Saturday, April 30, 2022

The Stanley Parable: Ultra Deluxe (PC)

Note: This review contains spoilers for The Stanley Parable.

When The Stanley Parable launched as a standalone game in 2013, it received critical acclaim and proved itself a hit among players, notably including those who would otherwise not have any interest in the “walking simulator” genre. Five years later, in 2018, an updated rerelease called The Stanley Parable: Ultra Deluxe that would include new content and a console port was announced for 2019. Unfortunately, Ultra Deluxe would receive two delays, once to 2020 and once to 2021, though it would finally launch on 4/27/2022. Though the release of Ultra Deluxe blindsided me, I still rushed to play it, even taking advantage of a special 33% discount from owning the original game (meaning I only paid $16.66 instead of $25). As much as I thoroughly enjoyed the original The Stanley Parable, my enjoyment of Ultra Deluxe waned by the time I had accessed all of the new content, to the point where I felt that the rerelease failed to completely justify a second purchase for existing fans.

Much like the original The Stanley Parable, Stanley has worked in an office for several years, but one day finds that his co-workers have all vanished. As he explores the building, a narrator tries to guide him on the right path. Eventually, Stanley comes across a door marked “New Content” and goes inside. However, the narrator is disappointed by what’s behind the door and presents Stanley with something he hopes is more promising.

Stanley's humble office.

At its core, Ultra Deluxe still has the base game’s core themes about the true nature of player agency in video games, as pretty much the entirety of The Stanley Parable still rests at its foundation. Past the New Content door, however, the game adds additional themes about the nature of sequels and rereleases, as well as nostalgia, review scores and player rewards. Without spoiling anything, these themes are presented in a fun and clever way, with a new story arc of sorts that spans the entirety of the game while encouraging the exploration of familiar environments in the search of something new.

Though the core gameplay doesn’t change much from the base game, consisting entirely of walking and interacting with objects, Ultra Deluxe introduces a one-handed mode, where holding the left and right mouse buttons together moves the player forward. Aside from some bug fixes, Ultra Deluxe also boasts better graphics as a result of the transfer from the Source engine to Unity, though this change is mostly visible in the lightning of certain environments and certain texture updates. New environments introduced from the new content also match the aesthetic of the base game and are filled with plenty of humorous details.

The Unity engine features improved graphics and lighting.

As much as I found myself enjoying the new content, however, the presentation feels lacking. Yes, there are new environments, but a majority of the new content doesn’t deviate much from the base game and mostly involves going through the same endings again but with a variation triggered by interacting with a specific item beforehand. What new routes exist are minimal by comparison, with only a handful that don’t involve the new item at all. As such, I enjoyed exploring the new environments a lot more, though they can feel linear in comparison to the explicitly non-linear base game.

The new storyline in Ultra Deluxe starts off promising and humorous, with the same sharp writing as the original, though the payoff may not feel completely worth it to some. Of all the new ideas presented, only one that shows up near the beginning leaves a lasting impact, as it explores its own existential ramifications. Otherwise, the story ends on letting the player repeat the same joke over and over. Some of the new endings present also don’t have quite the same punch as the original, with at least one coming off overly sarcastic rather than laugh-out-loud funny. While some of the ending variations that require an item are funny, they can also present interesting ideas that don’t go anywhere and can collectively feel like a cheap way of doubling the content.

Be prepared to look at the same locations over and over.

Despite taking a jab at how Galactic Cafe accidentally left in a specific bug in the original release, and how Ultra Deluxe turned it into a feature with a brand-new ending, this rerelease somehow introduces more issues. Kevan Brighting’s narration has a habit of cutting off the very end of sentences and some of the new recordings have a noticeable dip in audio quality (and a side-by-side comparison with the original release also reveals a slight difference in dialogue timing). The player can potentially go out of bounds where they’re clearly not supposed to or even fall through the map. In one instance, falling through the map during a lengthy endgame sequence can trap the player in an inescapable purgatory until they restart the game, at which point they’ll have to do the entire sequence all over again.

There’s also the issue of cut content. Since Unity doesn’t have a developer console, unlike Source, certain easter eggs and jokes, as well the Serious ending, are completely inaccessible. For legal and technical reasons, the Games ending also changes which games are featured, though the effectiveness of this change depends on the player. As such, this also means that even though the entire base game is represented, players jumping straight into Ultra Deluxe won’t get the full experience of the original.

The Stanley Parable is indeed an amazing game that I would encourage everyone reading this to play for themselves. Ultra Deluxe, however, is a harder recommendation, as there isn’t quite enough content to justify the $25 asking price. If you’ve never played The Stanley Parable, you may as well play Ultra Deluxe, though I would suggest getting it during a sale. Those who have already played the original game might want to wait for a deeper discount than the one originally offered. If you want to play Ultra Deluxe and then go back to experience the differences in the original release, then I’d suggest waiting for a good discount for both.

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