Though the language and design principles of games often rely on humanity’s biggest concepts (life, death, determinism, and free will), such subjects are rarely treated with the seriousness and gravitas they deserve. Death is shorthand for failure, and freedom is a box to be checked off among other crowd-pleasing features. The Red Strings Club does not deconstruct such time-worn traditions in the same way as 2007’s BioShock did, but instead examines them with intense maturity throughout its brief, narrative-led campaign. The themes are heavy and the gameplay light, but few titles can claim to be so rewarding and satisfying.
The Red Strings Club is a testament to the idea that simplicity can breed greatness. At a glance, the game offers minimal complexity: the limited locals are rendered in pixel art, the melancholic music comprises of straightforward chords, and the tale of rebellion against a megalithic entity is drawn from age-old tropes. However, the developers at Deconstructeam use these basic building blocks to create an experience that stands out with unforeseen depth. The power of The Red Strings Club stems not from the shining quality of any one factor, but, as with Gone Home and Firewatch before it, a perfectly pitched convergence of its disparate pieces. Altering even a single aspect could upset this Jenga tower, sending it toppling into an overwrought pile of philosophical mumbo-jumbo. At points, the story threatens to touch on topics outside its remit, but the developers show the wisdom of restraint.
Players are cast as rebels: three separate individuals who each work—willingly or not—to derail the altruistic endeavour of megacorporation Supercontinent Ltd. Donovan is a purveyor of information and bartender of the eponymous club, Brandeis is an idealistic hacker, and Akara is a freshly minted android caught between conflicting ideologies. Through a fortuitous event, Donovan and Brandeis learn of Supercontinent’s plot to release a “Social Psyche Welfare” system and set out to learn more about it. Adhering to genre expectations, industry is the villain, but nothing about The Red Strings Club is quite so clear-cut. The corporation is not a faceless organisation as Donovan has personal ties to several high-ranking personnel. These relationships are explored through sometimes lengthy conversations that also touch on themes as hefty as social conditioning and emotional determinism, yet always retain a profoundly human centre.
Discussion is at the heart of the title, gaining rare power by being inextricably tied to gameplay. Each character has a different mechanic that creates player agency and can change the tone of conversation at the drop of a hat, either locking away information permanently or resulting in small alterations to the story’s course. Akara uses a pottery wheel to design bionic implants that reprogram an individual’s response to social stimuli, Donovan blends drinks perfectly attuned to his patrons’ emotions, and Brandeis uses hacking and voice modulation to impersonate other people. Furthermore, far from being morose information dumps, the dialogues are a delight to experience—lively and imbued with a sense of character and charm that many games, and even novels, fail to capture. Nuanced and scintillating, the conversations unwind, divulging more information about this cyberpunk future and the motivations of Supercontinent, as well as grounding the world with a sense of reality.
Alongside the informational unlocking of the world comes a visual one. Although only a handful of locales are featured in The Red Strings Club, the order in which they appear reinforces the opening of the narrative. Akara’s laboratory and the bar are tight areas that seem to contribute to hivemind mentalities by virtue of their limited size. Later locations are no more expansive than earlier ones in terms of gameplay space, but their lavish views of cityscapes make them feel more alive and help the player to realise that the ramifications of Donovan and Brandeis’s actions extend far beyond just the duo. The old-school aesthetic also contributes through its lack of specific detail. While the backdrops are awash in detail, the same is not true of the individuals who more resemble faceless dolls than actual people. Rather than undoing the work of the writing by depersonalising the characters, this design choice universalises them, making them stand-ins for the unnamed, uninformed masses that may (or may not) agree with their viewpoints.
This tendency towards categorising humanity as a whole extends to the audio—particularly via the absence of voice acting. Voiceless characters are polarising. Tone and timbre can lend words a weight and meaning that they, on their own, may lack. However, doing away with this seemingly vital element of human interaction is another means by which Deconstructeam enables Donovan and Brandies to represent the bulk of the populace. In place of speech, music does the heavy lifting in setting the scene. Many games struggle to convey the emotional tone with audio, tending to overload the soundtrack with instrumentation that confuses the matter, but The Red Strings Club commits no such sins. The straightforward accompaniments are not particularly memorable, but they work wonders in generating a sense of sorrow, terror, or peace.
Few titles can take players on a journey with the ease and grace that The Red Strings Club does; its ability to do so much with so little is a ringing endorsement to the effectiveness of minimalism. The game will not—can not—appeal to everyone, but those seeking a title that takes narrative seriously should not overlook it. Although the gameplay is not challenging, the way it forms an integral part of the story is something that even the biggest, most practiced teams in the industry can learn from. In short, The Red Strings Club is unmissable.
