The value and worth of an adventure game has changed a lot over the decades. At one point it was considered a design goal to create challenging, mind bending puzzles meant to keep the player coming back to a game for months if not years. The puzzles would strain the boundaries of normal human logic to the point that certain player behaviors would persist so often, become so deeply engrained, that they began to be considered inherent to the genre. Times change though, and now I find that the value of an adventure game lies in how well it gets out of the way of the player, not in the manner that it frustrates that player’s efforts.
Most games are dictated by their repeating actions. Adventures games have the freedom that the verbs they use as their foundation are broad enough that the same few clicks can mean shoot a person, light a lamp, talk to a cab driver, or spike a drink. This variety allows for narrative nuance and character building, whereas other genres only reinforce similar actions.
I bring all this up, because despite Face Noir’s host of other problems, it gets out of your way. It allows you to feel like an actor in the private detective adventure rather than some dork at a computer left wondering what they hell the designers were thinking about when requiring the player to use X object on Y environmental feature. There’s a button that marks all of the interactive objects in a location with a red circle and a setting that will keep all of the necessary items localized to a single area of New York rather than having to traipse all around the city looking for that one item that will allow you to continue. There is one puzzle that is head scratching and seems like it should have a much simpler solution, but there’s always at least one.
Most importantly, though, is that this is a game in which you play a detective that makes you feel like a detective. On occasion you will be asked to connect two facts that swirl in a blue haze littered with all that you’ve picked up over the course of your investigation and deduce a conclusion from them. You’ll have to recognize information in a book or ledger to put two and two together.
You play as Jack Del Nero, a private investigator who previously was kicked off of the police force. After the intro sequence in which you have to snap some compromising photos, you get a phone call in the middle of the night to go to the docks for information on the man that betrayed you. This sets off a chain of events beginning with one dead body and you as the main suspect, leading you, of course, to seedy joints, abandoned museums, and police stations, what with that wonderful stain of corruption and cynicism noir is known for. Though the backdrop isn’t the postwar malaise and alienation of urban America, instead it is the crushing hopelessness and decay of the Great Depression.
I wasn’t too sure what to think of the game going in. The developers are the Italian studio Mad Orange, with the game itself brought stateside and localized by the up-and-comers Phoenix Online Studios. And as far as I can tell, this is their first game. First impressions aren’t superb either. The voice acting seems off somehow, like the sound just doesn’t fit with the bodies they’re coming out of. It’s also highly clichéd, running down the noir checklist. However, with time, some of these superficial impressions fade away. The voices settle in to their characters. Oh, of course that’s what Jack and Gretta sound like! And the game embraces its clichés on its own terms, subsuming them into its narrative flow. Plus, I couldn’t help but smile every time that I caught a direct reference to an old noir classic. There’s probably at least a dozen more I missed too.
And even late in the game I was stunned by the art direction and the sheer detail that went into making the game’s locations look like real places. You may be in a dilapidated warehouse, but damn if you’re not convinced the rust and rot isn’t there and you’ve never been in this exact dilapidated warehouse before. It’s even more striking at the more unique locations later on. Throw in a foundation of mourning saxophone jazz as the soundtrack, and the tapestry of noir is complete.
Then there are the problems. There is the racist caricature of a Chinese cab driver, who almost get his moment of awesome before the game decides to put out that flame. The walking animation can cause your character to take forever to cross from one end of a location to another. At the harbor, where you will be quite often, I timed that it took 15 seconds to get from the car to the phone. And that isn’t from one end of the screen to the other. The story also starts getting a bit ridiculous in terms of just how many things are connected to everything else. It’s all a little too neat. There are additionally so many little factual things about the era and area that are just wrong if you happen to know them. And, of course, the fact the game’s title literally translates to “black face.” No reason is offered at all.
But the biggest problems exist in the game’s ending and the lead up to that ending. I won’t spoil it because despite it I still give Face Noir a general thumbs up. I will say Mad Orange already have a website up for Face Noir II for a reason. As for the lead up, why is the normal route never good enough for games? Why do they feel the need to invoke Indigo Prophecy syndrome like it’s a nervous tick if things are too grounded for too long? There’s no single specific thing that I can point to as being too tedious because the game is well handled, ingeniously so in one instance. It’s the overall general direction that exasperates me.
I really liked this game. As I was playing, I was thinking of all the interesting things I could talk about like its stature as an example of modern day noir, the implications of changing the decade from post-war to pre-war in terms of the game’s meaning, the view that it presents on American history from an outside culture, or the commentary inherent in the juxtaposition of out of place elements against the strictures of setting and genre. However, I held off on making up my mind on the direction a review could take because Face Noir could still screw up the ending, flushing everything else down the toilet. I didn’t think it would actually do it.
I don’t know if Face Noir is a good game, but I find it an interesting one. I’d go as far to say its idiosyncrasies are downright fascinating in their own right. I judge this game as a whole, but applaud it for its many, many better parts.