By John Walker on December 18th, 2013 at 7:00 pm.
Formerly a PS3 and Vita exclusive, Stick It To The Man is now out on Steam too. A mid-length puzzle platform game about mind reading and psychic sticker application, owing more than a nod to Tim Schafer. So wot do I think? This is wot I think:
Stick It To The Man is such a strange experience. Not in the way they were so clearly hoping I would have, but rather in that way when you look at a not-quite-good lookalike of a celebrity, and you feel all weird in your socks. This game is so heavily influenced by Tim Schafer’s work, and especially Psychonauts, that it’s constantly weirdly jarring that it’s not really very good.
It’s a side-scrolling platformer in the loosest sense, in which you play Ray, a loser whose brain is invaded by an alien, causing an ethereal long, pink arm to grow out of the top of his head. With it he can grab hold of objects, propel himself about, and read the thoughts of other characters. What you actually do is primarily fetch quests, separated by extremely clumsy and unwelcome platforms, while being incessantly forced into unplayable cutscenes.
The production looks amazing. It’s a paper world, and that logic permeates all. Ray’s psychic arm can grab push-pins stuck into the world, or peel back loose sheets to reveal what’s behind. When he dies he’s printed out of the nearest mechanical printer, and animations pleasingly display everyone as 2D in a 2.5D world. And the art is lovely to match, very much a match for the Two Tims Of Gothic Cartoons, Schafer and Burton. 3D animations within the world, like Ray’s pink arm, look uncannily like those in Psychonauts. And the voice acting, while nowhere near as strong, emulates Schafer’s classic also. It is, undoubtedly, desperately trying to be like Psychonauts.
But I just didn’t find it funny. A couple of lines made me smile, nothing made me laugh, and most left me wincing as I waited for them to end. Nothingness exchanges in silly voices, as Ray’s inadequacies and misplaced confidence are trawled through without inspiration.
The mimicry gets most blatant once you’re inside Ray’s head, accompanied by his psychiatrist. Here there are cardboard cut-out memories of Ray’s family past, animated by flung pies on sticks, endlessly swinging back and forth, while you go through the laborious and unrewarding process of listening to everyone’s thoughts to find out what task you need to complete. And as it progresses, the Psychonauts riffing gets more and more uncomfortable. A lunatic asylum, a giant fish, weird circus, a deranged opera singer… If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Schafer ought to be blushing scarlet red until his face catches on fire.
It’s all so over-written. A nice line in that scene I mentioned, the family with a pie flung from mother to father, comes from the father’s brain. He says, “This is among my least favourite ways to be served pie.” That’s a good line! At least, it is until he goes on to say, “Easily in my bottom twenties, no sweat.” Apart from not actually making sense, it breaks the gag, over-eggs it. My reaction went, “Oh, that’s a nice g… oh.” Every line is like this, dragged out, over-emphasised, and slowing the game down. It’s a really odd behaviour – absolutely everyone throughout the game speaks in couplets, the second half always superfluous, gag-breaking, or just plain repetition. If someone just went through and cut every second line, the game would improve significantly.
There’s so much that’s sloppy. One misfire involves reading the mind of a thug who explains that he has a photo of you, and that it’s not actually you because it’s 2D and made of paper. Huh? Really? You forgot your own game’s entire conceit when writing that line? But mostly it’s just weak. Weak jokes, delivered for far too long. And that’s such a shame, in such a lovely conceit.
Plus, it’s incredibly spare. Sequences involve so much dead running about, nothing-space, between the scripted scenes. The game’s core gimmick is listening to thoughts, grabbing “stickers” that appear as a result of them, and then applying that sticker to someone else’s thought. Everything is so flagged and choreographed that this is never much of a sense of puzzle solving, and more a case of just slapping whatever stickers you have at any place that accepts them. When a picture of a TV screen with an upward climbing graph is what’s needed for a depressed mental patient digging a hole, you can be pretty sure you can abandon bothering to think about it.
Such areas become enormous later on, broken up by nothingness platforming and the tedium of having to avoid guards, as you aimlessly wander back and forth, trying to find something to click on something. Along the way there are suited thugs who must be avoided. The first time you read one of their minds, learning that they’re thinking about sleep, causing a sleep think bubble to appear that you can then snatch and slap on said man… it’s a nice idea. The seventh time you do it it’s a laborious, tiresome chore. The fifteenth I began to genuinely hate the game.
There’s something very odd with the sound, with voices occasionally being garbled as if on a mobile going through a tunnel, and frequently having weird split-second blips of another voice interrupting them. It ends up sounding like Radio 4’s Today, with a presenter trying to butt in on a tiresome politician. “Eh… ah… bu…”
By the final of ten chapters, it’s become so unutterably annoying, with its tiresome, repetitive sequences of slapping ZZZ marks or Ray’s face on guards, and having other guards glitch, and playing it over and over and over until you’ve found the one dreary path through, that I began seething. I spent most of the game with my head in my hand, my face screwed up, waiting for each soliloquy of dialogue to stop repeating and explaining itself to death, so I could then take another three steps into another cutscene, or be forced to listen through another crowd of brain-thoughts.
It’s such a nice idea. Albeit with swathes of it, er, inspired from elsewhere. And the art and style is really superb. But none of the game itself is done well. The platforming is abysmal, the writing is weak and unedited, the puzzles either meaningless or banal. I reached the point of only sighing or shouting in frustration, despite sitting in front of a gorgeous-looking game with a ton of potential.