Have you ever seen Ghostbusters 2? You have? Great! You haven’t? Well, basically, they’re just done beating up Marshmallow Man and then there’s all this pink ooze just bubbling under the surface of New York City – and it’s really bad – and everyone is getting all pissed off all the time and it makes them want to kill each other. Hold that thought.
There are many mysteries to be unravelled while shuffling through the backwater alleyways of Red Johnson’s Chronicles: One Against All. There’s a bounty on Red’s head, his brother has gone missing and there are lots and lots of things with four-digit-codes that need to be opened. By the time you complete a third e-fit of a criminal suspect – described to you in painful detail – or at the point that you find yourself having to answer true-or-false questions about Red’s physical appearance, Red Johnson’s greater enigma exposes itself. The drama of the whodunit scenarios tapers under the weight of an acute dross, as redundant as Metropolis’ meandering townships.
Few games in recent memory have been able to draw my ire with such effortless abandon. While Red Johnson is certainly not as bad as, oh I don’t know – murder, this is a game trembling with a cellular level of tedium throughout.
There’s a promising brand of vice-noir to the opening exchanges. Soft-lit black and white cut-scenes and classic private-eye ramblings preamble Red’s portrayal as a morally-ambiguous anti-hero, a fact illustrated by Red shooting a man in the face – in his own office. There’s a dusty bleakness to Metropolis’ winding streets, too. While environments are exclusively static, there’s a washed-out graininess to every street sign and doorway you happen upon – bringing a life to what feels like a dying landscape.
The dusky world walked by the titular front-man acts as a rather apt canvas for the gameplay experience found within. At its best, Red Johnson wraps a kind of muted apathy around its shoulders. There’s a perplexing blend of things to do, some of which are particularly draining, the rest in no way exciting or inspiring. After Red receives his brother’s severed finger in the post, he naturally sets about defragging recent events, largely by questioning people and following up with handbags – of one kind or another.
The sporadic action-beats play out as QTEs. They’re an odd inclusion – presumably designed as a change to Red Johnson’s measured point-and-click pace. Instead, they feel like an awkward distraction, shoehorned into a game not made to accommodate such extravagances.
Most of Red Johnson takes the opposite approach, however. The core experience is built around finding solutions to puzzles, smushed amongst the jumbled scenery of various ramshackle houses. And it’s these puzzles that provide what little respite there is to be found. Nearly all of them are tiered in such a way that, in order to complete the bigger conundrum, you’ll have to decipher several other smaller ones first. You’re equipped with a magnifying glass – although it barely gets used, and a UV light – unveiling an ungodly assortment of invisible stains. To their credit, most of Red Johnson’s riddles involve minute details, often hidden in plain sight, that are suitably rewarding when tied together to solve each problem.
I’ve extended my olive-branch as far is it can reach, though. Even the adequately taxing teasers are a means to finding a code – usually four digits – that’ll open something. It might be a door (no-one uses keys in Metropolis), it might be a safe, it might even be a bomb or a radio signal that you need to figure out. There’s even a puzzle that requires you to learn braille numbers – which is a challenging and enjoyable task – but one concluded by punching in a sequence of four numbers. This might not seem like such a terrible thing, but after seven or eight hours of similar outcomes, you tolerance for the little things will likely be shredded.
The rest of the posers are truly terrible. Varying from fumbling together pictures of suspects based on explicit NPC description, to having memory-based conversations with people that require multiple-choice answers, via describing things that are on your screen at the time. Red Johnson’s unique brand of irritant purifies at the point you are expected to answer questions about your leading man, as he stands on screen. These include choosing the colour of his hat and explaining whether his waist-length jacket is ‘short’ or ‘long’ – see also, whether his sideburns are ‘awesome’. It’s not surprising that I chose ‘false’ in answer to this question, and by now it’s probably not surprising to you that this meant I had to re-load and complete the entire set of questions again.
There’s also a jigsaw. At what point in development do you suggest to your colleagues that the requisite needle to sew together your game is more jigsaws? I suppose that’s just another one of Red Johnson’s tricky little stumpers. Another question that I imagine doesn’t get asked too often in development is ‘Do you think we should include a retro-style horseracing arcade mini-game?’ I also imagine that the question is rarely asked because anyone with more than sub-comatose cognitive function would tell you ‘no – your game does not need this’. It’s in there, and it isn’t good – it’s also not a side quest – you have to do it.
All this makes for an itchy sensation that Lexis Numerique have cultivated, as if they’ve gone out of their way to inject a kind of pedantic awkwardness into their latest enterprise, typified by the weary nature of almost every button press.
There’s a certain pace to be expected from a game centred around problem-solving mystique, but Red Johnson takes this to an extreme. Each badly voice-acted cut-scene is saved only by the ability to skip the excess of text page-by-page, but it still feels cumbersome. Having to repeat tiresome sections in their entirety, occasional broken stages and lumbering menu navigation detract further. Even moving your reticule across each room feels like walking a poodle through mud. At one point, Red points out that he’s “ready to get it over with,” and even lambasts other characters for wasting his time, which is appropriate.
It’s rare to encounter a game so lacking. There’s challenging puzzles and a moody, brooding backdrop in which they play out, but Red Johnson is defined by flawed fundamentals and exasperating design. From the slow moving start, to its drawn-out end, Red Johnson promises to be the most uninspiring jaunt you’re ever likely to go on. Red Johnson’s greatest mystery of all is how it was ever picked back up from the cutting room floor.
Audio/Visual – 1/5: Interesting but basic backgrounds. Terrible voice-acting and cut-scenes.
Gameplay – 2/5: Repetitive ad nauseam but some enjoyable puzzles.
Innovation – 1/5: Point and click at its worst – spectacularly bad design decisions throughout.
Value – 1/5: Eight to ten hours of abject misery.
Final Score: 1/5