Something you don't see that often these days are old school adventure games; instead there are more and more modern interpretations of the genre, like Heavy Rain and L.A. Noire, popping up. Red Johnson's Chronicles is a game that aims to marry the old with the new by taking the style of the old and infusing it with modern gameplay enhancements we've come to expect.
Red Johnson's Chronicles comes to you courtesy of French developer Lexis Numérique, and puts you in the shoes of Red Johnson, a private investigator in the American city of Metropolis. Metropolis is a hellhole; it's like Gotham City without the crazy villains and the Wayne family, and you're tasked with solving a case the police can't really be bothered to work on.
The story is reasonably entertaining and, while it is a noir crime story, the similarities to something like L.A. Noire are few and far between. The game doesn't take itself too seriously, so the story comes off as a more cheesy and lighthearted noir story. You see this in the voice acting and dialogue as well, which is horribly cheesy (too much so at times). It's not easy to tell if this B-movie style is intentional, but I'm willing to give the folks at Lexis the benefit of the doubt, simply because it gives the game a unique charm compared to darker crime games.
And even though the game is nothing special from a technological perspective, and limited in the scope of what you get to see, the style is still visible in the graphics. The things you do get to see look good and keep you in the experience, and you won't often feel like you need more. I mentioned that you're limited in what you get to see, and here I'm referring to the few different environments in the game (which you explore by moving a cursor around on the screen). Thankfully, this actually helps the game feel simple and focused, rather than coming off as a big limitation. The meat of the game is the puzzles, and limiting the environments helps keep the game focused on them, though it would have been nice if the environments had at least been a bit larger.
It's a good thing the puzzles are the main focus, because many of them are clever, creative and challenging, and you'll be solving many different problems, from fixing toilets to disabling alarms. Some of these puzzles can be really tough, though, and the hint system isn't always helpful. You buy hints from a guy named Saul, and buying a hint allows you to buy the next one from him too. It makes sense on paper, since many puzzles have several steps to complete, but it would be nice if you didn't have to buy hints for stuff you've already solved. And even if you know exactly what you need to do, some puzzles are still frustratingly hard to actually complete.
One very appreciated touch to the puzzles is that they are all self-contained. When you engage in a puzzle, you are isolated from the rest of the game, and every clue you need to solve the puzzle is available in this isolated spot. You can quit the puzzle without it being completed, but it will count as having failed the puzzle and cost you a turn (the game grades your performance based on the time and the amount of turns you take to solve a puzzle). This means you won't be running around collecting items, trying to find the thing that allows you to solve a certain puzzle, thus avoiding a lot of confusion and frustration. The game still requires you to collect items, but they function as clues to solve the crime and move the story along, rather than being key items to be used in puzzles.
While the puzzles are good, it feels like the developers have been a bit over-enthusiastic about them, because they've tried to extend the puzzles into other parts of the gameplay... unsuccessfully. One example of this is the conversation system. As a crime solver, you will of course be interviewing people related to the crime, so it's a shame that the conversation system feels so archaic. Each conversation has you replying with one of three replies, but there is only one correct answer, and if you fail you have to start over. As in the puzzles, you're also graded on the turns and time spent, but it just doesn't work very well in the age of Heavy Rain or Mass Effect. Adding insult to injury is the fact that the game often wants to test your knowledge, and so you have small conversations with yourself that you have to ”pass” in order to progress further.
While the game may not have tried to emulate Heavy Rain's conversation system, it has certainly been inspired by its controls. More often than not, you're using the analogue sticks rather than the buttons to perform actions, and often in ways that help enhance your immersion. But while Heavy Rain's controls are a good match for Red Johnson, the developers brought over the quick time events as well, which don't mix well with puzzles. They're used in the game without the forgiving nature they have in Heavy Rain. Fortunately, they are few and far between, so despite how annoying they are, they're not much of a concern in the overall picture.
So, what kind of value are you getting? That depends on what kind of gamer you are. You've got trophies, of course, but the game itself doesn't offer much real incentive to replay. A single playthrough should still give you five to ten hours of play time though, depending on your puzzle solving skills, which is decent enough, all things considered.
Will you like Red Johnson's Chronicles? If you're a fan of puzzles, there's a good chance you'll like it, but it has its share of rough edges. I'm personally excited about the inevitable sequel, because the folks at Lexis have shown that they know how to make a good puzzle game, and with some additional polish and the right changes, I'm certain the sequel can shine.