Monthly Archives: February 2018

A Case of Distrust

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Solve a grisly murder in 1920’s San Francisco.

PC Release: February 8, 2018

By Ian Coppock

All classic detective stories begin the same way. They open on a dingy apartment that’s full of nothing but flat light and cigarette smoke. A solitary protagonist heaves themselves off of their cot (or from a face-down position on the desk) to take that one case that’ll win them back their self-respect. This beginning is endemic to detective stories both great and terrible; which category the story falls in depends on where it goes from that premise. It’s time to see if A Case of Distrust achieves that greatness.

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A Case of Distrust is a gritty crime noir created by a dev known as The Wandering Ben and/or Ben Wander (in either case, it’s safe to assume that his name is Benjamin and he enjoys aimless traveling). The game begins with the scene described above: a down-on-their luck detective comes to in a dirty flat and is given a chance to turn their dismal existence around. In A Case of Distrust‘s case, that chance falls to Phyllis Malone, an aspiring detective living in 1920’s San Francisco.

After convincing the neighborhood cat that there is, in fact, no food in her apartment (which is also the game’s tutorial), Phyllis gets a knock on her door from a slimy bootlegger whom she’d rather slam the door in front of than help. The catch is that this sleazeball’s just gotten a rather threatening letter, and finding out who sent it could be the big break that lands Phyllis back in the San Francisco PD. Against her better judgment (and with nothing better to do), she takes the case.

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Saving a bootlegger. Awesome.

Even though Phyllis has a mind like a whip and some decent detective skills, she makes barely a dent in the investigation before her client bites a bullet. Yep; what started out as a case of return-to-[deadly]-sender expands into a full-blown murder mystery. San Francisco is hardly lesser for the death of a Prohibition-busting bootlegger, but Phyllis decides to continue the investigation still hoping that it’ll catch the SFPD’s attention. Besides, the cops sure won’t bother trying to solve the death of a known criminal.

Phyllis has a few cards up her sleeve for solving the murder. She keeps every statement and piece of evidence written down in her notebook, which players can reference anytime they get stuck. She has a keen eye for environmental details. Finally, she can also head to the local “coffee” shop (where the coffee is Irish free trade, wink wink nudge nudge), to shoot the breeze with her bartender—er—barista friend Frankie. Frankie’s no cop, but a lifetime of studying bar patrons has given him a talent for insight.

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Remember, if the building inspector comes, that liquor cabinet is a window box.

A Case of Distrust plays out like a point-and-click adventure game. As Phyllis, players can visit locales all over San Francisco to explore scenes and question witnesses. This game’s exploration is not dissimilar to that of a hidden object game: simply move the mouse around the screen until an object highlights itself and a note about it will pop up in Phyllis’s book. Some objects are more relevant than others; that dusty lamp in the corner will probably just keep collecting dust, but what about that hastily discarded gun in the trash?

Phyllis can also interrogate the people she finds at these scenes. As noir tales often go, the murder victim was a complete jackass, so of course everyone has a motive for offing the guy. Phyllis can ask each character a set of questions about the murder, oftentimes acquiring useful info about other characters in the process. She can also go Phoenix Wright on them by contradicting their narratives. When prompted to do so, players can catch a suspect in their lie or let that statement slide for next time.

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Damn… this perp knows how to stay cool under pressure.

The dialogue that fleshes these interrogations out is well-written. Each character has their own mannerisms that feel organic and grow more complex as the story progresses. Plus, Phyllis has plenty of her own witty observations about the people around her. These two writing elements produce an entertaining story, sans the occasional grammar error. A sentence like “I [know] all about you!” breaks immersion.

Phyllis also has plenty of stories to tell about her surroundings. Whether she’s describing the smoky basement of a bar or the murder victim’s apartment, these little anecdotes are great at setting the scene. This writing borrows heavily from the inner monologues of other crime stories without being too derivative, leaving the player feeling like they’re actually in jazz age-San Francisco.

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Ah, the city…

A Case of Distrust‘s gritty vibe is further reinforced by its artwork. The entire game is done out in sketch-like scenes that look proto-art deco. Plus, each scene utilizes a single color that sets its mood. The bar that Phyllis hangs out in is painted a warm, reassuring orange, while the murder victim’s apartment is a dour blue. These strong colors are put to excellent effect creating the atmosphere for each locale.

Each character in A Case of Distrust bears minimalist visual attributes that help define their personality. The game confers just enough detail to outline each of its characters but leaves certain facial features blank so that players can imagine their expressions. It’s a bit creepy that none of the characters have eyeballs… but then again, it’d probably look creepier to see them just staring at Phyllis during interrogations.

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That old-timey typeface is a nice touch, too.

A Case of Distrust‘s art is rounded out with excellent sound design. The game’s world sounds awesome; everything from the grumble of a motorcar speeding along to the opening of a barber shop door sounds rich and crisp. It’s easy to dismiss details like these as mere, well, details, but sound design goes a long way toward making a video game feel alive. A Case of Distrust‘s skill with a soundboard does as much to make players feel like they’re in San Francisco as the aforementioned writing.

Just like any Roaring Twenties-era game that aspires to be taken seriously, A Case of Distrust features a robust jazz soundtrack. Most of the sounds are low and moody, like the snare drums that play when Phyllis stops by Southern Coffee. Low music is another excellent means of giving scenes a tense tone, and it’s put to great effect in A Case of Distrust. Hopefully the soundtrack becomes available soon; its slow drums and bass strings are worth a listen.

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Oh boy. This is getting serious.

The gameplay at the heart of all this art and writing starts off at a brisk pace, but occasionally gets players bogged down in asking the same questions over and over. It’s a bit tedious to visit the same locales time and again to double-check witnesses’ statements against each other. It’s not necessarily a bad setup, but the sudden slowdown in pacing from Phyllis’s breakneck letter investigation to sifting through murder witnesses is quite conspicuous.

Additionally, A Case of Distrust asks players to assert means, motive, and opportunity for the killer, but all Phyllis can actually do is speculate on those points. The game comes loaded with clues to sort through, but Phyllis is never actually able to definitively link those articles to the murderer. This makes the game a bit confusing, as it asks players to do one thing but expects another. It’s lucky for Phyllis that the perp immediately confesses upon being accused of the crime, because all even the most thorough players have to go on ends up being three hunches. Just something to bear in mind.

