One-man development team Stranga Games has been quietly establishing himself as one to watch in the world of independently developed psychological horror games, presented in gorgeous lo-fi pixel art.
At the time of writing, Red Bow is the latest in a series of games with a loose thematic link to them, following Just Ignore Them and My Big Sister. And, in keeping with the way Stranga apparently likes to do things, we once again have another short-form, thought-provoking adventure that provides ruminations on the subject of mortality, explored through interactions with the monstrous.
The world of Stranga Games is not a happy one… but it’s certainly a fascinating one. Let’s descend into the darkness once again.
In Red Bow, you take on the role of a young girl named Roh. Roh seemingly lives a quiet life in a little house on her own, but doesn’t appear to take particularly good care of herself. Her fridge is empty, she seems perpetually hungry, and her home is fairly barren — aside from her elaborately decorated but tiny room, which appears to be something of a sanctuary for her.
Roh is troubled by strange dreams, though, which make that sanctuary feel a little bit less safe than it once was — particularly as they’re the sort of dreams where it’s difficult to distinguish between reality and the events unfolding in your unconscious mind. No sooner does she get out of bed, believing herself to have awoken from the latest strange adventures of a mind forever wandering, than further peculiar happenings begin to unfold.
The game unfolds across four distinct chapters, the first three of which feature a self-contained situation for Roh to resolve in one of several different ways, and the last of which unfolds according to the choices you made along the way.
Much like Stranga’s other games, the action is presented from a top-down perspective using low-resolution pixel art reminiscent of the Game Boy Colour, and gameplay primarily consists of lengthy dialogue sequences, searching objects to find items, and using those items in various situations in order to progress. In other words, while it might look like an 8-bit RPG, in gameplay terms it’s very much a traditional adventure game.
Each scenario Roh encounters brings her face-to-face with some weighty themes, mostly relating to death and the darker side of mental health. Over the course of the game, we explore the inability to process grief, suicide, metaphorical “death” following the loss of something important to you, avoidable tragedy, the desire for vengeance, and perhaps most importantly, the wish for a “second chance” — particularly for those who barely got a first one.
Red Bow is much less explicitly “horrific” that My Big Sister was, but it’s still very unsettling thanks to the subject matter. The game has a habit of exploring its themes through the uncanny, and the lo-fi pixel art aesthetic really helps with this aspect, since it forces your imagination to “fill in the blanks” somewhat. Roh tends to take things admirably in her stride throughout most of the game, but paradoxically the juxtaposition between her largely unflappable nature and the increasingly bizarre happenings unfolding in front of her just makes things all the more unsettling as you progress.
There’s a pleasing feeling of consistency and familiarity for those who have played Stranga’s other games, though; there’s a cameo appearance from a character who got a bit of a raw deal in My Big Sister, for example, and Stranga has a very distinctive, consistent method of representing the strange, the uncanny, the monstrous, seemingly mostly inspired by Japanese mythology. While you won’t exactly draw “comfort” from this, the feeling of coherence is worthy of note, and demonstrates Stranga clearly has a vision for what he wants to achieve with his work beyond simply having a retro look and feel.
As you encounter each scenario, you’ll have the opportunity to gather information and items as Roh, and then there are several ways to conclude each chapter. These tend to be themed in three ways: continuing to suffer, accepting the situation, or providing one of those all-important “second chances” at happiness. With one fatal exception, Roh’s story will continue up until the fourth and final chapter regardless of the choices you make; at this point the ultimate outcome will depend on the combination of choices you made along the way.
Those choices aren’t always obvious. In the first scenario, for example, you’re challenged by a strange creature named Kubi to present him with an object that represents “your answer” to the situation as you understand it, and it’s not immediately apparent which — if any — is the “right” one. In the subsequent chapter, one whole puzzle sequence is a complete red herring with fatal consequences for following it through to its natural endpoint. And later still, the third chapter concludes according to the order in which you speak to a pair of characters — and whether or not you fulfil one of their requests. No binary dialogue options here.
Thankfully, while it may not be immediately apparent which are the “right” choices to make along the way, the game as a whole is short enough that replaying and trying something different can be done very quickly — and on platforms that support achievements or trophies, these can provide some cryptic clues as to how you might want to proceed, or at least what the possibilities are along the way.
Much like My Big Sister, Red Bow is not a game that provides explicit “answers” to the many questions it raises over the course of its short runtime, and some may find that a little unsatisfying — particularly if they have trouble uncovering the “good” ending. However, this is what makes a lot of good psychological horror really effective; it’s precisely that lack of answers that allows it to get inside your head and make you ponder some of life’s big questions.
Red Bow is a game best enjoyed in a single session — it’ll likely take you about 60-90 minutes to beat it first time around — followed by a bit of quiet contemplation to reflect on what you just witnessed.
As an adventure game, it’s not especially challenging; as an interactive story, it’s short and vague; but as a complete experience, it’s fascinating, thought-provoking — and a great addition to Stranga Games’ growing lineup of unusual titles that are worthy of your attention if you’re after something just a little bit different.
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