The Red Strings Club
Release Date: 14th March 2019
Size: 259.00MB (on Switch)
Genre: Narrative Adventure
Developed by Deconstructeam
Published by Devolver Digital
Reviewed on Switch; Also available on PC.
I want to be deliberately vague here as unraveling the narrative for yourself is key to your enjoyment, so I’ll try to avoid spoilers as much as possible.
The game takes place in a dystopian cyberpunk future. There are oppressive corporations (in this case; Supercontinent Ltd), cybernetic enhancements, synthetic beings, and neon lights. So far, so Bladerunner right? But, while the setting may not be hugely unique, that familiarity allows you to quickly buy into the world you’re placed in and easily engage with the characters you’re presented with. Speaking of which, there are 3 playable characters that you control throughout the story;
Donovan, who owns the titular Red Strings Club. He is also the bartender and an “information broker”. Then there is his business partner and love interest, Brandeis. This guy is a hacker and self-described freelance revolutionary. Finally, there is Akara-184, an advanced prototype android that is the thread that binds this whole thing together.
The game is split into three distinct play styles. You start as Akara, crafting bioengineered implants, each specifically designed to alter the user’s emotions. You are presented with a client, you read their file and work out what implant would best suit their needs. An example would be a guy worrying about an upcoming business meeting, so you find an implant that boosts confidence. Then we proceed to make it via the unusual means of pottery. Yep, you read that correctly, pottery.
Once you have selected the type of implant required, you sit at a potter’s wheel with a big lump of organic matter and then shape it to match the illustrated pattern. This involves spinning the wheel, selecting the right shaped tools and carving away until…voila!, an implant all ready to be stuffed inside your waiting patient is created. It may sound simple but if you pick the wrong implant they will keep coming back but now with a new problem that your mistake probably caused.
The second stage of the game is in the Red Strings Club itself. As Donovan, your job is to use your skills in “Psychological Bartending” to create mixtures of drinks which will prompt emotional responses from the many folks who come calling. This is to manipulate their mood, making them more compliant in giving you the data you are after. Want a scientist to tell you what’s really going on in the lab? Maybe give them a shot that enhances their guilt and they’ll tell you all their dark secrets while crying into their glass. Need a Marketing Director to give you confidential information on a new product? A bit of flirtation and a cocktail maximizing lust will pretty much guarantee you anything you want.
The mixing of drinks is all about getting two markers to line up. One is the wanted response; the other represents the drink you are concocting. Each spirit relates to a direction the marker will move and an ice-cube changes its size. So you need to get the right amount of the correct spirits to hit that sweet spot. While the controls can be a little fiddly at first, once you get it you’ll be a regular Brian Flanagan (there’s a reference for my fellow oldies).
The final part is when you’re in control of Brandeis. His is a puzzle of “Vocal Corporate Espionage” (making telephone calls). You have numbers to dial, the ability to change your voice to impersonate certain people and you need a whole load of specific information that the average joe just can’t get their hands on. This is a game of talking to the right person, impersonating the right person and asking the right questions.
It can at times feel a bit like Cluedo as you start to deduce, from all these conversations, the relationships and knowledge these people share with each other. It can be quite the trail of bread crumbs before you find a solution too;
“Right, I need a password? Firstly, whose computer is it? Better phone tech support. Right, now, how do I find out the guy’s password? Well, he’s really good friends with her, but I don’t have her voice on my modulator so…how am I going to get that? I need her medical file. Who do I call for that? I could try HR, but they won’t just give that information to anyone, so who do I need to be?” and so on and on.
The Red Stings Club looks like those point and clicks Lucas Arts games from yesteryear, like The Dig or Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. It’s smoothly animated, nicely detailed and colorfully pixelated. But don’t get me wrong, the nostalgic simplicity is a strength rather than a drawback. The whole world we’re presented with feels like what the far future was supposedly going to look like back in the ’80s (screw you BTTF, where’s my hoverboard?!).
From the character designs and the text font through to the locations themselves, a kind of retro-future vibe pumps throughout this game’s veins and I love it.
When it comes to the game’s soundtrack, it’s all very “cool”. From Brandeis playing the piano, in the club through the backing track while you’re crafting organs on the pottery wheel, to moments when you’re staring out of a skyscraper over the neon city below, it drips with Tech-Noir atmosphere throughout.
With the sound design being so mellow, when it does shift to suit the more dramatic events it really adds weight to the proceedings. While there are no actual vocals to accompany the dialogue, which is a bit of a shame, the other sounds are used to great effect in adding to the worlds smooth ambience. The sharp “plink” of the ice cubes hitting a glass and slow drag and puff of Donovan enjoying his cigarette all combined with the aforementioned synth music overlay, creates a glorious mixture of a 1940s speakeasy and cyberpunk techno.
The Red Strings Club is a brilliant experience. While the gameplay is fairly simple throughout, it’s the narrative that will keep you hooked.
The story and dialogue are wonderfully scripted, you will genuinely grow fond of the characters by the time the credits roll and not just the protagonists. While I won’t spoil the story, there are some pretty serious topics you’ll be asked your opinion on and you may find, like I did, that you have to really think before you answer. It got to the point where I legitimately started to question myself. I would also like to make a note and praise the inclusive nature and diversity of the cast. Your three leads are made up of a multi-racial gay couple and genderless android for starters. Yet the game doesn’t make a song and dance about it or use it as a self-congratulating selling point (which Hollywood has a terrible habit of doing). They are just well written and charismatic characters, treated with the same care as everyone else, as it should be.
The only downside really is the lack of any replayability, which is a shame in a game that’s only 4-5hrs to start with. You can see a map/decision tree, showing you what you did during your last playthrough, so the option is there to go through it all again but trying something new.