I feel vaguely insulted by Stick It to The Man, not because of anything bad it does, but because it feels like it’s pandering to me. And when I say that, I don’t mean that it hits a bunch of broad pop cultural references, I mean it’s pandering to me specifically. The game deftly combines two of my favorite things in the world — Psychonauts and Paper Mario — and I’m not sure I can maintain any semblance of objectivity in the face of such awesomeness.
Ray works at the local hardhat factory as a product tester, grading impacts in terms of stars and birds. On his way back home one day, he is (somewhat ironically) struck on the noggin by a falling hazmat container, and whatever was inside takes to living in his head. The end result of this is that Ray has a gaint pink spaghetti arm (his words) sticking out of his brain that only he can see. The arm lets him move objects and read minds with surprising accuracy, and also causes everyone around him to think he’s crazy. It also draws the attention of agents working for The Man, a shady government operative who incentivizes his little manhunt with a 5 dollar bonus and buy-one/get-one pizza coupons.
In case that setup doesn’t clue you in, Stick It to The Man is an eminently sly and self-aware game. This is a story of paper men living in a sidescrolling world, and they know it. The hazmat container only drops in the first place because the paper airplane carrying it falls apart in a storm. Ray always forgets how much jumping is involved in his morning commute, but when lost he remembers that the way home is to “go right, and then go right, and then pretty much keep going all the way to the right.” This is classic adventure game humor with a sharp edge, and it’s riotously funny.
The adventure game comparison doesn’t end with the writing, though. Like Psychonauts this is something of an adventure-platformer. Your spaghetti arm lets you turn objects and thoughts into stickers, which you can take with you and stick elsewhere in the world (always with a satisfying “thwap”). In practice, this feels a lot like item puzzles in your average adventure game, but with exponentially crazier solutions (for instance, stealing the teeth of an alligator and giving them to an angry dog). Amazingly, despite how absurd the game gets, it never loses its sense of logic. This is especially impressive when you consider the influences it’s under, and I absolutely mean that as a double-entendre.
As the 60’s-inspired title indicates, Stick It to The Man has a strong psychedelic undercurrent running through it. This is exemplified by the use of Kenny Rogers’ “I Just Dropped In” as the game’s theme song, but it can be felt everywhere, from the trippy dream sequences, to the obligatory asylum, to the retro sci-fi trappings of the later levels. The game isn’t trapped in the past – it feels thoroughly modern, but it’s clear the designers had a lot of affection for that era, and it gives the game its own identity apart from the games that obviously inspired it.
The platforming side of things is a little shakey, with some iffy edge detection and stiff controls, but it gets the job done. There are semi-frequent “stealth” segments strewn throughout where you have to jump around avoiding agents. You can use special stickers in these sections to put agents to sleep or given them Ray’s face so that other agents chase them instead. These segments really just feel like a different sort of puzzle, but they shake up the pacing and keep the game from getting stale. Though you’ll die frequently, there are copy machines spread throughout the levels that will print out a new Ray lickety-split, so it rarely feels frustrating.
The game really owns the diorama aesthetic, and it’s absolutely delightful to behold. The characters have a rough, bulgy, twisted ugliness to them that reminds me strongly of Psychonauts, and they move around like flimsy paper cutouts. Buildings are reinforced with corrugated cardboard, stars hang in the sky on obvious wires, and unimportant background characters are just sort of sketched onto the level backdrops. There’s not a frame where the game doesn’t look incredible, and I actually had a fair bit of difficulty just picking which screenshots to use for this review.
I wish I could say the game is flawless, and it might be close on other systems, but this PC port leaves a little to be desired. There are some graphical glitches and audio bugs that can mar the experience, but the biggest issue for me was controller compatibility. Originally released on PS3 and Vita, the game is clearly built around a gamepad, but I couldn’t get my 360 controller to work with it at all, and it seems I’m not the only one having problems. Using a keyboard and mouse works well enough, but clicking on hotspots just doesn’t have the same feel as wildly brandishing your spaghetti arm with the right analog stick.
I adore Stick It to The Man, and if you enjoy the anarchic humor in Paper Mario and Psychonauts, I have a feeling you will too. It’s a unique, funny, occasionally brilliant experience full of colorful characters and creative puzzles. If you like your entertainment quirky and featuring love-lorn balding yetis, pick this up. I can guarantee it’ll stick with you.