Tim Burton and LittleBigPlanet had a Child...
Stick it to the Man is a game out of the dark. When it arrived on the Playstation 3 in November, it did so with nary a bang, shout, or fallen piece of cardboard. That last bit might not actually be true, but even so, few players expected the surprisingly wonderful package that they received. I recently had the delight of experiencing the game on PC following its December release on Steam. Like so many players before me, I had no idea of the madhouse I was stepping into.
Stick it to the Man could be accurately described as the off-kilter love-child of Tim Burton and LittleBigPlanet. Its conceit is a world formed entirely of paper and cardboard, whose layers are peeled back and applied with stickers to unfurl its puzzles. The character designs would feel entirely at home in The Nightmare Before Christmas, Coraline, or ParaNorman, though they are drawn and two-dimensional rather than modeled as in the rest of the world. This is true of both writing and aesthetic. There is something Halloweeny about these characters, a playful sense of foreignness where keeping a pet monster or stealing someone's teeth are par for the course.
Alien Parasites: Not So Bad After All!
The game follows the tale of Ray, a down on his luck hard hat tester, who has the misfortune of being infected with an alien on his way home from work. Rain and paper do not agree, as the pilots of a military paper plane self-awarely inform us. As the thunder cracks, the plane goes down, dropping its E.T.-toting cargo hold on poor Ray's head.
Misfortune may be a misnomer in this case, as the alien imbues Ray with some spectacular powers. As he comes to in the bubbly land of his own mind (he has a concussion, you see) he discovers a thin pink arm reaching from his head. This new appendage allows him to grasp far away objects and hoist himself upward. When he comes to and is promptly ejected from the hospital for not carrying insurance, he discovers the arm has become his personal reality. Only he can see the arm and only he knows of its second hidden charm: the ability to read minds.
More Adventure than Platformer
Stick it to the Man proves that first impressions aren't everything. Directing Ray through the game's early moments gives every indication that the game will be a simple platformer in 2.5 dimensions. You can hop into the foreground and background, climb to and leap from floating islands, and are always running from left to right, right to left, but the heart of the game is the stuff of classic adventure games.
Ray can and will read minds time and again throughout each of the game's ten chapters. Listening to the inner monologues of each character is one of the best parts of the game. Even small, one-off players offer genuine laughs and draw you further into the world. Think of it as an explorable Saturday morning cartoon. Eavesdropping also serves at least one practical purpose: discovering new stickers to progress the chapter.
Stickers play a big role in Stick it to the Man. Not surprising considering the game's title. What is surprising is how cleverly they are used to solve Stick it's many interlocking puzzles. Listening in on a crying man's thoughts might allow you to steal a sticker of tears. Drop those sorrowful tears in the cook-pot of a sickly green chef and he might give you a severed arm. That arm can then be used to tempt an evil monster who will provide another sticker, which leads to another, and another, until that chapter's sticking point is unstuck and the story can move on.
Discovering these connections is a sometimes confusing but always rewarding joy. This is a world that begs for and demands your attention. Loose layers will flap in the wind and Ray's spaghetti arm can peel them back to reveal another quirk in the scenery. I traced each level multiple times to make sure I had found everything and read every mind. Sometimes I re-read minds to make sure I heard all there was to hear.
In every great adventure there must be a villain and here we have The Man. The Man is a cloak of shadows – a cliché if ever there was one, but no less enjoyable for that. The alien belongs to The Man and he intends to have him back. Midway through the game, agents begin to appear and must be outsmarted or outmaneuvered to progress. Using his new powers, Ray can play with their minds, convincing them to fall asleep or mistake each other's face for Ray's. When they do get the better of you, respawning is quick and painless at one of the game's many copy stations.
An Ending Too Soon
The journey through Stick it to the Man is an enjoyable romp through the hilariously macabre, but one that ends far too soon. When the credits began to roll, I was dismayed to find that I had only spent six hours jumping and spaghetti stringing my way through its depths. If the game was more of a platformer, I might have fallen back on a replay, but with the linearity of its adventure roots, Stick it offers little in the way of replay value.
I also fear that a second play might highlight some of the issues which only niggled as I experienced the story for the first time. The controls, for example, feel less than exact. Playing the game with a controller felt awkward compared to a mouse and keyboard, which is ironic since the game seems to be a basic port. The platforming, as well, was far too floaty and unrefined for my taste.
Stick it to the Man surprised me just as it did so many players that came before. It arrived with little fanfare though it deserved far more. Zoink! has produced a game which is both smart and funny, one which both challenges convention and embraces it. That it should last longer is a compliment laced with the disappointment that it does not. Stick it to the Man is a game that makes you wish sequels came sooner. As a platformer it underserves but as an uproarious adventure into the absurd, it more than delivers. Stick it the Man is an easy recommendation.
Well-written, funny storyline and unique diorama-like aesthetic make this an enjoyable one-time play
Ends too soon, awkward gamepad control, little replayability, so-so platforming