The Game Remedy's Been Trying to Make for a Decade
In the wildly popular, beloved internet hackfraud comedy show "Best of the Worst," schlock auteur filmmaker Don Dohler is described as "trying to get his vision just right" as his output consists almost entirely of bizarrely identical movies (an alien of extremely limited means crash lands in a rural American forest, and a nearby town's inhabitants wind up terrorized by it as they terrorize each other) of varying levels of quality. With none rising much higher than 'watchably bad.' I mention this because it occurred to me while playing Control that Remedy's output post-Max Payne 2 has followed a similar track, though I'd qualify that by saying their level of quality is far, far, FAR higher. I loved Alan Wake, and didn't much care about Quantum Break, but if you took the best parts from both of them, you'd get Control: a game with good enough gameplay and phenomenal story and lore.
Channeling the bureaucratic surrealism of things like SCP and the X-Files, the dream logic of Twin Peaks, and the absurdly dark humor of Wondershowzen and Adventure Time (along with a thousand other points of inspiration I'm likely missing), the game is about Jesse Faden's search for her brother, seventeen years missing after a strange incident in their home town of Ordinary, bringing her to the doorstep of the Federal Bureau of Control just as its doors slam shut to contain an outbreak of the hostile psychic plague Jesse quickly dubs "The Hiss." She's also thrust into the position of becoming The Director, or perhaps she's been in that position for a years, or perhaps time doesn't flow in any single direction within the ever-shifting walls of the Oldest House, and here's where talking about this game breaks down a little: I could write 10 pages on the first few hours alone, but I'd rather not spoil a great deal and you'd rather not read that much for a videogame review. Suffice it to say: things get very weird very quickly.
Not since Bloodborne has it felt like there was a game that was plucked from my brain and translated directly, there is so much about this that I absolutely adore. The sprinklings of strangeness and backstory found scattered about come in the forms of filings for the various objects and locales, live-action safety training videos, even kids puppet shows (that actually make some amount of sense in the context of the Oldest House), and they're all surrounded by characters who feel real, even when you only get slight glimpses of them, and here's another place Control takes some risks that pay off: not a single one of the characters feels like a generic videogame character. Not a one of them could be described as 'boring' or 'cookie-cutter,' and while I wouldn't say they're all revolutionary, it's not something one often sees in a cast this large. Cosmic, psychic nightmares balanced against the fact that these people are trying to work normal, 9-5 workdays.
So far, so good, but the gameplay is where this videogame unfortunately stumbles. Playing it on a standard Playstation 4, my console's fan sounded like it was trying to launch my system into the stratosphere, and the game chugs, dropping frames and textures in ways that actually ALMOST feel intentional at times, in keeping with the strange, surreal atmosphere, but are in actuality, just the game's reach exceeding its grasp. The enemy encounters often ask for a level of precision that the game simply doesn't provide, even if it ran flawlessly, and Jesse might be tough-as-nails and snarky in her personality, but her actual health is another matter entirely. A few missteps, and you're sent all the way back to whichever control point (The game's save, fast-travel, and recharge stations) you last interacted with. Even in the middle of a bossfight in another dimension, you'll be shunted off if you fail. This is frustrating in the traversal sense, but also in that it breaks up what are some of the game's best encounters (the Thing in the refrigerator gave me a literal visceral terror reaction) and lessens their impact severely.
The customizable weapon you get very early in the game, and the abilities you pick up both as side missions and core mechanics help make combat a variable and thrilling experience, even if enemies respawn and repopulate just a little too often for my taste. For a game requiring you to thoroughly investigate areas to get through side content to also keep throwing enemies at you feels like it's trying to do a little too much. It's fun the first few times, but a way to permanently cleanse high-traffic areas would have been welcomed by the end of the game.
Listing those flaws out, I still feel completely justified giving the game 5 stars because none of that made me want to stop playing it. Even amidst all the frustration of certain side missions, there was always something else to do. Something else going on, even if it was just to watch another episode of Threshold Kids or read about the office book club's pick of the month, and that's what this game does better than a lot of others I've played: it invents a new world and, by the end, makes it feel complete and realized. And that's why I adored it so much by the end: it doesn't answer all the questions you have, it tells you throughout the game that it's not going to do that, but it also doesn't feel like it's just teasing a sequel (which it does, but tastefully), and it left me wanting so much more while still being satisfying. It's weird, it's funnier than I ever thought it was going to be, it's just fun enough, and it feels like it's being held together with string and happy thoughts. It feels like Remedy finally got their game just right.