Red Johnson’s Chronicles Review

An Adventure Detective Game

With other titles like Phoenix Wright, Professor Layton and even Telltale’s Puzzle Agent, it’s become pretty obvious that when you want to present the audience with a mystery of some kind, an adventure or puzzle game is the best way to do it. Until recently, the best bet for PS3 owners to get their fix in this area was The Blue Toad Murder Files. Puzzle Agent also landed on the PS3 recently, but now there’s a new king in town for overall gameplay and presentation, and amazingly, it’s French.

Someone’s Dead. Find The Killer.

Unsurprisingly, Red Johnson’s Chronicles are about the chronicles of… Red Johnson. He’s a private investigator working in an American city known only as “Metropolis” with a city map that strongly resembles the iconic radioactive hazard symbol we’ve grown to know and fear. A bumbling cop comes into his office with Yet Another Case, this one about a murder victim shot on a bridge and the killer still on the loose. The game, as Sherlock Holmes would say, is afoot from that point on. The characters and story draw upon well worn clichés, though they’re not as richly developed as the disc based extravaganza L.A. Noire. Johnson himself is the private dick who goes through the usual menagerie of hookers with hearts of gold, smooth criminals and long suffering wives to get to the bottom of the mystery. There’s nothing original here, but nothing badly executed either.

One pleasant surprise comes in the form of the game’s presentation. Quite honestly, it’s fantastic. The French have a flair for environmental design, and particularly light, that’s been clearly demonstrated in another French murder mystery, Heavy Rain. Although Quantic Dream wasn’t involved in this title, these French interpretations of seedy American cities are something they excel at. The urban decay, delicate light and phenomenal attention to detail in every day apartment settings raise the quality of this DLC title far above its budget roots. Of course, because it’s a point and click adventure, visuals are largely static, so there are no frame rates, pop in, draw in or other performance issues to comment on.

The audio side of things is interesting, and decidedly mixed in nature. The main character, Red Johnson is voiced by David Gasman, who does an unintentionally good job of sounding like Nolan “Nathan Drake” North. The rest of the cast do a decent of job of delivering dialog on their various character clichés, always sounding like they’re from New York even if the city is clearly labelled as Metropolis. Sound effects are fairly minimal, relegated mostly to audio cues to signify user actions. Music is decidedly eclectic, not necessarily the brooding jazz one expects from an urban mystery, but not exactly contemporary either, having an almost buoyant, 60s/70s vibe. It’s an unusual choice, but it works, possibly another result of one of those things that would only occur to French mind.

A Detecting We Will Go

Red Johnson’s Chronicles is a strange, hybrid game, borrowing some QTE elements from Heavy Rain for its action, taking witness/suspect interrogation from L.A. Noire and Phoenix Wright, while borrowing puzzles from Professor Layton and combining it all with the deductive reasoning and multiple suspects of old Infocom text mystery games like The Witness and Deadline. At its heart, this is a point and click adventure through and through, but it’s borrowing—quite successfully—from a lot of sources. In many ways, the most surprising thing about the game is that it’s more of the game that L.A. Noire was expected to be. Where L.A. Noire focuses largely on detective work through suspect interrogation, private investigator Johnson actually gathers clues, finds fingerprints, uses ballistic analysis to trace murder weapons, and confronts suspects with method, motive and opportunity.

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The game is not always successful at everything that it tries to do. For example, the Quick Time Events occasionally peppered through the game for action lack the same drama of Heavy Rain. These are not particularly lengthy or well choreographed action sequences, so while the change of pace is appreciated, it feels out of place in an otherwise largely cerebral experience. Another area that occasionally puzzles is the reliance on memory, something that the Blue Toad Murder Files also did with regularity, suddenly bringing up a “pop quiz” of sorts to quickly run through the facts and see whether players are paying attention. Failing these doesn’t end the game, thankfully, but they do affect the final rating of the player, who is “graded” on how well they do at every activity in the game, and assigned an average at the end.

These are minor quibbles however, because where the game does work is in its surprisingly lengthy and involving murder case. As a point and click adventure, inventory management and “pixel hunting” through an environments are taken as practically foundation elements of the genre. This is elevated to greater, more relevant importance in a murder mystery, where any environment could hide evidence, and every object could be a vital clue. Players visit a small but beautifully rendered set of locales, and can do everything from gather clues, to interrogating people to solving puzzles that are integrated into the story, like connecting circuits on a panel to defuse an alarm, or figuring out the PIN number of a cellular phone to gain access to its messages. There’s a large variety of activities for players to do in this little downloadable title, and quite a lot of them are diabolically hard. The game rewards players with cash for accomplishing tasks and that money can be used to buy hints for helping to solve the various obstacles that present themselves, but for the stubborn and honest, who insist on doing it on their own, this game can easily span 8-10 hours, possibly more depending on how clever you are.

In the end, Red Johnson’s Chronicles is an easy game to recommend for adventure fans. It’s a quality title with some surprising production values, a decent mystery, and a broad range of detective activities for players to take part in. It’s also competitively priced at only $13 in North America, which is a pretty good deal for a quality DLC title and arguably one of the better adventure games on the PS3, managing to hold its own in the detective department with both Heavy Rain and L.A. Noire even if it’s not as dark or serious as those titles. If you’re looking for a fun murder mystery to test your deductive reasoning with, you should definitely pick this up.