It is not always easy to know what to play next after finishing a title, or whenever you just need to wind down with something enjoyable. Often I ask my sister, my friend Casper, or my significant other for ideas as I trust their recommendations could at least offer an interesting title to talk about. If not, I check up on my backlog and let my 5 d100s decide what to play next. If both cannot help, then I am all for taking a random chance and after a recommendation from someone online, I figured why not? The Red Strings Club has been in my library for a long time and I have no idea what to expect really. Even other critics and gamers seem mixed on this title, but after a lovely time with 2064 R.O.M and VA-11 Hall-A, this seemed like the best way to stop my craving for narrative-driven games set in the future.
Pulling the strings, just for them to snap
Due to how short this story is, it is hard to give it a proper introduction. To put it lightly, it revolves around a bartender named Donovan, who runs the Red Strings Club, with a mysterious figure mixing drinks to hit the right spots of the customer’s emotions. Utilising this, he gathers information from those he serves in exchange for info of his own. How he makes a living otherwise is beyond me, but one day, chatting with his friend Brandeis, an android pops in, despite the establishment being closed. Brandeis takes the opportunity to hack this robot and to see why it came to them.
This might seem like an easy introduction, but already in these few minutes, the two characters fill the entire scene with plenty of exposition of who the android might be, what is going on, and already here, you might be able to see what this leads to. It gets tiresome before the game even properly starts, and after this, the progression of the overall plot becomes stale. Sure, you will find some tidbits on certain elements of what is going on and how it will affect everyone, but with the game being barely three and a half hours long, all the lore, twists and turns becomes cramped and unnaturally told.
This is not helped by the uninteresting characters. While the game tries to establish a personality with each, it never goes far enough to give them a good distinguishable trait or enough complexity to be memorable. Even Donovan, who clearly loves the concept of “emotions”, is one you will never really get a clear picture of. This puts a distance between you and the characters, since you will not care or be intrigued by anyone. Furthermore, this hurts their mission, as it becomes more shallow and almost pointless, when it is hard to stay engaged in the plot or characters.
Then there is the game’s theming, which I am rather mixed about. The themes surrounding emotions, choices and concepts of morality are interesting, but never fully implemented. For example, there is one segment where you discuss the way emotions can work and how even sadness can be a thing of beauty, which is intriguing. However, another segment tries to make you do ethical choices where it is odd how they picture hippies or punks. Not to mention, you are not the brightest person when you quote Wikipedia of all things, are you?
We also have the illusion of choice within the game’s progression, which is a terrible approach. Having dialogues play a huge part of the storytelling, is a nice usage to see different perspectives. However, when the story paints them clearly as ideas of good and bad, it really feels lacklustre in contrast to exploring two sides of an idea and find more insights to both. Because of this, every choice you have as Donovan or Brandeis, comes off as narrow and even forced. There are also some blatant choices that baffles me and really shows how forced the segments can be.
I like what The Red Strings Club is trying to do and what it wants to present, but everything feels too narrow and too simplified for something this vast in concept. It obviously wants to say something and while I do like some of the ideas it presents, it feels too focused on picturing things as either good or bad. Due to how short this game is as well, it never truly gets to evolve. To be fair though, how philosophical can you get when you are dealing with drunk customers?
Story Score: 3/10
Serving drinks at base-value
Similar to the story, I am intrigued by what The Red Strings Club offers compared to other story-driven games, but it never evolves or becomes immersive enough to make you engaged. There are a couple of different gameplay-segments, but let us start with the main-aspect: mixing drinks and asking the right questions. By pouring different ingredients, it will make a circle over the customer move. Here, your goal is to aim for the emotion you desire to affect them with. Each bottle point in a specific direction, you narrow the circle by adding ice, and you can always retry a drink which makes this process easy to handle.
The game is trying to replicate the real deal by having you physically pour into the glass, and while effective, this concept is short lived. This is because these segments are not expanded upon besides just being accurate with drinks. You will get more bottles to work with, but the process does not change. Gaining the right intel is, however, intriguing since you will have to decide what the best course of action will be. Is it more beneficial to get information by making someone depressed and easier to sympathise with you, or will a more carefree mood make them more open? It all depends on the question aligning with the mood you create through the drinks, which makes this a clever and interesting mechanic. While this is engaging, you will not be doing this often enough for it to evolve. The only exception is when the game makes it so you cannot serve the same drink more than once, but nothing similar comes forth. Because of this, it feels like a missed opportunity.
