29th Mar2019

‘The Red Strings Club’ Review (Nintendo Switch)

by Rupert Harvey

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It’s the future, and the Red Strings Club is an underground drinking dive run by Donovon, resident bartender, information broker and our nominal hero. Through the various visitors, he learns about the corporate shenanigans of Supercontinent, a global megacorporation which is apparently intending to control humankind through the use of cybernetic implants. In order to extract information from the punters, and to propel the plot, Donovon must mix and serve drinks. This main sub-game involves mixing the right elements in order to appeal to different aspects of the customer’s personality. For example, you may choose to strike at someone’s overriding fear; or you may target some small sprig of pride, stroking their ego.

The actual mechanics of the mixing game are fairly simple. Each drink has an arrow assigned to its label. Add a little bourbon and the target reticule moves upwards, while a dash of tequila might push it to the left. Shake it up, give it a twist, aim it over the specified emotion, add some ice, and then serve. The customer is then more or less willing to open up to Donovon’s searching questions.

Aesthetically, The Red Strings Club gets virtually everything right. The pixel art is gorgeous, reminiscent of the more grounded, hard-edged style of Lucasarts’ early-‘90s output, or the first Broken Sword games. The cyberpunk art design – lowlifes in a world of high tech – is clichéd but entirely fitting with the paranoid, oppressive mood. The music complements the visuals perfectly: a drunken blend of brooding synth, chillwave beats and dirty guitar.

Gameplay-wise, however, it’s as mixed as Donovon’s creations. The cocktail game is fine, even if micro-managing liquids can prove frustrating, especially with the twitchy joy-cons. Another game involves creating neural implants via a kind of pottery wheel; it’s fun for a while, but outstays its welcome. Both are more enjoyable than the final sequence: a mind-numbing process of tapping in a series of phone numbers in a very specific order. My favourite sequence involves talking someone down so they won’t shoot you, by judging their mood and shuffling ever closer.

Developer Deconstructeam is comprised of three clearly conscientious, thoughtful people, and the game’s narrative concerns with gender issues and body consciousness is evident throughout. The Red Strings Club is only ostensibly about taking down a megacorporation. Its firmer focus is on the characters; their responses to Supercontinent and their thoughts and feelings about the concept of augmentation with a view to idealising oneself. As one character puts it, it’s a “Maslow thing” – a suggestion that Maslow’s laddered hierarchy could be a process of eliminating all self-doubt and sadness (and by extension human complexity) en route to self-actualisation.

After speaking with a customer, your resident robot companion Akara will ask you a series of questions relating to the customer. This is quite different to Yooka-Laylee’s very specific end-of-level test. It’s more like L.A. Noire, insofar as her questions can be frustratingly vague and subjective. Like Rockstar’s groundbreaking game, it feels that the player isn’t so much applying the logic of fully-fleshed characters, but rather second guessing the logic of the programmers.

Much of the interaction is merely clicking through dialogue; and much of that dialogue is well-written, even if there are some inconsistencies. On some occasions I found Donovan would show his ignorance of a subject openly discussed in an earlier conversation. For example, I had already discussed a particular character’s age, but later on Donovan is ashamed of his ignorance on the matter. It sounds like a small thing, but details like this are immersion-breaking.

There are various key decisions to make throughout. Which of this dead synthetic’s characteristics should I inherit? Which implant should I stick in these individuals to make them more malleable later on? Who should I arrange to be tortured? Without context, these decisions seem kind of arbitrary first time around, and are less the product of narrative logic as they are mechanical reasons to replay the game.

And it’s distinctly possible you will want to play the game a second time, once you’re used to its idiosyncrasies and frustration points. Because the story is genuinely engaging, and some of the characters are truly complex and empathetic. Those demanding immediate, arresting gameplay may be disappointed. But those after a thoughtful, sombre, character-driven adventure will likely be enthralled for its four atmospheric hours.

The Red Strings Club is out now on Nintendo Switch.

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