Control comes to us from Remedy, beloved developer of the first two Max Payne games and Alan Wake. They also made Quantum Break; that TV show/videogame hybrid where Shawn Ashmore had time powers, but I never got around to watching/playing it so I can’t speak to its quality. Control is a foray into a mixture of horror and sci-fi in the “Government agency that keeps tabs on weird stuff” sub-genre, which sounds like something Remedy could have a good time with.
You are Jesse; a young woman who tracks down the titular Federal Bureau of Control in order to find her younger brother Dylan, who was taken by the Bureau after the two of them stumbled upon some spooky sci-fi doings when they were children. Arriving at the Bureau’s HQ “The Oldest House”, Jesse becomes the FBC’s new Director after finding the previous one dead, picking up the seemingly living murder weapon and becoming linked to it at the behest of a talkative, inverted, black pyramid called “The Board”. She’s earned that promotion at an awkward time however, because The Oldest House is currently under lockdown due to the presence of an invading force Jesse dubs “The Hiss” that possesses humans and turns them homicidal, but fortunately Jesse has a guardian entity backing her up, on top of being extremely competent in a fight. The main plotline of Jesse trying to clear the building of the Hiss, what happened to Dylan and why the Hiss are there to begin with is hard to talk about without spoiling things, and much more interesting is everything else to do with the FBC and The Oldest House. The House itself is a living thing; it hates attention and cannot be found unless it’s being actively sought out, it’s huge, varied in layout and design, and parts of it physically shift and teleport around. Jesse’s gun, the “Service Weapon” spins and fidgets to itself like it’s waiting to be used, and seems to have a will, taking part in the selection process for the Bureau’s new director. This is the sort of thing the FBC deals with; regular, everyday objects with tremendous, often deadly powers that needs to be kept behind reinforced glass and studied. They have more on their plate that’s best left to be discovered naturally, but their bread and butter is SCP-style capturing, cataloguing and containment of supernatural items found in the hands and homes of unlucky sods out in the world. The Oldest House itself has a recurring motif of 60’s designs and technologies, in keeping with the decade the FBC was founded, which adds to that Twilight Zone/Roswell/XCOM Declassified vibe. It’s very Remedy and their love of genre tropes and trappings; just as Max Payne showed its love of Noir Detective stories and Alan Wake its love of idyllic, small town horror, Control clearly loves bureaucratic science fiction. It’s unfortunate then that the vast majority of enemies in the game are security guards and other staff members who’ve been turned homicidal and in some cases granted psychic powers. There are some more interesting encounters but they’re almost all optional and kept out the way in an attempt to inject a bit of Metroidvania into proceedings that largely doesn’t need to be there given what’s actually there to find. More on that shortly.
So gameplay wise it’s a third person shooter with the aforementioned Service Weapon and Jesse’s suite of psychic powers. Telekinesis, levitation, mind control, ripping chunks of floor up to use as a floating shield; useful powers that are there to compliment that core shooting element. The shooting itself is tight and responsive and the Service Weapon can be upgraded to take different forms, two of which can be equipped at once. It starts off as a semi-automatic pistol but can be switched up to act like a shotgun, grenade launcher and machine pistol, amongst other options. Both equipped forms drain the same ammo pool, which refills automatically after a brief delay, and that’s where the powers, especially telekinesis, come in; you’ve got to effectively balance and move between shooting, melee, hurling things at people, shield up, shield down, floating to gain a better angle of attack; Jesse spends much of the early game being rather squishy and healing items exclusively drop from killed enemies, so learning how to balance your skills is a must. It’s also worth mentioning briefly that the game loves environmental damage, and the world around you flies apart in a flurry of debris and particle effects like Ric Flair used to blade, as in it takes literally every opportunity to do so. To return to my point about the superfluous Metroidvania aspects: there are upgrade points but they’re linked to quest completion, so the only things you need to look out for in the environment are crafting items, mods and flavour text. That last one is great, no problems there, the crafting items are used for new Service Weapon forms and mods are split into two types: SW and Jesse. SW ones add damage, rate of fire, that sort of thing. Ones for Jesse give her more health, decrease the amount of energy different powers require, that sort of thing. Really these aren’t necessary, and the main story has you backtrack and go off the beaten path anyway, so there’s a good chance once you’ve got the key to continue the game will make you use it. The only thing of true worth the game hides is optional boss fights and nice bits of lore and backstory, but these are almost all linked to sidequests and don’t need to be hidden behind numbered, access level-based key cards, which are the game’s main stab at Metroidvania. The only thing that really dictates the game’s difficulty is how much you upgrade Jesse’s health, so anything behind a locked door just feels like the game isn’t ready for you to see it yet, not that you yourself aren’t ready for that particular challenge.
My only other real problems with the game are its technical issues; namely textures not loading and popping in, and pausing and unpausing the game absolutely slaughtering the framerate for a few seconds, which is a hindrance in a fight. They’re not game breaking by any means, but they’re noticeable and annoying.
Control is very much a Remedy game: third person shooting, live action mixed with in-engine graphics, James McCaffrey saying cool things, Poets of the Fall, tropes and trappings of genre fiction; it’s all here. They know what they like, they know what they do well and they stick with it, and once again it’s payed off. The Metroidvania elements don’t really need to be here and the enemy design doesn’t reflect the scope provided by the nature of the FBC’s work, but it’s a neat idea well executed, the flavour text and background info on what the Bureau do on a daily basis is excellent, Jesse is a likeable protagonist who’s fun to play as and the game kept my attention from start to finish.
By James Lambert