It's hard to tell what you're seeing in Remedy Entertainment's "Control." In more ways than one.
It's hard to tell what's in the head of your character, Jesse Faden, and what isn't. As the new director of the Federal Bureau of Control, Faden has to cleanse its headquarters, the Oldest House, of a reality-warping infestation called the Hiss. It possesses the bureau's staff, turning some into Faden's enemies and others into husks that float near the ceiling like lost balloons. She can fend them off with her service weapon, a supernatural gun that can take the form of a pistol, rifle and other arms. But the weapon also connects Faden to the previous director, whose silhouette bleeds into the player's surroundings in a creepy double exposure effect. On top of that, the Oldest House itself is its own paranormal force. The massive brutalist office building can manipulate its appearance, twisting floors and clotting hallways like a sentient game of "Tetris." Throw in the dizzying amount of terminology the bureau uses to describe all this phenomena, and you're in for one dark trip.
It's also hard to tell which movies, TV shows and video games influenced this spellbinding new world. There seems to be some "Inception" and "The Shining," some "X-Files" and "Twin Peaks," some "Prey" and "P.T." But no one influence announces itself too loudly, nor for too long. That's partly because Remedy borrows little from each thriller and sci-fi predecessor, so little that it might not even be purposeful. But it's also partly because the studio puts in the work to build its own new world, writing hundreds of pages of in-game documents and dialog trees detailing how its paranormal laws work and how its contemporary America differs as a result. In a clever touch, most of the proper nouns in the bureau's files have been redacted, piquing your curiosity further.
And, last, sometimes it's literally hard to tell what you're seeing in "Control." Areas held by the Hiss appear so red as to saturate everything on screen. And because the game has no cover mechanics, and Faden can only regain health from fallen enemies, the action often becomes frenzied. So all that running-and-gunning is disorienting when the screen looks like a darkroom. Still, at least that's an artistic choice. Less so is the game's persistent stuttering when enemies number more than three, and when you return from menus. (A patch has significantly improved performance since I played.)
But you can tell at least one thing you're seeing in "Control": One of the most visionary and compulsively playable video games in recent memory.
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The Oldest House is a marvel of level design, a concrete maze of office bullpens and maintenance shafts you can explore on your own terms, Metroidvania style, as you unlock security clearances and paranormal abilities. One of them, telekinesis, also opens the door to some of the game's most stunning visuals. Though the physics are too light, sending the contents of desks aflutter if Faden so much as grazes them, it's still mesmerizing to watch the game's meticulously organized environments come unglued when she pulls an object toward her and pushes it away at lethal speed.
The abilities also lend depth to the game's action. The Hiss makes Faden's enemies difficult to survive, and even the most nimble shooting doesn't always suffice. Dying is discouraging, too: The game's widely spaced checkpoints, where Faden can also upgrade her abilities and craft mods, are the only places she can restart. But those abilities can help her stay alive. Telekinetic throws can interrupt a heavy with a chain gun so you can unload on them without taking fire, while seizing an enemy so he fights on your side can take the heat off you for a few seconds. As you wire these and other abilities into your offense, you'll find yourself welcoming fights even more. And with many side missions and more optional challenges buried deep in the building, "Control" has plenty to offer.
The pace and strategic possibilities elevate the action, as do visual touches like the undulating haze that bursts from enemies when they die. But the sound design of "Control" is just as crucial to not only its action, but its atmosphere. Telekinetic attacks trigger an ungodly howl, the voices in Faden's head speak through nightmarish filters and cold, arrhythmic drums sustain the tension of the game's solid boss fights. Courtney Hope is terrific as the voice of Faden, revealing each crack in her character's psyche as she navigates her new interdimensional landscape. Throughout the game, she also uses the second person to address a mysterious entity in her mind that we learn about later. But when she does, it feels like Faden is talking directly to you, evoking the sense of shared identity we develop with our video game protagonists without breaking the fourth wall outright. So "Control" not only speaks to those of us with mental health struggles, it speaks to us as players.
Its narrative may bewilder you, its influences may overwhelm you and its presentation may frustrate you, but "Control" will nonetheless take hold of you. Let it.