Control delivers a visually stunning trip with mind-altering psychic combat
One mission in Control, Remedy Games' new third-person action-adventure project, takes you through something called the Ashtray Maze. Earlier attempts to traverse this trippy labyrinth will only lead you back to where you began. Walls vanish and re-materialize at its pleasure and passageways open up to reveal couch settings straight out of Stephen King's Overlook Hotel. The area is blurred out on your map, so it's hard to pinpoint exactly where you are. Then, at a later point in the game, a helpful David Lynch-like janitor, who oddly seems to know everything about everything, gives you his secret to navigating the maze, his walkman. You're then able to fly through the constantly warping terrain as floors become walls, walls become ceilings, and up becomes down, all fueled by a frenetic rock music soundtrack.
Office work never felt so… thrilling.
It's one of the many weird, visually stunning, and wholly entertaining sequences from Control, which puts you in the shoes of Jesse Faden (voiced by Courtney Hope). There's already something unique about Jesse: she's never alone. An unseen force resides in her head (and will slowly be revealed as the game goes on). In Jesse's search for her missing brother, this force leads her to the Oldest House, the New York headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Control, a top-secret government organization that deals with all things psychic: astral projection, astral monsters, telekinesis, mind control, altered objects (everyday objects that have been "touched" by otherworldly things), you name it. It's an odd place filled with warped architecture that constantly throws you off balance.
Upon arrival, Jesse finds the bureau's director dead in his office. It seems like a suicide, but investigating transports her to the astral plane where an upside down pyramid, signaling the voices of "The Board," names her as the new director of the bureau. The position comes with certain perks, namely a gun that transforms just as easily as the Oldest House itself, as well as an arsenal of psychic powers. It's a very Stranger Things concept that throws even further back to the era of television that birthed Warehouse 13 — and things keep getting weirder.
This new appointment comes as something called The Hiss has breached the bureau. People are taken over by this psychic contagion that leaves them either physically turning on their colleagues or suspended in the air, frozen in contorted poses. So, now Jesse must lead the organization, while also using her new position to uncover what really happened in her past. It's an intriguing plot that fuels you through this game, and when some of the routine foes feel repetitive, there's always that.
There's a learning curve to taking on this position; until you really start growing your tree of abilities and upgrading your weapon to take on new pistol forms, combat can be challenging. And even when you do come into your powers, nothing really compares to telekinesis. Eventually, Jesse will be able to levitate, use mind control to recruit Hiss agents to her team, call up pieces of concrete to surround her like a shield, and equip her weapon with new features (like the "spin" of a machine gun and the "pierce" of a hand canon). But "Launch," for better or for worse, is her most useful and powerful trick. It allows her to mentally call anything — from a chair to a sofa to chunks of gravel — to her side so she can then hurl them at enemies. In a way, this can feel frustrating, especially when you're trying out different tactics to not die with a tough enemy. Given enough time, you'll be able to snatch grenades out of the air and redirect them, but attacks often feel like they are coming at you from nowhere and your shield isn't always helpful in that regard.
On the opposite end of this spectrum, your telekinetic melee is more like a light shove that feels virtually useless unless it's aggressively upgraded. Each of these powers and weapons can be improved at control points, sites scattered around the bureau that you take back from The Hiss.
What maintains the momentum, what breaks from the routine of supernatural office life, is the Oldest House itself. It's just as much a character as brilliant research assistant Emily Pope (Antonia Bernath) or Ahti (Martti Suosalo), that janitor. Rooms change and give way to more visually complex set pieces, and each level, bringing you deeper and deeper into the bureau, comes with side missions that can be more entertaining than the main mission. Sometimes when you need a break from that main storyline — maybe because you just can't take those grenade-launching Hiss for one more second — the side missions are a needed reprieve. They also ensure there will be something left to do when the narrative reaches its conclusion, one that may feel unsatisfying. Given that the mystery is a crucial point of intrigue in Control, we'll just leave it at that for the time being.
It's clear a lot of work, from the strong script to the technology itself, went into Control and it's hard to not look at a lot of it in awe. The developers tapped ray tracing, which aims to bring more realistic lighting to games, for this and it compliments the core aesthetic: turning the mundane into mind-altering pieces. It's this kind of attention to detail, both visually and narratively, that makes Control a weird, strange spectacle. Weird, in this case, is definitely meant as a compliment. B+
Control comes out Tuesday on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC platforms.