A low-perspective shot of a boy with a shield and sword rushing in to face a giant monster made of roots
This image was taken from the official website for “Lies of P,” distributed by Neowiz Games.

An announcement trailer for “Lies of P” was released at Gamescom. Through a slow build in tension, we are shown an abandoned Belle Epoque city inhabited only by stray robots and monsters. In the end, with the reveal of the puppet-like protagonist, it becomes clear what this game is: a grimdark action game adaptation of Pinocchio. Korean publisher-developer duo NeoWiz Games and Round8 Studio, best known for their pseudo-indie releases like “Skul: The Hero Slayer,” have worked together to create a polished and perplexing final product that, in spite of philosophical ponderings, has no soul of its own. “Lies of P” is all craft, no direction.

Each step through the world of the game showcases its strengths: Your footsteps change subtly depending on the surface, going from tapping satisfyingly on brick roads to squishing faintly in muddy swamps. The music is dramatic but cleverly sparse. Most areas feature no music at all, saving the orchestral and choral crescendos for the dramatic peaks in action. During combat, landing a critical hit as the volume and bass swell with each swing of your sword never fails to hit the spot. Design details like these deserve credit and show craft, but there’s a lingering question of what it is all in service of.

The graphics in “Lies of P” further this question: deliriously polished, they look as next-gen as can be, but the art direction is awkward. Characters’ designs mismatch wildly. They don’t really look like they belong next to each other, making a large portion of the designs look plain silly. These poor choices are contrasted by a few standout greats, but the exceptions draw even more attention to the rule. The first character beyond the player we’re introduced to is Sophia (Allegra Marland, “Goodbye Christopher Robin”), with her long, bright blue hair and a fully color-coordinated outfit. Shortly after this, we’re introduced to Gepetto (Anthony Howell, “Elden Ring”), clad only in dark, earth-tone suits — much more fitting to the setting. Cartoonish animal masks cover many characters’ faces, clashing with the simple, serious dress of Victorian nobility. The King of Puppets is a rare exception. His giant mechanical frame and cartoonish proportions give him a memorable look, combining symbols of industrialism in his plastic tubing arms with medieval symbols of wealth in his kingly attire. In contrast, the area he resides in sticks to the dark Victorian theme tightly, contrasting the beauty of a glossy marble opera house with the complicated character designs.

Nearly all of the environmental design pushes this unintentional juxtaposition further. Scenic cliffside vistas in the St. Frangelico Cathedral overlook the sunrise, using restrained color palettes to emphasize the natural beauty. In spite of this care, neon blue zombie enemies pollute the unity of design, giving an impression that the teams in charge of these two elements had no goals in common. Each area provides a linear pathway with a number of challenges, but this erratic arrangement keeps them from ever feeling particularly immersive. This lack of immersion affects the gameplay.

The gameplay in “Lies of P” comes in waves. It follows the common format of relatively relaxed navigation sections punctuated by difficult boss encounters. These boss fights are the heart and soul of the game, and there’s a lot to love. They are the most challenging sections of the game, but each is calibrated to have a satisfying curve in difficulty. Many of these fights rely too heavily on a second phase, where the boss gets new attacks that feel like you’ve started the battle all over again, but just as often, the second phases are gratifying expansions on the patterns of the first. Despite its issues, the game really doesn’t miss with any bosses — there are no weak outliers.

While each boss is fun and satisfying, in aggregate, the game often lacks enough downtime to make encountering a new one really exciting, especially in its latter half. When the disparity between the difficulty of the bosses and the world traversal sections is at its most noticeable, it feels like the ratio is exactly wrong; too little downtime to build excitement, but too much downtime to hold an engaging pace. Combined with the clashing world design choices, this makes “Lies of P” feel like a frustrating race to the next boss. This leaves the story and concept to bear the weight of the player’s investment.

“Lies of P” is wordlessly bizarre. The concept of the game is so strange it reads like a punchline: Dark Fantasy for teens centering on the Pinocchio mythos. With this vivid image, the game keeps its goals vague. You play as Pinocchio, a puppet developing human emotions, as you execute the enemies of the suspicious but paternal Gepetto. The game never lets you see more than one goal in the future, and there’s little overarching logic to where Gepetto will ask you to go next. It may attach these Pinocchio character names to its NPCs, but the name is often where the similarities end. Each mission is driven by a different character, and all are played completely straight, where these characters can’t carry a game. If it were treated like the very silly concept it is, it might have earned itself a little more slack, but it takes itself very seriously. If the game had led off by diffusing this dissonance with some humor, the story may have been able to ease into Gepetto’s paternal angst without it feeling quite so silly, but as it stands, it’s too moody from page one. 

This dissonance creates distance quickly. It’s hard to feel anything for any of the characters because the novelty of the concept never wears off, and each twist is just as stupid as the last. The game takes a dark, relatively loose approach to its character-building and world, but in doing so, it squanders the chance to have anyone be likable past their design.

The story itself is undercooked. Nothing — from its simplest emotional beats to its final takeaways — comes close to profound. The plot does stay out of the way for the most part, subtly encouraging a player to ignore it completely. It borrows details from the works of Isaac Asimov with its puppets and servant robots but poses no philosophical questions that stick. The puppets in the setting are obviously and frequently capable of feeling emotions. They are a thoughtlessly violent class metaphor or an even clumsier race metaphor, but the game is resigned not to think too hard about it one way or another. It begs the question, though, of where all of the creativity is going? Past the eye-catching concept, the game is thoroughly by-the-numbers. It lacks a soul. Why does it lack a soul?

For this review, I have avoided using a certain overused comparison, solely to save it for one section. It may be cliche, but we need to talk about how much “Lies of P” is like Dark Souls. On account of their impact on the industry at large, FromSoftware’s gameplay trademarks — slow movement, closely-timed combat and a centralized dodge roll — have become one of the most replicated formats in modern games. Just about any game that opts for requiring mastery of combat — from Cuphead to Hollow Knight — is subject to endless easy comparisons to a FromSoftware game. That being said, I have never seen a game so preoccupied with passing itself off as the work of another developer. Everything in “Lies of P” is emulating FromSoftware, from the design of the health bars of bosses and the gameplay loop of boss fights down to incredibly minute aspects, like the buffer system for dodge rolling and healing. Even the movement of the camera and sound design when executing those critical attacks is reminiscent of Dark Souls. Each part feels inspired by FromSoftware’s work, making it more of a replica.

Rather than feeling like a game inspired by those that defined the genre, “Lies of P” is so preoccupied with appearing Souls-like that it fails to ever differentiate itself. It concludes feeling more like a fully featured fan-made level pack for “Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice” than a game with an identity of its own. Despite the fun and bizarre setting, it fails to leave much of an impression at all. If you’re itching for some content before the “Elden Ring” DLC comes out, that might be enough for you, but it’s hard to look at that as a desirable use of $60, let alone the massive amount of capital and labor that went into producing it.    

The core of this game is a dissonance between the ethos of a full-price, high-budget game, with the artistic direction and erratic design of a first draft. “Lies of P” is too well crafted to feel like a cash-in but too artless to stand on its own. It is executed with mechanical precision and absolutely no eye for taste. In the end, it fails to be a real boy. With its triple-A price tag, it is a game that wants and looks like it ought to be respected, but it is never original enough to earn that respect. That being said, if you can resign yourself to that inhuman feeling, it will pass 20 mindless hours.

Daily Arts Contributor Holly Tsch can be reached at htsch@umich.edu.