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Note: Though the article content is the same, the review of Red Comrades 3: Return of Alaska has been published separately with its own individual rating.
There’s always an element of uncertainty when it comes to video game sequels. It’s true that they present an opportunity to correct past missteps and further hone features that worked well the first time around, but there is always the risk that more will go wrong than right in the final product. The first entry in the Russian Red Comrades franchise provided some enjoyment but was ultimately disappointing, possessing a variety of positive elements held back by a litany of major, but correctable, issues. It was nothing if not ripe for improvement in a sequel or two.
I held out such hopes with regard to Red Comrades 2: For the Great Justice and Red Comrades 3: Return of Alaska. Unfortunately, neither is particularly successful beyond evoking thoughts of the first game—and possibly how you wish you were playing it instead. The problems are most evident in Red Comrades 2, a short, confusing game that seems to be more about cashing in on its predecessor’s success than anything else. Red Comrades 3, despite being a great deal larger than the middle installment and having some entertaining moments, teeters on the verge of being a frustrating, overlong mess. Ultimately, the two games both fail to recapture what made the series debut fun, even if the humor is slightly better due to translation improvements.
Red Comrades 2 takes place at an indeterminate time after the events of the first game. Red Army commander Vasily Chapaev is shot while trying to cross the Ural River (allusions to which were a running gag in the first game, due to Vasily’s real-life counterpart dying in precisely that manner), but is rescued by aliens and taken to their spaceship. Once there, they implant a chip in Chapaev’s brain before he escapes and makes it back to earth. Having become a death-dealing Terminator-style cyborg due to the implant, and haunted by visions of the aliens’ underground base, he and his aide-de-camp, Petka, go off in search of a way to remove the chip and return him to normal.
The story, such as it is, never really gets any more lucid than this, and at times it is tough to figure out how some particular plot point is even related to the current goal (a scheme in which our heroes suddenly plan to sell real estate on the moon comes to mind, though in hindsight I suppose the plan was to raise money). Although there are a number of locations to explore, the experience feels cramped due to its brief length. While gameplay starts in Backwoods, the village from the first game, Chapaev and Petka eventually find themselves in New York City’s Brighton Beach, due to a shift in the space-time continuum caused by a task performed while inside the alien base.
Trying to fix this consequence of their own bumbling comprises much of the second act, in which they meet Americanized versions of familiar faces from Backwoods village, such as Anka the blonde bombshell revolutionary, who has become a secretary, and Dmitry Furmanov, Chapaev’s superior officer, who has become a businessman and employs Anka. However, the game is so short that none of these characters are utilized to any great extent. Another issue that applies to both installments is that I never saw an explanation as to how these characters slipped so easily into American capitalist life. Did they change along with the time shifts, or are these characters not the same ones who actually inhabited Backwoods, but rather parallel versions of themselves? I might be inclined to say it doesn’t matter, given how nonsensical the games are, but in a series where the line between comical non-sequitur and randomly tossed-together content is regularly blurred to the point of being indistinguishable, a little clarity would have been appreciated.
Red Comrades 3, a direct follow-up to the second game, thankfully marks the return of a more identifiable plot structure (in that it seems to have one), but it too ends up being a wild, nonsensical journey that doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense. After the time-bending events of the second game, Chapaev and Petka become big rock stars in the 1970s (seriously), but occasionally find themselves shifting through time. Eventually, in the year 2001, they are rescued from a bar fight by Mox Fulder (an obvious send-up of The X-Files), who tells them that the temporal shifts are due to a continuing problem caused by their use of the time machine in the second game. The residents of Backwoods have shifted (again) to Alaska, and the protagonists now have to find a particular character in order to learn how to put things right, or risk a world-ending cataclysm.
The story in Return of Alaska doesn’t turn out to be especially lucid, but at least it is more easily followed than the nonsense in For the Great Justice. Its biggest sin plot-wise is that it feels like it is trying too hard to be outlandish. While starting in “Last Vegas,” a city apparently on the Texas border (don’t ask why; I have no idea), our lunkheaded heroes(?) travel to jungle and desert locales, as well as a military base and an Alaskan village. Unlike Red Comrades 2, there is a much larger range of locations to explore, and more characters with whom to interact. Yet it all feels forced, as though the developers tossed in all these places just for the sake of doing so, and then justifying it by shoehorning in a plot point that requires a visit there. That said, I appreciated the variety, especially those in Last Vegas with such destinations as a casino, a brothel, and a mad scientist’s lair, to name a few memorable examples.
