Paul's Really Late Reviews #3: Redjack: Revenge Of The Brethren

So it came to pass that in January of 1999 I was wandering the aisles of a Toys R Us, after having exchanged a Christmas gift that didn't suit my tastes. Those tastes being what they are, I found myself drawn to the computer game section of the store. There on the shelves was an adventure game called "Redjack: Revenge of the Brethren", and something about the name rang a faint bell. Hadn't I heard some good things about this game on I thought so, and consequently I picked it up. Okay, so I was a little crestfallen later, when I realized that the game I had been thinking of was Redguard, but as it turned out, my "To Play Someday" pile already had quite a few games on it, so I didn't mind putting the game aside for a while. Now, as a part of my "Really Late Reviews" project, in which I play and review old adventure games with an eye towards learning more about good and bad game design, I've finally played through the game. The verdict? Redjack is irritating in a lot of ways, but has tasty graphics and some pretty fun portions. Most of all, it's an object lesson in the rewards and pitfalls of including action elements in an adventure game.

Redjack is a pirate game, and while some people are a sucker for this genre, I'm not one of them. I enjoyed the Monkey Island series, and Infocom's Plundered Hearts, but "pirates" always seemed a rather narrow theme to me, and it's an especially odd choice for an adventure game, given that any pirate adventure will inevitably draw comparisons to the aforementioned Monkey Island games, and almost as inevitably come up short. Redjack certainly does. To my mind, it's better to choose settings and genres that haven't already been thoroughly explored and dominated, if only so that players come to your game without preconceived notions or lofty comparisons.

My own experience of the game was affected adversely by misplaced expectations that Redjack's Nicholas Dove would be as interesting and funny a character as MI's Guybrush Threepwood. He isn't, not by a long shot. What's more, unlike Monkey Island's neatly tied narratives, Redjack never offers any explanation for the central question it raises: why is Nicholas Dove involved in the plot? And finally, the Monkey Island games, and LucasArts games in general, have taught me to expect (well, hope anyway) that adventure games will be designed well enough not to close themselves off for no good reason; Redjack disappointed me here, too, with an amazingly badly designed endgame. Two equally plausible and compelling tasks are presented to the PC in this endgame, but there is only one right choice. Completing the "wrong" task makes it impossible to complete the other, which not only made no sense within the context of the story, but also completely destroyed my faith in the game's design, right at the point that such faith was most critical. Listen up, designers: DON'T DO THIS.

Redjack wasn't all nasty surprises, though. In fact, the plot held one or two twists that I found genuinely unexpected, and though these were leavened with a generous helping of cliche, I found I didn't mind that too much either, since the cliches were so pleasurably pulpy. The story wanders around the Caribbean and the high seas to enjoyable effect, and there were a number of swashes that were lots of fun to buckle. The puzzles, for the most part, were also fairly well-done. There was a recipe puzzle, though most of the ingredients for the recipe were available immediately to hand, which was a rather refreshing approach. There was a "mathematical sequence" puzzle (arrange things in a particular order while their placement exercises numerical effects on their layout), which was fun precisely because there was only one of them. However, most of Redjack's obstacles were not traditional adventure game puzzles, but instead action sequences, where the game's usual interface evaporated, to be replaced with one of a variety of arcade-type mechanisms.

Now, let me make something clear: I have no problem with the concept of action/adventure hybrids. In fact, I'm rather a fan of blended genres in general. I saw Half-Life as sort of an action/adventure hybrid, with strong story and puzzles accompanying its more visceral thrills, and I loved that game. I'm currently quite addicted to Planescape:Torment, which is often held to be a kind of mutant child of CRPGs and text adventures. I'm no genre purist; I'm all for the various forms intermingling and colliding. However (you had to know a "however" was coming), genre blending presents game designers and programmers with multiplied challenges. It's hard enough to put together a solid story, engaging puzzles, interesting NPCs, and an intuitive interface. With an action/adventure, all these things aren't enough -- the action, too, must be gripping, with smooth response, clear feedback, and exciting mechanics. Redjack provides adventure elements of considerable quality, but falls down rather badly on its action elements.

