Red Johnson suffers from a little from a lack of identity. The game was made by the French, the title is written with a decidedly Cyrillic flavor, the character speaks English, and there are signs in the game written in German. Even the gameplay itself is quite the mash-up. You've got dark themes of L.A. Noire, the QTEs and gesture controls of Heavy Rain, the core gameplay of older PC classics like Westwood's Blade Runner and Access Software's Tex Murphy series, all thrown down on top of a puzzle game in the vein of the recent Nelson Tethers. The whole thing combines for a decidedly unique but somewhat haphazardly produced game.
The action all takes place in the dystopian city of Metropolis, a stark place that for reasons unknown looks exactly like a radiation symbol when mapped. You are of course Red Johnson, hard-boiled private eye who looks like Kyle from the now defunct show Party Down, dressed like Jack Nicholson when he was escaping the institution at the end of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. Red's been asked by his pal Officer Robert to help assist him in the murder of one Eddy Lexter, shot in cold blood on Drownedman's Bridge. Your investigation will bring you in contact with half a dozen thoroughly unlikeable suspects who probably deserve to be locked up even if they aren't directly involved in the murder. Once you've gotten enough evidence, you present your case and the game tells you if you won or not. There is no randomization here, so unless you want to clean up some trophies or you screw up the investigation really badly, there isn't going to be a reason to come back once you put in the four hours or so to beat the game.
The majority of the gameplay is sweeping the cursor around the mostly static backgrounds searching for hotspots that will either initiate a conversation, pop up some text about the uselessness of the object, or open up a puzzle. These puzzles are the heart of the game, and there are around 30, but much like the aforementioned Nelson Tethers, they generally fall into about half a dozen different categories. The puzzles range from the "barely a puzzle at all" types where you simply have to find a code for a keypad that was jotted down someplace nearby, to rather complex number/logic puzzles that will very likely be unsolvable without the readily available hints from your pal Saul (I'm looking at you crazy Tarot Card puzzle). The puzzles are generally well designed, and often somewhat intricate. Early on you want to buy a newspaper, but first you have to hunt around the machine for change (these sections usually allow you full freedom of movement around the puzzle object, in the way you would examine inventory in a Resident Evil game), then figure out the exact amount the paper costs, then how to manipulate the machine to work. It can take some time to put all the pieces together.
When you aren't solving puzzles, you might be in a QTE-based fight, which are short and fairly rare, or talking up a suspect. The conversations allow you to select responses and occasionally offer evidence, and again are strictly linear affairs where if you make a mistake you just start the conversation over and make the right choice this time. Every hour or so the game will ask you a series of true or false questions to make sure you have been paying attention thus far, and again, the only consequence of getting it wrong is starting over. You'll also pop back to headquarters on occasion to analyze the evidence you have and use the comparison machine to check on fingerprints and shell casings.
Red Johnson ends up being an interesting experience that feels just a bit off. When it was over, I was left with the distinct notion that the game was a little thrown together, trying to maybe do to much without ever doing any of it well. I enjoyed it, but it felt like if someone had put a little more time into it, it would have been a pretty special game. In the end, it's just one pretty short case with no replay value, although there are allusions to other cases perhaps coming down the road. If you are looking for a puzzle game with the feel of older adventure games, you'll have a good time here.