RAGE 2 Review – Glorious Guns but a Shoddy Structure
A Conflicted Beginning
The opening moments of RAGE 2 are reminiscent of little so much as Killzone. A gravelly voice gives a stirring speech about superiority and the need to quash the rampant spread of lesser humans. The speaker is General Cross, a bald, deformed head—Scolar Visari transplanted across the years and franchises—atop a robotic body. Furthermore, like Killzone, such charisma and character are reserved for the enemy faction, here known as The Authority.
Players quickly get the choice of either a male or female Walker before being tossed into a high-octane battlefield overrun by cyborgs and mutants alike. Armed with only a few basic weapons, Walker is an effective killing machine in this first conflict, and the gameplay experience is as satisfying as they come. The guns are responsive and feel powerful, while the level design invites the kind of non-stop strafing and perpetual motion popularised by classics such as Quake and DOOM.
As veteran gamers might expect from past experiences, the battle goes badly. The heroes are killed, and Walker’s hometown is razed. In using this premise RAGE 2 attempts tired pity-me story beats to invest the player (at this point, unsuccessfully). The hometown hero (and Walker’s mother figure) is slain in the battle, which begins a quest that combines personal vengeance with the global desire to do what is best for the world: stop the monsters.
Before that, players must first expand their skill set, and so the sublime first-person shooter gameplay is joined with RPG mechanics that promise immense depth to the gunplay out in the Wasteland, though the first of these so-termed superpowers is underwhelming, providing the ability to dash out of harm’s way.
With the story set up, the game shifts gears, putting players into an armoured vehicle, and the grippy handling feels as good as the gunplay. The vehicle physics are decidedly arcade-infused, caring little for such nuances as terrain. Instead, all that matters is putting the pedal to the metal and tearing off towards the first objective (and trying to not get too sidetracked in the process).
Despite all of this—the satisfying gunplay, the competent (if so far unspectacular) story, the pleasurable vehicle controls—something feels missing in RAGE 2, a certain spark that will make everything just click.
Gunplay To Die For
Shaking the dust of the ruined Vineland from Walker’s boots for the first time is a bit like bungee jumping. Although the player’s time in the village has been short, they have become acclimatised to a certain po-faced tone and blazingly fast gameplay. Suddenly, though, the security of familiarity drops away as Walker freefalls into the wasteland.
Three story-focused questlines are provided as immediate options, but every path is peppered with distractions and side missions that beg to be roughhoused. After only an hour’s random exploration, the overworld map is littered with icons denoting all sorts of miscellaneous activities.
The Arks, in particular, call for attention. In the fiction, they are similar to Fallout’s Vaults in their stated purpose of repopulating the world post-apocalypse, but they serve primarily as a means of increasing Walker’s abilities. As enticing and—importantly—useful as the Arks are, they highlight a problem about the open world that manifests quite quickly: almost every Ark is blocked by a cohort of enemies, with another set arriving once Walker has acquired her newest skill.
Indeed, most of the activities scattered about the world amount to combat challenges against ever more dangerous foes. Occasionally, random NPCs will offer races, but these are not frequent enough to offset the sheer number of bullets that players will fire both on foot and in their vehicles. Thankfully, many of the enemy outposts, bandit dens, and bounty hideouts feature bespoke, open designs, meaning that players are never at liberty to settle into a single pattern of clearing these challenges.
Further adding diversity (though not nearly enough) are the different combat proclivities of each faction. The Goons and The Shrouded will be the most familiar to gamers, each showcasing a combination of pop-n-shoot gunplay, explosives, and close-range attackers. The mutants are more animalistic, preferring melee. Meanwhile, The Authority uses brute force and high firepower to wipe out any opposition. Although players need to be aware of the unique tactics and skills of each faction, none force the player to change their strategy; the best approach is always to move fast and keep pulling the trigger and, eventually, every enemy breaks down into scattered giblets.
The ever-expanding suite of options, compelling gunplay, varied level design, and satisfying difficulty all ensure that these encounters are never boring, but these traits are not enough to prevent a growing sense of tedium. In many ways, venturing unstructured through the wasteland feels as though the developers had a hammer of a gameplay loop, so every problem had to be a nail.
The bungee jumping analogy, then, comes full circle. After the thrill of freefall, the cord snaps back and the jumper, before too long, arrives back on terra firma. RAGE 2 follows this pattern, as the freedom of tearing across a vast environment always reins itself in to fighting.
