I’ve been staring at this page for far too long trying to figure out how to open up this review of The Red Strings Club. Sure I could take the easy route and direct you my review of Gods Will Be Watching, the previous game from Deconstructeam, but that feels disingenuous given how different this title is. I could mention that this is the first 2018 game I’ve played although that really means little in the grand scheme of things (except that I should probably do my Game of the Year post sometime soon). Even the fact that I was drawn to this game just on the mention of “cyberpunk bartending” doesn’t seem like good opening fodder. So instead you get an opening ramble of all of those things combined with my one line summary for this game: it may not do anything new but it is one of the more interesting adventure games I’ve played of late.
You’ll take control of several different characters throughout the game however you’ll mainly be playing as Donovan, the proprietor of The Red Strings Club. On the surface it’s simply a bar with amazing drinks, ones that are said to be tailored to your emotions. Under the surface however Donovan is a powerful information broker, holding secrets on anything and everything that goes on in the city. When a broken down android stumbles into his bar one night he becomes privy to some information that no one outside of an elite group of people inside Supercontinent megacorporation had seen before. This sets off a chain of events which will see Donovan pulling all the little red strings he has tied around his clientele in order to advert the subjugation of all mankind.
The Red Strings Club’s visuals are a blend of more traditional pixel art styles and the more modern high resolution versions of the same. It’s definitely a step up from the art style of Gods Will Be Watching which used the very low resolution style which I think was born more out of the game’s Ludum Dare roots. Under the hood it’s powered by GameMaker which honestly surprised me as games made using that platform typically have a very distinctive look and feel to them. Given that it’s been nearly 3 years since their last release I’d hazard a guess a good chunk of time has was dedicated to getting the artwork right and I’m glad to say it was time well spent.
Unlike its predecessor (which I’m very grateful for as I didn’t want to pray to RNGesus again) The Red Strings Club is more of a traditional adventure game affair. The game is primarily dialogue focused with most of the puzzles based around getting information from someone or influencing them to act in a particular way. The two interesting mechanics that the game brings with it are the bartending and what could be best described as bionic pottery. The former is the main mechanic of the game, allowing you to influence the mood of a person in order to pump them for the right kinds of information. The second is only done right at the start but cements some of the core aspects of the game, changing what options will be available to you. There are a few other mini-games but none that are different from your usual adventure game affair. Overall it’s a pretty stock standard experience which means most of the value comes from how well these things interact with the story.
Initially the bartending mechanics are simple, making it rather easy to figure out which emotion is the “best” one to use (it was usually the one that was hardest to mix up). However as more and more options are added it starts to become a lot more involved and it gets quite a bit harder to both make the drinks and judge which one you need to serve. There’s really no way to utterly fail, it seems there are certain pieces of information you’ll get regardless, but the better you do in these things the easier time you’ll have towards the end. There’s also a couple achievements dedicated to unlocking some special things through this mechanic but I couldn’t figure them out in my playthrough. It’s quite possible that some of my early choices precluded them happening however.
There are a few little annoyances in the 1.0 release of The Red Strings Club that I hope are addressed in future patches. Sometimes bottles won’t pour their contents for you, even if they’re tipped upside down. This appears to be related to how close the bottle is to other bottles, the shaker or the glass and if more than 2 of those kinds of objects are in the way it will refuse to pour. Additionally there seems to be something finicky with the “no spill” mechanic as I completed at least one drink without spilling a drop but did not get the achievement for it. The shaker will also sometimes mix drinks into a single one of their components, forcing you to redo it. None of these are game breaking but they can be a little frustrating. I’m sure these can be easily fixed in the next few updates.
All of these things are simply an aid to the overall narrative which, whilst thoroughly thought provoking, didn’t elicit much of an emotional reaction from me. The game does a great job of revealing information to you in a slow and respectful way, giving you just enough information to figure some things out whilst you have to guess at others. However whilst Donovan is given enough of a build up the rest of the characters don’t receive similar treatment, making it hard to empathise with them when certain events take place. Thinking about it more though the characters might be secondary to the overarching narrative itself which is why they don’t receive as much attention as you’d otherwise expect they would. It feels weird to say that the story is a great thought provoking narrative that has little to no emotional impact as that’s typically the basis upon which such stories will cement themselves in your mind.
Perhaps I just need a little more time to digest it.
The Red Strings club was a great game to open up my 2018 list to. Deconstructeam has evidently gone through a lot of growth over the last couple years, bringing everything that was good from Gods Will Be Watching and leaving everything else behind. At a technical level the game isn’t anything to write home about, feeling like a very traditional pixel art adventure game, but the overall experience feels well above par. This is most likely due to the strong narrative, one that manages to intrigue and provoke a lot of thought whilst, strangely, failing to drive a heavy emotional impact. If you had asked me after I played Gods Will Be Watching would I look forward to the next game from this developer I would’ve told you no but now, having played The Red Strings Club, I’m very keen to see where Deconstructeam goes from here.
