Dannazione! Do You Want to Give Up?


I leapt at the chance to review Face Noir. I’ve long been a fan of both the noir atmos­phere and adven­ture games: a pri­vate eye in 1940’s New York search­ing for clues to crack a mur­der case, with him­self as prime sus­pect? Sign me up. The pre-release art­work I’d seen1 and the pro­posed sto­ry­line imme­di­ate­ly brought forth mem­o­ries of the excellent-but-largely-forgotten Discworld Noir, a game with which I spent many enjoy­able hours (and many less enjoy­able ones try­ing to get the bas­tard to run) and which helped influ­ence my love of the noir con­cept; the game was part par­o­dy of noir tropes, part legit­i­mate mys­tery, and even final­ly – spoil­ers, should any of you be wor­ried about dis­cov­er­ing a 14-year-old plot – part Lovecraftian tale of elder gods and creep­ing doom. I was look­ing for­ward to a sim­i­lar expe­ri­ence, albeit one with­out the loom­ing cos­mic hor­ror, and eager­ly await­ed the chance to pre­tend to be Philip Marlowe again. Make mine pas­tra­mi on rye.

The game opens with a flash-forward to a dra­mat­ic scene in which our pro­tag­o­nist, the pri­vate eye Jack del Nero, is gunned down2 by an unknown assailant. Returning to the now, Jack is con­tract­ed for a case embody­ing the recur­ring themes of noir; it’s seedy, it’s moral­ly dubi­ous, and it reeks of sex and money. It’s time to go to work, and watch as Jack is inevitably drawn deep­er into a web of intrigue, mur­der and Dames Who Do Him Wrong.

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Sadly, Face Noir is about as com­pelling an expe­ri­ence as doing your taxes.

In try­ing to cap­ture the spir­it of Chandler’s pulp nov­els and Bogart’s films, devel­op­er Mad Orange have assem­bled a list of required tropes and are striv­ing to tick every box. Private Eye (tick) Jack del Nero is a bit­ter (tick) ex-cop (tick) wrong­ly oust­ed from the force (tick) after being framed for cor­rup­tion (tick), a bor­der­line alco­holic (tick) with an empty per­son­al life (tick), a stack of unpaid bills (tick) and a sar­cas­tic, world-weary atti­tude (tick).  The game feels less like homage to the clas­sics and more akin to design by com­mit­tee, intend­ed to include every­thing play­ers will recog­nise as noir hall­marks with­out any sig­nif­i­cant explo­ration of why these things are so close­ly iden­ti­fied with noir. The hope is that sim­ply bring­ing togeth­er the cor­rect ingre­di­ents results in a suc­cess­ful recipe. It doesn’t. The whole is much less than the sum of its parts.

To start with, the game has a big prob­lem with the notion of play­er free­dom. Progression is strict­ly lim­it­ed: Jack only has access to three or four screens at a time. Try to leave the cur­rent zone and Jack will mut­ter that he can’t leave until he’s achieved the objec­tive du jour. As a by-product of this lin­ear­i­ty, the game feels direc­tion­less; as each area is built around a cer­tain objec­tive, the focus is not on advanc­ing the over­all plot but solv­ing the issue at hand, often with­out any expla­na­tion beyond the need to move to the next set of screens. Story devel­op­ments, when they do come, are often under­whelm­ing, con­fus­ing and gen­er­al­ly irrel­e­vant: what­ev­er they may be, they will quick­ly be for­got­ten in favour of solv­ing the next puz­zle. The tra­di­tion­al adven­ture game nar­ra­tive pro­gres­sion of doing X in order to do Y and then even­tu­al­ly Z is absent. Instead, you focus on solv­ing X in order to find out what the next X will be. Jack, and by exten­sion the play­er, is with­out a long-term objec­tive much of the time beyond a neb­u­lous “crack the case”, and it shows.

The puz­zles them­selves are tear-your-hair-out frus­trat­ing. Not due to dif­fi­cul­ty – in the vast major­i­ty of cases the solu­tion is fair­ly obvi­ous after min­i­mal leg­work – but because the game requires the same lin­ear­i­ty from puz­zles as it does from sto­ry­line pro­gres­sion. The play­er may (and usu­al­ly will) see what they need to do, but if prompt­ed Jack will com­plain that he sees no rea­son to do it until cer­tain other objec­tives are com­plet­ed. A per­fect exam­ple can be found in one of the ear­li­est puz­zles; Jack is required to snap an inti­mate photo of a young woman and her older beau. After a brief inves­ti­ga­tion the play­er knows which hotel room the cou­ple are holed up in, that there is an alley next to the hotel, and that in this alley there is a fire escape direct­ly fac­ing the cou­ples’ win­dow. The log­i­cal next step is to inves­ti­gate the alley, scale the fire escape and scope out the win­dow. Jack has other ideas, how­ev­er. The path into the alley is closed, and attempts to open the gate will be met by staunch refusal because “it’s locked”. Using Jack’s trusty set of lock picks on the gate will give rise to com­plaints that there is no rea­son to do that. Once the frus­trat­ed play­er has plod­ded around aim­less­ly until stum­bling upon the next step (involv­ing a pixel hunt3 inside the hotel for a tiny con­trol panel which rais­es the tem­per­a­ture, caus­ing the young woman to throw open her win­dow) Jack returns to the alley and hap­pi­ly unlocks the gate. This style of prob­lem solv­ing is anath­e­ma to game flow, giv­ing play­ers an obvi­ous solu­tion or at the very least an option for fur­ther inves­ti­ga­tion, but refus­ing to allow them to exper­i­ment until a pre­cise chain of events is set in motion.

