In some ways, it was to Red Johnson's Chronicles' benefit that the PSN debacle happened. Originally intended for release way back in April and just now hitting Sony's shaky airwaves, the noir-adventure game is riding a peripheral wave of affection from LA Noire's considerable buzz. Unlike Noire, though, Red Johnson largely only has style going for it, and not substance as well - aside from some occasionally good ideas that are bungled in execution. Like Team Bondi and Rockstar's latest masterpiece, though, Red Johnson succeeds in reimagining the adventure game from a new perspective. It's just that the perspective is too uneven, veering wildly from LucasArts meets Highlights Magazine in its puzzles' logic and then manufacturing a sense of difficulty by strong-arming you into pixel-hunting.
It starts, like so many detective stories, with a body and a freight elevator's worth of suspects. When the most hated guy in town is released from jail and subsequently aced, the stumped cops call upon Red Johnson, a knitted-cap-wearing private dick, to sort it all out. And from the outset, it seems like a promising premise for the game and story alike. There's an almost Venture Bros.-like soundtrack bursting with thunderous pianos, clattering wah-wah guitars, and smoldering horns. The setting, an almost USSR-like reimagining of the United States with gorgeously rendered backdrops brimming with life, is fresh and original.
But then, starting with the first puzzle, familiarity starts to sink in, and it isn't pretty. For example, when thumbing around the crime scene, you can't go anywhere or interact with anything until you track down the security camera that caught the deed on tape. It, of course, is hidden in the shadows - and even cranking up the gamma correction won't reveal it. This is a sign of things to come, as you'll often be groping around like a horny teenager in a rented limo on prom night for nearly microscopic clues as the case unfolds. Bullet casings, ripped sections of fabric, and even bigger items like suitcases conspire against you to stay shrouded in darkness. It makes the flow of investigation downright clunky, since your MO is to scoop up every item not nailed down - this is an adventure game after all - and then bring it back to your HQ to analyze. Literally: there's a machine you use to dump your inventory into to have it be automatically analyzed. Since it's a machine, you're treated to a cutesy loading screen on it, which is presumably meant as a joke but winds up being awful annoying since it's just for show and you have to come to it a lot.
The more sophisticated puzzles are equally unnerving, and fortunately there's a healthy stable of logic puzzles that both make sense and can be solved using brains instead of unending patience to find pixels. Bear in mind, though, these "logic" puzzles are all rather strange, like repairing a homeless man's toilet and stealing a prostitute's clock when she isn't watching. There's enough variety here to keep things spicy, but over time the flavor wears thin. You also have a snitch, Saul, who for a price will drop you a couple of hints. He's the least useful on the extremely complicated puzzles, but it's decent backup. Besides, if you're really stuck, isn't that what Google is for?
There's also an attempt to inject some combat into Red Johnson via some short, thirty-second QTEs that usually occur whenever you sneak into a new location. Miss a single move - which are sometimes randomly generated - and you'll be treated to a gory sequence in which Red Johnson becomes Dead Johnson. These are trifles at best, but true to the impressive sense of presentation evident elsewhere, they're entirely in black and white: goof up and the screen gets smeared in red. Even then, you just get to try again - there are no repercussions for your actions.
Unfortunately, as a crime-adventure game, Red Johnson is absolutely the weakest when interrogating suspects. Not only is the voice acting flat and lifeless, but the whole process is flat-out lame. Red poses true-or-false tests to himself about each suspect ("There were at least ten murderers. There was more than one murder weapon. One of the killers had a flamethrower"). As in the action sequences, if you goof up, you just get to try again immediately. As a result, vigilantly paying attention to what you think are all the relevant details gives way to just wildly guessing at every opportunity, knowing there are no consequences one way or another. And if you think that's thrilling, consider this: The big finale is Red going back to his office and filling out some paperwork on a multiple-choice indictment what's about 50 questions long. Hope you remember exactly what time the murder happened, everyone's alibi, and what each suspect had for lunch.
If Red Johnson wasn't served up with such stylized fanfare, it'd be easy to discount immediately. Although its puzzles are frustrating and lacking in variety, what's all the more frustrating is there are occasional bursts of brilliance here. Alas, they're mostly in the presentation. Given that there's going to be a sequel, hopefully the rest of the game can catch up in part two.
Jun 27, 2011