Review: “Control” (2019)

This post contains aaaaaaaaalllll the spoilers for the 2019 Remedy Entertainment video game.

Summary: Weird, creepy, sometimes touching, occasionally hilarious linear(ish) second-person shooter. CW for lots of swearing, lots of violence (almost all gunshot), and some mental health stuff. (Anti-CW for sexual abuse; there’s no sexual violence or even harrassment here, not even in implication.)

It’s basically a plow-through-clouds-of-bad-guys shooter, so maybe you don’t care, but there’s some fun stuff to discover, so here’s some spoiler space:

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Ah, yes, “Control” – or, as I’ve come to think of it, Alice Goes to Hell.

The story opens with a cutscene: Jesse Faden, a light-skinned, red-haired, no-nonsense-looking person, approaches a federal-looking office building on a littered street. In her narration, Jesse speaks to “you,” but it becomes apparent pretty quickly she’s not doing the fourth-wall break. Jesse is monologuing to someone else, and through that we learn she’s looking for her long-lost brother, taken away after a bizarre incident when they were children. She’s been looking for this building for a long time, and now here it is, before her: the Federal Bureau of Control.

Jesse wanders in, picking up a few pieces of paper on the way (these memos are almost always worth a read; on the Bureau’s “prohibited items” list are, among other things, No. 2 pencils), and runs across Ahti, the janitor, singing to himself as he mops the floor. He assumes she’s there for an interview; Jesse goes along with the misconception, and allows him to direct her to the elevator. Which is interesting, because the elevator wasn’t there before she talked to Ahti.

Inside, the Bureau is silent, coffee cups and memos abandoned on tables, as if the whole place went still in an instant.

Jesse makes her way to the Director’s office, but before she can enter, she hears a gunshot. She barges in to find Trench, the Director, dead on the floor, next to a gun. The mysterious You directs Jesse to pick up the weapon…and the world dissolves.

Congratulations, Jesse Faden! You are now Director of the Federal Bureau of Control.

The underlying premise of “Control” is that there’s weird stuff in the world, and there’s an entire federal agency tasked with studying, understanding, and often concealing it. Jesse arrives to find the agency decimated by what she names the Hiss, after the sound it makes in her head: a malevolent entity intent on getting rid of Jesse, and pretty much everyone else that’s survived the initial onslaught. There’s also Casper Darling, a seriously geeky, “Lost”-adjacent scientist, who’s entirely missing–and your brother Dylan, held captive all these years, possessed by the Hiss but maybe also giving you some hints about how to handle all this.

The game gives you missions, tagged with locations highlighted on your map, marked with ??? if you haven’t been there yet. Between here and there are enemies, sometimes a lot of them, and your only option is to shoot your way through. (It’s a very Matrix-like conceit: they’re possessed, you can’t save them, so blasting the hell out of them is not an ethical dilemma at all.) Finding your destination is often challenging, even when you’re not fighting for your life, and side missions nose in all the time.

Do the side missions. All of them. They’re immersive and weird and wonderful. Me, I’ve fallen in love with the Oceanview Motel–it’s a tiny bit of gameplay, but I adore it every time it crops up.

Don’t forget to listen to what the people outside are saying.

Despite the side missions, the main mission track is linear, and the game only has one ending. The path you take, though, is increasingly jumbled and surreal–literally, eventually.

This can’t be good.

The Bureau, also called the Oldest House, is supernatural in and of itself, and reconfigures now and then–that elevator at the beginning is not an aberration. Neither is Ahti, the janitor. We all have suspicions about Ahti, but let’s just say I’m pretty sure the Bureau Director has never been the person really running the place.

There’s a lot of battle in this game, but if you’re the sort that likes worldbuilding–and you all know how much I love the worldbuilding–there’s a tremendous amount to explore here. Memos, research notes, classified correspondence, video logs, audio records–you could spend hours just rummaging through all the stuff Jesse can pick up. It’s all realistically bureaucratic, with an occasional side of horrifyingly strange. (FBC has created a children’s television show, designed to help kids deal with parents who die on the job, and it’s as yikes as it sounds.)

The conclusion of the game is satisfying…mostly. There’s definitely room for “Control 2,” and you’re damn right I’d buy it, if only to see what feats of Escheresque oddness the design team could integrate into the gameplay this time. That some people find the ending a bit of a letdown after some of the other late-game sequences (the Ashtray Maze has a huge fan base) speaks more to the strength of those sequences than any storytelling weakness.

In the beginning, you can punch people or shoot them. As you proceed through the story and “cleanse” possessed items, you gain more abilities. The order you obtain these isn’t really important, and I’ve finished the game missing one ability entirely. The only one I think is genuinely required is Levitate, since you’ll need to cross some pretty major chasms now and then. (I’m also fond of Launch, and I tend to max it out before I max out my health. Because throwing people is fun!)

About those battle mechanics.

I am famously Not A Kid, and the PS4 controller isn’t the most precise device out there. Which is my way of saying the default difficulty settings on this game were way too high for me. I’d spend days getting through a particular checkpoint, counting more on luck than skill to defeat the goons launching rockets or exploding on top of me.

And because it took me a while to find the difficulty settings in the Options menu, I abandoned and restarted the game numerous times, and very nearly gave up in frustration.

Fortunately, there’s a lot of tuning you can do, from the subtle (sliders reducing the amount of damage you take from a hit, or increasing how quickly your weapon reloads) to coarse (you can become immortal, which I won’t say isn’t handy now and then). If you find the default settings aggravating, I recommend playing with various combinations to see what gives you the right balance of challenge and success. You can change them in-game without having to restart any missions.

This game got an interesting set of reviews when it was released. A lot of people seem to find it boring, and I understand that; it is heavily skewed toward shooting stuff, and although there are a lot of weapon types, customization is very limited. (Personally I like that; it makes you think about your specific strengths and weaknesses as a player.) A lot of the worldbuilding is done through memos, and odd conversations with Uncanny Valley NPCs. If a slightly sideways, increasingly Through-The-Looking-Glass contemporary setting isn’t your thing, this probably isn’t your game.

I loved it. It’s smart, and well-written, and (mostly) well-performed. It’s deeply creepy–much of the staff is actually still there, but suspended unconscious in mid-air like abandoned marionettes–but it’s also cheerfully grounded in almost-reality, and it never completely parts from its sense of fun. Jesse says, more than once, how happy she is to be at the FBC, and how much she feels she belongs there; at the conclusion of one particular mission, she says “That. Was. Awesome.” You’re playing someone fighting for her life and for her brother who’s having an absolutely fabulous time doing it.

Conclusion: Atmospheric, surreal, gritty, and gorgeous. Despite the linear gameplay, I’m finding repeat playthroughs to be extremely satisfying. And someday I’ll get through that damn obstacle course.

The Good:

Stellar worldbuilding
Moves right along
Sense of humor
Extreme weirdness that somehow makes a cohesive universe

The Bad:

Default battle settings can be frustrating
Weapon and personal upgrades are limited
Lack of checkpoints–sometimes when you die you end up backing up a LOT

Liz’s Completely Subjective and Undefined Rating: 9/10, have wasted much Pandemic Time at the FBC

One last thing: Like many other games, the credits aren’t the credits. Stay tuned for more creepiness.

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