How Metroidvania is it? Low Fit. Control's progression is fairly linear, but there are enough secrets that require movement upgrades to reach that it has that Metroidvania feel assuming you decide to do all the content.
Primary Challenge: Ranged Combat
Time to beat: ~14 hours
Review Info: Control was played using the Ultimate Edition available on Steam
Buy Control if you like…
- Mind-Bending Narratives
- Third Person Shooters
- Gun and Sorcery Gameplay
- Story-Based Optional Content
- Random Loot Systems
▼ Review continues below ▼
During the development of Control, key designers kept saying that “Metroidvania design” is what sets Control apart from previous games made by the studio. This was a very good idea as the freedom provided to the player that the level design philosophy creates really paid off for Control. For most of the game it still feels closer to Alan Wake, as the focus is hinged on its bizarre narrative, and certain tributes to that narrative must be paid. Gating is done primarily with clearing security rather than with ability upgrades, and until you’ve cleared a majority of the game’s main story missions, there aren’t too many divergent paths you can take advantage of. With that said, I think that there are aspects of Control that Metroidvania fans can appreciate, and even disregarding how well Control fits into the genre, it’s a great game. Control is a Narnia-esque alternate reality that’s close enough to the real world that it’s easy to escape into. The combat combines super powers and gunplay in a frantic and unique way. There are also enough sidequests just as good as the main story that if you’ve taken a liking to Control’s shenanigans you’re bound to find a good helping of satisfaction. It’s a bit weighed down by some popular AAA tropes, but at its core Control has all the hallmarks of a masterpiece.
Jesse Faden, looking for her long lost brother, stumbles into what you later find out to be “The Oldest House”, a place where reality obeys a completely different set of rules. The Oldest House is occupied by the US Federal Government, specifically a secret agency known as “The Federal Bureau of Control.” The Bureau’s primary goal is to document and investigate paranormal phenomena, a topic that Jesse is intimately familiar with thanks to encounters she had as a child. Control takes absolutely no time to dive straight into the madness, as even before you get your weapon, the world starts twisting in impossible ways, and you can blow up furniture and enemies just by waving your hand with the game’s melee attack. After a few short moments of exploration you’ll eventually find “The Service Weapon”, the game’s one and only gun with the ability to transform into many forms.
As this game doesn’t take place in a typical reality, Control isn’t your typical third person shooter. The service weapon has an ammo limit, but you don’t need to manually reload it. Your ammo clip is clearly conveyed as you shoot, and if you stop shooting before the ammo bar is depleted, you only have to wait a couple of seconds before it starts filling up again. If you do happen to deplete your ammo, you have to wait even longer, but if those couple of shots can finish off your target it might be worth the wait even if there are still more enemies to fight. While you are waiting for your ammo to refill you have quite a few other things you can do. You could treat Control like a cover-based shooter and duck behind a corner every time you’re low on ammo, but most of the game’s mechanics discourage that behavior. There are phenomena that cause enemies to gradually heal, so you can’t always just pick at their health and succeed. The primary mechanic that encourages you to get close though is that any time an enemy dies or sometimes even when they just get hit, they drop blue specks that restore your health. This mitigates the consequences of recklessness, but also forces you to come out of cover even if you’re playing it safe if you ever still take damage. The service weapon can be fired while aiming, which slows down your movement, or you can shoot from the hip as you dash between advantageous locations. Your weapon’s default state is similar to a pistol, but you can transform it into a shotgun, a sniper rifle, or other forms that keep the strategies available to you fairly high just from the service weapon alone. You can even switch between two forms with the press of a button, but all forms use the same ammo pool, so you’ll be waiting for that recharge no matter what you switch to. Thankfully you have other options for being aggressive while you wait, including the aforementioned explosive melee attack.
Perhaps the most fun way to spend your ammo recharge time though is using the game’s telekinetic launch ability. By holding down the shoulder button, Jesse pulls in a random object in from somewhere in the room, or you can choose your object by targeting it manually, and then by letting go of that button Jesse will launch the object at an enemy . Unlike other games that have a similar telekinetic weapon, even if there are no objects in a room, Jesse will just pull up a chunk of wall or a piece of the floor to throw instead. The intoxicating power trip that this single ability creates is unparalleled. Once you have an object, you can hang onto it indefinitely, even dragging it from room to room until you finally throw it. Each thing you pull in draws from your energy pool, so you can’t just grab things all the time, but that seesaw exchange between your service weapon’s ammo pool and your energy pool means you can generally keep layering damage in on anything you want to kill. Later on you get more spells, but they’re a bit more situational. Your staple moves are going to be typical third-person shooter gunplay, explosive melee, and launching objects at enemies, and for sure this is more than enough to carry the entire game.
