Red Johnson's Chronicles - One Against All Review (Xbox360)

The adventure game is most certainly back in fashion, and Lexis Numerique are looking to capitalise with their noir detective drama Red Johnson’s Chronicles: One Against All. Sadly, an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach in design has led to a game that is riddled with inconsistencies and moments of sheer frustration.

This second game in the trilogy sees Johnson, a price put on his head by the local crimelord, laying low in the roughest part of town, a somewhat illogical choice that even one of the supporting cast feels compelled to highlight. When the latest attempt on his life goes wrong, Red is left a rather gory message that leads him into a race against time to save a family member from an unpleasant fate. It’s not a stunningly original plot, but it and the over-the-top gumshoe dialogue feel authentic to the noir genre.

Cut scenes oddly veer between black and white and colour

Production values are certainly high, right from the thrillingly sleazy bass and brass theme tune that accompanies the start screen. One Against All’s art style, though, is emblematic of many of the problems with the game. Not content with the film noir influence, 1970s blaxploitation, Cold War propaganda posters and even manga references are all flung into the mixing pot as well. Red Johnson’s world definitely captures the grimy underbelly of a city collapsing under the weight of its own corruption - it’s called Metropolis but the atmosphere is all Gotham - but there are so many different clashing elements that it never quite manages to convince.

The character designs are quirky and memorable, with a strong Starsky and Hutch influence particularly noticeable in Red himself and Huggy Bear-lookalike Saul, while the supporting cast all possess the right amount of pulp comic book sheen. The motion captured animation sequences are high quality too, even if the voice work outside of Red himself is rather uneven, but for some reason the game flits between a black and white Sin City aesthetic for some scenes and then a full colour, almost painterly look for others.

Red Johnson’s Chronicles is every inch the puzzle-based adventure game. Various locations become available to visit, around which are strewn several clues decipherable via a whole panoply of brain-teasers, from visual deceptions to crosswords and number and language codes. Once Red has completed each puzzle, he can piece the information he has uncovered together to reveal further clues and advance the plot.

The problem with the puzzles themselves is that too often logic and consistency of characterisation go flying out the window. A blatant example - and a mild spoiler is necessary to describe it, so look away now if such things bother you - is when you discover a suitcase in a character’s flat. On the back is a jigsaw of a woman he’s obsessed with that must be rearranged into the correct order to reveal a message in the crossword puzzle that the photo is pasted over.

This message in turn prompts you to use your UV light to discern the hidden password for the computer in the case. Yet despite having gone to such tortuous lengths to protect his password, and with the narrative having clearly explained the character is completely paranoid, the solution to unlocking his suitcase itself is... that it’s already unlocked, because apparently the character’s memory is too poor to remember a 4 digit code on a combination lock - even though he used one on another puzzle in the same room. It’s nonsensical.

Red's brother was in desperate need of a new housemaid

Again and again, the actual solutions to the puzzle are inconsistent with the game’s world and story, jarring you out of any immersion in playing the role of detective. This frustration is made all the worse by One Against All’s insistence on definitive fail states. One mistake in working your way through a puzzle chain can see you slapped with a fail screen, a by-product of the decision to score the player on their completion of each puzzle, and then having to start all over again.

As if this wasn’t annoying enough, many of the puzzles lock you in, with no way to back out or reset them to their opening state. In the suitcase example above, if you change the numbers on the lock and can’t remember their original setting, then there is no apparent way out beyond rebooting the game entirely.

One Against All does have a rather elegant hint system to help you along the way. Red’s friend Saul is on hand at any point during a puzzle with a tiered selection of clues, from subtle direction to outright explanation, available to purchase with the cash you accrue from completing each puzzle. Some of Saul’s basic hints may be just as cryptic as the puzzles themselves, but overall it’s an effective way of avoiding breaking immersion.

Once you’ve finally fought your way through each location’s set of headscratchers, you’re invited to piece together the information you’ve gathered to propel the plot along with a new set of leads. In stark contrast to the puzzles, the deductive reasoning required to make your way through the multiple options is so simplistic that you’ll often end up heading down the wrong path because you can’t believe the answer is that obvious.

One Against All’s central gameplay mechanics are deeply flawed and this is only compounded by its cumbersome and once again inconsistent interface. Analog sticks are always a poor substitute for a mouse or touchscreen in this style of adventure game, where you’re required to sweep the screen until an interaction icon appears, though thankfully the game doesn’t devolve into pixel-hunting hell. Certain actions require you to use the face buttons to select your choices, others use directions on the analog sticks - and often fail to note which of the two to use - and the use of the B button as the back function, a standard paradigm in the Xbox interface, is only intermittently implemented.

The game's puzzles are often frustrating and illogical

Your available interactions depend on which of the multiple modes - Exploration, Notebook, Puzzle, Questioning and Headquarters - you’re currently in, and the How To Play section in the menu runs to nearly 30 separate entries explaining the different mechanics involved. Throw in some sluggish quicktime events to top things off, and you have an interface in desperate need of streamlining.

Rather like last year’s Amy, Lexis Numerique have created in Red Johnson’s Chronicles: One Against All a game that appears to hold much promise, only to be let down by a ham-fisted implementation of the game mechanics. While it’s nowhere near as bad as that game, One Against All’s annoying puzzles and clumsy interface too often suck the joy out of progressing through its pulp plot, making it impossible to recommend to even the most committed of adventure game fans.

Top Game Moment: Some of Red Johnson’s dialogue may be risible, but in amongst it there’s the occasional gem of a line.

Platform Played: Xbox 360