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Hunches are not legally binding.

Despite A Case of Distrust‘s unsteady cross examination, the game’s story is well worth the time of any thriller fan. The narrative is tightly wound and the aforementioned writing is swell. The only problem is that A Case of Distrust is one of those games that sacrifices a lot of its ballast to make a plot twist work. Just when Phyllis thinks that she has the murderer in her sights, the game dumps a ton of exposition onto players that is in apropos of almost nothing else in the narrative.

A Case of Distrust‘s twist is hardly egregious (it’s one of the better such devices in recent detective video games), but narratives that drown players in peripheral detail to make a plot twist work risk making that twist too grand. It makes the game feel like it has a twist merely for the sake of having a twist instead of for the sake of a good narrative. A Case of Distrust still sticks its narrative landing, but not without a few wobbles.

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Huh. Okay then.

A Case of Distrust isn’t without its rough edges and its gameplay can get tedious, but players who enjoy noir tales will get a kick out of this title. It begins with a premise virtually identical to that of a lot of murder mysteries, but combines believable characters and an unusually well-described world to provide a compelling tale. As such, the game is ultimately worth a try, and Ben Wander is ultimately a dev worth paying attention to.

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You can buy A Case of Distrust here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Burly Men at Sea

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Embark upon burly adventures on the open sea.

PC Release: September 29, 2016

By Ian Coppock

Anyone who clicked on this review hoping for nautical erotica and pictures of shirtless men heaving to is going to be disappointed. Sorry, but hard as it may be to believe, Burly Men at Sea is a video game, not the latest porn parody of Pirates of the Caribbean. Though this revelation may sting deeply, don’t despair. Grab some coffee, pull up a chair, and explore the tales of Burly Men at Sea.

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Burly Men at Sea is an adventure game created by the curiously named indie dev Brain&Brain. The game could easily be mistaken for a child’s book, what with its bright colors and simple object design. This aesthetic lends Burly Men at Sea a fairy tale charm, and it looks damn cute besides. The title never gets too complicated with its visual design, preferring to stick 1-2 bright colors onto simply drawn objects. None of this is to say that the game looks simplistic; it just looks simple.

Burly Men at Sea‘s animations are similarly simple. Characters and objects move about on the page as if they’re paper cutouts transposed onto an adorable background. While these animations aren’t exactly fluid, they fit well with Burly Men at Sea‘s visual vibe and reinforce its charm. They’re a decent option for a video game that tries to feel like a children’s book without actually being a book.

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Let’s get something to eat, whaddya guys say to some semlor?

The grand adventure at the heart of all these cutesy visuals is about three heavily bearded dudes who sail the seas of early 20th-century Scandinavia. These brothers, who all go by the name of [insert personality type here] Beard, are destined to encounter all sorts of monsters, treasure, and strange folk as they traverse the ocean. What courses they take and what creatures they encounter is all up to the player.

Each story in Burly Men at Sea begins the same way: the three brothers sit down with a wizened old villager who tells them a sea tale of yore. Eager for glory, the brothers man a ship and depart their village in search of their own tall tales to spin. Players can decide which direction the brothers take in their search for adventure and thus blaze a new story path with each playthrough. There are a lot of stories to find.

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Boys, it’s time to hit the water.

Though Burly Men at Sea is loaded up with enough stories for a daylong fika, there’s one tiny problem: they’re only about 15-20 minutes long each. That’s a tight time frame even for the shortest of stories. Despite Burly Men at Sea‘s best efforts, the game struggles to stuff a premise, a buildup, a climax, and the journey back home into such a short length of time. Players may feel that they’ve scarcely begun their grand oceanic tour just as the boys return to the coffee shop.

It might’ve been better had Burly Men at Sea provided 3-4 burly tales instead of 8-10 tiny ones. Sure, there’d be less variety to go around, but stories need enough time to build themselves up and get the player invested. Better to provide fewer, longer stories that actually have the breathing room to draw the player in than tinier stories that end before they can cast their spell. In any piece of media that contains branching storylines… less is usually more.

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Sweet siren song of Sweden. Say THAT five times fast!

Burly Men at Sea‘s stories are short, but that doesn’t mean that their writing is lost at sea. Indeed, these mini-tales are quite well-written, with believable dialogue and narration that are both free of spelling errors. Each of the brothers is lent his own convincing personality and remains true to that characterization when he beholds a wonder of the open sea. These acute characterizations and the skillfully written narration are the saving grace of Burly Men at Sea‘s short stories.

Burly Men at Sea‘s writing does one better by being, well, funny. The game’s writing possesses a sense of gentle sarcasm that comes across mostly when the brothers make witty observations about their nautical predicaments. The story also makes a few dry, albeit heartwarming, footnotes about the world that these three brothers have gotten themselves into. It’s the type of writing that warms the heart and cracks a smile at the same time.

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Snort.

Burly Men at Sea‘s world runs on a combination of borrowed Scandinavian folklore and entirely original concepts. Depending on what choices the player makes, the brothers can run into anything from a trio of nymphs to mythical Swedish sea monsters. Picking a course is as simple as listening to the dialogue and selecting an option when prompted. No matter what players pick, they can count on encountering nautical novelties worthy of a sea shanty. This helps the stories retain some novelty in spite of their short length.

Players who enjoy collecting in-game items will enjoy Burly Men at Sea‘s stories, because the end of each tale means another book for the village coffee shop. Yes, upon returning home, the brother shelve a novel full of their most recent adventures before setting sail again to find more. This system is far more than a score card for completionists, though; it helps players who are set on uncovering every mystery of this game’s sea keep track of where they’ve been.

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Another successful day at sea.

The final accouterments on Burly Men at Sea‘s charming voyage are its sounds. Almost all of the game’s sounds are human vocals; Brain&Brain got somebody to made whooshing sounds for the brothers’ boat and vocal percussion for the sound of coffee being poured. This design choice ties into that storybook vibe that Burly Men at Sea is going for because, well, these effects sound like the noises an adult would make while reading an adventure book to a child.

