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Stick It to the Man Review: Read my mind

Adventure games can be frustrating affairs — that’s why so many people avoid them. I wish they wouldn’t. Stick It to the Man is proof that the genre can amount to more than complicated puzzles and fractured logic.

Out now on the PlayStation Network for PlayStation 3 and PS Vita, Stick It to the Man from developer Zoink! Games tells the chapter-by-chapter story of an average guy named Ray who lives with his girlfriend, Arlene. Ray has just finished another day of hard-hat testing when lightning strikes a plane and causes a top-secret, Omega-level package to drop from the aircraft and onto his unprotected head.

That’s how he ends up floating alone in outer space — okay, wait, let’s step back a bit. On the run from secret agents and a mysterious shadowed figure called "The Man," who wants whatever fell out of the sky, Ray finds himself moving from a sleepy dock town to an insane asylum, his subconscious dream world, and even a space station.

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A few minutes into Stick It, we get a good impression of what this 2D, side-scrolling world is like. The animation is colorful, busy, and full of depth, with paper and cardboard cut-outs of characters, buildings, and speeding cars that contain more life than some 3D models.

The game is also smartly funny, and much of that humor derives from Ray’s newfound ability to read people’s thoughts using the pink spaghetti arm that emerges from his skull after his accident. Other people can’t see it, but he can, and the weird brain slug inhabiting his noggin’ has something to do with it. In addition to using telepathy, the arm enables him to peel back wallpaper-like folds on buildings, swing to red pins to reach platforms, and grab and apply stickers of various objects, sometimes plucking them directly from people’s thoughts.

This entire mechanic is the meat of Stick It — and what makes it so enjoyable to play. It’s not often that you get to experiment with papercraft and fill your inventory with stickers (though we’re seeing more of that with games like Tearaway and Paper Mario: Sticker Star), but waving and wobbling that spindly arm around just feels good, especially when you groove it to the jazzy soundtrack.

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The developer put a lot of energy into giving unique voices to as many character as possible, human or animal. It takes some time to listen to their thoughts completely, but they're so entertaining that you won’t mind doing so. When a seagull wonders why he has such complex thoughts only to screech them out unintelligibly and decides he’s an artist, there’s so much emotion and inflection in each cry. A guy trapped in the trunk of a gangster’s car reminisces on how he never finished Silver Surfer for the NES and how much he loves that game. A girl who sells shaped balloons reflects on how the purpose of her life is to create cute helium-filled animals. She’s sad sometimes.

Stick It is also incredibly meta, poking fun at how much jumping Ray does to and from work and making a point that his house is “all the way to the left" (one of only two directions you could possibly go in a side-scroller). Another character comments on whose bright idea it was to engineer a paper airplane and expect it to endure harsh weather conditions, and a helicopter pilot shouts about how he’s going to fly in radial and predicable search patterns.

This humor carries through the entire game, but Stick It is notable for other, more technical reasons. It’s part platformer, part stealth, proving that the genre can reach out with a long, spaghetti arm, tap into other genres, and frame them within the context of an adventure game. It keeps its inventory small, letting players hold items and still swing around and use the hand at the same time. Every character has something they want; it’s just a matter of searching and reading minds until you find it. In spite of that, it’s never really confusing. Make one person happy, and you usually get an item in return, and the cycle continues.

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That in itself isn’t anything new, but it’s how Stick It assembles everything together that makes the game special. It’s not without imperfections. The stealth sections — namely, avoiding secret agents by using sleepy stickers to knock them out or by slapping "Ray" masks on their faces to create a diversion — are more of an annoyance than a worthwhile addition. These scenarios are repetitive and vary little (close to the end, they’re just plain frustrating).Plus, in the last couple chapters, the humor starts to wear thin.

Still, this is an adventure game that everyone should play, whether they love the genre or find it boring. Five hours may seem too short, but in this case, it’s the right length. Any longer would spoil it.

Stick It to the Man isn’t exempt from the trial-and-error method of puzzle-solving that so many adventure games rely on, but it pushes genre boundaries, experiments with creative gameplay mechanics, and makes humor and good characters the heart of its story. You’d be sore to miss it.

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Stephanie Carmichael Twitter: @wita
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