Red Johnson’s Chronicles: Episode One
Developer: Lexis Numerique
Publisher: Lexis Numerique
Release Date: 4/19/2011 (Playstation Plus), 05/03/2011 (Everyone Else)
Most console gamers are probably unfamiliar with Lexis Numerique. That’s because, until recently, they’ve primarily made games for the PC. Although this French developer-slash-publisher mainly made kid games for companies like Ubisoft, in 2003/4, they created one of the most memorable and unique PC games ever – In Memorandum aka MISSING Since November. Again, if you aren’t a PC gamer, you’ve probably never heard of it, but this game was one of the first “alternate reality” games. The game would use your internet browser, your email account and various other things to really immerse you in the adventure to the point where the line between where the game ended and real life began blurred immensely. From there, Lexis Numerique had a brief run as an adventure game company with a reputation for excellent stories and outside the box ideas. Whether it was The Experiement or MISSING Since November, Lexis Numerique developed a nice cult following amongst adventure fans on both sides of the Atlantic.
In recent years, Lexis Numerique went back to making children’s titles, notably for the Wii instead of PCs. However, with a vocal fanbase clamoring for more adventure games, Lexis Numerique decided to give it another try, but sticking with their newfound focus of making games for consoles. Enter Red Johnson’s Chronicles. This adventure game was designed specifically for the PS3 and was to be the first of three adventure games for consoles. Red Johnson is the detective game, AMY is going to be a post apocalyptic game, and The 7th Seal will be their first game for the Xbox 360 (Little is known about it, save that it is actually being developed by their sister studio VectorCell.). As a big fan of their PC adventure games, being able to pick up Red Johnson’s Chronicles two weeks before its official release date AND for 50% off via Playstation Plus was an offer I couldn’t pass up. So has LN made a successful switch from the PC to the PS3, or was their adventure game era best left in the past?
To be honest, there really isn’t a lot of story here. Red Johnson is a private detective and that’s about all of the back story you get on the man. If you were hoping for more substance from the other characters or the plot in general, you’re out of luck. The game primarily focuses on puzzles and detective work. What little characterization there is in an afterthought almost non-existent. All that happens is a police officer comes in to Johnson’s office, asks him for help with a murder case and then Red has to solve it. There are about seven characters in the game (not counting the corpse), and none of them have any real personality. Everyone gets a few lines of dialogue sure, but the majority of the game is just puzzle solving like finding fingerprints, answering true/false questions and sliding tile bits. The characters are very much secondary to the puzzles and it acts as an excuse to move from one puzzle to the next. Because of the lack of any real story save “Red Johnson solves several dozen puzzles and finds the murderer,” some gamers will be turned off.
A positive however, is that the game is very non-linear and aside from the opening puzzle, the game will let you solve things in whatever order you want to, based on what you come across and when. For example, I solved some of the segments listed in the early 30s before I finished segments 10 and 11. You can even miss chunks of the game and still beat it, which is a nice change of pace since adventure games are usually exceptionally linear. Basically Red Johnson’s Chronicles is the antithesis of most adventure games. Instead of being linear with a well defined and deep story, this game is very open but without any real plot besides the hook that is the catalyst for all the detective based puzzles in the game.
Story Rating: Bad
Graphics are a mixed bag here. Everything is high definition sure, but there is very little animation to the visuals. Like most adventure games, the majority of the graphics are static images. Occasionally the jaw of a character will move in a dialogue scene. The most animation that you’ll see in the game come with the five quick time events scattered throughout the game. The game looks pretty good here (albeit in black and white) so it’s not that LN couldn’t make a fully animated game – it’s just that they chose to stick to the standard trappings of the genre.
Character models are interesting. The faces all look weird to me, especially around the eyes, but the bodies and hair are all nicely textured and have a nice amount of detail to them. What’s here is pretty good for a company that is used to doing low resolution PC games, but the character designs do pale in comparison to higher budget titles. Backgrounds are the best aspect of Red Johnson’s Chronicles. They may be static, but everything looks and feels like the gritty urban slum Metropolis is supposed to be. I was quite happy with the various locations you could visit, but I did notice there are fewer in RJC than in most adventure games, so it basically gives you less content that adventure fans might expect.
Graphics Rating: Enjoyable
The music of Red Johnson’s Chronicles is pretty decent and the soundtrack ends up sounding like something out of a 70s crime show like C.H.I.P.S. or Starsky and Hutch. The score fits the game nicely, but you won’t be paying a lot of attention to it due to the fact you’ll be concentrating on the puzzles instead. Still, when you actually do take the time to listen to the music, you’ll find it a nice complement to the retro look of the game.