When this is the main mechanic the game has to offer, you can just imagine what the other parts are like. Every other mechanic, is shoehorned in and only done once in the entire game. One has you literally sculpt personalities, similar to pottery making, with awkward mouse-controls for the sake of immersion. You even have to push buttons by jamming the mouse forward, but you will just make these simple sculptures and hope you put the right trait in the right body, and nothing more. Another has you asking questions and stepping closer to a hostile target, which is easy to do with a couple of moves, and the last segment is a point-and-click where you impersonate workers and gather info.
What is a shame is that these segments are great base-ideas, but easy to exploit with short trial and error. Because of this, it is easy to blindly try out stuff in order to get a move-on as no mechanic becomes involving, challenging or any form of more intriguing which is simply a tragedy. All of these are interesting ideas that could evolve, but before they even get to take another step, the game ends. That is, except for the quiz-segments after each customer, which is a forced way to make you pay attention to the exposition, and adds nothing. The rewards you can get from these are interesting, but these are the only part of the game that comes off as completely lazy.
While there are multiple pathways through the actions you take, none makes the experience any more interesting, as the outcomes will have you witness the same conclusion. This pretty much sums up the game mechanically: everything is too simplified or unexplored, making it hard to be feel engaged or accomplish a sense of progression. There is an attempt at immersion with nice core-mechanics, but when nothing builds upon these ideas, you are left with only the minimum.
Gameplay Score: 3/10
A cosy bar, but are there no other places to see?
I will give the developers credit for the exceptional pixel-art, with emotions being shown in the character’s smooth animations and minor attentions to effects like falling ashes from a cigar. The colour-scheme is especially wonderful, as it focuses heavily on red, an emotional colour, which fits with the game’s exploration of emotions. Character-models are also nice and diverse, and while they can contain mechanical features, it never goes to an abstract level and feels down to earth, making this a sci-fi universe, but one that feels possible. That is, except for the landline-phone, who would ever use that again?
What is unfortunate, is that the locations you visit are few and far between. There is a distinct lack of world-building, despite that you also play as a character who leaves the bar as often as possible. You rarely see new areas, and the docks and one office-building, can only do so much to create variety from a bar. Sure, these are urban locations, but when you have more settings that could be visited, it is terrible that it all feels so compiled and forgettable.
The soundtrack, however, is beautiful and easily the best part of the entire game. I only know the composer from the team’s previous work, Gods Will Be Watching, but Paula “Fingerspit” Ruiz shines here. It is a lovely mix of calm piano and electro, which is an interesting contrast to the visuals. Maybe it is a subtle sign of balance, despite the occasions when harsh instruments enter whenever it wants to highlight the more severe moments. Either way, it really helps to establish different emotions and an overall atmosphere, which is impressive.
Presentation Score: 7/10
I will have something else
There are varying routes to choose from, letting you witness different events. This, with the short length of the game, makes it an easy replay. Sadly, the events are forgettable, as they never change the course of the story and with no clear consequences or multiple endings, your choices will seem rather trivial instead of effective. When you cannot change the outcome, why even then make multiple choices?
Extra Score: 3/10
I was honestly afraid I was getting into the indie-version of a Quantic Dream-project, but The Red Strings Club problems’ rather lies in being unpolished in its writing and concept. In fact, projects like this one, is something I am absolutely saddened by, due to its lost potentials. Ideas of mixing drinks and hitting the right spot in order to ask the right questions, and the different consequences of your actions, could have added to the game’s story, mechanics and replay value if they went further with it.
Sadly, The Red Strings Club feels too condensed for what it goes for, making it too small for its own good. This is strange to me, as often more focused and smaller projects seems to be the best ones, but here, it never goes far enough with any of its elements, including the presentation. Because of this, it is stuck at its base setup and never evolves. A good attempt at something unique, but like a hangover, you will not remember much and rather wonder if your time and money were well spent.