Dark dystopian futures and a long island ice tea are not exactly natural accompaniments. Devolver Digital’s latest title sets out to mix a little light intoxication, some mysticism, and a deeply disturbing look into the future as players enter. This is our The Red Strings Club review for PC.
Out now on Steam, this bartending adventure is a mix of point and click puzzles and visual novels. Like Sukeban Game’s VA-11 HALL-A, The Red Strings Club revolves around the eponymous bar and its clientele. From the moment that a battered Akara android stumbles through the door of this unique establishment and spills its secrets, players are drawn into a world of corporate intrigue, hackers, and revolutionaries that could change humanity.
Inside The Red Strings Club, it is a pixel art depiction of an antiquated establishment. Situated in a modern metropolis, the bar and its inhabitants are a fitting retroreflection of the game’s overall aesthetic. While the game’s aesthetic is a great nod to a bygone era of gaming, it is enhanced by a fantastic soundtrack. Just as the graphics could come straight out of the eighties, a range of MIDI accompaniments are used to build a bleak, and at times oppressive, the atmosphere full of crushing synth rhythms that are clearly influenced by to the likes of Blade Runner.
It is this mix of eighties synth and technobabble that is almost the antithesis of The Red String Club’s protagonist. Donovan, the owner of The Red Strings Club, is just plain human and something of a mystic. Able to conjure beverages that synchronize with the soul of customers, this ability is quickly introduced as one of the game’s primary mechanics. Like the fabulous VA-11 HALL-A, players are challenged to navigate their way through a series of patrons, extracting information and crafting cocktails to ease them through their personal plights. Donovan, however, just so happens to be able to see the souls of his clients. This allows players to craft concoctions that exploit the desires of his customers. It is an ingenious system that is integral to the opening half of the game, corrupting and manipulating other characters to loosen their lips and spill their guts.
Crafting drinks in the Red Strings Club is essential to progressing through this adventure. A small selection of booze is readily available behind the bar and each of these will have an effect on a client’s emotional state. Pouring booze will influence a target marker, moving it around a map of each client’s emotions. Correctly mixing a drink that exploits a particular state, results in clientele that embraces a corresponding emotion.
Indulging a customer is not the aim of this experience. Donovan’s muse affects patron’s emotions as they answer questions about the activities of their employers and associates. Selecting the correct emotion can influence an answer, unlocking new information and extra options. Choosing the wrong question at an inconvenient time can, however, result in a wasted opportunity and flat response. This makes Donovan’s bartending skills and the various levels of complexity that it entails both engaging and useful.
These choices also give The Red Strings Club some replay value. Decisions are immutable once made and once significant moments are reached, they are recorded. Whether it is your performance during the game’s mini quizzes or which drink is served, these red strings of fate weave their way through the narrative and can be reviewed via the game’s menu. Loosely based on eastern mythology, the red string is a clear reference to the idea of fate and the freedom of humanity to make their own mistakes.
It is an interesting idea that is explored during the game but does not entirely meet its potential. The closing moments of The Red Strings Club feel somewhat rushed, unraveling these threads at an uncomfortable pace. While it does not undermine all of the player’s choices, the final act of The Red Strings Club is a little direct and would benefit from allowing players to observe the results of their choices play out for longer.
Like the closing moments of the Red Strings Club, the rest of the final third feels like it does not quite meet the potential that the rest of the game builds. Set outside the bar, a fairly linear set of puzzles stand in player’s way. Sneaking into the headquarters of Supercontinent Ltd confronts players with a telephone directory. In essence, the final puzzles do not really require player’s to do more than dial, dial, and dial again until they hit upon the correct sequence of events. The lack of a definitive failure state is a contrast to the immutable choices built up in the Red Strings Club.
Similarly, certain characters and narrative elements feel underdeveloped. One supernatural interloper in particular screamed for more screen time. Bartending, equally, felt a little bit rough around the edges. More of an art than a science, the mechanics of creating cocktails feels somewhat unwieldy. Clicking and dragging bottles around the bar top will no doubt work fantastically if this appears on a mobile platform, but just managed to frustrate at times.
The Red Strings Club is a fascinating exploration of humanity, emotion, ethics, and our own preconceptions of evil. It tackles some huge topics, and while it does not manage to meet all of it’s potential it is worth playing just to visit The Red Strings Club, pull up a chair, and try something different.
Final Red Strings Club Review Score: 8/10
+ Wonderful aesthetic
+ a deep and engaging sci fi story that feels relevant
-Ending feels rushed
-Bartending is a bit clunky
-Some characters feel underdeveloped