A Darker Shade of Red is not like other tablet games. For starters, it's free: not free-to-play, not free with ads, but completely free with no strings attached. This is because it's actually an academic work, the graduation project of a newly-formed development house brought together under the tutelage of The National Academy of Interactive Entertainment, or DADIU ("Danske Akademi for Digital, Interaktiv Underholdning" in Danish). DADIU publishes many of its students' final projects in the public sphere, always for free, generously treating gamers to the freshman works of what could be tomorrow's leading developers. A Darker Shade of Red is a solid example of the quality DADIU's students produce, as well as the rough edges that come with first attempts.
The other unusual feature is A Darker Shade of Red's adult focus. It's one of the only iPad games I've downloaded that came accompanied by an "age-restricted material" warning, but the 17+ age rating is well earned throughout the gritty noir. Despite starring a cast of seemingly innocuous animals, this is no children's story: from a meth-dealing turtle to a peeping-tom pig, every inch of the seedy motel setting is coated in R-rated innuendo and more literal bodily fluids.
The motel is the singular environment for the game, and where our fox protagonist—Detective Mulder—is sent on his most recent investigation. A chicken night club singer named Lu-Ann has gone missing, and her trail ended at the run-down Starlite Motel. The noir setting is perfectly executed, from Mulder's five o'clock shadowed muzzle to the femme fatale focus of his pursuit. Mulder's comments throughout the game give hints to his classic hard-boiled detective nature, from claiming an opened bottle of beer "smells like home" to breathy internal monologues stating "The room was like the dames I date; cheap and dirty." The cartoonish graphics are deceptive at first glance, giving way to a dark and dingy style reminiscent of Grim Fandango.
In classic point-and-click fashion, players will guide Mulder around the motel as he talks to suspects, gathers evidence, and puts two-and-two together. All of the puzzles are fairly straightforward item delivery tasks that are undemanding due to the limited scope of the motel environment. Items themselves are also in limited supply, and even unusual puzzle solutions that require the use of a rubber chicken become fairly obvious within the lack of options. While this makes A Darker Shade of Red less of a mental workout, it also prevents the puzzle-wall frustration so many point-and-click adventures come up against, allowing players to simply enjoy exploring the bizarre adult cartoon environment.
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It's a shame, then, that the limited scope of the puzzles extends to the world itself. Although the game is full of clever in-jokes about everything from Fallout to The Big Lebowski, it's just as populated by copy-pasted items that Mulder provides the exact same commentary on. Every bottle of beer "smells like home," and every wooden chair is "the least comfortable chair around." Although it makes sense that every motel room would sport the same derelict furniture, it doesn't make for an engaging game world. Within the extremely small environment of the game—whose run time, even after exploring every nook and cranny, is just shy of an hour—this repetition stands out. Half the gameplay is spent sending Mulder between reception and other motel rooms, which could make each new room an exciting change of pace—if it wasn't stocked with the same items as the last.
Because of this abundant reuse of objects and limited scope—coupled with a "To Be Continued" ending—A Darker Shade of Red feels more like a demo stage than a complete game. It is an ambitious and engaging demo that introduces us to a gritty world worth exploring, but one that is not yet complete. It features some clever, player-friendly design choices, such as its regularly updated case file, that would be more beneficial in a full-length experience. Even small touches, like Mulder's inventory being represented by his open trench coat, drip with charm and indicate designer affection. We only hope Nickname Studios keeps the romance burning long enough to bring Mulder's next adventure to life, to give us something more substantial to play, instead of a long goodbye.
- A Darker Shade of Red
- Developer: Nickname Studios
- Publisher: DADIU
- Platforms: iOS (played), Android
- Price: free
- In-app purchases? no