Game: Red Johnson’s Chronicles
Developer: Lexis Numerique
Available On: PlayStation Network Only
The well-publicised problems Sony has been suffering recently (with the hacking of their PlayStation Network) have meant hard times for independent games developers. Those who were relying on the PlayStation Network to distribute their games were left with no channel through which to release their titles. Games were delayed, DLC postponed, and companies who were solely using the PSN weren’t able to sell their products.
One of the games that was delayed from its original April release window and pushed back until June is a new noire-inspired detective game from French outfit Lexis Numerique. Entitled Red Johnson’s Chronicles (no jokes please), the game tells the story of what looks to be the first in a series of cases for a new Private Detective character. Can you help Red solve the mysterious murder and, more to the point, is it worth your time?
STORY: The City of Metropolis plays home to the office of Private Detective Red Johnson, who helps out the police force when they have too many cases and not enough time to solve them all. The streets are grimy and riddled with small-time crooks, and it’s your duty to step into the shoes of the lovable rogue Red, to find the clues and solve the puzzles that will reveal the truth behind the murder of an unknown man.
The story plays out like every traditional hard-boiled detective novel. Brought in to help a bumbling policeman, Robert “Red” Johnson is faced with a host of seedy characters and dangerous women, none of whom willing to help. As you go through your investigations, it is revealed that there is no shortage of people who wanted the victim dead, making it all the more difficult to pinpoint the real culprit. Aided only by his trusty inventory of tools and gadgets and faithful informant Saul, Red works through a series of puzzles and quick-time sequences to build up a strong enough case to finger the murderer.
GRAPHICS: Using a mixture of fully 3D character models and pre-rendered static backgrounds, the game is presented in high definition, and looks suitably grubby, in a good way. For a PSN release, the graphical integrity is certainly high, with good animation and crisp visuals. The backgrounds may appear to be flat, painted backdrops, but walking through a crime scene can cause some locations to transition and zoom in or out, revealing that each area has actually been fully modelled in impressive 3D. Each location has a strong character to it and has a suitably pulp-fiction-like feel that suits the story. There are also a lot of small details such as smoke and ambient effects, which add to the overall noire feel. This, partnered with the costume design, gives players a sense of a timeless city that never sleeps, and where crime is rampant.
One problem, however, is the fact that because each area is so packed with details, some of them appear too small to be seen comfortably by the naked eye. Even on a fairly large flat-screen HD television, there are times when text on an item, such as a small scrap of evidence on the ground, for example, cannot easily be seen as it is too minute. This problem isn’t unique to this title, but in a game where you need to find the small details and check every clue, it presents an unfortunate problem.
That said, the player is aided a little by the fact that the player cursor, used for scanning crime scenes, is fairly large, and will indicate when there is an item or object of interest. For instance, an eye will appear when something may be examined, or cogs when something may be used. A regular adventure game convention perhaps, but one that does help when certain objects don’t appear clearly. The situation is helped further by the inclusion of an optional magnifying glass on the cursor, which will make smaller items appear slightly bigger when hovered over, but you still need to know where to look for this to be of any help.
SOUND: The music helps to set the tone even more. With jazzy grooves and moody blues riffs, the game puts itself further in the noire category of detective stories, and gives the gameworld a mysterious, exciting edge. Some pieces of music might be used too regularly, or repeated to soon, but the music is of a high enough standard and fits the game well enough that this doesn’t become an issue.
Sound effects are fine, and help to illustrate what is going on in certain situations without truly standing out, but it is the voice acting which is most impressive. Whilst not making use of any big-name actors and being developed by a very small production company, the game surprises with its high-quality voice acting and confident scripting. Red in particular comes across as a likeable guy, and his voice really makes the character. He makes jokes and quips, but without the great acting and his tone of voice, much would be lost in the delivery. Another example is Officer Robert, who might come across as just another policeman were it not for the weedy, annoying delivery of his voice that truly moulds him as the incompetent half-wit he really is.
