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Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Review: Red Colony (Nintendo Switch)


Review by Matt S. 

Wow is Red Colony a red hot mess. About the only thing that saves it is that it is so unpolished that it's difficult to determine if its nastier edges were intended or simply because the developer that didn't have a firm grasp on what they were doing. Ironically enough, because it is such a mess, it's also entertaining in the same way that Edward Wood's films are, and while we may still be looking for the Citizen Kane of videogames, we've absolutely found the Plan 9 From Outer Space of games with Red Colony.


It's actually difficult to wrap my head around all the ways that this game tries to juggle fire sticks, only to accidentally grab the wrong end of the stick and burn its proverbial hands. It's such a confused experience that it's hard to know if the developer understood what they were trying to do, and on that basis it defies analysis. I'll try grappling with some of it below, but before we get to that: the basic premise of Red Colony is that you play as a woman living in a communist colony on Mars, and things are going pretty good... until they're not. One day you wake up in a warehouse to discover that the colony has been beset by zombies. To make matters worse, your daughter is missing and your husband is getting his end wet inside the nanny. Armed with these revelations you set out on a dual mission. Firstly you've got to deal with the zombies, and secondly to deal with that lying, cheating monster.

It is, in theory, a perfectly adequate premise for a B-grade inspired horror game, and Red Colony is quite clearly inspired by both Resident Evil (as in the original on PlayStation) and B-grade exploitation horror. The problem isn't so much in the source of inspiration as the execution, however, because: 


1) The communist thing. Red Colony is only around three hours long, but I am immensely confused as to why the game needed to specify that the community is "communist," other than as a laboured and inadequate explanation for the lack of freedom and inability to own weaponry to protect oneself that the narrative suggests is inherent with communism (more on that in a moment). It's especially weird since the whole shambling monster zombie thing that we take from George A. Romero was very much a critique of capitalism, not communism (and not even subtle about it). While I would certainly be interested in an artist reframing the Romero zombie tradition within a communist context, doing that was always going to take a much more in-depth thesis than Red Colony comes anywhere close to offering. Instead, the whole "this is a commie settlement," comes across with all the subtlety and nuance of something McCarthy would have sponsored, and it doesn't add anything of value narratively, thematically, atmospherically or intellectually to the game. 

2) You print guns. In this utopic commune, which Red Colony is so very eager to suggest is a farce, guns are outlawed. So, when the zombies start attacking, your only means to defend yourself is to print up some new guns and ammunition by finding the raw materials and then tracking down a 3D printer. Red Colony is so confused that I'm still not entirely sure the point the game's making here: it could either be a commentary on how gun-resistant societies are facing an impending disruption to their stability and security as 3D printing makes it possible to manufacture weaponry without oversight. Or it could be the libertarian argument that guns are good and the only way to protect a society. Red Colony is could very genuinely be arguing for either extreme of the spectrum. Or, just as possibly, the developer thought printing guns would be a neat gameplay mechanic and gave no thought whatsoever to the thematic context of such a mechanic. 

Overall between points #1 and #2 I get the impression that the developer has a dim view of "red" societies and ideology, but either way, whether that's the case or he's actually a hard left guy working on subversion, Red Colony doesn't do a great or cohesive job in discussing its themes. 


3) The game is mechanically simple. This isn't necessarily a criticism - in fact, for fans of the original Resident Evil, this game's best feature is how carefully it emulates that style. Zombies move slowly (and just like in Resident Evil good players will have fun dismantling them with a knife). Puzzles require a lot of back-tracking and key-finding. There are even Resident Evil-like mini cut scenes every time your character opens doors and moves up and downstairs. Putting aside that none of the game is challenging (zombies aren't much of a threat, puzzles offer a pretty clear trail of breadcrumbs), Red Colony works, albeit in a very simple and straightforward manner. It's just as well that the game's three hours long though, as I don't think that there's enough there mechanically to justify it being any more extended than that. 

4) The violence is extreme. This is other effective element of the game, and with just one small caveat the violence found within Red Colony is exquisite and interesting. It's not just that there's blood everywhere - though there are plenty of rooms painted red - but there are also some darkly impactful moments, such as one where an infected (but still rational) woman asks you to kill her by shooting her through the doorway. Not long thereafter you come across an area where a woman and child have hung themselves - one assumes to avoid a zombie fate. It might seem like violence is an easy vehicle for horror, but making it evocative and provocative isn't nearly as easy at you might think. The only caveat, as I mentioned earlier, is that the extreme violence is so frequent that you'll also become desensitised to it quickly, which means that it doesn't have quite the shock value that it needed to in the latter half.

5) The swearing. I know the developer was aiming for a darkly adult adventure here, and violent language is a valuable tool in doing so. I'm also aware that Red Colony had to condense a lot of adult storytelling into a short runtime, so that probably forced the developers' hand a little, but this game has a fairly juvenile sense of just how "awesome" it is to swear a lot. You know how if you repeat any word often enough it eventually loses all meaning? That's basically how swearing works in this game.


6) The sex. Sex and horror, and sex and the B-grade genre, have a long and proud history of being thematically linked to one another. Certainly, Red Colony is right to explore that theme, but in execution, it's like the developer went along to one lecture on the subject, learned how Dracula or the Monk has erotic elements, and left the class before the lecturer started talking about how the sex is used as a theme. In Red Colony, it's just there. The women all have stupidly big boobs and in cut scenes they stand around in hyper-sexualised poses. As the protagonist takes damage her clothes rip, but that's not a thematic element so much as something purely mechanical, because a healing item fixes her clothes right up too. Finally, the title screen of the game features the woman down to her underwear as multiple zombies grope and fondle her from behind a closed fence. The header image on this review is actually a tame version. The hands are in much more grope-y positions on the actual title screen. Again, there is no philosophical or thematic reason for any of this to be there. This isn't Saya No Uta, where the explicit sex provides the foundation for the game's critical themes. Red Colony's treatment of sex as a topic is, apparently, a pure effort at titillation and that is not the reason sex is such an integral part of the horror genre. Even if you do find the art to be sexy, it doesn't do anything to enhance Red Colony's narrative or purpose. 

I really don't know what the developer was trying to achieve with Red Colony, and I suspect the lack of cohesion is a result of him making it up on the fly after deciding to "do a Resident Evil homage". The Resident Evil homage, which is by far the most solid and cohesive part of the game, works. It's not perfect, but it's conceptually sound and executed with an understanding of the material it draws inspiration from. The rest of the game, however, is a confused mess. Whatever point Red Colony is trying to make about communism, guns, sex, violence and horror the creator was just unable to translate what was in his head into something that we mere mortals can comprehend.

With all of that said, like I said at the start of the review, this is the Plan 9 From Outer Space of video games, and taken in that context, it's still a weirdly good time, and may well end up earning itself a similar cult classic status for it.



- Matt S. 
Editor-in-Chief
Find me on Twitter: @mattsainsb


Review: Red Colony (Nintendo Switch)
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