Game review: Groundhog Day: Like Father Like Son is a VR movie sequel
One of the most unlikely movie tie-ins of recent years is a VR game that challenges you to become a better person through the power of VR.
It’s been 26 years since the movie Groundhog Day was released. In it, Bill Murray played cynical weatherman Phil Connors, who’s forced to relive the same day over and over again in the small town of Punxsutawney, until he eventually transforms into a kind and warm-hearted good guy. Quite unexpectedly a sequel has turned up, and to compound the surprise it’s a VR game rather than a film.
Less surprising is that you play Connors’ similarly jaundiced son, Phil Jr, who is also desperate to leave Punxsutawney in favour of sunny L.A. and identically cursed to repeat the day until he, too, finds redemption. The difference is that now you’re the one responsible for refining your skills, conversational topics, and dance techniques in order to achieve absolution by making everyone’s day perfect. It’s a lesson in selflessness, but one that also inadvertently highlights the perils of VR-based control interfaces.
Starting in a bedroom in Phil Jr’s brother’s house, to the familiar strains of I Got You Babe played on a bedside clock radio, the first order of business is to explore the room and familiarise yourself with the game’s step-turn and teleportation control scheme. You’ll also find out that the world contains a number of interactive objects, many of which are there just for fun. Your next job is to go downstairs and meet the family for breakfast, witnessing a scene of domestic dysfunction.
In the ensuing minutes the children break the window with a snowball, the cat knocks over a vase that smashes the goldfish bowl, and your niece storms out in a huff, accidentally crashing her dad’s van through the sitting room wall. You need to make sure none of these things actually happen and do it in time to get over to Gobbler’s Knob to see the unveiling of a statue in honour of your recently deceased father.
Ensuring the various incidents never happen involves repeatedly restarting the scene, while making changes to figure out how to prevent each accident from occurring. For the window that’s easy – just open it and the snowball sails straight through causing no damage – and you can toss a magazine at the cat to scare it off before it kills the goldfish, but figuring out how to placate your niece involves making her a specific smoothie, the recipe for which you’ll need to discover.
While there’s a reasonable amount of repeated un-skippable dialogue, once you get a task right the scene adapts so that you no longer need to go through the same rigamarole, bypassing elements of it to reach the next challenge. Despite regular exposure to the same witticisms these shortcuts work and do so in a way that works completely inside the game’s narrative.
More problematic is actually completing the tasks. Wielding the PlayStation’s Move controllers is an imprecise and glitchy business at best, which is okay when you’re grabbing subtitles from the air to choose branches in a conversation tree, but disastrous when you’re doing something fiddly. The graffiti spraying mini-game is one particular source of exasperation, with the need for pixel-perfect paint application rapidly proving itself to be in direct conflict with the clumsiness of the controls.
Cooking breakfast is another pain in the lower back. Leave a single slice of bacon in the frying pan for a second too long and the whole thing’s ruined. And that’s before you’ve dropped the pancake batter on the floor or left the bread until it pops up in the toaster, which inexplicably renders it overcooked. Anyone who can get through that challenge without wanting to take a machete to Phil’s brother and his stupid wisecracks must have the patience of the Dalai Lama.
It’s certainly not all bad news though. Once you’ve completed a section, even if you do it badly and mess everything up, the next time you come across it your foreknowledge changes the dialogue and options, which helps keep things fresh. You’ll also stumble across clues, which open up new directions and conversational choices in subsequent scenes, so there’s a continual feeling of progress even when things are going badly awry; something they have a strong tendency to do.
Each segment’s steady evolution gives the game a welcome sense of discovery, and while puzzles are simple there’s a small dopamine hit involved in getting everything right, something that’s actually impossible the first few times you encounter a situation. There’s also a bit of character development, even if it’s exactly the same as the film’s, as Phil Jr gradually discovers that Punxsutawney folk aren’t so bad and that helping people is a good thing.
Coming from Tequila Works, who co-developed the wonderful Sexy Brutale, which used looping time to stunning effect, and The Invisible Hours, a VR game about solving a murder mystery by scrubbing back and forth through an evening to witness parallel action and conversations, it’s not surprising there’s subtlety at work here. The studio knows what makes a game tick, how VR works, and how to manage time loops without too much wearying repetition.
It’s a good story, too, even if its mini-games are at times incomprehensibly awful. One early one involving shooting coffee beans to learn how to mend a cappuccino machine gravely outstays its welcome, while learning The Ryerson Shuffle, a dance routine invented by insurance salesman Ned Ryerson, is both tragic and bewildering. A lot of other interactions are based on trial and error, but since you have unlimited retries you just have to grit your teeth and go with the circular flow.
With a script that’s got its moments, and some good, solid sarcasm from your protagonist, Groundhog Day: Like Father Like Son tells an engaging story of cynicism lost and superficiality seen through. Some of its mini-games are best forgotten, and the problem of repeating dialogue is never completely sorted out, but as sequel to a film that seemingly defied follow-ups, this is a brave and at times entertaining result.
Groundhog Day: Like Father Like Son
Groundhog Day: Like Father Like Son review
In Short: The sequel Groundhog Day never had comes with a similarly redemptive ark, a witty script, and some mini-games that should never have seen the light of day.
Pros: Great sense of evolution as you uncover new clues and prevent disasters, and there are times when just causing mayhem with the props is rewarding on its own.
Cons: Clumsy controls and being forced to re-listen to dialogue for the fifth time never feels good. Life would be unambiguously better never having had to attempt the Ryerson Shuffle.
Formats: PlayStation VR (reviewed) and PC
Developer: Tequila Works
Publisher: Sony Pictures Virtual Reality
Release Date: 17th September 2019
Age Rating: 16
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