Mental mayhem: Stick it to The Man preview

A spiritual successor to Psychonauts?

While the chance of Double Fine making a Psychonauts sequel remains slim, the kooky folks at Swedish studio Zoink are working on the closest thing to Tim Schafer's masterpiece with Stick it to The Man, a psychedelic 2D puzzle/platformer about a strange psychic fella who can hear people's thoughts and manifest them as stickers. Or, as protagonist Ray puts it, "I've got a pink spaghetti floating out of my head!"

Given Ray's newly scrambled brain, it's no surprise that the demo I play begins with Ray waking in an insane asylum. You see, Ray has a dangerous job: he tests hard hats. People drop things over his armoured noggin all day until something goes horribly wrong when a government plane drops a mysterious canister on him and his noodle sprouts a phantom, well, noodle.

Ray soon discovers that this apparition/appendage grants him a nifty super power that allows him to read people's minds. Better yet, their thoughts appear as stickers in this newly discovered plane of existence and Ray can use his "pink spaghetti" to pull said stickers into reality and even place them in other people's thoughts, if he so desires.

For example, a government spook may have Ray on the brain, but if you steal that thought and place it on top of another agent's face, they'll all chase him instead, thinking that it's you. Or a man sizzling in an electric chair can charge a battery if placed in his thought bubble.

In many ways, this turns Stick it to The Man into a point-and-click adventure of sorts, with a heavy emphasis on inventory puzzles and hundreds of hidden jokes tucked away behind abstract combinations that the player needs to muck about with. There is a slight action/stealth component with nefarious nurses and men in black that need to be avoided - lest you get reprinted in a fax machine a few screens back - but this seems to make up a very small portion of the game.

Best of all, Stick it to The Man is genuinely funny. Adventure Time and Dinosaur Comics scribe Ryan North is working with creative director Klaus Lyngeled on thousands of lines of dialogue. Based on my half-hour with the game, it's frequently clever, unexpected stuff with bizarre characters like a doctor with a disco-loving split personality, a woman who thinks she's an alien, and a man whose imaginary friend is a psychopathic bunny with a cockney accent.

Stick it to the Man is also a visually appealing game with stylish papercraft environments containing plenty of hidden nooks and crannies to discover as Ray uses his holographic hand to tear off loose folds in the scenery. Each chapter is like a mini-Metroidvania with the demo level an abridged version of the asylum stage that still lasts about half an hour. Lyngeled reckons the full version of the same level will be roughly doubly as long with a lot more puzzles to solve and secrets to uncover.

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Stick it to The Man was nearly a Kickstarter before Ripstone picked it up. Lyngeled even put together a pledge video and everything.

The characters are stylized, too, only in a divisive, somewhat disgusting way. "We wanted something that looks a bit grown-up, that feels gritty," says Lyngeled when I ask him about its uniquely garish cast. "It can't be just cute and pretty. Especially when it's something that's real- A lot of the things we talk about in the game are real-life problems. There's a guy who's actually about to kill himself in the game and you have to save him. I's really fun and done in a funny way, but it's funny/tragic. A lot of comedy has a lot of tragic [elements] in it, but that's why it works."

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Psychonauts creator Tim Schafer actually played Stick it to The Man recently at Nordic Game Conference. 'He seemed to really like it,' said Lyngeled.

Unfortunately, there a couple of flaws that hinder Stick it to The Man's full potential that will hopefully be ironed out prior to release. Most noticeable is that while the dialogue is clever and amusing, much of the funniest content can only be heard by standing around and waiting for character's lengthy internal monologues to finish. Lyngeled tells me that he'd like to implement a fast-forward option, so players can adjust the speed at which the dialogue is delivered. Even the ability to skip lines after reading the subtitles would be appreciated - even if that would mean missing out on the high quality voice acting.

Secondly, Stick it to The Man's controls are, well, sticky. While you exert direct control over Ray, you don't manually control his phantom limb, even though it seems like you should. To select someone's brain, an item, or grapple point (the quickest, and sometimes only, way to traverse the scenery) you move the right analogue stick in the direction of the desired object until it is highlighted, then release the stick to interact with it. It feels strange and disconnected from the action, possibly because it's not super obvious which object is highlighted (it merely grows slightly when selected). Touch controls would alleviate much of this dissonance, but Lyngeled says that right now he's focused on making it playable on PS3 as it's going to be a Cross Buy title. That being said, he notes that he will add touch controls later for the Vita version.

Between its demented cartoon figures, psychic antics and spooky setting, it's not hard to see the influence that Psychonauts has had on Stick it to the Man, but that doesn't make it a rip-off. It's more along the lines of Drive's influence on Hotline Miami or Twin Peaks' influence on Deadly Premonition. If you're like me, you'll think both of those games hold up very well on their own and Stick it to The Man looks like it could do the same. Relative to Double Fine's debut, Stick it to the Man doesn't look quite as mechanically varied, but it does capture Schafer and co.'s unbridled lunacy with an extra layer of zonked-out eastern European spirit tossed into the mix. Thankfully, we'll only have to wait until later this year to see if this spectral spaghetti sticks.

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