Platform: PlayStation 4
Review Date: 12/22/20
The Federal Bureau Of Control is a government agency that's so top secret that the government hardly even knows of its existence. They specialize in paranormal research, and in particular the collection and study of altered items and objects of power. These are typically mundane real-world items like a telephone, refrigerator, or a rubber duck that exhibit strange and supernatural behaviors. While most of these items are benign, others are deadly and threaten the existence of humankind. There's a lot of dark and dangerous science going on at the FBC, and an unassuming young woman named Jesse Faden shows up at their hidden headquarters (referred to as "The Oldest House") just as the entire facility is put on lockdown due to a dimensional breach. Coincidence? There's no such thing in this game. Due to a strange set of circumstances and some paranormal assistance, Jesse finds herself becoming the new director of the bureau, and it's her job to contain and eliminate a dimensional threat known as "the Hiss" which is spreading through the building. She also hopes to find her lost brother, who was kidnapped by the bureau when they were kids during a government cover-up operation involving an incident with an exceptionally dangerous altered item.
Jesse exhibits remarkable "parautilitarian abilities," which allow her to wield the Director's powerful service weapon, launch items with telekinesis, control peoples' minds, and levitate for short distances. She uses these various powers to explore the Oldest House while searching for survivors, altered items, objects of power, research materials, control points (save points), and people who have been infected by the Hiss. The service weapon has infinite ammo and can take multiple forms, but it takes time for ammo to regenerate, so combat becomes a delicate balance of shooting and launching while each ability recharges. There are no health items in the game, although defeated foes leave behind "essence" that can restore Jesse's health bar. Visiting a control point will also fully heal Jesse, although they're rarely around when you're really hurting. This makes health management tricky, because often you will find yourself of the verge of death, and the only chance you have is to throw yourself into the kill zone and hope to grab some essence left behind by the enemy before you get shot down. Control points are scattered throughout the Oldest House, which also serve as fast travel points. When Jesse dies, she's transported back to the last control point she visited, and while you get to keep all the items and experience you collected, enemy encounters are reset.
The game looks exceptional and the presentation is superb. It was one of the first games to use real-time ray tracing, and the results are stunning. Naturally, that makes the game a bit of a resource hog and sometimes the frame rate stutters if you try to traverse areas too quickly. Load times are also a bear, which can be frustrating when you die and respawn at the last control point. The game is musically sparse, and music generally only plays when there are enemies present. There are also numerous radios that you can interact with that play music - some songs are good, but most of them aren't. The setting is fantastic and the brutalist architecture of the Oldest House is oppressive and intimidating. Since modern technology is more susceptible to paranormal influence, the bureau has a delightfully retro feel and is stocked with vintage electronics and analog equipment. Simple computer terminals are available, but all reports and communications are on paper, and distributed through a system of pneumatic tubes. The characters and performances are wonderful, and add yet another layer of eccentricity and paranoia to the rich environment. Courtney Hope gives a superb performance as Jesse Faden, and Antonia Bernath is delightful as the dedicated and overly enthusiastic Dr. Emily Pope. The motion captured animation is excellent and all of the characters move smoothly and realistically. The bureau's darkly amusing training videos are live action productions featuring Matthew Porretta as the FBC's head researcher, Dr. Casper Darling, and he nearly steals the show. His eccentricity and mad genius perfectly reflects the unsettling insanity that's woven throughout the game. The only issue with these clips is that the audio sync is noticeably off. The game also shares the same universe as "Alan Wake," and the events in that game show up in several reference materials.
I thoroughly enjoyed exploring every nook and cranny of the Oldest House, interacting with the quirky cast of characters, and reading every piece of annoyingly redacted research and lore, but the game has some problems. It's purposely vague, which compounds the mystery and feeling of unease, but I often found myself lost and confused, and not sure what to do next. On several occasions I stumbled into areas I had no business being in, and got trapped as a result. Death was the only way to escape back to the most recent control point. It didn't take long for me to start relying on a walkthrough so that I knew what the mission objectives were. Or more importantly, where they were. Unfortunately, the in-game map isn't very useful and it sorely lacks a zoom feature. You can get a rough sense of where you are at a very high level, but it's unclear how everything connects and how to get where you want to be. Granted, the Oldest House is itself an object of power and constantly changing and shifting, but a better map feature would have been appreciated. While combat is slick and fluid, the game's difficulty was definitely a sore spot with me. There's no "easy" setting, and nearly every boss battle requires razor-sharp reflexes and multiple attempts. I almost had to abandon the game on the very first boss encounter because I kept dying as soon as the creature showed up. The bosses in the side missions are even more challenging, and I eventually had to give up on those. By the last third of the game, combat became way too difficult, even with Jesse's abilities maxed out. The last two missions are battles of pure endurance which can take an hour between control points, so if you mess up, you're sent all the way back to the beginning. I don't have the time, skill, or patience for that, so I finally had to walk away and watch the last two hours online.
"Control" is a game of unsettling weirdness that lingers long after you finish playing it. The world it creates is both fascinating and disturbing, and the level of depth and detail is amazing. The presentation, smart writing, and fully realized characters make it easy to become totally wrapped up in its paranoid nightmare of mad scientists, government cover-ups, paranormal phenomena, and conspiracy theories. I probably spent about twenty hours engrossed in the game, which felt about right. I definitely recommend it for fans of the bizarre.