Developer: Lexis Numérique / Publisher: Lexis Numérique / Played on: PlayStation 3 / Price: $10 / ESRB: Mature [Strong Language, Violence, Blood, Sexual Themes]
I’d forgive you if you took one look at Red Johnson’s Chronicles and dismissed it as another Professor Layton wannabe. Hell, I’ve even thrown out the Layton term when trying to describe how the game works to friends. Still, Johnson is a substantially different beast, if for no other reason than it has some of the hardest puzzles I’ve encountered in a puzzle game. That, combined with the gritty and inventive world the game takes place in give it enough flavor to stand on its own.
Just as in Layton, the substance of Red Johnson’s Chronicles is in puzzles. Unlike Layton, these puzzles are ridiculously complex. Most of the puzzles in Layton or Puzzle Agent revolve around atomic challenges. If you “get” one aspect or trick of the puzzle, you’ve solved it all. Puzzles in Johnson, on the other hand, are multi-tiered and require shifts of lateral thinking that will stump you for long stretches at a time. One of the more intense puzzles in the game requires that you place several scraps of paper on a giant sheet filled with doodles. Not only does the placement of each scrap of paper abide by a riddle unto itself, but there’s even a larger meta-puzzle surrounding the relative placement of all of the papers… even once you get that there’s another step to translating that to the puzzle’s solution. Some puzzles took me upwards of 45 minutes to solve, which is an appreciated level of intensity you won’t find in other puzzlers.
There’s a fairly liberal hint system in place for those that don’t want to burn their entire evening on a handful of problems. Every puzzle you solve earns you an amount of money based on how quickly you solved it which can then be spent on hints of varying specificity. The hints are laid out very well — much more so than the original Red Johnson’s Chronicles. However, I hit a few puzzles where the hints didn’t help me at all. For instance, there’s one puzzle where you have to cajole around monitors to discover a four-digit combination to a safe, but there’s absolutely nothing about the puzzle that tells you the order of the numbers. Even after buying all the hints, I just had to brute force all 24 number combinations until one clicked.
Speaking of four digit numbers… nearly every puzzle in the game involves finding a four-digit code that you’ll input to a keypad. Code puzzles are so prevalent that the rare occurrence of a different puzzle — piecing together a suspect’s portrait from a spoken description, for instance — is like finding water in the desert. Even the game’s protagonist complains about the ubiquity of number pads by the game’s end. Granted, you won’t play a game like this unless you want puzzles, but the game’s pacing could’ve been served with some lighter puzzles or exploration and interrogation sequences to break up the number pad nightmares. Several times I’d wrap up a long and difficult puzzle only to start another one with the next thing I clicked on. My brain yearned for relaxation.
Even though the length and difficulty of the game’s puzzles burned me out a little by the game’s end, the story hooked me. One Against All opens with an excellent “Story Thus Far” montage and picks up where the first game left off. Red Johnson — the sleepy-eyed and world-weary private eye — is now the target of Uncle Teddy, a mob boss that wants Johnson out of the picture for digging just a little too deep. In One Against All, you’ll get a look at some of Johnson’s family members, and while the plot escalates in terms of intensity, it thankfully stays away from nonsense like Red having to disarm a bomb that threatens the whole city. Red is a charming character, and spending more time with him in his world is one of the most enjoyable parts of the series.
VISUALS AND SOUND
Another high point of One Against All is the amazing visual work. The city of Metropolis is a fantastic hybrid of classic, smoky detective noir with a dash of French inventiveness. The artists behind One Against All have found new ways to sell an urban cesspit. Some of my favorite areas from the game include a grimy bathroom that has been converted into an apartment space and a Venetian-style waterway that has become so clogged with shipwrecks that people just live in the derelict vessels.
The sound in One Against All is not as uniformly awesome as its visuals. The brief jingles that accompany solving a puzzle are unchanged from the previous game, but I still enjoy hearing the brief jazzy fanfare. Voice acting his hit and miss again, thanks to what I assume is not a native English speaking cast. Red Johnson himself is performed well though I can’t avoid hearing Nolan North in his voice. Other characters are a little awkward in their roles but it’s not the worst I’ve ever heard.
When it comes to puzzle games like this, the huge recurring problem is whether or not you can actually find the interactable elements of an environment. Though some puzzles don’t jump out at you, your cursor will at least change to reflect whether or not you can interact with a piece of the environment. This feels like a blunt way to circumvent the problem, but it did minimize the time I spent poking at every corner of every screen to make sure I’d found everything.
The only other minor annoyance is that the numerous keypads in this game all have those damned squishy buttons. You know the ones — you’ll press it and you have to wait for the button to go down and back up before you can do anything else. It’s possible this is intentional to prevent players from brute forcing puzzle solutions, but really what it does is make me accidentally hit the same button twice because the game ignored all my d-pad input while I was trying to go to the next number. Granted, it’s not that big of a deal, but it’s a pet peeve of mine.
Red Johnson’s Chronicles: One Against All is for puzzle lifers. The puzzles are intense, complicated, and obtuse. To top it all off, you attack these puzzles back to back without much levity or downtime to let your brain recover making it even less friendly. If you turn your nose up at Layton et al. because of their approachable, digestible challenges and cheerful aesthetic, One Against All is your jam. Otherwise, I suggest splashing in the shallow end of the pool and working your way over.