Devolver Digital always manages to find and push forward small subversive games that may not be perfect, but they are (almost) always worth playing and paying attention to. Its latest publishing effort is no exception.
Deconstructeam's The Red Strings Club
is a cyberpunk narrative experience that tackles some tough topics about the human condition and where the line should be drawn in meddling with individual and societal control.
Most of this experience consists of reading through dialogue and making choices to steer the story of Donovan, Brandeis and an android called Akara-184. Donovan is a peerless bartender with the ability to make cocktails tailored to bring out certain emotions, he uses this to gather information that he could then sell or trade.
Cocktails are made with a fun gameplay mechanic where you have to pour spirits in to a glass in the right quantities. This, in turn, moves a cursor in specific directions with the goal of targeting the emotional state you want the customer to be in. For example - you suspect someone of knowing about a murder but they're unwilling to talk, so when they ask for a drink you mix one designed to bring forward their sense of guilt.
Brandeis, on the other hand, is a more hands-on type. He takes risks and gets involved with a group known for subverting the big corporations that rule over the city. Even though he isn't actually a member he sympathises with them. He also serves as Donovan's window to the outside world because for some mysterious reason our bartender extraordinaire is bound to the club.
Akara starts off as an android built to be able to feel empathy. This helps its makers to create upgrades for human clientele, tailoring a mod to suit their needs. This is done through a lathing mini game where you shape the mod using different chisels. One of the modifications helps a cosplayer become better at social media interactions to gain more followers, whilst one causing a corporate big-shot to feel remorse for the shady work she is involved in.
The pixellated art style is something I am starting to grow weary of, but when it is done well it still looks good without being too taxing on a small developer. Whilst I liked the art of The Red Strings Club
well enough I do feel it could've been better with a richer art direction - many of the details of the characters were lost in the retro aesthetic.
The main pull of this game is the story and the subtext that goes along with it. The commentary it pushes forward could be a bit on the nose for some people, so if you're easily upset by difficult questions about morality and control you might want to give this a miss. Questions like - would you make it so suicide would no longer be an option considered by people in distress if you could? Would you knowingly change who you are to guarantee contentment?
These are just a few things you have to confront while trying to unravel a city-wide mystery that got one of Brandeis' acquaintances killed through the art of conversation and cocktail mixing, all experienced alongside a catchy and melancholy synth/piano soundtrack.
Fate is like a red string tying everyone together and flowing through the story, in this case quite literally as you can click on an icon in the top left of the screen and see the path you've taken as a red string going from plot choice to plot choice. This gives a clear indicator of how far you've come and how quickly you approach one of the characters fates.
Whilst I would prefer a stronger art style I still highly recommend The Red Strings Club
to anyone who enjoys the kind of cyberpunk dystopias conjured by William Gibson and other authors like him. Just be prepared for a heavy-handed approach to some of the issues covered.
+ Interesting story that is unafraid to broach certain topics
+ Sympathetic characters full of surprises
+ Drink mixing is a neat mini-game
+ A great soundtrack
- Enough of the pixel retro aesthetic, especially for smaller games
- Heavy handed approach to a few subjects
SPOnG Score: 7/10