Brain&Brain layered some idyllic strings atop these sound effects to give Burly Men at Sea that pearly coat of varnish. The game’s music is minimalist in scope, chiming in before and after the sound effects to provide a pleasant interlude while the brothers sail to their next adventure. Sometimes the music gets a bit dark if the brothers’ adventure goes belly-up, but usually the music sounds like something that would play over footage of a beach. It makes for a nice OST.

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Do Danish people eat danishes?

Burly Men at Sea is an interesting experiment in short-form storytelling. Its tales are too eager to end, but the game also makes it easy for players to set sail for a new one right quick. Together, these little stories comprise a charming composite of folklore for players to sail around in, though their shortness also makes that composite look fragmented. Burly Men at Sea could be a better collection of sea tales… but between the game’s high-quality writing, its charming look, and its bug-free performance, it could also be a lot worse.

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You can buy Burly Men at Sea here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Rust

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Survive.

PC Release: February 8, 2018

By Ian Coppock

It’s surreal to see so many Early Access games suddenly cross the finish line. CAT Interstellar, Gang Beasts, Subnautica, and now Rust have all exited Early Access just in the last few months. Some of these games spent years bearing that stupid blue badge on their Steam store pages… Rust longest of all. It’s time to see how one of Steam’s most well-known titles fares after so long in the oven.

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How long did Rust marinate in the puddle of horror and regret that is Steam Early Access? The game first cropped up in Early Access in the winter of 2013, which makes Rust one of the first titles (if not the very first) to launch within that program. The game underwent many changes over the next four years, guided by the steady hand of Garry Newman (the Garry’s Mod guy) and the folks at Facepunch Studios.

Rust has changed a lot since its 2013 debut, but through thick and thin the game has always been about mulitplayer survival. Players spawn in naked and alone on the shores of a mysterious land and their goal is to stay alive as long as possible. To that end, they can search for food, gather resources, build bases, and band together for common defense. They can also descend from the hills wearing nothing but a headscarf and promptly beat new spawns to death with rocks. Absolutely terrifying.

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Must… murder… noobs…

Rust‘s tutorial provides just enough guidance to get new players on their way. The game gently prods new spawns to complete a series of increasingly complex tasks. Gather wood. Gather stone. Build a pickaxe. Gather more wood. Build a house. Find some food. Eat the food. EAT THE FOOD! Players also have no control over the race or sex of their character; Garry Newman has continually insisted that Rust is about survival, not identity. Those are some bold words in this age of hypersensitive identity politics.

Spawning in with no clothes and only a rock for defense may sound daunting, but Rust is kind to resourceful players. The game has a resource flow similar to that of Minecraft, i.e. gathering materials, building new tools, and using those tools to accrue more advanced materials. Before long, players can go from living in a dilapidated shack on the beach to an expansive fortress reinforced with stone walls and metal gates. Likewise, clubs and spears eventually give way to pistols and even rocket launchers. Players can also gather food by foraging plants and hunting animals.

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“Well the weather for the whole area, will continue much the same as the past few days…”

Rust‘s gameplay and user interface are both pleasantly streamlined. It’s easy for players to scrounge for items just as it’s fun to engage wildlife in combat. In keeping with the game’s goal of staying alive as long as possible, players have to manage health, thirst, and hunger meters as they make their way around the world. Finding water and food is usually pretty simple; the fate of the health bar, though, hinges on players’ ability to “git gud” in combat.

Players can craft lots of other stuff in Rust. The game’s menu is a simple two-panel affair comprising inventory and crafting screens. The latter menu lists all of the items the player can craft; just click on a weapon, wait thirty seconds, and boom: instant spear! Rust‘s items are divided into smaller menus that look an awful lot like the menus in Garry’s Mod; overall, it’s a system that’s easy to pick up. Just don’t call up the menu while standing out in the open. Enemy players love that.

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Welcome to Rust World! Check out the severed heads on aisle 12!

Rust contains many realistic survival threats that range from chilly nights to cold river currents, but these natural phenomena can’t hold a candle to the game’s greatest danger: other players. Yes, just like so many multiplayer survival games, Rust is a breeding ground for hilariously unhinged psychopaths. True, some of the folks in Rust are just fellow digital pilgrims peacefully going about their business… but many more are cutthroat raiders who’d sooner shoot a player than mic chat with them.

Human enemies are always much more terrifying than computer-controlled characters, and the proliferation of them in Rust adds tension to the game. It’s hair-raising to be approached by a spear-wielding stranger during the morning mushroom forage, especially if they refuse to mic chat or lower their weapon. In the end, it’s up to each and every player to decide how to interact with the people around them. Rust players either die civil or live long enough to see themselves become assholes.

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Ah, a refuge! DON’T SHOOT I’M NAKED

Gathering mushrooms and killing occasional nomads works well for solo players, but the best way for large groups to sustain themselves is through all-out war. Raiding is the name of the game in Rust, as players suit up and break into each other’s fortresses for food and sleeping bags. These turf wars can be frustrating (especially if unwelcome visitors come knocking while the player’s logged out), but damn if it isn’t fun to blow up a gate and rush in at the head of a blood-crazed war band. Another beautiful day in Rust!

Rust is now balanced enough to give logged out players a chance to protect themselves. It used to be that anyone could come in and take all the things during logout, but players can now build nigh-invincible doors with keys and code locks to protect their loot during the workday. True, a door won’t stop someone who has C4 and a rocket launcher, but attackers have to invest a lot of time into Rust to acquire such sophisticated weaponry. It’s not perfect, but compromises rarely are.

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Roll out!

The notion of players competing for scraps of food lends Rust a postapocalyptic vibe, and so does the game’s world design. Players spend most of their time in the wilderness but occasionally stumble upon dilapidated buildings and rows of rusted-out cars. Rust has no narrative outside the stories its players make, but these unsettling sights still succeed in making players wonder what happened. It’s a bit creepy to wander through a dark, cold munitions factory in search of food, especially when there’s signs of recent occupation.

