The all-wise, all-knowing barkeeper has become something of a narrative archetype. There are countless stories out there that feature an improbably wise drinks server who can get even the most uptight customer to relax and talk about their troubles.
Donovan, the suave barkeeper and owner of The Red Strings Club, takes his persuasive art to nigh-on mystical levels. The cocktails he serves in his retro-tinged establishment aren't just darned tasty - they're fine-tuned to accentuate a specific emotion in the drinker. It's this unique skill that forms the meat of The Red Strings Club's gameplay. This deft physics puzzler mechanic requires a steady hand on the player's part, as you carefully tip measures of spirits into a mixer.
Each of these ingredients shifts a target in one of the four cardinal directions. Others rotate that target, while ice reduces its size. The idea is to mix a drink that will position the target precisely over the desired emotional trigger, which is superimposed over a representation of the customer.
If mixing drinks forms the grinding gears and squeaky joints of The Red Strings Club, then story forms its surprisingly human heart. This is a narrative adventure that tells a beautifully constructed cyberpunk tale of manipulative tech companies, AWOL androids, ghostly information traders, and world-changing conspiracies. It's also a story that you can directly influence at multiple junctures, forging a unique path through the game that's literally mapped out for you.
Few games show their narrative workings as clearly as The Red Strings Club, yet the transitions never feel clunky or arbitrary. Even though you're in the middle of a cohesive story, you can clearly spot the moments where your decisions made a difference - and the ability to backtrack is granted in an ingenious (and strictly limited) fashion as yet another drinks ingredient.
We won't spoil the ins and outs of the story itself, but it tackles some pretty weighty stuff. Your quest for information centres on Supercontinent Ltd, a massive human augmentation company that appears to be planning to eradicate all negative emotion from humanity. Obviously, this sounds thoroughly nefarious, but The Red Strings Club does a good job arguing for the other side, often playing devil's advocate on this and a number of related issues.
Besides a series of executive types who aren't necessarily as shallow or evil as they initially seem, the game largely does so through the character of Akara, a supremely perceptive (yet simultaneously naive) Android whose escape from an implant factory kicks off the whole adventure. At numerous points throughout the game, Akara will question Donovan on his actions and motives, cutting through his ostensibly right-on motivations in coolly incisive fashion.
The fact that Donovan's responses are essentially your own makes Akara's unadorned comments and puzzling pop quizzes all the more affecting. Sure, you might well argue that artificially eradicating sadness and anger from the human race would be deeply wrong. But is it then hypocritical of you to say that you'd forcefully cut out the impulse to kill, self-harm or oppress? Where do you draw the line?
All of which could easily have played out as crass or wearisomely didactic in many developers' hands. But thankfully, the writing in The Red Strings Club is excellent, full of heart and humour. Indeed, we'd argue that the narrative side of The Red Strings Club is much better than the actual game parts. Each of the gameplay sections - including that main drink-mixing bit - plays out like a fairly entertaining but rather awkward and slightly shallow minigame.
Mixing drinks and carving out augmentations on a futuristic lathe, in particular, have a certain clunkiness to them. In some ways, the drink-mixing bits are easier to play using the Switch touchscreen - particularly when it comes to dragging the ingredients about the screen. But in other ways, it proves to be worse than with a controller, such as when you have to introduce a second finger and twist to pour.
We also found that each gameplay section tends to outstay its welcome somewhat. Once you've run through them a few times, you might find yourself greeting yet another request with impatience.
Fortunately, that sharp writing and those memorable characters are always there to distract you and pull you through your funk. Rather like a kindly yet suspiciously well-informed barkeeper, you might say.
The Red Strings Club tells a brilliant cyberpunk tale that's full of big ideas and tough moral questions. Its gameplay sections are a little too flimsy and repetitive to keep pace, but you'll want to play through this memorable adventure nonetheless.