David Lynch should ask Remedy Entertainment for some royalties. After all, there’s no entertainment outfit that draws as much from the acclaimed surrealist auteur as the Finnish game studio. After that declaration, a confession. I have finished Remedy’s acclaimed ‘Alan Wake’ (plus the DLC and the inferior-but-interesting spin-off) four times. Alan Wake — the tale of an amnesiac writer battling the supernatural in search of his wife — came out in 2010, and has comfortably remained in my top games since then.
Control, Remedy’s latest, is a vastly superior game. It’s heavy, dreadful, atmospheric and with a sensory overload. It’s still Twin Peaks, but with X-Files infused instead. It may not displace Alan Wake from the top of my list (part nostalgia and part my preference for straight horror over science-fiction), but it is a tremendously mind-bending outing.
Remedy’s founder Sam Lake has often stated his fondness for television as a medium of storytelling. Alan Wake was chaptered and serialised in an episodic format, complete with credits and recaps. The game also had an in-universe show called ‘Bright Falls’ (a play on ‘Twilight’ Zone and Twin ‘Peaks’) which you could watch on TV sets while getting chased by monsters. They bundled their previous entry, Quantum Break, with an actual TV show which changed according to your progress in the game. An ambitious trainwreck if ever there was one.
Control too feels like a television show; only you’ve missed the first three seasons. The mysterious protagonist has just landed a job in an invisible building which twists and turns, takes orders from a sentient inverted pyramid, and shoots possessed co-workers with a living, breathing gun.
Control review: Plot
Control puts you in the shoes of Jesse Faden, who has come to the headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Control. It’s obvious that under the disguise of an entry-level job, Faden has entered the building with ulterior motives. It’s a run-of-the-mill corporate reception and lobby, and the New York bustle is visible through the glass entry doors behind Faden.
The FBC HQ is also known as The Oldest House, a creepy, twisting building defending itself from a corrupt entity called ‘the Hiss’. Here’s another reference: with its constant moving and shifting and labyrinthine passages, the Oldest House is Hogwarts, or more specifically the Room of Requirements. The director of the facility commits suicide and Faden is instantly promoted to the post. She is now supposed to fight the literal ‘corruption’, as well as numerous side quests and complete her own objective.
In Control, you’re still trying to figure things out, but there’s the foreboding sense that there’s more to the lead character than she’s letting on. The first couple of hours swing from being pretentiously vague to exposition-heavy. But the story finds its groove soon thereafter, as you start putting literal pieces of puzzle together.
Control review: Graphics
As mentioned before, Remedy’s previous entry, the ambitious Quantum Break was a misstep, but one that gave the company the stunning ‘Northlight’ engine with its Digital Molecular Matter system. As a result, destructibility, motion blur, explosions are crisp. The crumbling walls, the floating debris as Faden engages her telekinetic powers have suitable weight and movement to it.
The setting itself is otherworldly, yet familiar. The monochromatic design choice is bold and beautiful. The block colours and the futuristic decor makes the scenes pop, yet conduce an eerie, sinister vibe. Control is gorgeous. And if Red Dead Redemption 2 can get away with sub-par facial details on low-tier characters, surely Control can be excused for phoning it at times. The key players such as Faden herself and the creepy janitor look exquisite.
The game is confidently stylised. Every new location is titled by full-screen, colossal, all caps caption — COOLANT PUMPS, BOARD ROOM — a Fincheresque technique seen mostly in police procedurals like Mindhunter or Narcos. It’s a game begging to have the ray-tracing turned on, so midway through my first playthrough on a standard PS4 (goodbye pop-ins, framedrops), I switched to the desktop (hello quicker loading times) to crank the settings up. But despite the aesthetically pleasing visuals, Faden’s animations themselves seem janky at times, especially glaring because of the many platforming sections.
Control review: Sound
The audio design is phenomenal. The music and voice-acting get the job done. The performances are superb across the board, led by the terrific Courtney Hope (The Bold and The Beautiful, Quantum Break) as Jesse Faden, and supported by Matthew Porretta as Dr. Casper Darling, both nominated for The Game Awards 2019. But Hope is at her least convincing delivering the numerous inner monologues, which are filled with jargon. There’s a lot of live-action footage spliced in, which further adds to the unsettling setting.
The score doesn’t stand out on its own, but that’s not necessarily a drawback. There are passages where your only companion is the quiet droning from the floating bodies, and hums and whirrs of the machinery. And when there is music, it’s either the John Carpenter school of synth-heavy sound, or some deep techno. There are a couple of surprises and some tracks which stick with you, but overall, the music is there to play its role.
Control review: Gameplay
None of the above flamboyant, outlandish ideas could have landed without tight gameplay, and Control is terrific on that front. Faden doesn’t carry a personal armory like other AAA titles, instead the service gun can be modified to transform into pistols to shotguns. The shooting itself is crisp but it is not the main course. It’s the telekinesis which steals the show. The game doesn’t go overboard with its powers, and Faden never truly becomes Eleven or Obi-wan-Kenobi.
But she has several cards up her sleeve, including but not limited to an aerial dash, a force punch, a shield made out of debris and levitating and throwing anything in front of her. When there are no boxes or canisters to throw about, Faden will just rip chunks of gravel or from the walls to use as a weapon. Coupled with the shooting, the telekinesis makes enemy encounters kinetic and layered, with the player free to strategise his approach.
There’s weight to Faden without making her sluggish. There’s also platforming and puzzle-solving sections, both solid and act as refreshing asides in a game which can get a little repetitive, what with the countless, convenient ‘not-zombies’ you shoot down.
Control review: Verdict
All in all, Control is solid fun. It’s easy to pick up and play, with variety and modules you can tinker with, but not a plethora of systems to bog you down. The narrative, at its core, is fine. There is a constant feeling of dread, but with some earned laughs and aha moments. Perhaps deliberately, the first couple of hours are disorienting. But Control, comes into own once you, well, take control of the proceedings.
Can a Remedy game be enjoyed if you haven’t played the developer’s entire back catalogue (if that’s the case, please play the sumptuous slice of noir goodness that is Max Payne 1 & 2)? Or if you aren’t familiar with the many references listed above? Sure. But as a player, you’d have to be accepting, open and very, very patient.
Control is unmistakably unique. There are inspirations aplenty, but the game is its own beast. It’s a must-play if you are a fan of the umpteen pop-culture phenomenons the game invokes. As for me, it makes me want to play Alan Wake all over again. That, honestly is the highest praise I can give.