Rust‘s artwork is also both bleak and beautiful. The game is absolutely saturated with bright colors from the roots of its green grass to the top of its searing blue skyboxes. The game’s textures are above-middling but could still use a bit of refinement, especially on those wooden house panels. Rust also makes effective use of lighting, or rather, the lack of it. Days are brightly lit but nights are dark and full of terror. These artistic choices inspire caution in players, which is appropriate considering that Rust is a survival game.

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What happened here?

Rust‘s sound design also goes to great lengths to make players feel as vulnerable as possible. Whenever music does play, it comes in the form of mournful little interludes that barely constitute a whisper above the game’s other sounds. They sound like the piano medleys from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild as rewritten by The Sound of Silence-era Simon & Garfunkel. Really creepy (albeit pretty) stuff.

When these tracks don’t play, players are left alone with the sounds of the wilderness: the birds, the wind, and the occasional creak of metal. This minimalist setup is not dissimilar to that of PUBG. Players are left alone with these sounds and have to creep around wondering when the sound of another player will finally break the tension. Rust‘s environmental sounds are, well, sound. Everything from the creak of a wooden door to putting scrap metal in the inventory sounds rich and full.

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(breeze blows)

Rust is one of those rare survival games that combines fun gameplay with smooth presentation. The game runs well on PC and its options menu contains more toggles than players can shake a stick at. Players might notice occasional lag during gameplay, but alas, such is life in the world of online video games. Facepunch made good use of Rust‘s elongated Early Access cycle, though, as the title is now all-but completely bug free.

Many players, though, continue to insist that Rust faces a hacker epidemic of Biblical proportions. Such claims have dogged Rust since it first hit the Steam store. While players might run across the occasional hack-riddled superhuman, the claim that every other Rust player is a Chinese bot needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Gamers are a creative group, but they’re also one of the saltiest bunches on the Internet. Was that enemy player really a hacker, bro, or was he just better?

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No, I’m not interested in hearing about your lord and savior.

Rust was in Early Access for over four years. That’s a long time. It’s worth pointing out, though, that Garry Newman and the folks at Facepunch made damn good use of that time. Rust is an example of Early Access done right, because even though the game took a while, Facepunch made regular updates to the title and interacted with the community. That’s more than can be said for the dozens of Early Access titles in which devs update “whenever they feel like it” or just ghost from their projects altogether.

Rust can feel like an unfair game. It’s a title that doesn’t care about players’ feelings and chides them for being “asshats.” Players live or die by their ability to make good choices with the resources that they can find. The game inspires euphoria with every successful raid just as it inspires hopelessness when players are captured by a 20-man crew of AK-47 enthusiasts. All of these experiences, fair and otherwise, are what make Rust a compelling game. It’s both a breakneck survival odyssey and an endlessly entertaining glimpse at online human interaction.

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You can buy Rust here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Flix and Chill 2: Millennials

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Find friendship and (maybe) love in the confusing landscape of millennial dating.

PC Release: July 18, 2017

By Ian Coppock

Comedian Patton Oswalt once described dating as a fun nightmare with boners in it, and he’s not far off the mark. In this age of social media ghosting and Tinder hookups, dating can be more exhausting than rewarding. However, with Valentine’s Day 72 hours away, this is no time to bemoan the perils of finding and maintaining a connection. Instead, it’s time to have a realistic conversation about both the fun and challenge of dating with a little game called Flix and Chill 2: Millennials

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Flix and Chill 2: Millennials is a dating adventure game created by Jason Lovett (with a surname like that, he’s clearly destined for this line of work), creator of the original Flix and Chill. Like its predecessor, Flix and Chill 2: Millennials explores dating and relationships among the youth of the digital age. It’s a bit confusing that the sequel is subtitled Millennials (since the first game is also about millennials), but this title also touches upon a few facets of millennial life beyond dating, so it’s cool.

Despite what the phrase “Flix and Chill” implies, Flix and Chill 2 is not a creepy dating sim or a niche visual novel. It’s an episodic adventure game that challenges players to get to know a person and allow (or disallow) a relationship to spring up from there. Each episode follows its own character and players steer them around the story by picking dialogue options. Just like in real dates, success in Flix and Chill 2 revolves around saying the right thing at the right time.

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So… what’s your favorite color?

Although Flix and Chill 2 uses the same dialogue setup and multi-episode structure as the original Flix and Chill, the sequel implements a few key narrative changes. Whereas the goal of Flix and Chill was all-but-explicitly to get the girl and save the day, Flix and Chill 2 doesn’t label going home alone a failure. That’s a nice touch, because while the stereotype of a successful date is bringing someone home every time, real success on a date is being able to discern whether the other person is the right one. Flix and Chill 2 allows players to make that choice for each protagonist.

Lovett also deserves props for the expanded representation in Flix and Chill 2. All but one of the original game’s protagonists was a straight dude; this time around, players also get to also follow the lives of gay characters and people of color. Flix and Chill 2 demonstrates that people of every race and sexual orientation go through the same motions of dating, relationships, and love no matter how different they may look and be from one another.

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Dating is an equal opportunity nightmare generator.

Whether it’s set in a raucous nightclub or during a coffee break at work, each story in Flix and Chill 2 is about getting to know someone. Players are given more agency than in Flix and Chill to ask questions, respond to questions asked of them, and ultimately decide if the other person is a good fit for the protagonist. That part is left almost entirely to the player’s own sense of the dating world, so any player who’s a miserable failure at snagging a date in real life can look forward to accomplishing the very same thing in this game! 10/10 would be forever alone again.

Then again, Flix and Chill 2 demonstrates that underneath all of the jitters and physical attraction, most of a date is just getting to know another human being. The dialogue in each episode feels organic, though occasional spelling and grammar errors risk breaking the immersion. The game also does well at presenting dating against the backdrop of millennial life. Whether it’s stagnant wages or an addiction to coffee, Flix and Chill 2 is replete with millennial subject matter that’s just as important to the narratives as the dates themselves.

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Oh great, a douchebro.