The voice acting on the other hand is pretty awful. Thankfully the half dozen or so characters rarely talk but when they do, it’s brutal. Rosco the bum’s voice is especially terrible, but all of the characters will hurt your ears. The Huggy Bear clone, Saul is pretty bad too. Red and Sonia are the characters that will grate on your ears the least, but it really is a low quality affair (in terms of voice acting) from beginning to end.
We’ll call it a thumb’s in the middle here. Enjoyable music but horrible voice acting.
Sound Rating: Mediocre
4. Control and Gameplay
Most adventure games are played on a computer with a mouse. You just use the mouse buttons for everything. Even most adventure games on consoles follow the same control scheme. Not so with Red Johnson’s Chronicles which makes heavy use out of all aspects of the PS3 controls. Analog sticks, shape buttons and even the Sixaxis controls all come into play here. It’s nice to see an adventure game eschewing the usual control scheme of the genre, but the core of the game does make use of them.
The game primarily takes place in a first person perspective. The only time this changes in with the quick time events, when the game jumps to a Dragon’s Lair style of gameplay. In these events you follow the control prompts to survive. If you mess up one, you die gruesomely…except in the case of Saul where you just mess up your special hand jive.
The rest of the game uses the analog sticks to move around to the various hot spots in the game. These can include people, items or background objects that trigger puzzles. Unlike most modern adventure games, Red Johnson’s Chronicles DOES lack a button that shows you all active hotspots. This is a shame as some of the hotspots are very small and can be easily missed. To make up for this, the game has including a “magnifying glass” option, which increases the size of an area so you can look for minute details, but this still can be plagued with tiny hot spot areas.
Puzzles are quite varied in Red Johnson’s Chronicles. You have the QTEs, you have dialogue puzzles where you have to make the right selections to move on, sliding tile puzzles, true or false quizzes, examining objects for clues, coins, or fingerprints, and more. In terms of diversity, RJC does an incredible job. Best of all, the game is free of the “use object A on object B to form object C and/or get past object D” that has become something of a cliché within the genre.
I will admit that the controls scheme took a bit of getting used to since it was so different from most adventure games, but once I did, I really enjoyed it. I was happy to see that the many types of puzzles helped to make up for the lack of any real meat in the game’s story. The gameplay is pretty different from most adventure games and it reminds me of how good Lexis Numerique is as innovation when they want to be.
Control and Gameplay Rating: Good
Most adventure games are a “one and done” situation, where you never really have the desire to replay the game again unless the story is truly amazing. Unfortunately, Red Johnson’s Chronicle barely HAS a story, so you’d think that would make it fare even worse in this categories than others in this genre. In fact, because the game is so non-linear and since the QTE’s can have different command inputs, the game actually does have some replay value to it. Factor in that you’ll also have to play the game two or three times to get all the trophies and RJC will definitely bring gamers back far more than the average adventure game. I have to admit I really hate some of the trophies and their requirements, like the gold trophy where you have to speed through the game in two hours or less (even though LN has been saying this is a full eight to ten hour game) as it encourages people to rush through things, which is pretty much the anti-thesis of what an adventure game experience should be like. Of course, we’ve already seen RJC is all about breaking the tropes of the genre, both good and ill, so I can understand the attempt, even if I dislike the result it creates.
In all, RJC is one of those rare adventure games that people will come back to more than once, simply because of the non-linearity of the world, a few puzzles that are randomized and the fact 100%’ing the game requires several playthroughs.
Replayability Rating: Above Average
Due to the myriad of puzzles in RJC, balance is a hard thing to assess. After all, a gamer might be good at one type of puzzles and not at another. As well, depending on how you play the game determines how hard some puzzles will be. For example, if you’re speed running through the game for the gold trophy, you’ll more than likely miss the commentary about items and dialogue between characters, making it harder to do the true/false and indictment puzzles.
Overall through, the puzzles in RJC are geared more towards longtime adventure game fans as they will no doubt be difficult to people who have only dabbled or are outright new to this genre. Sliding tile puzzles and the like are old hate to veterans of adventure games, while those that are new to it will have a harder time getting through them. Meanwhile adventure game fans who are used to two dimensional static images will have a harder time navigating through the fingerprint searching puzzles while gamers who are primarily console fans will be used to the Dual Shock enough to breeze through them.
Because RJC have puzzles geared for both long time fans of the genre, as well as newcomers, every gamer that picks this up will find something to challenge them, as well as puzzles they can breeze through. There’s something for everyone here.