This action comes in a variety of forms, all of which are quite primitive compared with modern action engines, or even old arcade ones. There's a jumping "puzzle", though unlike most of its ilk this one doesn't involve split-second timing; there is a loose time-limit on how long the PC can be on most spots, but the jumping itself happens automatically -- no fast fingers required. Instead, the player is tasked with crossing a dangerous area by jumping from one safe-spot to the next, and must assess which spots are too far away for jumping. Sound easy? Not when the area is presented with grainy, pixellated graphics that offer little in the way of depth representation. There are a couple of "shooting-gallery" type puzzles, in which the player is presented with various moving, shooting targets, and must maneuver a crosshairs onto these to dispatch them. This has a lot of potential for fun, but that potential is wrecked by the game's stuttering, jerky presentation of the action. I ran Redjack on a computer that far exceeded the game's minimum requirements, but I was still plagued by hesitation and halting in most of the action sequences. This sort of thing is absolute poison to action gameplay. The most fun of all the action sequences was the cannons, for which the player has to compensate not only for moving targets, but for the trajectory of the projectiles. Yes, the jerkiness was still a problem in these sequences, but the absence of a counterattack lessened the frustration factor considerably. Also, ships hit with a cannonball exploded in very satisfying gouts of flame. Huh huh huh, huh huh huh.

The majority of the action sequences, though, were of the swordfighting variety. True to the rest of the game's action tendencies, the swordfighting interface was clumsy, unresponsive, and erratic. The introductory portion of the game spends a significant amount of time and effort teaching this interface to the player, and this training is quite well-done. Unexpectedly, however, the training turns out to have little bearing on the game itself. Instead, most of the times Nicholas is in a swordfight, his opponent is virtually invincible, at least without recourse to some element technically outside the interface. The first time I was faced with this situation, and figured out how to solve it, was probably the best moment of the game for me. I was frustrated by my inability to defeat an opponent, and then I thought "What if I tried this?" and it worked -- always a delicious feeling in an adventure game. However, as that sort of situation came up over and over, I started to find it a little more frustrating. For one thing, many of the ways in which the game wanted me to behave where decidedly non-intuitive, and the responses to some of my actions made no sense. For another, it's rather difficult to look outside the interface for possible solutions when an NPC is hammering away, a problem intensified by the game's haphazard response times. And finally, the game's reliance on adventureish solutions to actionish problems rendered its moments of actual action rather anticlimactic.

For me, it was a perfect illustration of the pros and cons of including action elements within an adventure game, or more specifically of changing interfaces during the course of a game. Redjack not only asked me to adjust to a new interface every couple of scenes, but also sporadically made that interface fairly useless, requiring some lateral thinking on my part. When this worked, the effect was beautiful, providing not just an action rush but a cerebral "Aha!" moment as well. However, the game didn't provide enough of a logical framework, nor a smooth enough action interface, for the trick to work very often. More frequently, I found myself clicking away randomly at various spots on the screen, or growling at the primitive nature of the action mechanics, completely disengaged from the story and the game, and wishing I could go back to the game's normal interface.

Not that said interface was without its problems. Redjack uses a 360-degree panning system, with considerable freedom to pan vertically as well, but there's a catch. The panning behaves "inertially" -- that is, as the game continues to pan in a particular direction, the panning picks up speed, and doesn't halt immediately once the cursor is moved back to the center of the screen. The overall effect was a bit like being drunk, except without the euphoria. Needless to say, I stuck to keyboard navigation whenever possible, but there were a number of instances that required the use of the drunken mouse panning. Adding to the panning difficulties was the fact that the bottom left corner of the screen contained the inventory interface, and whenever the mouse was placed there, all panning would halt quite abruptly. Thus, players always have to take extra care when panning left, lest their intentions be halted by the inventory displaying itself. On the plus side, this inventory required no management whatsoever, with items automagically disappearing once they are no longer useful. Redjack's method of object interaction takes a little getting used to -- the game allows you to take an inventory item and stick it anywhere on screen, where it will stay through all panning and movement. It took me some time to recognize that this is pretty much never useful -- if an inventory item is going to interact with something, it will do so immediately, and thus if it's just "sticking" there, I'm on the wrong track. I would have preferred a little clearer feedback for this, like perhaps the inventory item being transferred back to the trunk when it is dropped in a non-useful spot. One more technical comment, though it isn't really about the interface: whenever Redjack loads a saved game, it goes through the process of transferring various files from the CD to the hard drive "to optimize game performance," a process which can take as long as 60-90 seconds. People, this is silly. The files only need to be copied once, preferably at installation. Recopying them at every restore is not only a nuisance, it's a completely pointless nuisance.