As in real life, dating in Flix and Chill 2 is challenging but doable. Players who fail to score a second date might be a bit disappointed, but that hardly means that the overarching narrative has to end on a sour note. Players who have an easy time remembering little details will do well in Flix and Chill 2; nothing pisses a girl off like forgetting her birthday or her favorite type of coffee roast (or Valentine’s Day, do not forget Valentine’s Day).

Though the stories of Flix and Chill 2 have their charm, that charm is (literally) stunted by each narrative’s short length. Each episode in Flix and Chill 2 takes about 20 minutes to complete, giving the entire game a run time of 1-2 hours. There’s nothing wrong with a short game, but each episode does feel a bit rushed. The game’s only a dollar, though, so hold off on accusing Jason Lovett of being a merciless swindler.

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How you doin’?

In addition to its more intuitive narrative structure, Flix and Chill 2 introduces some visual changes that more accurately reflect the dating world. The characters in the original Flix and Chill had no facial features, a design decision Lovett said he implemented so that players could imagine expressions to go along with the dialogue. Fair enough, but dating is just as much if not more about body language than spoken, and so Lovett put faces to the characters in Flix and Chill 2.

The introduction of facial features lends an advantage to both Flix and Chill 2 and to its players. The change makes the characters seem more alive and engaged with the world around them while also giving players a chance to visually gauge how much fun their date is having. Flix and Chill 2 lets players judge that on a scale that ranges from the mischievous raised eyebrow to the bored grimace. When a date leans forward and talks excitedly, that’s good! When they’re eyeing the exit like it’s made of chocolate, that’s bad.

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Choose your mating call.

Flix and Chill 2‘s artistic improvements aren’t limited to its characters. Each episode’s game world looks like it was made out of construction paper and is therefore absolutely adorable. Flix and Chill 2‘s art galleries, coffee shops, and bookstores are all just so damn cute. Brightly colored, too. The game’s character animations are a bit primitive, but hardly odious. The biggest problem in that department is that everyone who dances in Flix and Chill 2 does the Commander Shepard… but that’s more an amusement than a flaw.

While on the subject of flaws, Flix and Chill 2‘s music loops a lot. Yes, it’s a collection of happy electronic grooves that players can’t not nod along with, but each song is pretty short and loops conspicuously. There’s also no other sound design in the game save a little effect that plays when characters talk to each other. Flix and Chill 2‘s omission of other sound design elements is conspicuous at best. Nothing builds a world like great sound design; even some background chatter in the coffee shop would’ve done wonders for atmosphere.

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Do the Shepard, do the Shepard, do the Shepard…

Because of its graphical simplicity, players don’t need to worry about performance issues with Flix and Chill 2. The game runs well on monster rigs and potato laptops alike; any machine will do for experiencing this game’s world of millennial dating. Though Flix and Chill 2 runs well, the relative lack of performance and graphical options leaves something to be desired.

What Flix and Chill 2 doesn’t leave to be desired, though, is a keen understanding of how wonderful (and insane) the dating world can be for millennials. It believably examines finding connections in the digital age and its charm at doing so is inescapable. Players who have an extra dollar and an hour of time to kill owe it to themselves to play this charming little adventure game. The title isn’t without its flaws, but its dedication to organically exploring the world of dating shines through the rough spots.

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You can buy Flix and Chill 2: Millennials here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Lost Sphear

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Delve into ancient memories to save your homeland.

PC Release: January 23, 2018

By Ian Coppock

Truly, strange times are afoot. A reality TV star is president, Britain is leaving the EU, and weirdest of all… a JRPG is being reviewed on Art as Games. Lost Sphear is the first ever JRPG to get a spot on this page, and it seemed like a good place to start because its developer, Tokyo RPG Factory, insists that it’s a collage of everything great about the genre. Lost Sphear does indeed offer up a lot of JRPG conventions; whether those constitute a successful game is the question of tonight’s review.

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Created by the one and same Tokyo RPG Factory that produced 2016’s I Am SetsunaLost Sphear is an isometric Japanese role-playing game that just screams Final Fantasy. The game kicks off with a nameless king battling an ancient evil before fast-forwarding to a small town in a magical kingdom. As JRPGs so often go, players are given command of three heroes with whom to stop the moon from destroying the world… or something. The exposition is a little vague on that one.

The aforementioned protagonists hit every JRPG checkbox. The star of the show is a kid who lost his parents and is destined to save the world. His sidekicks are a blatantly obvious love interest and an embarrassing best friend who provides forced comic “relief.” Each character also adheres strictly to the JRPG dress code with crazy hair, bright clothes, and shoes that are about 10 sizes too large. Likewise, the game’s villains are the usual flamboyant masterminds who look like they’re on their way to a Criss Angel lookalike contest.

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In case it wasn’t obvious enough that this was a JRPG…

Lost Sphear‘s characters look straight out of a 2004 JRPG, and not just because of their attire. This game’s characters look dated, with fuzzy facial features, stiff animations, and blocky extremities. They also do that JRPG thing where they awkwardly move their entire bodies for even the smallest physical expressions. It would seem that, in its haste to emulate the JRPGs of yore, Tokyo RPG Factory ripped off even the now-obsolete graphics of Lost Sphear‘s predecessors.

Even though Lost Sphear‘s character models look like they were copy/pasted from Final Fantasy VII, the game’s environments look fine. They’re lovely.  Tokyo RPG Factory can’t render a character model worth a damn, but the studio excels at creating intricately detailed environments that burst with color. There’s also plenty of object detail to draw players’ eyes. While it’s great that Lost Sphear‘s world looks pretty, that prettiness cuts a conspicuous contrast with the mannequin-looking characters. Save some pixels for them, Tokyo RPG Factory!

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Meh.

Lost Sphear scores some additional art points with its soundtrack. The game’s background music is a lovely assortment of light strings and woodwinds, while the combat anthem sounds straight outta Pokemon. While Lost Sphear‘s music is mostly pleasant, it has a nasty tendency to loop. There’s one town in the game where players have to suffer this problem in the extreme, as the same dainty little song repeats itself over and over and over again.

