Note: Though the article content is the same, the review of Red Comrades 2: For the Great Justice 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.Continued on the next page...