Groundhog Day: Like Father Like Son review
Whether talking about holiday film favorites, comedy classics, or just plain old popular ‘90s flicks, Harold Ramis’s Groundhog Day generally finds its way into the conversation. Though an interactive sequel coming 26 years later is likely the last thing many fans would have expected, Tequila Works and MWM Immersive’s Groundhog Day: Like Father Like Son manages to recreate the same small-town feel and charm of the original, though its time-looping gameplay and VR mini-games keep it from reaching the same enduring classic status of its predecessor. So, in the words of Sonny and Cher, “put your little hand in mine” as I tell you all about repetitious clock radio alarms, annoying insurance salesmen, and festivals centered around sleepy rodents all over again…and again…and again.
As in real life, decades have passed since the previous story ended. Phil Connors married Rita, the love of his life, and settled down in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to raise a family. Life was good and time, surprisingly, moved on; the Connors had children, and even their kids grew up and started families of their own. The game opens as you – in the role of the younger of Phil’s two sons – have returned to Punxsutawney to attend a special celebration of the now-deceased former weatherman during that year’s Groundhog Day event. With plenty of baggage between him and his late namesake, Junior is anything but happy to be back in town, and as the family drama begins unfolding, he realizes he too has now been caught in a time loop, living out the same 24 hours repeatedly.
With a little advice from his mother, who’s gone through all of this once before, it soon becomes clear that the only way to break the cycle and see tomorrow is for the younger Phil to help those around him. This includes any number of goals, ranging from keeping his angsty teenage niece from driving the family minivan right into the living room, to carving the perfect statue of his dad in the Gobbler’s Knob town park. Though Phil Jr. acts like an insufferable jerk for a large portion of the game – his initial concern is just to capture buzzworthy video footage for his vlog “Glass Half Philled” – it eventually becomes clear why he’s been purposely made so unlikeable. There’s history between him and some of the other characters, and part of the checklist of objectives he keeps on his handheld device includes finding ways of earning their forgiveness for past offenses.
Accomplishing all these aims is a pretty tall order in the limited time frame allotted to you, and you’ll have to consign yourself to quite a bit of trial-and-error and a whole lot of repetition. Phil Jr.’s day is, in essence, split into a half-dozen individual set pieces that follow in chronological order, with specific characters and interactions only possible at predetermined moments. Once the last one is done, the cycle reverts to that morning in Phil Jr.’s bedroom, waking up to – what else? – “I Got You Babe” on the radio.
While this is certainly in keeping with the source material, repeating the same lines of dialog and actions, no matter how well it fits in with the game’s time loop aspect, tends to wear thin quickly. Characters follow their own scripted actions and may have already moved on while you are still bumbling about, trying to deduce what exactly it is you’re meant to be doing, causing the scene to end unsuccessfully. Though the pace is dictated, it is leisurely enough that there’s no issue with getting everything done that needs doing, but only after you’ve worked out what actions are required.
Complicating matters is that the game interprets any major missteps along the way as deal breakers and will cut a scene off prematurely if you’ve worked your way into a corner. Achieving a successful resolution often requires having gleaned critical tidbits of info during previous conversations, sometimes even in entirely different scenes, which then open up new dialog options to progress further. This is about as close to actual “puzzles” as Groundhog Day is willing to get.
Correctly addressing each character’s problem often includes some sort of minigame. The designers went out of their way to implement a wide variety of tasks that must be accomplished – in my case using the PlayStation Move wand controllers as Phil Jr.’s left and right hands. Carving the Phil Connors statue out of a solid hunk of rock, for example, lets you choose from an assortment of tools to drill, cut, and chop away with, right down to using both controllers in a hammer-and-chisel pounding motion. Elsewhere, you’ll fling your arms about to recreate a choreographed dance, and even strum a guitar in a rhythm-game section.
During the more finicky minigames, however, the VR controls have a tendency to get in your way. Filling in as a bartender in one scene, having to mix multiple spirits with both hands simultaneously pouring, mixing, shaking, and serving is a bit of a nightmare, no matter how unique the idea behind it. Optional side activities are equally hit-or-miss control-wise: shooting baskets in virtual reality has never been implemented with any accuracy whatsoever, and Groundhog Day is no exception. The spaces you’re allowed to teleport to are also quite limited, usually relegating you to a static spot – lying in bed, sitting on a couch, standing at a podium – and where there is a bit of wiggle room to maneuver around in, it’s all too easy to wind up teleporting too close or entirely too far away from objects you need to interact with, forcing frequent adjustments.
After every scene you’re given a choice of whether to replay it for a different outcome, or to move on to the next part of your itinerary (eventually ending the day). Once you’ve manipulated events enough to access a character’s minigame, an additional option is enabled to just retry that particular activity until you successfully complete it. Having the option of jumping directly to a specific scene in the course of the day would have been welcome, but at least the designers have implemented a system of shortcuts and new dialog options that become available after reaching certain milestones so that the same sections don’t have to be replayed over and over again in their entirety.
Fixing the cappuccino machine to give your older brother Jake his morning caffeine boost, for example, leads to a dialog exchange that reveals some important insight into why Jake really, really needs this cup of joe. On subsequent replays of the morning routine, this knowledge allows Phil Jr. to bypass the task of fixing the machine and get straight to the next challenge. Even so, the amount of required repetition, not to mention frequent downtime during load screens and between story cinematics, is quite considerable – a necessary evil for this type of story, but noticeable nonetheless.
It’s good, then, that your time in Punxsutawney overall feels quite charming. The handful of locations you’ll frequent, such as the family living room, the local grub hub, and the hotel bar, have a quaint small-town vibe that’s quite endearing. This is helped in large part by the cartoonish, highly stylized character models of your family and fellow townspeople, complete with comic-book speech bubbles, quality voicework that would do the legendary Bill Murray himself proud (including a soundalike emulation of his own Phil Sr. character on certain occasions), and a whimsical music score that’s an authentic match to the movie. When it isn’t busying itself with the more mature theme of Junior’s redemption, the game offers tongue-in-cheek moments like a bit of morning wood, and even genuine heartfelt flashbacks between father and son, unlocked after achieving certain milestones in the narrative, to shed some light on their strained relationship.
A small gripe I have with the audio design is the game’s penchant for having multiple characters speak over one another, creating a hodgepodge of dialog lines that’s a bit messy. But the atmosphere makes up for this, always pleasant in spite of the somewhat irritating protagonist, at one point even dipping into rom-com territory before veering towards a few mildly surprising twists. Several Easter eggs from the movie make their way in, if you know what to look for, and even a few appearances by old Ned Ryerson himself.
There’s a lot to like about Groundhog Day: Like Father Like Son, first and foremost of which is that it really does feel like a return to the world of the movie, albeit several decades later. The characters (minus the initially disagreeable protagonist himself) and setting are instantly likeable, and the story alternates between serious, emotional, and humorous. But as a game it has a few shortcomings in the form of some awkward VR controls and slow progress interrupted by too many loading screens, plus the inevitable repetition of any time loop adventure even with shortcuts introduced to minimize them. Still, while it’s certainly not on the same level as the beloved original, fans of the source material should find this a worthwhile 6-8 hour trip down memory lane. Am I right or am I right or am I right?