Lost Sphear is incompetent when it comes to other areas of sound design. While its music is nice, everything else from the sounds of combat to exploring the wilds sounds muffled. This is particularly troublesome for the combat. Part of the thrill of battle lies in hearing the force of every hit, but even the fiercest sword strike sounds more like a butterfly kiss than a blade rending flesh. Like many JRPGs, Lost Sphear is so focused on making its world look cool that it forgets to make that world sound cool, and that’s a problem. Nothing breaks immersion like a conspicuous audio-visual imbalance.

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Do we have any hearing aids in the item pouch?

Lost Sphear‘s combat isn’t much for immersion, either. As with many JRPGs, Lost Sphear relies on that clunkiest and most boring form of “battle”: turn-based combat. Y’know, that system wherein the combatants stand in neat lines slapping each other instead of actually fighting. Some JRPGs have agonizingly long “battles”, but Lost Sphear‘s are mercifully quick. Use an item or ability, sit there like a b**** while the bad guy slaps the player back, rinse and repeat.

That last sentence is more of a tutorial than Lost Sphear ever provides. This title continues the age-old JRPG tradition of burying players alive in an avalanche of menus and expecting them to just… figure it out. The tutorial points out how to use a few specific attacks, but fails to illustrate how to effectively use the overarching combat system. Seriously, even a few button prompts would be great, Tokyo RPG Factory. Anything to help this game’s combat system be less of a sleep aid.

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(yawn).

Lost Sphear‘s exploration is marginally more interesting than its combat. It’s not anything that JRPG veterans won’t already have done a million times, though. Walk around neat little mazes of houses (or trees), open treasure chests for money (or items), and occasionally uncover hidden paths (or not). This exploration system isn’t odious but it sure doesn’t deviate from the road trod by dozens of other JRPGs. Isn’t blazing new trails the point of exploration?

Lost Sphear‘s strident dedication to rehashing what’s already been beaten to death in other JRPGs seeps into its user interface. The game’s combat and navigation menus feel primitive… almost as if they’ve been plucked from an early Final Fantasy game rather than built for a contemporary title. Lost Sphear‘s options menu is an unadulterated train wreck that contains a few paltry options for visual and audio fidelity. There are no options for rebinding controls; worse still, players who opt to play Lost Sphear with a controller may still have to input a few commands with a keyboard!

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Good question: it’s the void where Tokyo RPG Factory’s QA team should be.

Lost Sphear has committed many egregious sins so far, but the title’s piece de res***stance is undoubtedly its writing. Lost Sphear‘s writing is stilted, awkwardly phrased, and feels like it’s there more to fill space than to tell a story. The game’s character writing is laughably bad. Every person in this title spends ten minutes arguing about the most trivial details, and not a single joke lands in the entire production. None of the characters evolve beyond their well-worn JRPG niches, nor do they ever shut up about the usual platitudes that this genre drowns players in.

The narrative that these characters trudge around in is worse even than the dialogue, and it only kicks in after about five hours of playtime. That’s par for the course with JRPGs, though; nothing terrifies these games more than letting players jump into an actual story. No, Lost Sphear says, let’s slow the narrative down with drawn-out character intros and running around in the woods doing nothing of interest.

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Use your words, buddy.

Lost Sphear‘s story doesn’t have much to tell, especially to JRPG veterans. Basically, an ancient evil is returning after many years away, and a boy has to stop it using the powers of love, friendship, and phoenix down. Lost Sphear gets a point for its evil taking the form of a white fog instead of something more conspicuous (like the Heartless), but its narrative goes through the exact same motions as the stories of many JRPGs before it.

Lost Sphear is one of those rare games that disappoints all gaming audiences equally. Players who dislike JRPGs will despise it for exalting the genre’s worst tendencies, while JRPG fans will grow bored with the game’s reluctance to innovate. In trying so hard to be a love letter to past JRPGs, Lost Sphear ends up being utterly derivative. It’s a flavorless, unoriginal blob that’s too busy ripping off of other games to conceive a single iota of novelty. Gamers of all stripes are thus best off giving Lost Sphear a wide berth.

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You can buy Lost Sphear here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Aviary Attorney

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Solve crimes and search for the truth in a city on the brink of revolution.

PC Release: December 22, 2015

By Ian Coppock

Video games are the best medium for people to test their wits. Unlike films or books, games’ stories can be changed by the decisions of the person beholding them. This makes them an ideal place for people to evaluate their smarts, as the right (or wrong) choice can have profound implications for the story around them. Aviary Attorney is a game that strives to be one such mental test bed.

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Aviary Attorney (or Legal Eagles, as it’s fondly nicknamed by fans), is an episodic mystery game set in an 1848 Paris full of animal people. Protagonist Jayjay Falcon is an eagle-eyed (ba dum tsss) attorney who investigates crimes and solves mysteries with the help of his faithful sidekick, Sparrowson. Falcon’s lack of legal pedigrees makes work hard to come by… until a mysterious heiress stops by to ask for his help in investigating a murder! (Gasp).

Falcon agrees to take the case and immediately begins questioning witnesses and gathering clues. As the feathered duo edge closer to solving the mystery, they realize that the murder is a small piece of a conspiracy… one that imperils the whole of France! As Falcon, it’s up to players to navigate the treacherous waters of French high society and unearth the sinister plot simmering beneath Paris.

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How can you be a detective and NOT have a corn cob pipe?!

Aviary Attorney immediately draws the eye with its striking caricature artwork. The entire game was drawn by an artist who specializes in such illustrations (talk about a niche field). Everything in this game from the collar of Falcon’s coat to the ceiling of Notre Dame is sketched with extraordinary detail. The illustrations are then given a hint of sepia toning to make the image warmer than a conventional black-and-white drawing. The result looks like something worthy of the Louvre (or, at least, a hypothetical anthropomorphic art section of the Louvre).

There’s no denying the beauty of Aviary Attorney‘s drawings, but they come at the expense of character animations. Falcon blinks, and moves his beak while talking, but is otherwise stiff as a board. While it’s understandable that illustrations this intricate can only be moved around so much, that still leaves Aviary Attorney‘s characters feeling more like cardboard cutouts than living beings. That the characters have the same facial expressions no matter their emotions is also a bit weird.

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Does anyone else remember that meme showing off Dick Cheney’s various emotions but it’s just the exact same picture of him six times?