I mentioned that the beginning of Redjack contains an extensive section training the player on how to use the swordfighting interface. This training is an example of one of Redjack's best aspects: its use of NPCs as an in-game cueing mechanism. The game's NPCs, while fairly broad stereotypes, are engaging and lively. Even better, they're often a very useful source of hints and meta-game information, but that assistance is blended skillfully into the story. For example, that training sequence -- Nicholas wants to join the crew of a pirate ship, but the Captain understandably wants him to learn how to hold his own in a fight first. So Nick finds a wayward pirate named Lyle, does him a favor, and in exchange Lyle teaches him how to fight. Thus the player has an opportunity to learn the swordfighting interface, in a way that completely makes sense within the context of the story. In other sections of the game, Nick's companions may offer puzzle hints, but only when asked. I was impressed with the slickness of this hint system -- very rarely did a character point out the blindingly obvious, and when I felt genuinely stuck, my NPC companions often could offer a nudge that gave just enough information. Along with being a pretty snazzy hint system, this technique remedied a common problem with adventure games, that of NPCs who are supposedly intelligent and useful people but who completely fail to have any thoughts or insights about game situations.

The imperfection in the NPCs is their bizarre tendency to occasionally slide into anachronism or fourth-wall breaking. For instance, in that training sequence, Lyle says, "Ye stand right here while I open up my sack of whupass." Now, I'm no student of the 18th century, but my instincts tell me that it's a good bet no real pirate ever spoke the phrase "sack of whupass." These kinds of obviously inappropriate references, while funny enough, threw me right out of the story without exception. In that same sequence, Lyle gives instructions like "use the left and right arrow keys on that keyboard thingy down there, and you'll lean left or right." The game is setting up a little confusion here: an in-game character is referring to meta-game mechanics, while trying to pretend he doesn't really understand them because he's an eighteenth century pirate? It doesn't work. Also the voice-acting on the NPCs is generally pretty bad, though at least it's done with a sense of energetic abandon.

These quibbles aside, the NPCs were one of my favorite things about the game. Another component that worked for me was the game's graphics. These were appealingly cartoony, just a little more lifelike than the average Disney animated feature, with the occasional spectacular sky or artifact. There was a bit of strangeness with the panning -- the graphics would get rather pixellated anytime they were in motion, snapping back into focus once the movement stopped. There were perspective problems, too, with the NPCs against the background, and occasionally I'd see a huge piece of someone's head or arm blocking my view suddenly if they were in the wrong place relative to me. Still, Redjack's world was a lot of fun to look at, and that goes for its cut-scenes as well. These scenes often had interesting camera angles or entertaining visual conventions (like the moving line on the map representing Nick's travels.) I also liked the music fairly well, though it did tend to get a bit repetitive at times.

In short, I enjoyed the game most when it was at its most adventure-like. That's not because I dislike action games, but because Redjack handled its action so ineptly. The lesson here is clear: if you're going to include action in your adventure games, make sure that the action is just as compelling and fun as the adventure -- otherwise you'll end up with a game like Redjack, whose dashing adventure ultimately falls in defeat to the dull, heavy sword of its action.

Really Late Reviews #3 -- Redjack: Revenge Of The Brethren / Paul O'Brian / obrian at / Revised April 2006
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