Both sequels make use of pop-culture references, such as Beavis and Butt-Head, Pulp Fiction, and Star Wars. While these are occasionally funny, they mostly feel tacked-on for the sake of being there, save one particularly clever reference in Red Comrades 2 to “Billy” Gates, a young lad who makes windows (get it?). Such spoofs don’t really make up for the story’s significant shortcomings, but they are a small glimmer of fun in an otherwise confusing tale.
Humor-wise, both sequels generally fare better than the first game. Jokes that rely on wordplay are adjusted in the translations so that you can understand the overall idea much more clearly than before. For instance, if one word is supposed to rhyme with another, it generally will do so in both the English subtitles and Russian voiceovers. In the third installment, moments of repartee between Chapaev and Petka are usually worth at least a chuckle, and a few times had me laughing out loud.
Not everything works, however. In similar fashion to an incident in the first game, Red Comrades 3 contains a baffling yet even more insensitive joke regarding a Rastafarian bartender, in which he is referred to by the protagonists as a “trained monkey” and an “aboriginal.” In the game’s defense, I was left wondering if the blatant insensitivity of the comment was itself the joke, but regardless, it left me wide-eyed. Perhaps these sorts of jokes played better in Russia at the time of the games’ original release, but they certainly haven’t aged or translated well to a 21st century international audience. Other potentially sensitive issues include some nudity, jokes of a sexual nature, as well as occasional cursing.
There are various objectives in both games, including repairing a crane, retrieving an item for a voodoo priestess (this particular sequence was reminiscent of scenes in the Monkey Island games, and easily a highlight of Red Comrades 2), uncovering incriminating evidence against a morally-questionable sergeant, and clearing a junkyard so that you can build a certain structure. Some of these tasks are clever, and fit well with the zany events in each game, but other times it isn’t entirely clear what it is that you’re supposed to be doing. It’s a mixed bag, but at least individual activities are comprehensible, even if they don’t all hang together that well.
Puzzles are very similar in both games, being primarily inventory-based. A few obstacles incorporate logic-type solutions, such as in For the Great Justice, where at one point you must figure out which of a collection of items to attach to a set of poles in order to solve the puzzle. In Return of Alaska, a minefield maze is entirely solved through logic and memorization of previously-taken routes.
Especially in Red Comrades 3, the puzzles are a blend of both ingenuity and frustration. Often there is no overt indication of your goal, instead relying on you to grasp the logic of the situation in order to come up with the solution yourself. Unfortunately, this only works if the solutions aren’t absurd, which doesn’t describe this series by a long shot. One is when [small spoiler alert you’ll thank me for] you need to combine gunpowder with a cigarette to make what is described as “pot,” an initially-perplexing result that only makes sense even in context with the benefit of hindsight. Such examples absolutely litter Red Comrades 3, turning what could have been a fun game into an exercise in tedious, mind-bending aggravation.
Making matters worse, some tasks can only be performed by Chapaev or Petka rather than either one, so you must be in control of the correct character in order to solve the puzzle successfully. This would be an intriguing twist if it was consistently indicated upon using the wrong character, but it isn’t. While occasionally the current protagonist will helpfully notify you that a mistake has been made, other times they will simply cycle through the generic “you can’t do that” dialogs, leaving you to figure out that you need to swap characters to complete the puzzle, rather than, say, using a different item. Such issues render even the fallback try-everything-on-everything approach ineffective at times, needlessly heightening the frustration even more.
All the negativity aside, some puzzles are fairly cunning, and if you happen to wrap your head around the wacky logic of a task, it can be satisfying. But the overwhelming effect of the pitfalls is that of making the experience a slog where you’re fighting it at every turn. The good news is that there is a hint system in both games, and a pretty useful one at that. Accessible from the inventory screen, it clues you into the next step needed, and I found myself leaning on this feature more often than I’d have liked. While the hints in Red Comrades 3 are extremely helpful, they are also generally very obvious, making it a nuclear option in just about every case. There’s really no such thing as a nudge here, which is a shame, but given how frustrating I found the puzzles overall, I can’t complain too much about this.
Graphically, each adventure has its own style. Red Comrades 2 shares much the same artistic DNA as the previous game: hand-painted 2D graphics featuring bold lines and a bit rough around the edges. However, Red Comrades 3 introduces a style reminiscent of cel-shaded animation, though a bit less crisp than something like The Curse of Monkey island. While neither game is a visual slouch, the new style and character animations in the third installment are more to my preference, making it feel more like a big (or at least bigger) budget title than either of its predecessors. Some angles used in RC3’s cutscenes lend a strange, distorted look to the characters, however, which I didn’t care for. But this is such a sparingly-used effect that it doesn’t really affect my high opinion of the game’s animation overall. Ultimately, I really appreciate the artistic presentation of the Red Comrades games as a whole, and it’s one of the consistently pleasing aspects of the trilogy, occasional foibles notwithstanding.