Despite the aforementioned animation problems, Aviary Attorney‘s aesthetic remains enrapturing. The game sounds lovely too, with a soundtrack of romantic-era songs that are right at home in 19th-century Paris. Most of these songs are built on deep horns and delicate strings. Some characters even get their own theme that plays whenever they enter the scene (the Spanish fox’s medley is particularly bombastic).

Aviary Attorney‘s sound design is fleshed out with the audio details one might expect of an 1800’s European city. Wherever Falcon and Sparrowson go, players can count on hearing the background chitchat of the city or gentler sounds like a grandfather clock. Both types of sound come through crisply and cleanly. Aviary Attorney‘s close attention to sound design helps these stiff caricatures come to life.

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We find the soundtrack lovely, your honor.

Y’know what else helps bring stiff caricatures to life? Narrative. Aviary Attorney‘s story features many moving parts, some of which move more fluidly than others. For a start, the inter-character dialogue is solid. Each and every character’s writing is believable and fun to read. Sparrowson’s writing is particularly enjoyable; as Falcon’s assistant, he serves as the game’s main source of comic relief. His antics during the investigation provoke laughter just as they provoke fondness. Meanwhile, Falcon makes inroads with his own jokes and a heartfelt desire to see justice done.

Aviary Attorney‘s characters are memorable long after having played the game, but the narrative that these animal-people ply is much choppier. The first episode is all but completely disconnected from the rest of the game; the remaining three episodes circle a confusing drain of conspiracies, false identities, and way too many characters jumping in and out of the story. The occasional spelling error doesn’t make this narrative any easier to take seriously.

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Terrible.

Exactly how difficult is it to keep track of Aviary Attorney‘s story? As previously mentioned, the first episode is a cut-and-dry murder case with a delightful twist at the end. The next three episodes dip in and out of a conspiracy that threatens the player’s senses just as much as it does 19th-century Paris. Though they have their moments, these later episodes suffer from slipshod pacing. The second episode is crammed with nothing but twists and excitement, but the third drags on bereft of either.

The fourth episode manages to pick up the third’s slack… at the cost of shoehorning an eternally confusing twist into the last half or so. The game’s character writing remains consistently tight, but the narrative risks throwing much of that writing at the wall in its scramble to wow players with a deep conspiracy story. Aviary Attorney‘s characters are great; its story is much less so.

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That’s a good question, Sparrowson.

To be fair, it’s not entirely the writers’ fault that Aviary Attorney feels messy. The gameplay certainly does it part to smudge the game’s proverbial ink. Aviary Attorney‘s gameplay doesn’t take a detective to understand: players simply visit locales around Paris, question suspects, and look for clues. The narrative progresses once players have formulated a hypothesis from all those interrogations and scavenger hunts. Falcon must then convict his suspect in court, overcoming enemy attorneys in a battle of wits a la the Ace Attorney series.

All of that sounds perfectly fine on paper, but many of Aviary Attorney‘s investigations are pockmarked with design flaws. For instance, some evidence is far too easy to miss, requiring absurd amounts of pixel-hunting and elaborate guesswork. This makes it easy for players to get bogged down in a grueling grind of trial-and-error, as they reload earlier and earlier checkpoints to get that one little clue that alters the entire storyline. The latter two episodes of the game are where this problem really takes hold; that puzzle about encountering a crook in an alleyway can choke on an expired baguette.

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Yes, but I didn’t find that pencil in episode two so our whole case is toast.

Aviary Attorney falls into that adventure game trap of letting critical plot points hinge on easy-to-miss objects. In that way, the game’s design feels dated and merciless. It’s difficult to take seriously a game in which the fate of Paris hinges upon the player’s ability to check vases for candy bar wrappers. The game’s concept of a detective uncovering what basically amounts to the French Gunpowder Plot is compelling; the execution isn’t. These problems lend a poetic irony to the name of the studio behind this game: Sketchy Logic.

Of course, gamers who like such strict adventure games as Aviary Attorney might find this talk of mercilessness attractive. Perhaps old-school adventure gamers was the audience for which Aviary Attorney was actually made. Even so, that doesn’t excuse some of the aforementioned design flaws or the story’s atrocious pacing. For anything that can be said about hard-as-nails 90’s adventure games, their narratives were (usually) good.

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Touche, old bean! I do say!

Much like an uncompromising detective, Aviary Attorney does not do middle ground. Its artwork, music, character writing, and system performance are great. Its gameplay, options menu and overarching plot, by contrast, need a lot of polish. Players who enjoy adventure games might come to Aviary Attorney for its vividly realized world, but they probably won’t stay for the convoluted plot that twists through that world. Oh well; at least players have Sparrowson to provide a few chuckles.

Video games are the best medium for people to test their wits, but Aviary Attorney is much more a test of patience than smarts. With that, this review is over. The prosecution rests.

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You can buy Aviary Attorney here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

The Red Strings Club

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Investigate a corporation’s scheme to transform humanity.

PC Release: January 22, 2018

By Ian Coppock

Imagining what technology will be like 20 years from now is both inspiring and terrifying. It’s inspiring to imagine things like smart cars and cures for terminal illnesses… just as it’s terrifying to picture an AI creating its own language (oh wait, that happened last year). Media are quick to imagine how technology can shape mankind’s future, but often get bogged down in cool gadgets instead of addressing how tech shapes something deeper: the soul of mankind. The Red Strings Club is all about that question.

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The Red Strings Club is a cyberpunk-noir title created by Deconstructeam, the studio behind Gods Will Be Watching. The game is set in a dystopian, futuristic metropolis whose citizens are all about upgrading their bodies with emotional implants. Whether it’s the desire to detach from social conscience or jack up that sex appeal, the Supercontinent Corporation has an upgrade for every desire. The game begins when one of the androids responsible for fashioning those implants shows up at the game’s titular Red Strings Club.

Bar owner Donovan and his hacker boyfriend Brandeis learn that the android was busted out by a group of hacktivists who are convinced that Supercontinent is up to no good. Indeed, the firm seems intent on using its implants to regulate human emotion, and has even figured out how to inflict that regulation upon people who have no implants at all. As these three characters, it’s up to players to investigate what Supercontinent is up to and stop the firm from reshaping mankind.