However, novelty is not that not-quite-identifiable thing that lurks just beyond reach. Even moving from vehicle to foot changes things up, and the ridiculous amount of options in combat keeps things perpetually fresh.
A Story Lost Amidst the Bombast
The claims about story being a focal point of RAGE 2’s development ring hollow. A forgiving estimate of total narrative-led play time would clock about six hours—a realistic estimate, four. The disappointment spans more than just the brevity, however.
Walker is exactly the kind of faceless, figureless protagonist that has plagued the shooter genre for years. Her bland, no-nonsense demeanour is a dampening lens through which to view this madcap apocalypse, and it undercuts the otherwise energetic tone. Whether interacting with the dour John Marshall or the despicable Doctor Kvasir, Walker remains unflappable, the consummate professional, and that is to the detriment of the whole game. Indeed, her personality—or, rather, the lack thereof—is a clear demonstration of that missing something that has proven so elusive. More on that later, though.
With the story being so short, the lack of impact should come as little surprise. The invasion of Vineland in the opening moments is, by far, the most interesting plot point of the entire game. Such narrative necessities as momentum, surprise, and emotion are jettisoned in favour of a straightforward quest for revenge. Unfortunately, the story is so comprehensively forgettable that nothing else is worth saying about it.
To return now to that something; Walker may want for a personality, but the game does not, and this juxtaposition highlights a central shortcoming: a lack of cohesion. RAGE 2 feels like a Frankenstein’s monster of conflicting visions. The remarkably tight combat and hand-crafted locations are designed for the most frenetic of shooters. However, the wider world makes the gunplay feel like just one part of a design that incorporates meaningless RPG progression and purchase mechanics and a considerable amount of driving from one location to another, with regular pit stops to clear enemy hubs (until that process becomes more tiresome than it has any right to be).
Even the world feels disparate, the map stitched together out of box-ticking biomes. To be fair, the deserts, jungles, waterfalls, and canyons all bear the same breathtaking beauty, but they all blend together into a meaningless mish-mash, with the gameplay locations instead being primarily industrial warehouses. The natural environment is wasted, which makes the open world seem like nothing more than padding—another area where mismatched design principles lead to a game that wants to be everything and suffers because of that ambition.
A Slipshod Structure
Bethesda has already laid out a roadmap of post-launch support for RAGE 2, and that has raised fears among the community that the game adheres to a service model. Such concerns can safely be laid to rest. Although the storyline leaves much to be desired, RAGE 2 is plump with content, as evidenced by the dozens—maybe even hundreds—of markers sprinkled across the map.
Unfortunately, the game suffers too much from its freeform design. Players are immediately free to hunt down the Arks that unlock new abilities. As such, every skill and weapon can be unlocked within a handful of hours, which is disastrous for pacing. Even more troublesome, the RPG mechanics serve no real purpose. Players need never purchase a single upgrade to succeed, and the sheer number of different currencies make doing so a chore anyway.
Because of this lack of structure, a game that could still be interesting 30 hours in can also feel worn our within a dozen, and that suggests the post-launch support will likely only appeal to a dedicated fanbase. The challenges, vehicles, and events scheduled to arrive in the coming months will likely not change up the core gameplay structure all that much. Instead, judging by the little information already available, they may simply give dedicated fans more of what they desire.
On a completely different note, but equally as concerning as the game structure is the enemy design. Beginning with General Cross and extending across the Goons, mutants, and other factions, RAGE 2 seems to take a perverse pleasure in vilifying the Other, the outsider, the disabled, the religious. Even Doctor Kvasir, as a former Authority scientist with questionable morals, is a deformed being. By contrast, the undisputed heroes are all healthy and whole. While problematic in some respects, this subtle and most likely unintentional subtext is easily overlooked and unlikely to affect the enjoyment of most gamers.
Simply put, RAGE 2 is a strange beast. Perhaps that was inevitable as the follow-up to a middling first effort developed across two very different studios. Perhaps that shared production is also the reason for the lack of unity. Whatever the reason, RAGE 2 is clearly best suited to a particular kind of player. The game offers an often-beautiful environment combined with easy, enjoyable traversal mechanics. Comprising the bulk of the experience is some of the finest and most diverse gunplay combat to be found gaming today. However, these charms are let down somewhat by the lacking story and structure and a general feeling of a tonal mismatch between the bland protagonist and the madcap world.
Reviewed on Xbox One X.
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