Stick It to the Man! - Review
Stick It to the Man! is the kind of game you expect Tim Schafer to make. It's bizarre, full of oddball surreal humour and packed with quirky characters. This is the kind of game where trying to explain the plot in any great detail is pointless, not because it's a bad story, quite the opposite, but simply because the entire game is so weird.
Stick It wasn't created by Tim Schafer though, it was developed by Zoink! Games, a company better known for crafting iOS titles than they are comedy indie games. Although this experience with Apple's tablets can be felt immediately upon starting the game up. Stick It's art style is gorgeous, with characters animated as little pieces of paper that barely make up three dimensions, whilst the backdrops are formed out of tactile cardboard and held together with drawing pins. It's like Little Big Planet crossed with a '90s children's cartoon.
It's a wonderfully evocative way to create a world but would be for nothing if it weren't for the characters. The game tells the story of Ray, an ordinary schlub who ends up getting caught up in events that leave him with a mind-reading alien stuck in his head. It makes for some genuinely funny moments as the story weaves between Ray's world and his only slightly more surreal sub-conscious.
The alien in his head also works as a game mechanic, enabling Ray to read the minds of everyone and anything that he comes across. Reading minds is necessary in order to progress but it's also pretty darn funny to boot, such as delving into a pyromaniac's mind to discover that the only thoughts he has are fire-related ("Fire, fire, combust, burn, fire!"). Interacting with other characters might be required to complete a level, but you'll want to do it anyway just for the conversations that ensue.
Whilst puzzle solving is at the heart of the gameplay, there's also a bit of light platforming when getting to and from different parts of a level. This is also where Ray potentially runs into some of "The Man's" henchmen, hulking guys in suits that look like a young Ronald Reagan crossed with a gorilla. Getting caught by a henchman leads to instant death, although checkpoints are lenient enough that this isn't too much of a setback. You can't help shake the feeling however, that these segments were thrown in there to artificially boost the game's challenge; awkward stop-gaps before the next bit of funny dialogue or quirky puzzle.
Likewise, this is a game built on its story. Not surprising perhaps, given its adventure game roots, but there's always a sense that the gameplay is subordinate to the funny script and art direction. For a story that's so oddball and out there, its game mechanics are very conservative. Puzzles usually consist of finding item A and putting it in key slot B. This typically means finding the right fertile mind to conjure up whatever it is you're looking for, such as making a sea-gull vomit by making it think of rotten fish cakes. I'm being serious that actually crops up at one point.
This isn't to say that the game is bad just that it's very much focused on telling Ray's very strange story. Zoink! aren't above poking fun at themselves, or games in general mind. Ray frequently comments how his house is found all the way to the right of the screen and laments over the fact that reaching his front door requires so many platform jumps. Without going into spoilers, there's even a stab at subverting one of gaming's oldest and most problematic tropes in the final chapter.
Without the humour and fun storyline to pull you along, it's unlikely that Stick It to the Man would have been all that interesting. It's puzzles are basic, which at least ensures that you're never stuck on level for more than a couple of minutes. It keeps things moving along at a brisk pace, but does mean that this is a game that's unlikely to tempt you back for a second playthrough.
It's the kind of game that, in all honesty, could have been done as an animated short and not lost a lot of what makes it good. It definitely makes for a good "beginner's guide" to the adventure game genre and is worth playing through for the story alone. Zoink! have plenty of talent, there's no doubt about that, there's just the question of whether or not they're in the right medium.
Stick It to the Man! was released in last December for PC and in May for Wii U, PS4, PS3 and Vita.
This review is based on the PS4 version.
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