Quirky, absurd and absolutely wonderful
Summary : An indie gem that marries a wonderful combination of 2D platforming, puzzles and absurd humour that I found utterly entertaining.
I’m a sucker for indie games, but not without reason. In my opinion, this ‘Golden Age’ of indie development has seen some of the most unique art direction and innovative game design that we have seen in recent years, and it’s really putting the pressure onto triple-A publishers when even small teams of passionate people can make games that are technically brilliant and extremely entertaining. The latest game on my list of indie games to play is Stick It To The Man, a creation of developer Zoink Games and publisher Ripstone, which adopts the 2D platformer as its basis, but puts its own very unique spin on it. Stick It To The Man has actually been on PS4 and PS Vita for a while now, but has recently debuted on Xbox One (and Steam) and will be the version we will be reviewing today.
The premise of Stick It To The Man follows the plight of your protagonist, Ray. Ray is just an ordinary, hard-working guy who is walking home when a top-secret payload hits him on the head, changing his life. Having dropped their top-secret payload, The Man, and his henchmen, start hunting Ray to get back their precious cargo. All the while, Ray tries to deal with an entirely unusual side-effect of his accident: a pink hand sticking out of his head that nobody else can see. This hand will drive much of the gameplay in Stick It To The Man, which we’ll talk about more later on, but in essence, the hand allows you to read people’s minds and potentially influence their thoughts. It’s a totally absurd premise, and one that absolutely matches the level of absurdity throughout the game – and that’s a good thing.
The characters in Stick It To The Man encompass an incredible variety. You get the feeling that quite a few voice actors were told to read lines as crazily as they could, and do it multiple ways, as every character is uniquely voiced and sometimes to great effect. For example, one thing you will learn to do is read the minds of every character in your immediate vicinity – these can even include pets. My all-time favourite voice in the game was a goldfish I read the mind of, who’s inner monologue was that of a Shakespearean tragic, complete with rolling R’s, pondering the futility of life as a goldfish. Which brings me to another point – the humour in Stick It To The Man. The humour in the game is beautifully self-aware, and immediately got my approval not long into the game when one of the character’s said “Ray, I hate to tell you this, but your house is all the way to the left”. It’s obviously not everybody’s cup of tea, but suffice to say it had me in stitches.
The progression of the story basically alternates between the real world and the world inside Ray’s head as he deals with the demons in both. Each chapter is incredibly diverse and unique, making it an absolute joy to explore each of them fully, as you will need to to complete each stage. There’s plenty to see and do, and before long, you’ll be wanting to read everyone’s mind just to see if they can give you a clue on how to progress. Each chapter will generally have a set of objectives and people to help which will get you one step closer to being where you need to be. It’s clever structuring, and while the concept is repeated throughout the game, it never really gets tedious thanks to the insanity of the characters you meet and the varied environments. You’ll get at least 4-5 hours play time if you’re a particularly competitive player, but I’m up at around 8 hours and enjoying just walking through the game and enjoying everything there is to see (read: struggling to get through the puzzles).
For the most part, Stick It To The Man will play like a 2D platformer. Where most platformers would need to reload the level when you die, Stick It To the Man employs really neat checkpoints which, since Ray is also 2D, simply prints out a new version of you each time you die. It’s quite seamless, and requires no loading time, which means you can pretty much try the section you failed immediately after being resurrected/reprinted.
As I mentioned earlier, the hand on Ray’s head acts as the main gameplay mechanism, not only allowing you to read people’s minds but also traverse levels and planes thanks to carefully played pins which allow you to jump to a different location, for exploration or to get away from being chased. It is definitely unusual to get used to at first, but once you are used to the button combination – which involves pointing the right thumbstick in the desired direction, highlighting the relevant object, and pulling the right trigger to launch your hand – you’ll be able to get yourself out of all sorts of sticky situations. I will say that I’m slightly disappointed the developers didn’t make better use of the bumper buttons, which are mapped to the same action as the trigger buttons, but otherwise the controls are easy to pick up after an informative tutorial on how to use them.
Of all the activities you’ll need to complete, there are two main modes of gameplay. The first is the general investigation gameplay, which will see you going around, reading people’s minds, taking objects, or “stickers”, to complete tasks which you can do at your own pace without fear of retribution. The second mode is much more tactical and will see you avoiding various enemies as they chase you through certain sections of the environment. This will typically require the use of your hand to try and either fool the enemies, or use it to leap beyond their grasps. This bit is frenetic, and more often than not results in Ray dying, but the nifty checkpoint system means you will only be out of the game for a few seconds. These fast-paced sections of the game are well spaced apart and serve as a nice change of pace between long passages of investigative work. Later in the game, these two modes are interlaced, but still exist distinctly separate.
I absolutely love the art style employed in Stick It To The Man. As you are probably aware from all the screenshots above, the game is basically 2D, with characters, objects and whole environments designed to look like they were drawn on paper. In fact, the game uses this fact as a major gameplay component, allowing you to literally tear away walls from a building to see what’s going on inside it. The thing that really awes me is the fact that everything looks painstakingly hand-drawn – it makes for a very unique visual experience, one that I won’t be forgetting anytime soon. There are just so many details and quirky collateral things in the background that really just impressed me.
Similarly, the audio presentation in Stick It To The Man is pretty much perfect, with the aforementioned voice acting often sounding bonkers, but appropriately so, and the background music brooding in the background, perking up when you get Ray into a spot of bother. Going back to the voice acting, I have to say that it was a bit jarring at first, with so many different unusual voices that were decidedly ‘non-video-game-esque’, but before long, the whole experience grew on me and I came to love the unusual voices as they made each character’s story all the more real and absurd.
I realize that I say the word ‘absurd’ a lot throughout this review, but unlike it’s generally denigrating connotation, I only mean ‘absurd’ in the best possible way, like ‘absurdly good’ or ‘absurdly brilliant’. And Stick It To The Man is all of these things. I’m almost sad that I haven’t played it until now as it is a brilliant game, but I’m glad it is now on Xbox One (as well as PS4, PS Vita, and PC). Depending on your region, the game will be a pretty standard indie game fee (usually less than $20 USD), though I’d thoroughly recommend it. The art direction, story and gameplay are all on point and I love the self-aware humour throughout the game – it really makes for a memorably ‘absurd’ experience.
If you want to know more about Stick It To The Man, or what to purchase it, you’ll find out more details on its Xbox game page here.