Control may just be the most stylish game we’ve ever played. Equal parts haunting and mesmerizing, there's an impressive degree of visual design in lighting and composition on display. It’s not often that a game has us regularly snapping screenshots purely for wallpapers, but in the opening hour of Control, we’d already taken more than 20.
Paired with an impressively-relayed story of psychological horror and intrigue, the unnerving beauty of the Oldest House echoes Alex Garland’s movie Annihilation in all the right ways. This level of visual and narrative finesse is a rare sight in gaming, and the best news is that Control’s gameplay is no less stellar.
Into the unknown
The plot begins as Jessica Chastain-lookalike Jesse Faden arrives at the Federal Bureau of Control in search of her brother. Even in the opening moments, it’s clear that much more is at play. The Bureau, also known as the Oldest House, is a strange place, shifting and readjusting itself to an endless, impenetrable rhythm. Jesse is arguably even stranger, voicing her thoughts to an unknown presence and hinting towards past, harrowing events. There’s a real sense of being kept in the dark, and Control is in no rush whatsoever to provide answers.
As it happens, the FBC is in a bit of trouble. Intended to house the paranormal entities mankind encounters, the facility has been taken over by a malign presence known as the Hiss. Heralded by an ominous red glow, its corruption has spread throughout the building, leaving staff possessed in an endless, chanting trance, or transformed into aggressive, supernatural threats.
Fortunately, Jesse is the right lady for the job. Following a swift appointment to the role of Director, you’re tasked with reaching control points dotted throughout the complex, fighting back the Hiss and cleansing its presence. Along with a shapeshifting pistol, Jesse has a growing array of psychic powers at her disposal that really bring combat to life.
Taking time between shots to telekinetically cannon a chair, table or even a chunk of nearby wall at a foe and send them pinwheeling across the room is ludicrously satisfying. Each ability offers something new, with an emphasis on keeping you mobile during fights. Master them all and each battle plays out in a beautiful cacophony of sparks, explosions and flying debris. We won’t spoil it, but the final ability you unlock opens up a new perspective that takes combat to another level entirely.
The Oldest House
As you progress, the allure and mystery in the Oldest House gives way to more traditional videogame fare — collect these samples, escort this man to safety — but thankfully it’s all wrapped up in an excellent genre mashup of third-person action and Metroidvania exploration, with plenty of puzzles dotted here are there as well.
Metroidvania here doesn’t mean the usual 2D platforming (though Control certainly has its fair share of leaping round), relating instead to the design of the Oldest House itself. As you head to and fro you’ll encounter plenty of inaccessible rooms and pathways just begging you to return with the requisite upgrade. In most cases this takes the banal form of an access clearance card you’ll level up through the main story, but other barriers like toxic mold growths or seemingly-impassable pits hint at powers and upgrades you’ll gain down the line.
Control rewards exploration too. There are only a handful of core powers that Jesse gets access to, and it’s entirely possible to walk straight past several of them. Side missions and characters are also found off the beaten track, only popping up once you delve into the depths of the facility.
It’s a shame the majority of hidden locations contain only generic boxes with mods or crafting resources, but thankfully they’re often paired with collectable documents relaying the uncanny history of the FBC. These texts are spread throughout the Oldest House and deliver such a characterful mix of dark humor and twisted horror that we couldn’t help reading each and every one we came across. Explore thoroughly and you may even encounter the insidious objects detailed in their pages.
Speaking of character, it’s hard not to be drawn in by Control’s lead cast. A collective to whom the oddities and outright danger of working in the Bureau have become normalized. If anything, many of them seem to revel in it. The eager and ambitious Emily Pope, irreverent and blunt Underhill and, of course, sinister yet supportive Janitor Ahti all make a solid impression despite relatively little screen time.
Jesse is the real star, but even characters you’ll never meet come to life through recorded videos and text encountered as you explore. Control mixes traditional graphics with live-action FMV and even puppet shows to relay its world, and contains an ungodly amount of reading in scattered notes and files. It’s a mix that could have easily resulted in a garbled mess, but with the right direction it comes across as meticulously planned.
There’s so much to be applauded in Remedy’s bold vision here, from the feast of visuals to the fascinating rework of traditional game genres. We’ve haven’t even discussed the impressive environmental destruction, mind-bending moments or a certain, spectacular musical sequence. However, some delights are best left to be enjoyed unspoilt.
The Oldest House is an uncanny place in which to spend your time; disorienting, haunted, and most certainly dangerous. Despite this, Jesse quickly discovers she’s doesn’t ever want to leave its labyrinthine halls. Truth be told, neither did we.