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Review

A Juggler’s Tale Review

All tangled up

A Juggler’s Tale lowkey broke my heart. I know, even for a game about the theatre that might be a touch too dramatic an opening for some of you but bear with me. From time to time a game will come along and present as a totally fine take on its given genre, but part way through the experience the developer’s will turn to the screen and wink at you. I live for these moments. We arguably have more games to play than ever so if one of them actively tries to be different, to say something different, my heart opens wide to it.

So, when A Juggler’s Tale follows up that wink with a performance more fitting for a Sunday pensioner’s matinee than the main event, my open heart got a little hurt. This isn’t a bad game by any stretch, but it’s also not a particularly memorable one either. A half-baked rumination on the nature of choice and control collides with decent enough puzzle design and an art direction that genuinely stuns to make for a game that breezes by a little too easily, no strings attached.

A Juggler’s Tale is genuinely stunning at times

The game’s admittedly charming schtick also serves as its occasional framing device. A dreary tavern on a storm-soaked night is treated to a tale spun by an old man with a rinky dink puppet theatre and a slightly odd edge to his voice. Curtains pull aside, the gathered patrons (static drawings of them at least) hush as young Abby takes the stage, the titular juggler and heroine of our tale. Abby is a relatively blank slate of a character, well animated and just devoid of characteristics enough for you to project whatever existential crisis you’re currently experiencing on to. We quickly learn that Abby’s strings aren’t just metatextual, she is the captive performer of a sinister circus ringleader and desperately wishes to be free. What that freedom will mean exactly is the tricky part.

The whole thing will run you about two hours, maybe a little less or more depending on your puzzle adaptability and whether the game hard locks your PlayStation the way it did mine. A Juggler’s Tale consistently pushes you forward through its side-scrolling world that feels part stage production and part fairy-tale book. As Abby platforms her way to freedom she’ll encounter several puzzles that make clever use of the strings on which she lives or the nature around her. These are often used once and discarded in what could have been welcome brevity but instead feels like oversimplification.

Puzzles will have you doing some combinations of physics manipulation or platforming. At other times you’ll be skulking behind rocks to avoid rudimentary guard detection or tricking your pursuers into getting their own strings caught on the world around you. It’s all very much fine, a safe list of experiences you’ve had in other heady side scrollers (right down to the contractually obligated Big Spider). There were occasional moments of fun to be had here though, and the addition of Abby’s strings having a tangible impact on environments and puzzles was a nice touch.

This is a simple as it looks, unfortunately

Abby’s world is beautiful to be sure but overflowing with dangers seen and unseen. There is a grim vibe that hangs over this gorgeously rendered world, the fairy-tale trappings folded organically into an escalating sense of trouble and eventual violence. A Juggler’s Tale isn’t breaking any new grounds here, the juxtaposition of the macabre and the fantastical is as old as puppetry itself, but it’s still thrilling to see how the artists have brought this trope to life. Late game environments are particularly dark as the childish art direction is used to great effect to highlight the teeth this world had been longing to bare at you since the opening moments of the game.

Each chapter opens with Abby back on the small stage surrounded by prop facsimiles of whatever new environment she will explore next. Once you take control and begin to forge ahead these give way to fully realised 3D model work and a striking use of lighting and colour. A Juggle’s Tale dazzles in these moments, my jaw threatening to drop a few times as new environments and weather effects made this stylised world feel tangible. The game’s score also chips in here with an endearing range of tunes that nicely bolster the sense of adventure and danger Abby faces.

It’s an art direction that needs to do an unfortunate amount of heavy lifting as the game’s script is only ever engaging in its subtext. Abby’s tale is front-loaded with a couple of choices that the puppeteer (who also serves as narrator) will strongly advise her in; ignoring him causes some irritation, compliance in turn earns patronising praise. This was an exciting development at this point in the narrative, the idea that the game would explore what it meant for me to make my own choices as Abby and how that would clash with the expected narrative of the performance she was in. But it amounts to very little; the plot unfolds about how you’d expect from this setup with no choices present beyond a certain midway point.

One of the several chase sequences in A Juggler’s Tale

It also winds up making A Juggler’s Tale’s musing on morality and control all the more confusing by the time you hit credits. Everyone in the world is on the same strings as you, sometimes this earns them empathy, others an early grave. The narrator himself is equally lost in this middle ground as the third act hints at the deeply sad truth behind his stories but abandons it just as swiftly for the sake of boss encounters. I struggled with how much I’d let these choices impact my final thoughts on the game because, frankly, A Juggler’s Tale could coast by on vibes alone. But it also feels self-important, an emphasis on the storytelling is evident and it’s difficult to not get tangled up with its weaker elements.

Final Thoughts 

A Juggler’s Tale is almost the game it thinks it is, peaking at the potential highs of a narratively-complex side-scroller with a unique twist on how you engage with the world around you. In falling short the way it does it won’t leave you entirely wanting, there is fun to be had and wonders to marvel at in its beautiful world. But a limited runtime and unrealised script make Abby’s quest for freedom a little too caught up in its own strings.

Reviewed on PS5 // Review code supplied by publisher

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A Juggler’s Tale Review
Tied On The End Of A String
A Juggler's Tale is an uneven medley of indie platforming tropes and philosophical chin-scratching but a beautiful art direction make it almost worth it.
The Good
Gorgeous art direction and world design
Occasionally fun puzzles
Enjoyable soundtrack
The Bad
Lacklustre script
Oversimplified puzzles
Feels just a touch too short
Crashed my console
5.5
Glass Half Full
  • kaleidoscube
  • Mixtvision
  • PS5 / Xbox Series X|S / Nintendo Switch / PC
  • September 30, 2021

A Juggler’s Tale Review
Tied On The End Of A String
A Juggler's Tale is an uneven medley of indie platforming tropes and philosophical chin-scratching but a beautiful art direction make it almost worth it.
The Good
Gorgeous art direction and world design
Occasionally fun puzzles
Enjoyable soundtrack
The Bad
Lacklustre script
Oversimplified puzzles
Feels just a touch too short
Crashed my console
5.5
Glass Half Full
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