I’m a sucker for anything cyberpunk. And who isn’t? If there is one thing we can all agree on, it’s that cyberpunk is the king of science-fiction subgenres, designed and hand-given from the gods themselves. And three-person developer Deconstructeam has done the genre justice with its latest adventure game, The Red Strings Club, a narrative-focused experience about a surreptitious club, psychological bartending, transhumanism and making implants from pottery so people can rake in more social media followers. And like any cyberpunk story worth its salt, there’s plenty of corporation foul play and conspiracy.
But while The Red Strings Club delivers an ample cyberpunk experience, it disappointingly doesn’t break any new ground, despite the potential being there in surplus. The Red Strings Club is a pretty good game, and even a good take on cyberpunk but, while it captures the essence of the genre, it doesn’t expand on it in a refining or unique way. Coupled with a sometimes trite story that undercuts interesting storytelling and repetitive gameplay sections that can dip into the monotonous, The Red Strings Club comes up short of distinguishing itself.
The immediate standout in The Red Strings Club is its presentation. From the moment of its initial reveal, throughout my entire time playing it, and now as I write this review, I simply like looking at the pixelated style, reminiscent of classic LucasArts adventure games, of The Red Strings Club. And this goes a long way with an adventure game where interactivity is often minimal beyond clicking through dialogue.
Underneath the gorgeous pixelated 2D exterior is classic cyberpunk and neo-noir tones and scenes, like corporate tower views of a damp city lit up with neon. Even deeper are the subtle details that further sell the immersion, like characters lighting-up mid-conversation or someone’s leg beginning to race to a nervous and hectic beat in a moment of stress. Scenes are envisioned to the smallest details, which helps divert attention from the fact that the number of environments you’ll be spending your time in are quite scarce.
The lack of environmental variation isn’t helped by the fact that the art design doesn’t take many risks. It’s cyberpunk through and through, which wouldn’t be a problem if better classic cyberpunk with deeper world realization and better art direction didn’t exist. But that cyberpunk does exist. Heck, you don’t have to go further than last year to find it. And thus, I was hoping Deconstructeam would have crafted something more fresh rather than regurgitate what I’ve already seen many times.
The Red Strings Club is set in what appears to be a not-so-distant future, where corporations have all but seized utter control. Whether this is a good or bad thing — isn’t entirely clear, and more often than not is up to the interpretation of the player. The Red Strings Club doesn’t provide much context or window into its world, and thus it’s hard to gauge the state of humanity. Things seem less grim than your average cyberpunk world, but radical change and potentially turbulent times appear to be on the horizon.
One corporation, Supercontinent Ltd, is on the verge of massive evolutionary (or de-evolutionary, depending on your personal views) step for mankind. And this is where the game’s transhumanism themes emerge and take center stage.
Up until this point, Supercontinents’ wide-range of augmentations have already altered the entire human experience, but haven’t revolutionized it. You can obtain augmentations that make you more popular on social media, that make you more ambitious, better looking, more persuasive, or even enable you to impersonate other people. If there is a function, there’s an augmentation for it. But despite heavy augmentation, a sizable chunk of society still rejects the process, and even the most heavily augmented are still believed to able to exercise free will (or at least exercise what we commonly understand and believe to be free will). So what’s the problem?
Well the problem begins in a clandestine bar — appropriately named The Red Strings Club — operated by a man named Donovan, an information broker who veils his true currency behind legendary bartending prowess. Donovan doesn’t operate alone though, he has a partner, a street-savvy hacker with an aversion for corporations named Brandeis. Think of it this way, Donovan gathers the information and Brandeis acts upon it.
The duo becomes a trio very early in the game, when a malfunctioning android — named Akara — stumbles into the bar in obvious need of assistance. While Brandeis connects to the android’s memory to deduce what the hell happened, a corporate conspiracy begins to surface about Supercontinent’s latest plan: to launch a program dubbed Social Psyche Warfare. What SPW does is essentially forfeit parts of free will in order to eliminate — or exercise more control over — undesirable emotions such as anger and fear. The program is contentious, but at this point at least on the table of implementation. But it becomes too much for Donovan and Co. to stomach once they find out that Supercontinent isn’t being entirely transparent on the full extent of the program, nor divulging to the public its plan to launch it. This realization is what sets in motion the crusade — that is the rest of the game — of Donovan, Brandeis and their new Android acquaintance to stop SPW.
If any of this plot set-up sounds trite to you, its because it is. And unfortunately The Red String Club’s story never really shakes off this triteness. Meanwhile, the game’s inconsistent writing only further diminishes the story it’s trying to tell and the often nuanced and thought-provoking themes it’s trying to tackle. The Red Strings Club isn’t afraid to stop you in your tracks with its dialogue — to challenge your ideas and principles — but in the pursuit of this it too often fumbles. I’ve taken some level 300 philosophy classes, where semi-competent philosophical thinkers tackle the same ideas and concepts thrown around by Deconstructeam’s writers. More often than not my time with this game was reminiscent of my time in those classrooms. Semi-competent, but not great.
There are other times when the game explores other topics in a rather contentious, ham-handed manner. And there is also the issue of the beginning of the game, where parts of the dialogue — steepened in classic revolutionary, anti-corporation rhetoric — simply feels cringy. However, I don’t knock the writing much for this, writing revolutionaries without sounding banal is tricky, if not also misrepresentative.