GAMEPLAY: Unlike some of its detective game competitors, this title doesn’t just ask you to pixel-hunt and comb each screen for clues. The game is puzzle-heavy, and this can range from puzzles where you simply have to find the correct item for the correct slot, to sliding tile puzzles, to musical instrument ones. There is a great variety in the different tasks you are given to solve, and these even make use of the sixaxis motion controls to good effect, for example, when you need to shake some dust off an old item. Although some puzzles are 2D, the more complex ones are 3D, where Red must investigate all sides and aspects of an object or item, and manipulate it to produce the desired results. This requires the use of both the dual analog sticks and magnifying glass tools, and really makes the player feel like they are doing detective work.
Aside from the puzzles which form the main bulk of the game, there are also analytical sections, conversations and even quick-time events. Analysis involves comparing and scanning clues with your equipment in order to gain even more evidence from the items you have found. Comparing two photos may, for instance, reveal that two seemingly unrelated people are one and the same, whilst checking your old case files may help find an important address you need to move forward.
Conversations are handled quite well in the sense that each time you can ask a question, you are timed. This can be frustrating if you repeatedly choose the wrong conversation tree options, but it helps perpetuate the sense that you are interrogating a difficult suspect and time is of the essence. One small mistake and the killer could go free, so the timed element ramps up the tension. There are also short quick-time events dotted throught the game during scenes which call for more action, thus varying the pace of the game. Operating in a similar way to those found in Heavy Rain, these are all rendered in black and white and have very smooth animations, making them a stylish addition to the game. However, they can become frustrating if you perform a move wrong and have to start again.
The quicker you solve a puzzle or complete a quick-time event, and the fewer mistakes you make in a conversation, the more money you will earn, which is important for the game’s built-in help system. Saul, your informant, doubles up as a hint book, and you can use the credits you have earned during the case to ask Saul for hints regarding puzzles when you get stuck. There are usually three or so hints, which start off cheap, basic and sometimes vague, moving on to more expensive, but more precise instructions.
This is a good system as many gamers nowadays don’t want to be stuck for long. However, the fact that you have to earn money to buy hints means that the game isn’t giving away the answers too freely, and still presents a challenge. That said, if stuck near the end of a puzzle, you will sometimes find that the cheaper hints will refer to parts of a puzzle you have already completed, so you feel like you are wasting time and money by having to read the simpler hints when you really need to skip straight to the big guns. Despite this issue, the system is solid and will cut down on a lot of frustrations, eliminating the need to trawl the internet for walkthroughs. Coupled with an extensive tutorial section that covers the early stages of the case, players of any skill should be able to begin this investigation.
LONGEVITY: Being a solely single-player experience and only containing the one case to investigate, the game does feel short. There is little replay value beyond trying to solve each puzzle as quickly as you can in order to amass the most money possible. To get all twelve of the PlayStation trophies, you will have to undergo multiple playthroughs, but it is fairly likely that you won’t want to go to the effort of doing so because as once a puzzle has been solved once, it holds no real challenge. It is rumoured that the “Chronicles” moniker refers to the fact that this will be episode one in a series of cases, but for £7.99, one might expect a slightly longer lifespan from the title, rather than it being one part of a larger experience.
VERDICT: Aside from its relatively short length, Red Johnson’s Chronicles is a very polished title, and shows what can be achieved when a download-only game has high production values. Graphically, the game impresses, and it has some strong audio work, both of which give the game a strong feeling of place and character. This isn’t simply another faceless detective game. The people seem like fully-rounded protagonists and the world seems like an authentic setting for a grisly murder. The puzzles are largely clever and logical whilst maintaining a good level of challenge, so it’s a shame they couldn’t go on a bit longer. Despite the unfortunate name and the troubled release of the game on the PlayStation Network, Red Johnson’s Chronicles does stand out as a strong title for those looking to workout their brains, not their reflexes.