If you’re an independent game studio looking to break through at this point in the current console generation, you’ve got your work cut out for you. While Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network offer low-cost ways to break into the downloadable game space, download-only titles come out at a feverish pace, and it can be tough to break through without a massive marketing budget. And though sales of download-only titles are on the rise, sales are relatively light compared with physical game sold at retail.
Nonetheless, Lexis Numérique seems to have a plan in place. The French studio was recently in San Francisco to show off a pair of downloadable titles planned for the PlayStation Network. The first of these titles, “Red Johnson’s Chronicles” hit the PS3 on Tuesday. It’ll be exclusive for PlayStation Plus subscribers, who can nab it for $6.50. After two week, it’ll go on sale for the general public for $13.
Lexis Numérique’s marketing and business development director, Djamil Kemal, recently gave me the lowdown on “Red Johnson’s Chronicles” and another game I’ll preview later, a survival horror title with the working title of “AMY” that’s planned for later this spring. With these two M-rated games, Kemal explained, Lexis Numérique — previously known primarily for kids games, if it was known at all — hopes to earn itself a cult following and set the stage for later commercial success. That’s part of the reason the company is launching first on the less-crowded PSN, and at a somewhat wallet-friendly price in an era where most sizable downloadable games are selling for $15.
“Red Johnson’s Chronicles” looks like a point-and-click adventure game like “The Secret of Monkey Island” or the smartly written creations of San Rafael’s Telltale Games. Players move the titular detective around a number of different areas and work to solve the murder of a guy named Ed. Because the game takes a lot of its narrative and visual cues from film noir, it turns out that Ed is one of those guys a lot of people hate, so Red has plenty of suspects to interview and lots of digging to do.
The detective work looks a lot like what you’ll find in Capcom’s popular “Phoenix Wright” games. You’ll interview suspects in search of potential clues, trying to catch them in a lie and occasionally confronting them with evidence you find. As someone who’s always found the idea of confronting a suspect with brand new evidence on the witness stand a little implausible, I think the shifting of such shady tactics to a private detective seems like the perfect idea.
When you’re not interviewing suspects, you’ll move your cursor around the screen and look for clues or other points of interest. In one portion of the game I saw, Red needed to get inside the apartment of a criminal named Black Plague Carlos to look for clues. After being told to buzz off by an elderly woman, Red decides to break in. But before he can climb in through the window, he first needs to deactivate an alarm.
It’s at this point that I saw another facet of “Red Johnson’s” gameplay: puzzles. Periodically throughout the game, Kemal explained, the game will present you with the sorts of puzzles you might find in Nintendo’s popular “Professor Layton” games. (It was refreshing to hear Kemal willingly fess up to “RJC’s” numerous influences in our interviews. Too many people presenting games try to act like they’re reinventing the wheel.)
In the demo that I saw, Kemal failed to disarm the alarm properly and, once inside, Red was confronted by an angry Black Plague Carlos. This triggered a fight scene where Red had to evade Carlos’ attacks with timed button presses, similar to the fight scene’s in Quantic Dream’s “Heavy Rain.”
Red won the fight, but the net result was that Carlos pulled a gun on him and, after some chitchat, escorted him out of the apartment – but not before Red picked up some information that would prove useful in his investigation.
As Red’s investigation progresses, any information he acquires gets entered into a handy notebook, a feature Kemal said is aimed at casual players who might finish the eight- to 10-hour game over a few weeks instead of days.
If players get stuck, “Red Johnson’s Chronicles” feature a tiered hint system similar to what LucasArts included in the “Secret of Monkey Island” remakes. But rather than just “press X to get a hint,” Red instead has to, in typical private dick fashion, pay money to get help, with each tier of hints costing additional money. Though I saw Red’s finances dwindling as Kemal used hints, Red can’t run out of money, Kemal said. Instead, the level of cash left over at the end of the game is reflected in a newpaper article players see at the end of the game. Spend only a little money, and you’ll get something like, “Hotshot detective heroically nabs cold-blooded killer.” Use hints prodigiously and your end-game article will be more along the lines of, “Murder solved in spite of private eye’s clueless bumbling.” (Those are my words, paraphrasing what Kemal told me, not direct quotes.)
Based on what I saw, “Red Johnson’s Chronicles” looked like a polished fusion of a number of different genres popular on the PC, handheld gaming systems and mobile phones. Lexis Numérique eventually hopes to bring the mystery to Xbox Live Arcade and PC, but it will be exclusive on the PlayStation Network for at least four months.