Randal's Monday

Just as its main character is stuck in a loop reminiscent of (read: copied from) Groundhog Day, Randal’s Monday seems to be stuck in the mid-90s. Not only is the title character steeped in the kind of faux-badassery that Bart Simpson and Sonic the Hedgehog thrived off of, but the game plays like a love letter to the catalogues of LucasArts and Sierra, albeit the kind of love letter that a delusional stalker with no real understanding of love would send. The game’s Steam page proudly states that its genre has been “spiced up with countless geek culture references” from the last few decades, pointedly omitting the fact that those same decades saw huge strides in the techniques and standards for gameplay and usability. Unsurprisingly, Randal’s Monday gleefully mires in the worst trappings of graphic adventures without any kind of evolution or reinvention, completely unaware that there were good reasons why the genre nosedived.

If I’m feeling charitable, I can see some potential in the game. Taking the fondly-remembered but often-stagnant genre of point-and-click adventure, overloading it with pop culture references, and setting it in a plot driven by a time loop seems like ripe territory for some commentary on the self-defeating nature of nostalgia...but that’s probably just some projection I indulged in because it was more interesting than the actual plot. The most sophisticated thing the game accomplishes is casting its main character as a sociopathic kleptomaniac whose only goal in life is continuing his own petty amusement. It’s a spot-on depiction of the kind of person a point-and-click protagonist would have to be in real life, but there’s no higher thought or joke to it beyond “Video game logic is weird.” It tries to be for adventure games what Spec Ops: The Line was for shooters, but without any discipline or relevance. As for the rest of the game, it’s equal parts derivative, tedious, unintuitive, and illogical.

There are three things that made graphic adventures worth playing back in the day: atmosphere, original stories, and good writing. Randal’s Monday has none of the former, its plot is a rip-off of Groundhog Day, and its writing is...well, it’s not bad, but it gets pretty tiresome after only a few hours. Almost every conversation in the game alternates between snarky comments from Randal, and angry dismissals from another character. The repetition is further compounded by the time loop narrative forcing the player to sit through multiple nearly-identical conversations, differentiated only by the level of exasperation the characters show. To top it off, each conversation lasts way too long – especially those that have no significance to the plot or gameplay. It doesn’t quite reach Metal Gear Solid levels of redundancy, but by the game’s halfway point, you’ll just want to grab the characters by their throats and yell, “Advance the plot already!

The game’s most reliable source for funny moments is a recurring pair of crime scene investigators that enjoy their jobs a little too much. Other than that, the ratio of jokes that work to those that don’t is disappointingly low – and that’s ignoring the “jokes” that simply reference pop culture, i.e. the overwhelming majority of them. The game has a particular affinity for the works of Kevin Smith, which it shows by aping his style and themes, naming its main character after those of Clerks, and having Jay and Silent Bob show up out of nowhere to add an additional step to a puzzle. For what it’s worth, the game’s reference pool is enormous – background allusions are drawn from such relatively obscure sources as Cave Story and The Neverhood, among others. At times, these can be a nice inclusion for the target demographic, but it quickly becomes absurd how often the developers felt the need to announce everything they’ve played or watched.

With such a mediocre script and imitative premise, Randal’s Monday doesn’t exactly position itself as a literary masterpiece, but its copycat nature turns out to be the least of its problems. Between the wildly inconsistent internal logic, wasted parallel universe concept, and tortured, unsatisfying resolution, the plot’s faults are innumerable. It opens with Randal stealing a ring from his best friend – a ring which turns out to be cursed, placing Randal in a loop of the worst day of his life. Future iterations of the loop can be altered by Randal’s actions, creating a series of parallel universes that all seem to end with his best friend’s suicide. From then on, the indifferent tone becomes a constant obstacle to the player’s enjoyment. It’s not surprising that a dark comedy doesn’t treat a character’s repeated suicide seriously, but it is surprising that it doesn’t treat it as a joke, either; it’s just a thing that keeps happening. It could be replaced with a series of text boxes asking if you’re really sure you want to advance to the next day, and it wouldn’t feel any different.

It’s established early on that no one except Randal remembers the loop’s previous iterations...except for a handful of characters that can remember for no adequately explained reason. Most confusingly, one scene has Randal spend 48 hours in solitary confinement, but it’s somehow still Monday when he’s released, and everyone remembers meeting him beforehand. Furthermore, the reason the ring caused the whole ordeal is never discovered, which would have been forgivable if it didn’t do completely different things when other people encounter it, all of which are similarly unexplained. The game’s finale may be its most disappointing moment, partially because it boils down to a protracted deus ex machina, and partially because it focuses entirely on Randal, despite forcing players to get to know a significant supporting cast over the previous 15 hours. Finally, on a more subjective note, the parallel universe concept is terribly underused. Until the last couple of episodes, the most drastic change that takes place is a minor character changing genders.

I don’t usually take this long to examine the gameplay in detail, but that’s only because anyone who’s played a point-and-click adventure knows exactly what to expect as soon as the genre’s name is dropped. Players must guide Randal using the mouse, ordering him to talk to characters, examine his surroundings, and collect a variety of objects to be used on and combined with other objects in order to solve puzzles. As usual, most of these puzzles follow a form of logic that only someone like Randal – headcase that he is – could grasp. As usual, it’s not necessarily that the puzzle solutions don’t make sense, but that they don’t make any more sense than the ten other potential solutions players will attempt on their way to the one true answer. And as usual, the hints dropped by other characters are so impossibly subtle that they may as well not exist.

All of this is exacerbated by the open level design, which allows puzzles and their keys to be as many as five screens apart, makes every character and item in the game a potential red herring, and forces players to trudge back and forth between all areas before and during each puzzle. The game tries to be more forgiving than the games that inspired it by incorporating a “hint system", which is a hugely appreciated feature, but it’s implemented so bluntly that it skips over any semblance of hints, and functions more like a built-in walkthrough. A more useful feature is the ability to hold down the Space key to make the game highlight all clickable objects. It sounds mundane, but it’s a godsend in a genre that often has trouble conveying these things visually.

Speaking of visuals, Randal’s Monday uses its set of cartoonishly skewed perspectives and bold character designs to pay even more homage to LucasArts. It’s not the most beautiful thing in the world, but it’s vibrant, expressive, and detailed all at once, so it serves its purpose well. Animations, on the other hand, are noticeably choppy and uncomfortable. As for the audio, the game features a superb voice cast, (although Randal himself wears out his welcome thanks to the sheer amount of stuff he says throughout the game) and the soundtrack suits each scene well, even if it’s mostly forgettable. The nicest thing that can be said about Randal’s Monday is that it’s highly functional; the mouse control is simple and streamlined, and the inventory system is, for the most part, easily managed.

That said, “It’s functional” is the game reviewer equivalent of “It didn’t make me sick.” Had Randal’s Monday been released in the time period it misses so badly, it would have been considered a passable but pointless imitation of other, better games. In 2014, it’s an embarrassing reminder of why this genre should remain ignored by all but the most talented developers. Barring the possible subtext about adventure game protagonists (which may be entirely in my head), the game is artistically bankrupt – it copies ideas, spouts constant references in lieu of jokes, and features a story so flawed that even its own writers seemed to give up by the end of it. The experience can easily be replicated by watching Groundhog Day with some friends, and pausing to take turns being jerks to each other every time Bill Murray tries to interact with something.