Fans of the film will find Groundhog Day: Like Father Like Son an ultimately worthy experience, mixing a similar blend of sarcastic humor and sincere emotional growth, but impatient gamers will probably grate against the clunky UI and unavoidable padding
Video games and the 90s fantastical comedy Groundhog Day have considerable crossover. That 1993 classic explored some rhythms familiar to gamers improving their abilities in an attempt to surpass a given challenge. This makes the initially surprising and out-of-left field concept of Groundhog Day: Like Father Like Son as a functional sequel to the film somehow sensible. And it's certainly not some hastily-developed VR experiment merely capitalizing on a name, but an ambitious and labor-heavy project filled with copious voice acting, a cinematic soundtrack, and impressive design and artwork. It flounders in some VR jank and practical issues which bottleneck its central conceit — that is, reliving the same day over and over in order to eventually get it all right — but it’s also packed with character and some fine detail in a game which, instead of escaping from under the shadow of its beloved predecessor, creates a whole story about a son trying to do exactly that.
You are Phil Connors, Jr., the son of Bill Murray’s character, on his way to walk many circular miles in his father’s footsteps. Phil Jr. is a vlogging twenty-something, adept with social media with notifications of his fans always popping off. No longer living in Punxsutawney — the quaint groundhog-star-powered town where the original film took place, and where Jr. grew up — you’ve now returned to vlog some goings-on on the town's big day, showing your followers your homespun roots. Predictably, you get caught up in the same metaphysical loop as Murray’s character, reliving a Groundhog Day over and over again, trying to help those around you and become a better person, in the faint hope that it will end the cycle and deliver you from this small-town purgatory.
It would be obvious to state that the main character of Groundhog Day: Like Father Like Son is a snarky quick-witted jerk awaiting a badly-needed comeuppance, and it’s not the only film echo the game selects to honor. Quite a few of the scenes and characters are return references, though it’s a little distracting that none of the original cast popped up in the game for a cameo (technically, Sony’s video game subsidiary produced it alongside MWM Interactive, so it’s not a matter of a tenuous one-off sale of license). Stephen Tobolowsky couldn’t re-hash his Ned character? He practically looks and sounds the same to this day.
This isn’t to imply that the voice cast here are slouches. There’s a tremendous amount of dialogue and, when it’s not serviceable, it’s outright excellent. Bill Murray-sound-alike troubles aside, none of the performances here feel phoned-in, although some hiccups with timing in the finished production result in frequent awkward pauses. It’s also interesting that the main character you take on has a lot of dialogue and ruminative self-narration, a strange detail for first-person VR games, which are usually satisfied with delivering countless silent protagonists. It can be grating when Phil Jr. is an absolute jerk, which essentially means you are the jerk, though character growth remains a key focus of the narrative.
Additionally, surprisingly, there’s abundant profanity. Get ready for f-bombs to drop repeatedly, which can’t help but seem bizarre considering the caricatured lightness of the 3D animated characters. It’s possibly one of the most glaring stylistic decisions, and while it fits in with the contemporary angle taken by the story’s setting, it’s hard to imagine that the game wouldn’t have been perfectly fine without all the R-rated language, or without so much of it.
The animated characters are just decent, featuring generally simplistic movement and over-wrought facial expressions and emoting. Aside from that, the static images and pastel-like digital art is absolutely stellar. Interstitial loading screens look like gorgeous pages from a graphic novel, and anywhere that this painted art can make an appearance — say, in framed photographs on a wall or slides in a projector — looks ten times better than any of the actual 3D assets in motion. You’re tasked with putting together an old family photo between key moments in the game, which then acts as a backdrop to a father-son conversational interlude, and it’s strange how they look better than any of the game’s scenes featuring more involved interactivity.
Where the game really does falter, sadly, is in the gameplay itself. The VR goofing around stuff is the kind of material we’ve seen dozens of times before. Interacting with food objects in a kitchen, throwing wadded-up paper balls into a wastebasket, or playing through indiscriminate puzzle sequences that don’t connect at all to the actual purpose of the game or its story. One such sequence involves repairing a cappuccino machine and is inanely arbitrary. These moments can occasionally be funny or charming, but moving the chess pieces of a repeating day's chaos is always less dissonant and more engaging.
Overall, Groundhog Day: Like Father Like Son never seems to reach its full potential. Snags like questionable UI implementations — using a hand to “grab” the proper response to character dialogue is always awkward — as well as a very restricted teleportation movement rob the experience of any grace. You can teleport to very specific spots in a small area of a given scene, and movement is usually completely restricted within a conversation, which forces you to stand there and listen to a character blather the same lines for possibly the fifth time. Phil Jr. has a cellphone which tracks progress and plays into certain scenarios, but hanging up on a call is incredibly easy to do by mistake, which can throw off an attempt at getting a scene right. In between the chapters of this Groundhog Day you can select to replay a scene itself or start the whole day over, and there’s no “Are you sure?” notification for this, so treat that selection very carefully.
We have already seen many games by this point playing with the mechanics of Groundhog Day (there’s even an argument to be made that the Soulsborne series champions its concept), but this one restricts player agency more than most. “Solving” certain scenes usually requires a couple of different choices to play out, and many resolutions cannot be reached without a few failures; meaning that it’s not a matter of you making an incorrectly rude choice or action, it’s that the correct choice or action is completely hidden until a later repetition of the day. That makes sense with the original movie, but feels like filler content in a video game.
Groundhog Day: Like Father Like Son should be praised for its devotion to the source material and bravery in its expansive approach to a time-honored classic film, but it fails in certain glaring areas that may frustrate its audience. Hampering player freedom in a sequel to a movie that was primarily about freedom seems drastically ill-conceived, and it’s hard to understand why the finished product was even made as a VR game in the first place. Fans of the film will still find it to be a worthy experience, mixing a similar blend of sarcastic humor and sincere emotional growth, but impatient gamers will probably grate against the clunky UI and unavoidable padding.
Groundhog Day: Like Father Like Son releases on September 17 for PlayStation VR and Windows VR platforms. A PSVR digital copy was provided to Screen Rant for purposes of review.