To look at Zoink Games' Stick It to the Man is to see yet another quirky indie platformer, dominated by distinct art direction but likely lacking the substance that has seen the genre benchmark set so high. Like the game's open-mouthed hero Ray, though, there's a lot more to Stick It To The Man than it seems. You just have to dig a little deeper...
You see, despite looking like a platform game, Stick It to the Man is actually a witty, introspective and superbly-written take on the point-and-click adventure, spruced up and streamlined for modernity, but without ever losing the soul of Schaffer. And yes, it is sort of a platformer as well. Much like Ray again, it's a bit mixed up.
Our hero has a fairly boring life as a hard-hat tester in a local factory, until one day he's smashed in the skull by some sort of foreign object that falls mysteriously from the sky. After a dirt nap, Ray wakes up in the hospital with a crushing headache, bandages on his cranium, and a giant pink spaghetti hand sprouting from his forehead.
This newfound appendage of Ray's can perform two tasks. Firstly, with a dab of R1 and an accurate nudge of the right stick, it can attach itself to push-pins in Ray's papercraft world and haul him towards them. Secondly, and far more importantly, it can be used to literally reach its fluorescent fingers into the minds of Stick It to the Man's freakshow ensemble cast and read their every thought.
It's a beguiling and genuinely original system. After the introductory stages are out of the way, Ray finds himself in a long stretch of the city, looking for a taxi back home. In order to get that taxi, though, he'll have to work out how to stop its distraught driver from hanging himself from a nearby lamppost.
This is where Stick It to the Man settles into its rhythm and its point-and-click roots push themselves to the fore like a pink spaghetti hand growing out of your head. Every character in a level can have his or her mind read, and this often reveals their desires, their wants and their dreams. For example, our hanging taxi driver is distraught because the love of his life left him for a man with better teeth. Soon, you find said love dancing in a disco competition with an OAP with a shiny set of dentures. You can see where this one is going.
Stick It to the Man streamlines the whole process in an unusual manner. Key items appear as stickers in the world, and you can use your pink arm to nab them for your inventory. Any person or item that can be manipulated will have a little circle hovering over them. Find the right sticker for the job, and you slap it on with a satisfying wallop, and activate the next part of the machination of the scene.
Like any classic point-and-click, what at first seems like a disconnected series of people, items and queries slowly unravels itself and all falls into place, as if you're putting the final pieces into a Rube Goldberg machine before you drop the ball. When it works, it's glorious - the streamlined interaction cuts out much of the genre's typical busywork, while the script by Adventure Time's Ryan North blends sarcasm, absurdity and Psychonauts-esque introspection with crackling results.
Sadly, Stick It to the Man does often find itself as confused as its hero, never quite sure what it stands for or what it's trying to be. The papercraft aesthetic is wonderful, almost as tacky and grabbable as Tearaway's own art attack, but it doesn't exactly coincide with the action. It's a stylistic choice and nothing more; unlike Media Molecule's game, there is no reason for it to be.
That's not a problem, more a missed opportunity, but the game does suffer in another key area. To break up the incessant inventory-slapping and thought-noodling, Stick It to the Man throws in some irritating threat where it would maybe have been better without it.
Ray's being chased by 'The Man', a shadowy type who heads up an even shadowier corporation. This 'man' has deployed bumbling agents to snag Ray and zap him into submission. This amounts to multi-level platform chases, where you have to trick the agents into running over or under you while you desperately try to get to the next 'safe' zone.
What at first feels like an acceptable pace-breaker soon becomes a dreaded time-waster. Dying in Stick It To The Man only sends you back seconds to a nearby printing press, where a new 'copy' of Ray is spat out, but the exasperation in actually trying to get through these sections is antithetical to the joyous wit and surreal humour found in the rest of the game. It's all made especially annoying as Ray's hand, usually so useful, isn't the most accurate of things, and accidentally attaching to the wrong push pin when you're seconds from freedom is enough to make you want to tear the stupid thing out of Ray's head yourself.
You can understand Zoink's intentions - without some form of antagonism the game would descend into an enjoyable but unchallenging plod - but as these sections ramp up in difficulty, they only damage what's otherwise a game pumped full of charm and sparky one-liners.
It is worth persevering, though. A level set in a sanatorium is a true standout, rammed with hilariously askew in patients and a puzzle hierarchy that's tremendously satisfying to unfurl. Even characters that don't have an active role in gameplay spout brilliant lines when having their minds read; I won't forget the terrified ginger kid with the invisible killer rabbit friend in a long time.
The voice work, along with the script, is stellar, and a real credit to the bare-bones team that made the game. The credits reveal that every actor voices multiple members of the cast, and somehow Zoink even had enough budget left to use Kenny Rogers' Big Lebowski classic What Condition My Condition Was In over the menu screen.
With a touch more refinement in its platforming and less zeal in its agent-based aggression, Stick it to the Man could have staked a claim as one of the most essential games of the year. Still, it's a great example of how far 'indie' gaming has come; a point-and-click comeback that's as smart as its forebears and a real pink-handed slap in the face of a few contemporaries.
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