The action platformer genre is inherently a mixed bag. More often than not, the tag is a misnomer for what should instead be called a 2D action game. Platforming usually takes a backseat. Some get the promised balance of action and platforming right, though these are few and far between. The result is usually a frustrating experience that only delivers half the fun it’s meant to. The Company Man is just such a game.

Developed by Malaysian team Forust Studio, The Company Man is a side-scrolling action platformer with a clever play on oppressive office culture. From dialogue to environment design, every element of this game has a sprinkling of its satirical theme. You play as Jim, a salaryman possessed by his desire to climb the corporate ladder. After being tried for a crime he was duped into committing, Jim is demoted to customer service. To achieve his dream, the beleaguered employee must equip his keyboard sword and fight his way to the CEO suite.

Each department sports an environmental theme that matches the nature of the people working there. This brings good visual variety to the game. The Accounting department is the game’s ice-themed level, its denizens as cold as they are calculating. Frozen safes and ice pillar-pushing senior employees abound. Marketing, meanwhile, has a rather millennial feel to it; Jungle themed with a literally open plan, Jim is exposed to the elements as he hops between TV teleporters and background characters sitting on exercise balls in lieu of chairs.

It’s cold and lonely at the top.

Add to this the diverse array of hijabs, turbans, and funny clone characters in the background — almost all uniquely animated, mind you — and The Company Man becomes a joy to look at for most of its duration. In its environment design, the game shines.

Then we get to the gameplay. Given that The Company Man is developer Forust’s debut project, I was ready to forgive the odd bug or slightly janky control scheme. Especially given that this is a Switch port. But no, the controls were tight and responsive. I was quite happy with them to start. The problem was how little each input achieved. Your main weapons in the game are the aforementioned keyboard sword and its gun mode that shoots in various forms (think pistol, shotgun, arc wave, super ‘splosion). Flashy as these may seem, both tools are thoroughly underwhelming. Starting with the melee, your only options are a three-hit combo or a single-hit jump attack. These immediately feel lacklustre, as neither can be used to their full potential.

The three-hit combo has a wonderfully smooth but terribly slow animation. More often than not, the gap between hits two and three was more than enough for enemies to get a quick hit in. This is the case with most every foe you face in the game. Despite some visual variety, most enemy encounters boil down to a dull game of cat-and-mouse. Get one or maybe two hits in, jump and/or dash, rinse and repeat till defeat. It gets stale by the second level.

Pretty lights, boring fights.

Enemy behaviours do vary, but this does little to change the flow of things. Jumping or flying enemies are the worst, as they only serve to exacerbate how useless the jump attack is. There’s little point encouraging me to hit things in the air if I only get one swipe at workers that dodge better than I do.

The dash used for said dodging also left me wanting. How far you dash — which is not very far at all — is determined by how long you hold the A button. That small level of complexity was greatly appreciated as I played, as it made the odd jump where it mattered feel more engaging. Unfortunately, these bits of platforming did not appear often. What I did get was combat encounters that frustrated me whenever I tried dashing. Tight spaces between projectiles, AoE attacks, and enemies who hurt on touch instead of hit forced me to be downright meticulous with movement. A dash that rarely moves you as much as you need, with nary a hint of an invincibility frame, is not a good pairing for such encounters.

I’d detail the gun, but I hardly used it. It appears to serve a purpose with some enemies and boss fights that force distance, but its damage in almost every form is pitiful. I’d pump anywhere between six to eight pistol shots into an enemy, only to still need three melee hits to finish them off. Unlocking new forms stopped being exciting a little too soon.

I mean…

Moving past mechanics, the level design also had some issues worth addressing. Most glaring was actually reaching fights. Enemies constantly surprised me from off-screen, with little to no audible cue to warn me of their impending beatdown. I was essentially punished for… moving right in a side-scroller? This is before we get to the multiple long, empty corridors, of course. Those are evenly peppered throughout The Company Man’s seven levels.

Less even are the boss fights. With a variety of mid-level and end bosses, these bouts are best collectively described as an absolute wildcard. Some, like Barrett the sign-wielding bored ape, are as absurdly easy as right-clicking an NFT. Others, like Boba the bomb slinger on her goblin glider, are bizzarely difficult due to how drawn out they are. Boba’s fight in particular rarely gave me an opportunity to actually hit her with my sword. Most attack windows you get with her require… the gun and jump attacks. Great.

The Company Man’s secret final boss is especially frustrating. Even before their moveset comes into consideration, how we get there narratively is far from fun. The game’s parodic take on the corporate sphere lends itself to some fun dialogue and ideas early on. By endgame, however, these are so on-the-nose that I was actually upset with how this last boss was presented. It feels as if the fight exists solely to justify the dialogue’s nosedive from an attempt at wit to platitudes about capitalism.

Oh go suck on a bitcoin.

The story that leads us here has little weight to it, acting as a vehicle to occasionally break up the action with a flashback sequence. It’s a shame given the aplomb with which Forust uses environmental storytelling elsewhere in the levels. You heal with coffee, for CEO’s sake. I know not every indie has to be some witty romp a la Annapurna, but there was such potential here.

So, with middling mechanics and dry dialogue, The Company Man… actually leaves me a tad hopeful. The execution is not the best. I was disappointed with most of what I played. Yet, what Forust presents here conceptually serves as a great launchpad for something new later on. The developer shows great implementation of their themes, from environments to character design. The animations are also beautiful. The gameplay is so frustrating it was almost all I could focus on, but I can still appreciate the untapped potential. There’s upward mobility for this team yet.

Just give me a better gun next time.

Sarim played The Company Man on Nintendo Switch, with a code provided by the publisher.

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