Like a Scotsman adding pennies to a swear jar, we’re being inundated with roguelikes this year. I See Red is the latest top-down, twin-stick, roguelike shooter belting out fast action and lethal punishment for mistakes.
Only this time, it’s in black and white. Oh, except for every enemy and organic upgrade material, they’re in red. Hence the name. Given its cybernetic world and your rage-inflicted character being plastered in chromatic material, it actually does make sense thematically.
I’ve had some real duds with twin-stick shooters this year, most recently with Maze Blaze and the earlier Blackwind. Is I See Red one to break the disappointing mould with its high-octane, minimalistic gameplay that combines Hotline Miami with Ruiner? It should be a match made in furious Heaven.
I See Red goes for the ‘thrown into the deep end headfirst with bullets, explosions and a no exposition required’ approach. No introductory cutscene to get you settled, no sir. You awake in a cold, dark and sterile facility not even knowing your name nor role.
You pick up your pistol and get to work blasting away at the figments of red that teleport in before you. Of course, you’re felled by the end of this initial sequence, as is standard fare for the roguelike genre. Scooped up and escorted to a safe base by a rather gruesome looking fellow, you realise you can be cloned.
Why? No idea. It’s cyberpunk, get on with it. This basic structure justifies why you can die-and-retry as much as you like and probably feeds the narrative purpose of why your cybernetically implanted protagonist wants to send everything around him into bloody oblivion.
There’s meagre real direct story as you progress, aside from mementos that allude to our avatar’s history and family pre-violent destructive tendencies to all things that exist. Towards the end there’s a brief cutscene that shows why they’re so angry, but that’s kind of it. Without much of a narrative hook, I See Red purely depends on its gameplay to keep you invested, as even the hints to the past are fleeting and superficial.
Pistol Whippin’ and Head Poppin’
Which brings us nicely to what you’ll spend most of your time doing in I See Red – shooting things. Lots of shooting things.
Our bringer of vengeance has a standard handgun that is kept at all times, with a wide variety of other weapons picked up on the fly by eviscerating your bloodstained enemies. There’s your usual standard fare of assault rifles and shotguns alongside some more eccentric options like a laser, a bull-like charge and… an alien shotgun?
While there’s a lot of weapons, they don’t offer a massive amount of variety. One element that does work well is that every acquired weapon is heavily finite, meaning you have constantly switch them out on the fly, which gives the combat a fast-paced feel.
Working your way through the endless corridors of murder, you’ll additionally have a hook you use to pull in boxes, explosive barrels, weapons or items lying in the environment. It’s also your means to perform Doom-esque finishers on weakened enemies or when its meter is filled. The variety of animations for each enemy type are gratifying and the thrill of whipping a weapon off the ground, pummelling 3 meatsacks with it and then launching it into a schmuck’s face when it’s run dry is palpable.
Mixing and matching weapons on the fly, dashing about to avoid a missile, grappling a rifle to take out a distant enemy before performing a brutal finisher on the last poor sod makes I See Red come alive. The rage-fuelled power fantasy gruesomely thrives in these moments, but they’re unfortunately undercut by the rest of its design.
To Hell With You, and Your Corridors
The biggest issue I See Red has comes with its roguelike aspects. Your ceaseless campaign of bloodthristy violence takes place across sectors, usually split into 3-4 areas. Each area provides you with an option of missions with varying level of threat and reward. The higher the danger, the more potential reward.
Should you meet your gory end, you work your way through each area and sector again, reborn and re-angered. However, while the design is functional, there are some considerable flaws. First is that sectors 2 and 3 become ridiculously and needlessly long to work through, making them a chore.
Secondly, enemies become aggressively bullet-spongey, alongside their increased potential for damage output and frankly imbalanced attack options. At the end of each sector is a main boss, which are well-designed and challenging battles, but they’re exactly the same. Every run.
Practice makes mastery, I know, but it also breeds repetition and disinterest if there’s nothing new to keep you energised. I See Red shows its bloodied hand in one blast and suffers on repeated runs as a result. Sector 3 especially became such a monotonous labour to work through, I tried my damnedest to find the shortest route to the end.