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Can I get you a drink?

Stopping a giant conspiracy may sound like a tall order for three barflies, but there’s much more to this unlikely team than meets the eye. Akara-184 may have been shot up during their breakout, but is now free to put their insanely powerful android brain to the task of stopping Supercontinent. Their abilities pair well with those of Brandeis, who is one of the best hackers in the city whenever he’s not too busy loitering near the harbor or firing off corny one-liners.

Then… there’s Donovan, who uses his drinks to manipulate his customers’ emotions. Donovan’s ability goes beyond simply getting someone drunk; he can read a person in a matter of moments and craft a cocktail that can lift (or crush) their spirits. This manipulation works wonders for getting customers to spill valuable information… and it just so happens that most of The Red Strings Club’s regulars are Supercontinent employees.

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What’ll it be?

Mixing drinks is the most pivotal component of The Red Strings Club‘s gameplay. The mechanic is presented as a minigame in which each client has his or her own emotions for Donovan to draw out with booze. Players have to use Donovan’s four liquors to push a cursor over the emotion they want to elicit from the customer. Most emotions require a cocktail of two or more boozes, plus an ice cube for good measure. Additional mechanics, like a shaker, are added later on in the story.

Once Donovan’s boozed up the customer a bit, it’s time for questioning. Donovan can ask virtually anything of his clientele, but whether he’ll get a straight answer depends on the mood they’ve been put in by that drink. A client who drank something confidence-empowering, for example, might feel much chattier about a sensitive company matter than if they’d been fed something that makes them depressed. Donovan only has one shot to ask a question, so players have to pick a customer’s mood carefully if they hope to learn anything.

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Jolly Rancher shots belong at the bottom of the harbor.

The Red Strings Club‘s mixology is a stylish twist on adventure game conversations. It adds another dimension to the challenge of interrogating an NPC for answers. Players have to consider not only which questions to ask, but also which cocktail will get them the best answers to those questions. This booze-sleuthing makes for a delectable gameplay challenge that opens up conversations for many more possible outcomes. In The Red Strings Club, there isn’t a right or wrong booze; only a best booze.

The Red Strings Club‘s other protagonists have minigames of their own. Players get to spend a bit of time sculpting implants as Akara, using nothing more than a pottery wheel and a few different tools. It’s a fun minigame that, sadly, doesn’t get nearly enough screen time. Meanwhile, Brandeis is out in the city chatting to contacts and impersonating Supercontinent execs to get valuable info. This part of the game is where The Red Strings Club‘s adventure game roots really shine: talk to people, gather info, try that obstacle again.

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Sorry, no, Billy is, uh… “sick” right now.

The Red Strings Club‘s story is less fixated on the details of its cyberpunk universe than technology’s impact on the human condition. The game’s dialogue is written decently well, but most characters don’t change measurably as the story progresses. Akara-184 offers up the usual “why do you humans do this?” observations that robot characters do in many stories, while Brandeis is a composite of every 80’s comic relief character ever.

No, the most compelling character in The Red Strings Club is Donovan, who frequently opines about the danger of using technology to control human emotion. Donovan frequently defends “negative” emotions, arguing that people can only know what happiness is by also experiencing sadness. His defense of sorrow is both an eloquent epithet about the human experience and some of the year’s best video game writing. It certainly gives players cause to oppose a corporation with such a seemingly benevolent vision.

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Don’t do it! You have so much to live for! Like giving me info!

The Red Strings Club‘s dialogue is pretty well-written, but it’s brought unnecessarily low by a single, juvenile flaw: spelling errors. The Red Strings Club has an unfortunate proliferation of typos; they’re not exactly jumping out of every sentence but they crop up often enough to break the game’s immersion. With all the spelling and writing resources available online these days, there’s no excuse for having this many typos in a game. They’re the visual equivalent of Donovan belching mid-speech.

The other writing problem The Red Strings Club suffers from is exposition… as in burying players in an avalanche of it. This game is JRPG-like in its zeal to drown players in names, acronyms, and other details, making it difficult to keep track of who Donovan is asking about what. Thankfully, this flood slows to a trickle as the game’s story progresses, but that first hour or so of gameplay makes for a LOT of reading and re-reading.

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So Bob is in charge of marketing, and Jill is in charge of…dammit!

Fortunately, Deconstructeam was more consistent with The Red Strings Club‘s visual design. The entire game is built out of crunchy pixels, strengthening its retro adventure vibe. Despite being made of pixels, The Red Strings Club‘s visuals are strongly colored and sharply defined. Moody colors and lighting effects are put to great use creating its dystopian, Deus Ex-esque cyberpunk atmosphere. The character animations are also damn good for a pixel-y game.

As with many great games, The Red Strings Club‘s world comes alive most through sound design. This world is replete with organic, satisfying sounds; everything from liquor pouring into a glass to shoes on wooden floors sounds oh so crisp. Players will enjoy the mixology minigame as much for that delectable clink of ice in a glass as the chance to make a drink. This sound design, when mixed with a soundtrack of lounge music and low synths, makes for quite the audio cocktail.

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Nothing like a bit of lo-fi pottery.

The Red Strings Club is a gift for players who enjoy story-driven games. It’s a title that keeps players guessing with its various methods of investigation, which are strung together with vivid (albeit occasionally misspelled) dialogue. The game is less concerned with the gadgetry and neon of the future than what all of that glitz means for humanity’s collective spirit. It questions, aggressively, whether humanity’s ability to think should supersede the species’ ability to feel. It’s a good sci-fi narrative, make no mistake, but it’s a sci-fi narrative whose main point is the human condition.

Few games address that question of the human condition as passionately as The Red Strings Club, which is why it deserves a shot from players of every stripe. The game is a smoothly built glimpse at a world in which humanity’s brilliance is its own worst enemy. It treads that philosophical minefield with a soft but firm touch. Give it a try; if not for its heartfelt dialogue, then at least for the chance to serve drinks to cyborgs.

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You can buy The Red Strings Club here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.