As cool as the launch ability is, it might be just a little too overpowered. Unlike your gun launch has an automatic lock-on, in fact I’d often use this aspect as a detection tool to figure out where enemies were in the room. Any time you have to hit small targets, it’s usually just easier to throw something at it rather than to bother with aiming. Launch is also usually superior to the service weapon for damage as well. Enemies can sometimes have a glowing red force field around them which deflects bullets that aren’t specifically designed to pierce it. A melee attack or the all powerful launch ability however removes that barrier in one hit most of the time. The only thing holding the launch power back is that energy pool, which from the start only lets you launch two objects before you’re forced to wait, but that pool and the launch power itself can be improved.
Enter Control’s terrible skill tree system. Yes, Control pays tribute to that pervasive AAA tradition that every game must have some kind of skill tree progression system, but in Control’s case it’s more like an in-game difficulty slider. If you put all of your points into Launch, you’re just going to become a god among men, and when I respecced Faden’s powers at the end of the game, it turned Control from a fairly strategic and exhilarating combat experience into something more akin to clicking and dragging icons from your desktop into the recycle bin. Don’t get me wrong, picking up three large objects and auto-targeting three enemies and watching them vaporize certainly looks cool, but it makes the waves of enemies the game likes to throw at you turn into something more of a formality rather than a meaningful challenge. I had more fun with Control when I had put all of my points into melee, as I got to think more about positioning and closing distance, and as a result combat was much more engaging. However, as you might expect, ranged strategies are more universally implemented, and there are bosses in Control that really don’t let you use anything else. The service weapon of course always gives you a ranged option, but there are no options to improve the service weapon on the skill tree. The other powers besides launch and melee can also be improved, but besides one defensive choice (which helps a melee build a lot), the other powers are pretty niche and come later in the game making them practically designed to be supplementary. For a hefty fee you can reset your skill tree at any time, so like I did you can always give in to the dark side if you’re having a hard time, so there are no permanent “wrong” choices, but launch is just so good that any other experimentation you can do feels more like a self-imposed challenge run.
You do have one other customization option besides the skill tree, and that is the ability to equip mods on both your guns and your character. The character mods are just more ways to improve your powers, including increasing the rate your energy recharges or making the launch ability cost less energy to use. Both the character and weapon mods simply improve your mathematical efficacy, things like increasing your gun’s damage by a %, improving accuracy, or improving the form’s unique traits like adding more bullets to the shotgun form’s blast. These kind of % increases do make using certain weapon forms more viable, but that’s the only thing they do to change the way you’ll play the game. Making an already difference in scale oriented system even less interesting to me is that the mods are given to you completely at random. You either find them on the corpses of enemies (the easiest way) or you can use crafting materials to get random mods of differing rarities from the game’s checkpoint shop. Just playing the game I filled up my inventory of mods and had to sell them frequently, and I ended up with mods with sufficient numeric increases that I could equip without spending too much effort. But that doesn’t stop Control from attempting to pad the game like it was a looter shooter.
While you’re running around completing the game’s main story objectives, or the just-as-good sidequests, you’ll randomly get bureau alerts that enemies are attacking some location far away from where you are. If you fast travel to these places you’ll get to enjoy admittedly fun challenges within Control’s well designed environments. Your reward for doing these alerts though are more crafting materials and money for upgrading your gun or buying mods, so it’s basically the same thing as doing a random encounter in a 16-bit era JRPG. You also get a list of “Board Countermeasures” you can take part in, where you get a random mod for goals like going to kill 5 of a certain enemy type, using a specific service weapon form for a while, or killing enemies in a specific area. These board countermeasures can be dumped at any time for a random different countermeasure, but there doesn’t seem to be any programming to make sure you’re always getting countermeasures you can actually do. One of the first countermeasures on my list was for a service weapon form that I found out later only exists in the game’s DLC – I don’t know if this was a bizarre “have to look it up online” marketing gimmick or just confusing design. In any case after a few of both of these activities – that is the countermeasures and the bureau alerts – they kind of felt like a waste of time. They are optional though, and if you are having a hard time it is at least a good way to get money.
