The Red Strings Club isn't your typical bar and Donovan isn't your typical bartender. He deals in information and to his aid he got this muse (you, the player) allowing him to mix drinks that will put his clients in a certain mood. A bit of bourbon and some Absinthe may see someone slip into madness or into joyful bliss. Donovan does more than mix drinks, he deals in information and together with his partner Brandeis he uncovers a corporate plot to upload a program into people's implants to eliminate depression, fear, and anger from society. Brainwashing or building a better society?
The game starts with a sequence where you see Brandeis falling from a skyscraper contemplating his fate. It's the actual ending of the game you get to see a glimpse of, so this is a story that won't end well, at least not for Brandeis, but depending on your actions and choices the actual ending will play out a little differently. The game deals with some major subjects that we're facing in today's society; information, free will, and how we put tremendous trust in corporations. These themes are treated with great care and you truly get the sense that there's no absolute right or wrong here and the question of how far you'd go to defend what you feel is right comes up frequently.
Donovan and Brandeis are catching up in the bar when a worse for wear android stumbles into the bar. It turns out she's a new Akara model, capable of making ethical choices. She used to work at the Supercontinent corporation where she designed implants for people looking for a shortcut to self-improvement, but one day, one of her clients gave her new instructions. It didn't end well, but Donovan takes the android on seeing the potential to have her monitor the people visiting the bar to gauge their emotional state.
If you haven't already worked it out by now, The Red Strings Club is a narrative adventure from Deconstructeam (Gods Will Be Watching) set in the cyberpunk-styled future where almost everyone is wearing implants (except for Donovan who can't due to a medical condition). Patrons at the eponymous The Red Strings Club come in one by one and sit down for Donovan's special cocktails. He barters information and, for some reason, everyone who comes in is tied to the Supercontinent corporation who are about to launch their Social Psyche Welfare update. Here you'll gain information that will be vital for infiltrating the corporation.
One of our favourite elements of The Red Strings Club is how much there is to explore here. This isn't one of those narrative experiences where you just go on a linear journey through the story, rather there are lots of secrets and extras to investigate and you'll shape the experience through the decisions you make; some seemingly innocent at the time, others with a sense of real weight to them right from the start.
One thing that was a bit hit and miss were the mini-games that compliment the conversations. While it took some getting used to we grew to enjoy mixing drinks as Donovan, particularly towards the end when there were a lot of things to consider and you had to use the shaker to make sure you hit the spot. The mini-game where you designed implants as Akara, however, was a very jarring and frustrating rendition of pottery. Think of it as the juice box in Heavy Rain only much more fidgety and elaborate. It cost us a bit of immersion as we cursed out loud repeatedly. While Brandeis hacking is rather old school (we won't spoil it), it was probably the highlight in terms of puzzles and/or mini-games. It's clear that the developer has been keen to make these components elaborate and a bit deeper than what you'd expect in a narrative experience like this, but the pottery certainly felt overworked and difficult to control.
The writing in The Red Strings Club is excellent and the characters are wonderfully portrayed through text (there's no voice acting here). That's why the few grammatical errors stand out, hopefully that will be patched out soon enough. And there was also a point in the final section of the game, the hacking bit with Brandeis, where you had to repeat a conversation to get all the information you needed as you had no option to ask a second question, but you had to redo it in its entirety for the chance to ask the second question. Small issues in what's, on the whole, a brilliant piece of fiction. You'll get to learn a lot about the characters (something that makes a second playthrough more worthwhile), and some of them truly stand out, such as Larissa, Edgar, and Johanna. The latter is one of the executives that you give a rogue implant to at the start and the interactions you have with her are rather interesting.
The graphics and music also stand out. Great pixel art and some of the funkiest liquid physics we've seen (again the mini-games are more elaborate than you'd think) and a soundtrack that you won't be able to help yourself humming along to. The game is just about the right length and took us a handful of hours to get through, and there's very little filler here as you'll want to take your time to fully soak up the narrative.
In some ways, The Red Strings Club feels like a modern and nuanced take on a 1970s dystopic sci-fi flick. Particularly the ending has that feel to it, even if how you've played will influence how things end up. We were frustrated at times by the pottery section, but overall this is a game we'd recommend to anyone interested in themes involving free will, societal control, and artificial intelligence.