While most gamers likely recall 1998 as the year LucasArts’ Aztec-Noir opus Grim Fandango hit store shelves, that same year Russian adventure fans were eagerly anticipating the release of their own point-and-click comedy. Developed by S.K.I.F. and published by Buka Entertainment, Red Comrades Save the Galaxy was little-known globally but enormously popular in Russia, eventually spawning eight(!) sequels. Fast-forward nearly two decades, and digital distribution has made it possible for Buka to finally bring the game to worldwide audiences as Red Comrades Save the Galaxy: Reloaded. A unique art style, sometimes-edgy sexual references, great music, and quirky characters are bolstered by an atmospheric script voiced entirely in Russian, but the game’s reliance on Russo-centric humor, its bizarre and nonsensical plot, and a lack of challenging puzzles keep this unheralded title from truly shining.
The game follows the fictionalized adventures of real-life Red Army commander Vasily Ivanovich Chapaev and his sidekick Petka (or Pete) during the Russian Civil War. Despite the historically significant-sounding backdrop, however, Red Comrades is firmly established as an absurd comedy. The opening cinematic describes how Earth’s moon is actually a disabled alien spaceship, and that an errant shot by the Russian Navy cruiser Aurora during the October 1917 attack on the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg (a famous event that signalled the start of the war) hit the ship and caused the aliens hibernating aboard to wake up and begin an invasion of Earth.
This melodramatically-presented setup (complete with a brief Star Wars-style opening crawl sequence) belies the rather mundane impetus for the game’s actual plot, which is to find the missing banner of the Red Army headquarters in the appropriately-named village of Backwoods, where the adventure begins. Assuming the thieves belong to the anti-Communist White Army, whose headquarters is right across the Ural River from Backwoods, Vasily and Pete attempt to recover it, enlisting a blonde bombshell and sexy secret agent named Anka to help them in their quest.
The series of events that follow are some of the most outlandish I’ve ever seen in a video game, even for a comedy. In fact, there’s not so much of a plot here as there is a disjointed string of locations patched together by one off-the-wall event after another. Some typical activities include: stealing an item from a White Army commander while he is indisposed with S&M gear; providing a stoner with an item for his (literal) head collection; and accidentally unleashing a demonic force upon an Orthodox church, all in pursuit of a stolen red flag.
Even with this endless string of nonsensical pageantry, Red Comrades isn’t exactly a barrel of laughs. Much of the issue stems from how heavily it relies on understanding Russo-Soviet culture and history to “get” the jokes. For instance, a running gag throughout the first part of the game, in which you are trying to find a way across the Ural, is that Pete hopes no one drowns in the river, followed by angry chidings from Vasily Ivanovich. These jokes seemed strangely out of place until I happened to discover that the real-life Chapaev drowned in the Ural River while escaping the White Army in 1919. Up until that point, I had no idea that the protagonist was a caricature of a real person, much less had an understanding of jokes about his death. Fortunately, some references are easier to grasp for those with even a general understanding of Russian history, such as jokes regarding the Young Pioneers, a Communist youth movement.
At other times, jokes fall flat because they rely on wordplay in the Russian language. For instance, a character will say a word, then correct themselves with another word that sounds similar in the native voice-over but isn’t similar in the English subtitles. Such jokes are difficult to summarize here, because they require context to even realize they are supposed to be funny, but for those like myself with no real understanding of Russian, the result is an awkward feeling that baffles rather than entertains. Some humor is more successful, such as the absurd situations and the many adult references (including some nudity and mild sexual situations), like when Vasily and Pete discuss using a blow-up sex doll to cross the Ural, but there’s very little that I would actually call funny. The game rarely elicited more than a light chuckle from me, even at its best.
Aside from this, there are certain elements that might seem tin-eared from a racial perspective to a global, 21st century audience. For instance, at one point you have to infiltrate a high-end brothel frequented by White Army personnel by tricking your way past a stereotypical Chinese manager, who speaks with an exaggerated accent and enjoys heroin. There is also a butler in this area who is dark-skinned and referred to as “Mr. Black.” Thankfully, there isn’t anything overtly offensive in his portrayal or in the way other characters interact with him.
Puzzles are entirely of the inventory variety, and include such objectives as figuring out what combustible item you can use to make a fire, unblocking the door to a tomb, and getting bees from a drunken beekeeper in exchange for tobacco, which you procure from a suspicious “sailor” near the river. None of the puzzles are all that difficult, but often you simply aren’t given information on what should be done next, leading to some frustration until you either figure it out or use the built-in hint system for a nudge forward. The one obstacle that involves lever manipulation, in which you use an electric current to open a safe, is apparently not a logic puzzle, as no matter what order I pulled the levers, the puzzle would solve once all levers had been pulled. This isn’t necessarily an easy game, but most of the challenge comes from a lack of proper signposting, rather than any decent intellectual challenges.
From a graphics standpoint, Red Comrades is a nice treat, especially early in the game, as the mixture of hand-drawn backgrounds and bright coloring adds visual flair to many scenes. The game is separated into a three-part story structure, with each segment containing unique environments. Locations within each main area are varied, including places such as a Communist meeting hall, Backwoods’ town store, various rooms in the brothel, and a bank and post office. Later in the game you are able to explore an alien spaceship, with diverse rooms and even a cantina-like bar. The interesting art style frequently gives a sort of distorted or “swirled” appearance. The effect is most noticeable when looking at buildings, as they seem to be leaning impossibly far to the left or right, lending a rickety, deflated look to them.Continued on the next page...