Balance Rating: Good
As I’ve said throughout this review, Lexis Numerique does a great job with creating puzzles and situations that are outside the usual adventure game trappings. You have some interesting puzzles that range from a toilet that dispenses guns to a puzzle involving fuses and a weird version of Minesweeper. The game’s story is as generic as all get out and I’ve played 8-Bit games that have deeper characters, but at least many of the puzzles are either outright new or at least outside the box variations on older ideas. I can’t say I’m happy about the plot, but I can say that Red Johnson’s Chronicles really stands out from the typical adventure game.
Originality Rating: Good
I primarily play adventure games for the story. Since Red Johnson’s Chronicles had very little, my impetus for playing the game sunk like a rock. Sure, I enjoyed the puzzles, but I also hated how the game almost demanded you rush through things instead of taking the time to actual explore all there is in the game. You could solve a puzzle without a single error, but since the clock is running, you can get a B or C rating, just because you wanted to take the time to examine the level of detail in the graphics or see if there were any Easter Eggs. Putting a timer to an adventure game is generally a sign that the developer doesn’t actually know the genre’s audience. I outright hated playing the game for a second time to try and figure out what the time max was for the gold trophy (as it doesn’t say. It just tells you to be fast) as it didn’t feel like I was playing to have FUN with it, but just simply to get it done and over with. Again, that’s the exact opposite of why people play adventure games to begin with, and this was a disappointment here.
So the almost nonexistent story and the game’s constant attempt to rush you through it instead of letting you savor it turned me off – especially when, as a reviewer, I feel like I have to rush through games to begin with. I can honestly that that in spite of the things Red Johnson’s Chronicles did right or at least different, I didn’t have much fun with it as it nixed the things I love most about this genre.
Addictiveness Rating: Mediocre
9. Appeal Factor
Since Red Johnson’s Chronicles is only $6.50 to Playstation Plus gamers, I have no doubt that many of the people who pick it up will have fun with it. It’s easy to get your money’s worth out of an adventure game when it’s that cheap, even if it is two to four hours long rather than the eight to ten Lexis Numerique promised it would be. At thirteen dollars for non PS+ gamers, it’s still a decent deal, even if the game is pretty short and you can get full length adventure games for $19.99 or less these days. In the end, you’re paying twice as much for RJC as you would for a Sam and Max, Monkey Island, or Back to the Future episode. Hell, you could buy all five episodes of the extremely buggy Strong Bad series PS3 port for about the cost of RJC. Is it worth it? Only if you prefer puzzles over plot and most adventure gamers I know find plot to the main reason they pick up titles in this genre.
So basically, the game is a wonderful deal for PS+ subscribers, and a coin toss for those who aren’t. Most longtime adventure gamers will be turned off by the plot and/or the fact the game gives you a grade on how long you take with the puzzles. Still, this is the only adventure game for the PS3 that is serious in tone aside from the awful Dream Chronicles port, so if you like your games to be SERIOUS BUSINESS, this is the only real option you have for adventure games on Sony’s current system.
Appeal Factor: Mediocre
Red Johnson’s Chronicles is an odd game that excels in some areas compared to its genre contemporaries while failing horribly in others. It’s great to see Lexis Numerique returning to the adventure game genre as well as making the first Playstation 3 (and eventually Xbox 360) exclusives in it, but you can tell they’ve lost a step or two in seven plus years since they first released MISSING Since November. I liked the gameplay and the puzzles, but the game’s lack of story and the strange use of trophies and a grading system kept me from actually enjoying the game. From a technical standpoint, Red Johnson’s Chronicles was a great example of how good Lexis Numerique can be, but from a story standpoint, the game was pretty dull and lackluster. I’m still on board for AMY and The 7th Seal, but if RJC is any indication, we have a long way to go before adventure gamers decide to move from the PC to a console.
Miscellaneous Rating: Decent
Control and Gameplay: Good
Replayability: Above Average
Appeal Factor: Mediocre
FINAL SCORE: DECENT GAME!
Short Attention Span Summary
Red Johnson’s Chronicles is a strange little game. From a technical standpoint, the game delivers a wide variety of puzzles that are not only highly original, but none of them end up being the standard “object A + object B = result C” puzzles that point and click titles are best known for. At the same time, from an aesthetic standpoint, RJC is a massive letdown featuring strange looking character models, little to no characterization and almost no plot whatsoever save for the “someone died so go find the murderer” hook. As adventure games are primarily played for their puzzles and plots, Red Johnson Chronicles does one thing very right and one thing very wrong. It just depends on which aspect of adventure games is more important to you. However, the fact the game is only two to four hours long at maximum and Lexis Numerique was publicly promising an eight to ten hour game, the title does feel like a bit of a disappointment. If you’re a PS+ subscriber, getting RJC for only $6.50 feels like a good deal, but everyone else that has to pay $13.00 for it may want to think twice.