Levels and areas don’t change or switch up on repeat playthroughs either, meaning you better get used to those sterile, static corridors and running through them over, and over, and over again. Instead of living out an adrenaline rush of violent carnage, the blood splatters and spitting of bullets become as mundane as smacking a pickaxe into a mine for the 1000th time.
Naturally, each failure provides the opportunity for you to learn and more importantly, upgrade. Each level has printing matter to be found, which is banked upon mission completion and used post-death to improve your survivability, rage mode (unlimited finishers etc), handgun and hook.
Upgrades are fairly substantial and make a noticeable difference to your cybernetic reaper of revenge, but they don’t add any level of variety or spice to proceedings. Whether you tank an extra hit or can perform a hook finisher quicker, the mundanity of your rampaging remains.
Passive boosts and active abilities can be found or purchased on your boarding missions (you assault spaceships), which add a minor layer of tactical thinking as some have debuffs as well as buffs to get you debating whether to snatch it up or not. Active abilities are rarer, discovered in later sectors, varying from incredibly helpful to so forgettable you just won’t use them.
I See Red keeps track of everything you collect and earn, with a handy database available on your ship to help you review each item or collectible. Again though, there’s just not a lot of point to it. Outside of endlessly shooting things, performing finishers and abusing the rage ability when you get low on health, there’s very little that’ll keep you engaged for more than a couple of hours.
Initially, the muted, black and white overlay on I See Red’s environments was an interesting change of pace. It’s got a spritely look and a handful of enemy designs, eked out across the different factions of opposing forces you’ll wage war against, looked pretty on point.
However, the environments become far too repetitive and have little visual variety to make them appealing to traverse. I can still remember Hades’ different layers of Hell perfectly; thanks to its superb visual direction and the dozens of hours I spent joyously slashing through them. I See Red is the unfortunate polar opposite of that.
Plus, while it runs pretty smoothly on the whole, it has a couple of significant bugs and mechanical issues. An alien in sector 2 spawned outside of the room on one run, requiring me to restart that level again (you can’t leave the room until everything is good and dead). I had an instance of a hard freeze which even locked up my desktop for a solid 5-10 minutes, requiring a reboot (and lost progress again).
While I found the hook mechanic and aiming to generally be pretty good, I’d frequently in the middle of a frenzy hook a weapon I didn’t want instead of finishing an enemy, causing my bloody end. I’d often end up firing inexplicably at crates instead of, you know, the violent gun-toting prick trying to blow me to smithereens with a shotgun.
Improvements to the priority of targeting and the hooking function would be welcome to smooth out the overall experience. For a game that has the basis of a seriously fun and rewarding combat system, these small details can make or break your willingness to keep playing.
A Tepid Rouge
For a twin-stick, roguelike shooter, I See Red has a decent basis. When the combat flows and you’re exploding dozens of foes at a time, it can feel exhilarating and awesome. It scratched an itch for me for a good couple of hours, but the proceeding hours after that became dulled. A pink tint instead of fully-fledged red mist fury.
Roguelikes have to make their repetitious design interesting or quirky, either through variety in mechanics, level design, aesthetic or all of the above. I See Red is content to rely on its gunplay to carry it, but it’s burdened by unengaging levels and enemies that will test your patience more than your gunslinging.
It’s better than Maze Blaze, that’s for sure, but even at its most intense and furious, it can barely sustain a rampage against the pinnacles of the genre. For some, it’ll satisfy an urge for gluttonous violence for an afternoon, but it’ll be a short-lived bout of adrenaline.
I See Red promises high-octane and snappy action which, by and large, it delivers on, aside from some mechanical looseness. What slows this violent rampage down to a meek crawl however is the repetitive corridor traipsing, bullet-absorbing late-game enemies and blunted visual style. You’re better off replaying Ruiner to enact bloody vengeance.
I See Red is available October 24th on PC via Steam and Epic Games Store.
Developer: Whiteboard Games
Publisher: Gameforge 4D GmbH
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional code from the publisher. For our full review policy, please go here.
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