The Red Strings Club is available on PC right now for $14.99. Total play time was approximately 3 hours with 37% of the achievements unlocked.
I feel it’s pertinent that I get this out of the way before I start the review in earnest: Roguelikes give me the shits. I can understand the appeal that many find in them, figuring out a strategy to deal with whatever might come before you, however I really detest games that punish you with things that are completely out of your control. You get to a point where you think you’re doing great only to find that you hadn’t accounted for situation X which then proceeds to tank your game, forcing you to redo the entire section just so you can account for it. Whilst Gods Will Be Watching isn’t exactly a Roguelike (it describes itself as a Point and Click adventure, which it partly is) many of its gameplay elements take inspiration from the genre and, unfortunately, are the downfall of what would otherwise be a brilliant game.
Gods Will Be Watching is one of those games that started out as a entry to the Ludlam Dare game jam which received such wide acclaim that it then went onto a successful IndieGoGo campaign for development into a fully fledged title. You play as Sergeant Burden, a long serving member of the establishment who’s infiltrated himself into the idealistic rebellion group called Xenolifer. Your mission is to play along with them, gain their trust and hopefully limit the amount of damage they can do. However it becomes apparent that it’s not black and white when it comes to Xenolifer, or even your own organisation, and therein is where the real challenge lies. Can you protect everyone? Are you strong enough to make the tough choices at the right time? These are the questions you’ll be faced with and living with those decisions might be easier said than done.
Since the theme for the original Ludlam Dare entry was “minimalism” Gods Will Be Watching took the cue to use the current ultra-minimalistic pixelart styling that other games like Superbrothers: Swords and Sworcery EP are known for. There’s not a huge amount of visual variety in the game with the vast majority of it taking place within a single frame for each chapter of the game. It serves its purpose however, conveying the numerous visual clues and other elements form part of the core game play. It all kind of blurs into the background after a while as for the most part you’ll be spending your time in menus rather than constantly searching for things that you need to click on.
As I alluded to earlier the gameplay of Gods Will Be Watching is a mix between a traditional point and click adventure and a Roguelike. Each scene has a specific objective that needs to be completed in order to progress to the next chapter. Usually this objective requires you to play with a set variables in order to achieve the desired outcome so the majority of your time will be spent balancing them all out. Sometimes these variables are obvious, given to you in plain numbers, other times they’re hidden in the form of visual clues that you’ll have to decipher. There’s also several different ways of dealing with the problem at hand, some of which will make your life easier or harder depending on the objective. It’s an interesting concept however I feel that the execution has let it down somewhat.
You see I get the idea that there’s variables that need maximising and that you probably won’t get everything to go exactly the way you want however the inclusion of randomization feels like a big middle finger to the player. They mention this at the start, forewarning you that failure is to be expected and that you should just keep on trying, however the randomization can and will completely fuck you over numerous times before you get it right. It’s not even a matter of strategy after a while as even the best strategy can get completely wrecked by the random number generator spurting out a couple unfortunate numbers in a row. In a decently designed game this would be a low chance occurrence but in Gods Will Be Watching it happens constantly.
I’d probably be more forgiving if failing a chapter didn’t mean having to start all over from the start again, giving RNGesus another chance to fuck me over. Take for instance the torture scene where you have to distribute damage between the two characters in order to make sure you make it through the day. If your begs happen to fail, or you don’t get the response that allows you to rest, you’ll likely end up killing one of the characters. This isn’t to mention the Russian Roulette scene which can completely fuck you over, even if you use every trick at your disposal. The desert scene is even worse for this as even when I was doing things nigh on perfectly I still got ruined by random events that were out of my control which is where I ended up leaving the game.
Which brings me to the real reason why the random elements piss me off so much: the story is actually intriguing and one where I felt I was crafting my own little narrative within the game. Looking over the forums you can see how varied everyone’s experiences is, something that I really admire in a game when its done well. However like many games I’ve played as of late the mechanics of Gods Will Be Watching are just so onerous that those tasty morsels of story are so few and far between that they are simply not enough to keep you going. It’s a real shame as after reading a couple other reviews I’ve found out there’s still 2 chapters to go but, honestly, I just can’t be arsed to slog through the numerous rounds of RNG roulette in order to see them.
Gods Will Be Watching is a game I really wanted to like as it had all the makings of other titles in the genre that I had considered good. The simplistic presentation and story with a some level of depth to it, coupled with the ability to craft your own narrative above that, has great potential. However the Rougelike elements destroyed any hopes of that happening, trapping the story behind too many RNG determined gates forcing the player to spend hours redoing content in order to get to the next chapter. I’m sure there will be many people who say I didn’t get the point of it or some other bullshit but the simple fact is that Gods Will Be Watching failed to provide the writer with a good game experience, hiding its moments of brilliance behind mechanics that are simply not fun to play.
Gods Will Be Watching is available on PC right now for $9.99. Total play time was 5 hours with 10% of the achievements unlocked.