As more and more adventures move away from puzzle-heavy experiences, we once again venture outside traditional genre boundaries looking for new and interesting puzzling experiences. Our latest excursion resulted in two whimsically charming side-scrolling games, Stick It to the Man and Tiny Thief.
Stick It to the Man
What would you do if you suddenly acquired the power to read people's minds? This very phenomenon happens to Ray, the protagonist in Zoink Games' Stick It to the Man. Ray is a hard hat tester, and when he leaves for home one fateful day, ironically a plane overhead drops a mysterious canister right on him. When Ray wakes up, he has a pink spaghetti arm growing out of his head. Eager to show it to his girlfriend, he needs to get a taxi to take him home, but the cab driver is suicidal for private reasons of his own, so he doesn't want to drive anyone anywhere. Ray quickly discovers that he can use his new appendage to listen to other people's thoughts and peel off stickers from their thought bubbles and the environment, which comes in handy for learning the cabbie’s hidden secret that will (literally) set the wheels in motion.
The whole side-scrolling world, including all of its characters, is made to look as if it were cut out of paper and stickers, and the surreal hand-drawn art style is very effective in sketching the twisted, crazy world Ray lives in. Characters’ heads bob comically up and down at the mouth while speaking, completely disconnecting the two halves. Stick It to the Man consists of ten chapters; at the beginning and end of each, and after solving certain puzzles, animated cutscenes are shown in the same style, integrated smoothly and seamlessly. This is all complemented by a jazzy, noir musical score and wacky, over-the-top voice acting that really brings the silly characters to life.
In each level, you'll engage in several quests that include a long chain of find-and-combine item puzzles. While it's often obvious what the actual goal of the stage is, the steps you'll need to follow to get it done are obscure (in a fun way). This involves exploring the whole area and collecting all available objects, even if you might not initially know what you'll need them for. About half the chapters are dreams and nightmares inside Ray's mind and memories, while others take place in different sections of the city, inside an insane asylum, and even on a space ship.
Each chapter is essentially one huge location spanning multiple screens, and you move around by walking between platforms, which you can jump to or swing to using your new “arm” (making use of handily placed push-pins). Throughout each level you'll find printers that double as checkpoints, named Mr. Copy. You cannot manually save, but you can replay any of the ten chapters as many times as you want after you've finished them. (The main menu lists how many minds you've read and how many were available to you so you might want to go back to see what you've missed).
The interface is a bit confusing at first. Adventure gamers are used to having direct control over the cursor. In Stick It to the Man, you might expect to be controlling the hand at the end of the spaghetti arm. Instead, you control an invisible cursor and the hand follows it at a distance. The first few minutes, I suspected my controller was broken because I couldn't get the hand to point to something I wanted to investigate. When you move the hidden cursor around, though, interactive hotspots (such as somebody's brain, a push-pin or sticker's edge) will reveal themselves by changing colour or forming a ring around them. Pressing a button then snaps the hand to the hotspot and the appropriate action is taken automatically. This takes some getting used to and isn't very precise even after you do.
The PC controls use the WASD keys to move, space to jump, the mouse wheel to scroll inventory (when carrying more than one item at a time) and the left and right mouse buttons to perform actions and read minds. This works fine (although the keyboard controls are clunkier for maneuvering than using a gamepad), but there is a visible cursor in this version that you need to manually line up with highlighted hotspots. This sounds simple, but it can sometimes be hard to locate the cursor amid the colourful backgrounds.
Character concept art: 'The Man', Ron the cop, and Ray's girlfriend Arlene
While exploring, you talk to all sorts of bizarre characters (and eavesdrop on their thoughts), ranging from asylum inmates and a man trying to coax his pet alligator out of the sewers to a seagull and a taxidermist looking for a new challenge. As you progress, you’ll have fun figuring out clues to what they want, collect items to help or sabotage them, peel stickers off buildings to reveal what's inside and eventually achieve your goal, which can be as easy as reaching the other side of the level or as complicated as impersonating an opera singer.
