It's been a good long while now since we first sat down and revelled in the endless ingenuity and inventiveness of 2013's The Stanley Parable and, in all honesty, there hasn't been another interactive story experience since that's grabbed us quite like this one did. It was/is a sublime game, a fantastic piece of actual art, and so we wonder, is it really a good idea to return here to an altered version, to a version that's been tampered with, added to and expanded? Wouldn't it have been better to just leave well enough alone?
It's a question this Ultra Deluxe edition dares to ask itself directly at points, as you raise yourself up from your coffee-stained desk, push back your smelly little swivel chair and wander off down its stuffy office corridors to experience Stanley's bewildering journey all over again. Should we have come back here? Well, of course we should.
If you've played through The Stanley Parable before, if you've already seen its many endings and enjoyed its many surprises, you may be wondering what exactly is in it for you should you choose to return for a second time. Well, look, there's no need to be like that for starters and, to answer your rather pointed question, there's a great big door here that says "new content" on it. You can walk through this door (once you've found it) and, surprisingly enough, behind it you'll find lots of new content. That's probably why it says "new content" on it. This is what you're looking for isn't it? It's here. Maybe try to relax a little.
Where were we? Ah, yes, as we said, our main concern jumping back into Stanley's ordeal was whether or not all of this new content would somehow upset the balance, whether it would detract from the wonderfully witty, surprising, funny, dark, self-referential rollercoaster that came before but, thankfully, it hasn't. In fact, The Stanley Parable: Ultra Deluxe does nothing but improve upon the original, it is the very epitome of an Ultra Deluxe version of a thing that previously wasn't quite so ultra and/or deluxe. It gives you plenty more in the way of endings, of doors to open, paths to wander down and mistakes and choices to make as you start and restart over and over again, pressing and pulling and prodding at every interactive element you can just to see what happens. Yes, in short, if you're a returning player, there's more than enough been added here to justify your time and energy. OK? Good.
For new players, we guess we should explain a little further. The Stanley Parable sees you play as Stanley, employee #427, a tiny cog in a great big faceless machine who turns in for work at his grubby little desk one day to discover that the endless orders from on high have stopped. Further to this, his awful colleagues have all vanished. Where did they go? What's happening? Where is everyone? That sort of thing. And so you wander off down the horrible little corridor that leads from your desk into the endless hallways beyond in search of an answer, all the while accompanied by the voice of an omnipotent narrator (played sublimely here by Kevan Brighting).
What follows is an examination, a rumination - maybe even something else that rhymes with these two words that we can't think of right now - on the nature of player agency, the relationship between the game and the gamer, the creator and the person who...let's see...who wanders through their creation, innit. It goes further than this too, taking in the stifling horror of huge corporations, the very meaning of choice, heck perhaps the meaning of life itself...it even manages to have something to say about the nature of games criticism which, well, steady on! *sweats* It's all very clever is what we're trying to say, but it's never smug - even when it's absolutely being tremendously smug - it's hilarious, it's unsettling and dark, it's very, very creative and it even makes you think. Can you imagine?!
As you progress down endless corridors here you'll make choices...at least we think...they seem to be choices. You're deciding where you want to go aren't you? You pick a door, there are two doors, choose one. The narrator says take the one on the right, so you take that one. Or do you? Of course you don't! You're not gonna be told what to do, you go left. That's the spirit! Oh. You're dead. Never mind. He did tell you that was the wrong way.
As you open doors and follow your own path or the advice of the narrator, or maybe even an unhealthy mix of the two, you'll die, you'll get lost, you'll stumble upon things and stuff (things and stuff we won't spoil in this review because it would ruin the fun for you, dear reader) and situations that give you much pause for thought. Who's in control here? Are your actions really your actions? Are you, by breaking the rules and ignoring the instructions of the narrator, actually following the rules and instructions of the narrator? What's this narrator's game anyway? Where are we going?
You can see multiple endings in a very short space of time as you explore and die and restart over, easily a handful in an hour or two from our experience, and the real joy here is in replaying and making different decisions, second-guessing yourself and the narrator, or even running the same exact route repeatedly only to end up with a different result each time. There's depth and width to this game where straightforward length is somewhat absent, and every decision you make (or think you make) leads to some delightful little surprise or other that'll propel you, compel you, to seek out more and more endings, to examine your surroundings and push and prod and keep on playing. It's delightful stuff. And now there's even more of it!
Of course, The Stanley Parable: Ultra Deluxe also marks the game's first time releasing on a console and it all translates very nicely, controls well, looks great and is just generally a game we can't really recommend enough. Yes, there may be some who don't really "get it" - whatever it is - don't find its brand of humour or nonsense compelling, and there's no real way to beat the game in a traditional sense (an aspect the excellent achievements here have much fun with), you simply keep looping around and discovering more bits and bobs, but what bits and bobs they are for those who find themselves gelling with it all. If you've yet to experience this one, now is the time we reckon. If you're returning for more, you'll find a game that's been improved and expanded upon in just the right ways to make it more than worth another visit. It really is very much an ultra version of The Stanley Parable with various deluxe aspects added for good measure. It's very good.
The Stanley Parable: Ultra Deluxe is an excellent expansion of a bonafide classic interactive adventure. We'll admit we were slightly concerned that returning to something so masterful, expanding and adding to such a carefully constructed experience, could somehow dilute the magic, but we needn't have worried. All of the new content here simply embellishes what came before, resulting in a wonderful piece of art that's now better, more ultra and, you might even say, deluxe than ever before. Whether you're coming to this one for the first time or returning to see what's changed, you'll be handsomely rewarded for your curiosity.