Adventure Gamers Awards
Playing Red Johnson’s Chronicles is kind of like being in an IKEA or a hip, swanky restaurant. It feels entirely chic and cool at first, but the end result comes off as cold and lacking substance. This PlayStation 3 exclusive consists mainly of detective investigation and puzzling with a distinct noir feel, which is okay to an extent—it’s all the game wants to be. But after spending the easy 6-8 hours it takes to finish it, you may just wish the game had a little more soul; with its thin story and clichéd characters, the engaging gameplay doesn’t shine nearly as brightly in such a sterile environment.
Imagine you’re in New York City, but one that’s even dirtier and with more earth tones (think Gotham City or a modern-day Blade Runner). Picture yourself as a ginger-haired, laid-back guy (Red) that became a P.I. “with sheer willpower alone.” Add a lazy, fat, clueless cop (Officer Robert) that needs your help with a potential homicide. And since every detective needs a companion, envision yourself choosing to hang around a stereotypically obnoxious, enthusiastic streetwise youth (Saul), who “practically knows everything,” and makes his living walking around giving advice to cops and detectives. Finally… imagine how it all comes together in a compelling mystery adventure, because it really never does in Red Johnson’s Chronicles.
As you begin to investigate, you’ll discover the murder leads to a connection with a local “Jewelry Gang” and some prison escapees. If you’re a fan of good crime stories or ‘60s noir, don’t expect anything new here. No crazy twists or revelations are made, as the plot predictably plays out according to script. You’ll meet a few other characters in your travels, like a homeless attention-seeker and a hardened wife of a killer, but they offer little depth in their personalities. The same goes for Red, as you won’t learn anything about the protagonist in this adventure, and aside from some small, vague bios, nor will you learn much about the other characters. Saul exists solely to help you out of jams, so don’t expect any “buddy cop” chemistry here. In fact, don’t expect much chemistry at all.
Whether or not you’re immersed in the story—you likely won’t be—the game does, thankfully, have some enjoyable puzzles, as well as a healthy mix of gameplay to keep you mostly entertained. Whether it’s collecting and comparing evidence, questioning suspects, or getting into a quick brawl, the game keeps things fresh and lively for the most part. And its presentation is just as polished, as Red Johnson’s Chronicles is slick and extremely satisfying as you work out the clues, take in the fitting funk/jazz music, and make your way through the lovingly designed graphics using the game’s carefully honed controls.
When you first jump in, you’ll see that aside from a few arcade underpinnings (point-scoring and some brief, no-pressure action sequences), this game is, at heart, a standard point-and-click adventure game, and a sharp looking one at that. Even the silhouetted cityscape loading screen offers a stylish introduction. You move from screen to screen seeing through Red’s eyes, only the camera swoops in 3D as you move to your next area. There’s a gritty feel to the sepia-toned environments, yet they have a clean and vibrant look; though awash in browns and reds, each area is bright and vividly colored. The animation is smooth, and there’s just enough subtle ambient movement to keep them from feeling inactive: sun gleams through gnarled blinds, a sign sways in the light wind, and a streetlight flickers on a desolate, dirty street. The characters are also nicely animated, oozing body language even in your absence.
This all works well on the PS3, and the game controls just as beautifully. To make up for the lack of mouse precision, the cursor is a nice, large circle. As you move it around with the left stick, it’s incredibly easy to notice a prompt to pick something up, investigate, or talk to someone. There’s no annoying, super-precise pixel-hunts, aside from one experience where a clue rests a little too close to an exit. When you click on an item to examine it, often a puzzle is triggered. This gives you a 3D model to manipulate, and here you can magnify the image and look from different angles as you tinker with buttons and levers. The response is precise to the point that whenever I made an error putting something in the wrong place, I knew it was my fault—not the game’s.