The more substantial game rewards are thankfully exactly where they should be – they’re rewards for exploration. Besides just completing main story quests, these side missions and hidden areas are where you can get more points to put into your skill tree – while I stand by my opinion that the skill tree is generally problematic for Control, it’s still fun to power-up the more niche powers. For a lot of the more substantial sidequests, namely the ones that give you completely new powers or access to inaccessible areas, you are just told where to look for them, so they’re hard to miss. Exploration still often pays off however. When for most of the game Control feels decidedly not Metroidvania, I was pleasantly surprised when I found secret rooms that give you an ability point just for finding them. Besides that though there are swaths of hidden content tucked away only to be found by those actively looking for secrets, and by “swaths” I mean sidequests that have substantial story significance and unlock whole new areas. If you do just the main quest, there’s a pretty good chance that the game’s story conclusion will leave you feeling a bit empty, but Control very much is more about the little side stories and not necessarily about its climax. It’s at about two-thirds through the main story, or about halfway through all of the game’s available content, that Control really starts feeling “Metroidvania.” Part of this is due to getting some liberating movement upgrades, but also because it’s when all of the game’s doors become unlocked and you can really do what you want. In earlier parts of the game getting lost might be a little frustrating, but later it’s as liberating as any Metroidvania game. Thematically speaking too, the game’s main theme of “Take Control” is ingeniously expressed through this dichotomy. Even if the game’s core progression systems are imbalanced or wonky, it doesn’t completely detract from what is just great level design. And besides, just being in Control’s world can be a reward unto itself.
Throughout the Oldest House, you’ll find memos and documents lying around written by employees of the Bureau, and if you enjoy reading through “lore” you’re in for a treat. Everything is written as if it naturally took place. People swear at each other through their memos, plan business lunches with each other, take down inventories and itineraries; it’s all things you’d expect to see in a normal potpourri scented government office. Written in these notes though are elements of Control’s insane universe. People are swearing because the oldest house decided that bathrooms shouldn’t exist anymore or that their office is now a literal breeding ground for post-it notes. Business lunches are accompanied by rituals to avoid angering appliances that have become seemingly sentient. Inventories include weird jellies needed to appease the forces of the astral plane, and itineraries might include a duty roster for watching a refrigerator that will kill people if someone isn’t staring at it constantly. All of these details, hundreds of written notes, pictures, and audio files create a setting that feels just as real as our own reality. Best of all Control cheekily uses real-life footage using real actors and mixes it in with the in-game graphics, breaking that fourth wall barrier, making it easy to imagine that the in-game graphics are just a result of the Oldest House, and that if you were outside, it would just be the real world.
To get the most out of Control you need to invest yourself into all of these details, because the best thing its narrative has to offer is the immersion. If you’re looking for a traditional story with a three act structure, character arcs and emotional payoffs, you may feel a little left hanging. Things happen in the game that could be an arc for Jesse if the build-up was there. If Control was a TV show and there was a first season where Jesse had to face her memories of the paranormal and had to constantly second-guess whether any of it was real, then the entire game itself would be the payoff to that build-up. But you start exploding things with your palm less than five minutes into the game, and the matter-of-fact way that the bureau treats other worldly phenomena creates little doubt about what the game’s reality actually is. The joy then comes from the smaller stories available and less from the main protagonist’s growth as a character. That isn’t to say there aren’t mysteries to chew on, but staying completely on theme, most mysteries never get completely resolved, at least not without first loading it into your head canon. I think if you enjoyed Remedy’s Alan Wake, you’ll have a pretty good idea what to expect from Control, and if Control was a sequel to Alan Wake, it’s basically as perfect as a sequel could ever be.
As a narrative world constructed for immersive escapism, Control is a fantastic achievement. The “Metroidvania” elements combine with masterfully crafted level design and meticulously detailed notes and environmental story telling to create a ludonarrative masterpiece. Where Control falters a bit is with its wonky progression systems. I can’t help but imagine how much better Control could have been if it dropped the attempts at padding its runtime and funneled those rewards into its stronger elements. The story itself while presented in a masterful way might also feel a bit more style over substance for some, but the delight is in the details. With that said, you can expect Control to feel like being spirited away into someplace weird, and if you enjoy a good power fantasy, then perhaps what I consider to be Control’s weaknesses will become strengths for you.
Combat is snappy with a great dynamic between using your gun and your ''magic'' powers. The leveling system supporting the combat could use a lot of improvement
There is some minor platforming but there's not a heavy emphasis on it
The level design is great but a lot of the rewards are tied to an RNG based system that pads the gratification
Puzzles are not common, but there are a few great headscratchers in there, though some may feel a bit pace breaking
The presentation of the narrative is a masterwork, and as an immersive escapist universe there is no rival, however the story actually being conveyed might create mixed feelings for anyone looking for a traditional arc or message
The mix of real footage and modern graphics creates a great illusion of other-worldliness that will likely stand the test of time, even if the uncanny valley characters might not otherwise.
Anyone who has played this game knows exactly the part that pushes this game into having the maximum Music score.
Technically the skill tree and variety of weapons can support diversity in multiple playthroughs, but neither of those systems are particularly great.