, pull, and throw objects. They’re simple, but they’re exactly what they need to be. In a game like this, I look more for puzzles that just keep me thinking and focused, and not necessarily puzzles that are going to stop me in my tracks and make me scratch my head for ten minutes.
Speaking of puzzles that stop me in my tracks and make me scratch my head for ten minutes, A Juggler’s Tale definitely has those, too, albeit unintentionally. Generally, the puzzles that don’t work as well in the game suffer from a couple of particular issues. Firstly, likely as a result of committing a little too hard to the visual consistency of the game, some of the puzzles don’t always effectively convey what you can and cannot interact with. It doesn’t happen a lot, but in a few instances (especially in the aforementioned night scenes) the game uses a red to indicate interactable objects, but the lighting made the red barely visible, or the game just didn’t use any color indicator at all, effectively neglecting to tell the player about a key element of the puzzle. Secondly, sometimes the game centers puzzles around a new mechanic for just one puzzle. This only happens a couple of times (most memorably one puzzle centers around nimbly manipulating a rowboat you’ve never seen before and never see again), but they do stick a bit, because they feel, at least somewhat, out of place.
All-in-all, the puzzles of A Juggler’s Tale just feel pretty standard. Aside from a slightly annoying puzzle here and there, the puzzles don’t really stand out too much. It also had some good ones, notably the string of puzzles at the end, which prominently features the strings on the characters as well as some creative uses of interactable objects. Like any good puzzle-platformer, the puzzles in A Juggler’s Tale rarely get in the way of the real star of the game: the story.
The game, as mentioned before, isn’t just made in the style of a traditional European fairytale, but it’s a game also about traditional European fairytales. The game begins with a very traditional fairytale structure, but about halfway through begins involving the narrator as a character to explore the motivations behind such fairytales. Such metacritical game narratives are pretty in vogue, with games like Undertale and The Stanley Parable challenging the structure and conventions of games themselves, and even games like the Witcher franchise questioning traditional European fairytales specifically. I have not seen any game approach a critique in this way, though. The game, by presenting itself as a fictional world, has the player manipulate the structure of the story in a very interesting way.
A Juggler’s Tale blends the traditional cinematic puzzle-platformer mechanics and style with a creative setup and narrative approach to create a rare experience that feels very specific to its developers. To explore the world of German art and culture in this way demonstrates both a deep appreciation for it, but also the ability to look at it from a modern sensibility. Pair that with sound gameplay and phenomenal visuals and A Juggler’s Tale is a truly unique and well-made twist on an old genre.
Score: 7 out of 10
Reviewed on PC