Puzzles vary from being solvable within seconds to being mind-numbingly challenging. Some are as basic as removing a bullet from a gun for evidence, which involves only a minor amount moving the gun around and clicking here or there. Many of these simpler puzzles can almost be solved by mistake. But the game will also surprise you with very difficult and time-consuming puzzles as well. One has you sorting through classical records, listening to samples and using clues to find a way to open a mysterious box with a keyboard attached. Seems straightforward, but the solution is far trickier than you’d think. Others include an extremely difficult slider and combination-based puzzles, many of them involving dozens and dozens of moves to find just the right answer. While the puzzles are nicely integrated into the story, these types of tedious challenges can really kill the pacing of an otherwise lightweight, breezy adventure.
Every item you collect goes into your inventory, which is accessed by selecting your headquarters location from the menu (you can also fast-travel to any other locations you’ve visited this way). Here is where you’ll do all your analyzing. You can combine items (such as a photo with, say, an article of clothing), or analyze a single item to learn more, such as using a black light to find a fingerprint. Your headquarters is also a great place to return to if you’re stumped: it holds files on all the characters you meet, so you can find phone numbers and addresses as you like.
You’ll also spend some time talking to suspects. The lip-syncing is way off and the dialog isn’t good (it’d be better if the writers acknowledged they were writing stereotypes by going the tongue-in-cheek route), but at least conversations are quick and to the point. Poor accents make some of the voice acting merely tolerable, but the main character Red has a rugged, humble-yet-assertive voice that is perfect for his character. At times you’ll have a choice of interrogation lines, choosing between three options to move forward. The answers are obvious if you have been paying strict attention—these are really just comprehension tests. If you get one wrong, you start over with an opportunity to listen to all the information again, working back to where you were. A good chunk of the game is spent listening to people talk and answering questions about what you just heard. I’m sure this is interesting for the more inattentive gamer, but for those actually paying attention it feels a little repetitive and dull.
To further mix things up, the game also has Quick-Time Events (QTEs) that typically involve Red getting into a fight. Displayed in black-and-white to alert you that one's coming, these are quick and easy one-button exercises—the action on-screen is slowed just enough to let you get your single movements in. If you lose, you’ll jump right back into the fray from the beginning of the encounter. There’s no death in this game, only scoring based on your timing and number of tries to complete each event.
There’s also a never-ending hint system. The hint supplier is your companion Saul (who only appears when you select a hint from the menu screen). You have to pay him to get tips, but you’re rewarded with cash and a letter grade by how well you do on puzzles, interrogations and QTEs, and you’ll earn so much money that it’ll never be an issue. Unfortunately, the hint system is a sham: it’s often entirely unhelpful up until the third hint, and even then ‘helpful’ is a stretch. Unlike games like the Professor Layton series, here the hints don’t always do anything more than state the obvious. If you’re stuck on a complex slider puzzle, even the third hint may not tell you more than to move the pieces around a bit.
One question that constantly loomed as I played: what was all this scoring for? Points are certainly a huge part of the game. Whether it’s a 10-second QTE or a long questioning of a suspect, the game goes into arcade-style tallying and grading after each sequence. Constantly. I had hoped it would make a difference to the story’s ending or give me leads I wouldn’t otherwise have encountered, but it turned out to be points for the sake of points. The game’s ending—without giving anything away—is the biggest drag. You may be lightly surprised by what you uncover, but after doing so you’re forced into an overly long multiple-choice test. Right when the game should be reaching its full momentum, you’re in for about 20-30 minutes of fact-checking.
It’s clear that French developer Lexis Numérique was aiming to capitalize on the popularity of unique console games like Heavy Rain, and this game does add some welcome variety to the traditional adventure game experience. However, gameplay diversity aside, the weak writing and non-existent character development in such a story-based game are disappointing. The developers went big on the look of the game and the mechanics, but there just isn’t anything compelling about the world it’s all set in. A little backstory and depth would’ve made this a case far more worth exploring.
As it stands, Red Johnson’s Chronicles feels more like a showcase of style over substance: a demonstration that more adventure games can be made on the PS3 with QTEs and popular CSI-style investigations. But it feels like a shell of existing formulas, not something unique on its own. What we’re left with is a typical, clichéd noir-style crime saga with a good mix of gameplay. By the game’s ending, you’ll have unraveled a few mysteries and enjoyed some solid puzzles, and that may just be enough. Just don’t expect to uncover much personality or depth beneath the glossy surface polish.