The other reliably well-done aspect is the music. Just as in the first game, both sequels include a very diverse range of styles and tempos, from slow piano-based tracks to upbeat rock-and-roll; instrumental folk to synth-driven futuristic-sounding compositions. The two games also feature musical hits from real-world performers, including “Thunderstruck” by AC/DC and “Pretty Woman” by Roy Orbison, both of which are played for laughs at particular moments. The only minor criticism I can really level at either title is that Red Comrades 2 includes some music from the first game, rather than being an all-original soundtrack.
The audio also involves things such as gunshots, casino noises, and cartoonish sounds used for comedic effect, generally helping rather than hurting immersion in the game world. Voice-overs are nicely done too, though none are particularly outstanding. With the possible exception of Anka, all the actors in both sequels seem to be identical to those in the original game, which is a plus for continuity. Like in the series debut, however, there are a few moments when the quality changes so dramatically that it sounds like different actors have been used to dub lines. Though it only happens a few times, it’s a jarring and unpleasant effect.
Both RC2 and RC3 are mouse-driven (with an option for gamepad, though this wasn’t tested) and offer a standard point-and-click interface. For the Great Justice gives players the option of using “classic” controls or a version called “casual,” which changes the way you interact with the game somewhat. Classic uses a right-click interaction wheel, in which you can choose from a variety of interactions, including “talk,” “use,” and “look” on any hotspot, even if it doesn’t have an effect. Casual mode, on the other hand, does away with the interaction wheel in favor of a contextual interaction system, in which clicking on a hotspot brings up medallions showing the appropriate options. Another character might bring up “talk” and “look,” for instance, while a painting might allow you to “look” or “use” it. Areas of the screen that can be interacted with are outlined in orange in casual mode, while the cursor changes to indicate interactivity in classic mode. Red Comrades 3 has only one mode, which is similar to the casual mode but without the outline around hotspots. However, an option in the settings menu places a question mark in the upper-left of the screen that enables you to see all available hotspots.
Navigation is easy, and usually if you don’t wish to wait for Chapaev and Petka to stroll from one edge of the scene to the other, you can double-click an exit to leave immediately. You can also go from one area to another using the map function in the inventory menu, which shows where you have been and greys out the areas you have yet to visit. In RC3, switching characters is as easy as clicking the appropriate portrait in the upper right-hand corner of the screen. Dialogs are also easy to deal with, and often you will find a variety of comical replies to choose from. I recommend going down the list from the top when there are multiple choices, since frequently the bottom answer moves the conversation forward. Overall, the controls are slick and I had no issues with them at all.
There are a few minor technical notes to be aware of in Red Comrades 3. The first is that the game language, including the main menu, defaults to Russian. I thought at first that perhaps the game had not been translated into English, but a quick Internet search indicated the steps I needed to take. The second issue is that of a slider in the menu called “nudity level.” To be honest, I saw no difference when using this slider, but as the nudity that is present is cartoony and fairly mild, I’m not sure what, if any, impact it might have. A few lines of dialog are left untranslated in Red Comrades 2; this will most likely not affect your understanding of the plot (though it certainly doesn’t help), but it only happens a few times.
In terms of length, Red Comrades 2 is fairly short, coming in around 4-5 hours, while Red Comrades 3 clocks in at 10-11 hours. Unfortunately, neither game really uses its time well. RC2 feels incredibly short and ends abruptly, while RC3 wears out its welcome. In the latter game’s case, much of this is due to the frustrating gameplay, but it also stems from having so many locations, several of which (Iraq in particular) feel arbitrarily added.
All in all, neither Red Comrades 2 nor Red Comrades 3 is a particularly satisfying game. I hesitate to call them complete failures, since there is some entertainment value to be found here, especially in RC3 (if only because it has more than enough time to get things right), but it will be hard to fully embrace either even for those who loved Red Comrades Save the Galaxy. While the graphics and music are highlights, the second game suffers from a rushed, confusing non-plot, while the third is plagued by illogical puzzles, frustrating character-swapping, and a narrative that’s far too broad for its own good.
While there are definitely some glimmers of what might have been, and both For the Great Justice and Return of Alaska manage to retain the unique Russian flavor that endeared the franchise to me in the first place, it’s hard to recommend either sequel to anyone except perhaps the most die-hard fans of the original. Even then, I would caution against the hope that either game improves at all on their predecessor, or even replicates what made it fun. They don’t, and for most gamers, even the budget price won’t be worth it.