The core of the gameplay is using that pink arm to read minds (each person’s is unique and some are very funny), which often give you item stickers to use elsewhere. For instance, if someone thinks they would like a nice cup of tea, you will need to secure a kettle from somewhere, then concoct an unusual way to heat the water up and locate the missing ingredients. Combine these items in the tea drinker's mind and you will get a new object that you can use somewhere else for another purpose. The sequences don't always make logical sense, but gradually unravelling the series of steps is entertaining anyway. Stick It to the Man is full of silly jokes and weird situations, mostly with a touch of the macabre, such as a psychiatrist with an obsession for lobotomies and a zombie choir.
The platforming is easy enough to do, as you simply walk in the direction you want to go and push a button to jump, which does occasionally require some timing but is very forgiving. Even if you do fall, you'll never be far away from a Mr. Copy that simply prints out a new copy of Ray so you can keep trying indefinitely. What does hinder progress, however, are guards and nurses that will zap you if they see you. You see, the government, which represents “The Man”, desperately wants whatever was in the airplane canister back, so agents are actively hunting you down. These agents, guards and nurses are confined to specific areas but you need to traverse these locations to get to much-needed stickers in other areas.
There are several ways to deal with your adversaries. You can sometimes simply sneak past them by carefully studying their patterns and quickly walking behind or swinging around them when they're looking the other way. You can usually outrun them, and once you've passed another Mr. Copy machine or are out of their field of vision, they will stop their pursuit. Also, buildings don't have front walls and the game sometimes lets you swing out around and in front of a dividing wall or ceiling, grabbing a push-pin on the other side. Since the guards don't have your prehensile abilities, they can't follow. Another way to elude them is to listen to their thoughts. Some will think of taking a quick nap, requiring you to make strategic use of a ZzZ sticker that appears, giving you just enough time to sneak past. Others have Ray's picture in their thoughts to remind them of who they're supposed to be hunting down, opening up other possibilities for you to mess with their heads.
You can't actually kill or disable the guards, and they will return to their regular routine pretty soon. Most of these areas will, once successfully traversed, unlock a shortcut in the form of an extra push-pin that you can use from then on to bypass the guards, but not all of them. These sections can be very frustrating and I was on the brink of giving up multiple times. The guards are very fast, they can spot you from far away (and if one sees you, he will alert the others, even the ones you’ve disabled or distracted) and the imprecise interface makes it hard to grab onto the push-pin you are aiming for when you're in a hurry to escape. You can easily grip a different object by mistake, or end up in a dead end and get caught. It's a matter of trial-and-error until you have found the correct way through each of these sections, and the mechanics get old fast. The first few times are challenging and fun, but there are progressively more guards and the tedious jumping and running takes away some of the enjoyment of the game later on.
All things considered though, the fun experienced during the investigating and exploring bits of the game easily outweigh these unimaginative and intrusive evade sequences. In the end, it is worth persevering, as the feeling of achievement once you've cleared an area and finally gain access to a new location or complete the chapter is very rewarding. There are a few achievements and trophies to be unlocked for those who are thorough enough to do all the sidequests and find all the brains in hard-to-reach areas, and after about six hours of play time, the game reaches a satisfying end.
For console owners, the game is part of Sony’s 'cross-buy' selection, which means if you buy it on PlayStation 3 you can download it for free for the PS Vita. I've played it on both, and it looks and plays great on either, apart from the clumsy interface. The PC version is available through Steam, and it’s a smooth, successful port of the original version.
Stick It to the Man trailer
Continued on the next page...
Regardless of the platform, there's lots of fun to be had in the adventurey parts of the game as you explore the surreal locations, listen in on people's silly thoughts, and figure out what items to search for and where to use them. Just be aware that in order to find the fun parts you’ll have to noodle your way through the increasingly hard avoid-the-guards bits in between.