The fire-and-brimstone portrayals of Hell have never really done it for me. There’s something silly about the exaggeration; eternal torture and constant agony are difficult to imagine because they’re so extreme. By contrast, waiting in line eternally only to be told you’ve filled in the wrong form when you arrive at the desk is a nightmare I can get behind. That’s the premise behind Red Tapea new bureaucracy sim-style narrative adventure from Pollaris Studios and horror mainstays DreadXP.
On paper (and there’s a lot of paper in Hell), Red Tape is an enticing prospect. I was very ready to get bounced around Hell’s various departments, constantly being told I had the wrong color pen for the form I was carrying and having to get forms signed in triplicate for all eternity. Unfortunately, though, Red Tape doesn’t have the courage of his convictions. This is a boring and frustrating game, but not for the right reasons. The setup is hugely promising, but Red Tape fails to follow up on it in almost every way.
Red Tape Doesn’t Commit To Its Promising Setting
The idea is a neat one. Red Tape is effectively an office-bound version of Dante’s The Divine Comedyor rather Infernos, the first part of that famous work. You are a fallen angel who comes to Hell after what they believe is an administrative error, and you must journey through each of Hell’s nine circles, here reimagined as depressing departments of a particularly bleak office environment. Familiar characters from The Divine Comedylike Aristotle and Virgil, appear, but they’re reimagined as bored receptionists, desk-bound drones, or ambitious managers.
There’s a ton of potential in that setup, but Red Tape can’t find the courage to commit to it. In practice, it plays out as a safe walking sim-style game that takes absolutely no risks. For a game that’s all about hellish bureaucracy (the clue’s in the name), Red Tape seems allergic to making its players feel the kind of knuckle-gnawing frustration that this setting should evoke. Instead, every objective can be completed pretty much effortlessly; walk over here, talk to this person, talk to the person they told you to talk to, and mission complete. There’s no sense of friction or difficulty to any of it, which is dispiriting.
It’s a shame, because the visuals and aesthetics are great. The characters are rendered in a papercraft style that brings to mind Paradise Killer, and the offices of “Hell Inc” are low-poly drudgery at its finest. Some of the reinterpretations of classic mythological creatures are fun, too. Zoroastrianism’s Daeva and Aeshma are here represented as two bickering managers who can’t agree on anything, while the Minotaur of Greek myth is a mild-mannered creature who would rather be doing anything other than guarding the labyrinth.
Red Tape Undermines Itself With Amateurish Writing
The issue isn’t one of concept, but of execution. It feels rather like the process started with an idea: “wouldn’t it be cool if Hell was a bureaucratic nightmare”. From there, no thought appears to have gone into what that would actually mean or how it would change the concept of Hell. Instead, Red Tape seems content to present each floor of Hell entirely conventionally, never doing anything interesting with its reinterpretations of characters or locations. The lack of ambition when it comes to creating a holistic world is disappointing.
This isn’t helped by the fact that Red Tape‘s writing is flat and uninspired. There are a few chuckle-worthy lines, but a common problem rears its ugly head here. Characters feel interchangeable, with no thought given to individual voices. Some characters will verbally explain their personalities; Narcissus, for instance, is vain, but that’s communicated by him essentially just saying “I’m vain” at every opportunity. Elsewhere, I struggled to get a sense of many characters’ personalities or motivations because their dialogue was so stilted and boring. The dialogue will also occasionally use emoticons, which makes Red Tape feel like a lazy meme project rather than a serious game.
The story itself is also pretty poor, unfortunately. Again, a promising idea – a fallen angel slowly acclimatizes to a new reality while discovering that all in Hell may not be well – falls by the wayside. The fallen angel protagonist seems to go from being desperate to escape Hell to being fully invested in its problems within the space of a few minutes, and it’s not a feeling I shared. I never felt any particular desire to see Hell’s problems resolved or to help any of the characters. Red Tape is, sadly enough, just too poorly-written and brief to make you care about any of its narrative beats.
GameplayIn Red Tape Sure Is There, Sort Of
There’s not much to write home about in Red Tape‘s gameplay department, either. For the most part, it’s a standard walking sim-style adventure with the occasional inventory puzzle or platforming section to break things up. The inventory puzzles are usually extremely straightforward; you want to distract Narcissus, for instance, so you need a mirror. A character is holding a mirror. You talk to them. They give you the mirror. The puzzles are rarely clever or interesting and usually just boil down to “use item on person”.
In that spirit, the first-person platforming sections feel strangely out of place, and they don’t feel like they add any kind of challenge to Red Tape either. One section has you leaping across abstract platforms to answer ringing phones, which, in the spirit of the rest of the game, is a nice visual idea without any substance. Another platforming section felt so jarring and out of place that I can only imagine it was intended as a subversive joke, but it just comes across as a wringing of the hands and a dearth of ideas instead.
Red Tape is not a long game, but there’s still a sense that something, whether it’s time, money, or interest, ran out at the end. After the aforementioned bizarrely out-of-place segment, the entire plot of the game resolves itself in a slideshow-style cutscene that doesn’t freeze with the visual style of what’s come before. I’d feel shortchanged if Red Tape had managed to grab me or immerse me in any way prior to this moment. Unfortunately, this ended up being the moment that summed up my feelings best; like this ending, I just couldn’t muster up the enthusiasm to care.
Red Tape | FinalThoughts
Red Tape feels like a Trojan horse of a game. It promises a bureaucracy sim in which you experience true hellish frustration and irritation with a system that sees you as nothing but an expendable cog. All of the themes and ideas that could have been explored in that setting are nowhere to be found here. Instead, what you have is a by-the-numbers walking sim that struggles to engage or excite at every turn. The idea of a hellish mire of bureaucratic banality could have been incredible, but instead, Red Tape seems content to tell an utterly conventional story in an utterly uninteresting way.
TechRaptor reviewed Red Tape on PC via Steam with a copy provided by the publishers.