A less pertinent — but worth mentioning — issue with the game’s dialogue and branching narrative include it presenting already known information as new revelations, which always broke the game’s relatively steady train of immersion. I might not have always been impressed, but I was almost always immersed, a testament to what the game nails: character realization and the small things.
The worst characters in The Red Strings Club felt like good takes on conventional caricatures, while the best characters felt fully-realized and believable: from protagonist Donovan himself, to more ancillary characters like a genius scientist who lives in a fluctuation between insufferably pompous and self-doubting. And then there are the small touches, the references to modern touchstones like Google, Steam, and Bitcoin, and the small tangents of two character’s history with each other, all of which lends itself to a more easily imaginable world.
While The Red Strings Club ultimately serves up a rather forgettable story, the storytelling methods it deploys through its various minigames is a fresh take on the adventure game formula, and a departure from its sometimes stale shortcomings. When it gets its minigames right, they serve as a more engaging narrative vehicle than the standardized point-and-click and text heaviness of the genre that is a little light on stimulus. But that’s when it gets its minigames right.
There are considerable sections of The Red Strings Club when the minigame at hand is plainly very stodgy and tedious — whether due to poor controls, repetitiveness, or unclear progression design. There are points where I found myself praising Deconstructeam for interesting deviation and other times where I sat in agonizing tedium wishing I could just read some more text.
Most of the story unfolds through a bartending minigame that is reminiscent of 2016’s VA-11 HALL-A in more than one way. In these moments, you play as Donovan, a debonair who uses his magnetism to lure people to his counter and his legendary cocktails to keep them there for awhile.
Throughout standard text conversations, the game will shift to a cocktail-mixing minigame where the challenge is to pour, mix and match a variety of different alcohols to make a specific drink to evoke a specific feeling in the customer. The minigame is more of task than a game, impossible to fail and never involving any critical thinking. But somehow the minimal input of the task and repetitiveness of it never gets boring. Rather it is quite relaxing, as you watch the colorful drinks mix together in your attempt to get the mix just right. However, it’s the science of finding just the right combination of mood-inducing drinks to abstract the optimal amount of information that is the most fun.
Certain moods inspire confessions, others inspire irrational tangents. If you’re talking to someone in a narcissist state of mind, you may want to feed that with a drink that amplifies their pride until they get carried away in their arrogance and spill some information in the process. If someone is feeling depressed about a certain subject matter you want to prod them about, it’s better to match their downness with your cocktail choice. Or if you want to know what a stuffy, by-the-books, corporate lawyer thinks of her boss, convince her that they don’t care about her so she loosens up her corporate rigidness. It’s these conversational dances that are the best part of The Red Strings Club.
However, the drawback of this is if you’re bad with social cues and reading the temperature of the conversation you can find yourself at many informational dead-ends, and consequently missing a lot of great content, but also a lot of context about the characters, world and even tidbits that further fleshes out the narrative.
The subsidiary to the bartending content is a basic, but impactful, quiz mini-game where your all-knowing android pal, the aforementioned Akara, quizzes you with ten questions about the encounter you, as Donovan, just had. It is these quizzes where The Red Strings Club will challenge your logic, beliefs, and ethics — leave you ruminating.
And then there are two bad mini-games. One deals with pottery. And it’s really, really monotonous; to the point that I had to stop playing and go stimulate myself by looking at a wall and drinking water. On top of being an irkingly repetitive section of the game, it features imprecise controls that are a pain to maneuver (aka Akara is dreadful at pottery). And all of this is unfortunate, because the idea of shaping unique augmentations with a pottery disk sounds really, really rad. But in this case, it’s not. It’s really, really un-rad.
The other mini-game is also neat in its premise, but poor in its execution. In it, you play as that turquoise converse-wearing aforementioned hacker Brandeis, who impersonates employees to manipulate his way through some high-stakes espionage. Basically it’s telephone tag for 30 minutes, mixed with clicking around the environment for clues, repeatedly dialing multiple numbers over and over again, and getting stumped because the domino-like progression system is poorly realized and the section is too long.
In any game the soundtrack is important. In a cyberpunk game, it is doubly important. Fortunately, The Red Strings Club has some great tracks. Unfortunately, it also has some mediocre ones. An original soundtrack composed by Fingerspit — who also handled the soundtrack of the developer’s previous game Gods Will be Watching — The Red String Club has some great musical highs, from the dirty sound of Freelance Torturer to the entrancing sounds of Empathy Algorithms. The other side of the coin is that music that did nothing for me, registering as generic cyberpunk tracks. And there are even a few times where I found the music downright unpleasant, particularly the music you could turn on during the pottery sections, which somehow made me dislike that process even more.
While the soundtrack struggles with inconsistency, the audio design is reliably top-notch. And it’s no surprise, as Deconstructeam dependably gets the small touches right. Whether it is the sounds of Akara’s malfunctioning body or the smoothness of pouring drinks, the product is immersive audio that builds atmosphere.
Deconstructeam’s sophomore title at its core is undeniably unique. But to get to that core you will have to bite through layers of trite narrative, monotonous gameplay, and general inconsistency. Like many branching narrative games with ample replayability, The Red Strings Club is more about the journey than the destination. But across my four hours with it, I was too often not concerned with either.
Reviewed by Tyler Fischer, Contributor
Tyler Fischer is a contributor at DualShockers. He specializes in writing breaking news, managing assignments, and organization. Born and raised in New York, Tyler studies journalism and public relations at SUNY New Paltz.