On first viewing, the alley blends easily into the background, as so many things in Face Noir do.

On first view­ing, the alley blends eas­i­ly into the back­ground, as so many things in Face Noir do.

Throughout Face Noir, the solu­tions to prob­lems are often mis­lead­ing with their unnec­es­sary com­plex­i­ty, forc­ing play­ers to jump through hoops in order to reach the answer. In the exam­ple above, how much smoother would it have been to allow Jack to make a deduc­tive leap and inves­ti­gate the alley­way? Upon reach­ing the fire escape, a sim­ple mes­sage that the win­dow was closed would have clued play­ers in to the fact that the goal was actu­al­ly to get the win­dow opened rather than to find a way into the alley. Instead, in this and many other instances, the play­er is reduced to re-treading famil­iar ground to find what­ev­er they may have missed. Adding to the mis­ery is a lack of reminders or progress record, mean­ing that any play­er who ups and quits dur­ing a fit of pique (which is only increased by the mes­sage “Dannazione!4 Do you real­ly want to give it all up?” on the quit screen. It’s a shame­less attempt to guilt play­ers into stay­ing, and it never works) will return later and woe betide them if they’ve for­got­ten what the cur­rent objec­tive is. The game has no inter­est in remind­ing play­ers what they ought to be doing, tak­ing the view that if they didn’t write it down then it’s their own bloody fault for for­get­ting.

In what can be assumed to be an attempt to break the monot­o­nous flow, cer­tain inves­tiga­tive tech­niques feel more akin to mini-games out­side the usual sphere of game­play. Occasional puz­zles or objects can be exam­ined and manip­u­lat­ed in first-person per­spec­tive through an (extreme­ly wonky) imi­ta­tion of a touch­screen sys­tem. Often these are as sim­ple as click­ing and drag­ging a door to open it, and then flip­ping the switch inside. Other times the puz­zle can be obscure, requir­ing objects to be placed into cor­rect order, which – thanks to the afore­men­tioned bad con­trol scheme – can be an exer­cise in stress man­age­ment as the play­er chokes down the impulse to just start scream­ing until they pass out.

You will come to loathe this doll.

You will come to loathe this doll.

It’s a novel attempt to break up the point-and-click game­play, but it feels badly imple­ment­ed and all too ran­dom. More often than not hav­ing to man­u­al­ly open boxes or pull switch­es comes off as padding, extend­ing what is already an annoy­ing­ly long sequence. The other side of this comes with a con­ver­sa­tion­al mechan­ic, where occa­sion­al­ly con­ver­sa­tion options will be high­light­ed blue. Selecting these sends Jack into a dream world, blue-tinted and super­im­posed with ran­dom fac­toids. “A young blonde”, “The miss­ing taxi dri­ver”, and so forth. Selecting the cor­rect two options will cause Jack to have a moment of rev­e­la­tion and progress the inves­ti­ga­tion. It’s a nice thought, but it feels very lit­tle like detec­tive work. There is no oppor­tu­ni­ty to pon­der these clues out­side of con­ver­sa­tion and cre­ate new leads and ideas (as – and yes, I do plan to keep harp­ing on about this – Discworld Noir’s note­book allowed for) with which to ques­tion peo­ple. The play­er just has to wait for Jack to reach the cor­rect point in time to com­bine two very obvi­ous­ly linked pieces of triv­ia into a solid lead. Again rail­road­ing rais­es its ugly head, rein­forc­ing the feel­ing that the play­er has no power other than to stum­ble blind­ly from event to event.

This insis­tence on strict pro­gres­sion­al struc­tur­ing seems to be attempt­ing to avert the issue many clas­sic adven­ture games strug­gled with. In those dark days the devel­op­ers’ train of thought would often be appar­ent only to them­selves, leav­ing play­ers weari­ly attempt­ing to com­bine every item with other items and the envi­ron­ment in the hope that trial-and-error would suc­ceed where logic failed. The LucasArts adven­tures games of the 90’s are ulti­mate exam­ples, often neces­si­tat­ing a brute force approach to puz­zle solv­ing that replaced any sem­blance of actu­al inves­ti­ga­tion with a gru­elling endurance test. Face Noir even goes so far as to have Jack refuse to pick up any ran­dom object the play­er finds, even if it is clear­ly only there to be used as part of a puz­zle, until the chain of actions has pro­gressed to the point that he needs it. Unfortunately this reliance on pre­ci­sion back­fires, and results in the clas­sic brute force prob­lem reborn with an addi­tion­al annoy­ing twist. The play­er sees what the solu­tion is, but isn’t allowed to enact it until con­di­tions have been met in exact order, and so resorts to try­ing every­thing. It’s shod­dy design, slow­ing down the adven­ture and turn­ing Face Noir into some­thing clos­er to an obsta­cle course than a game.

These design flaws might be for­giv­able if the story or char­ac­ters were worth exam­in­ing, but the plot is bare­ly present and unin­ter­est­ing when it does make an appear­ance. Dialogue veers wild­ly between the ham-fistedly expos­i­to­ry and the point­less, often with­in the same con­ver­sa­tion. Given the amount of back-tracking involved, it can be extreme­ly tire­some to hear the same dull anec­dotes repeat­ed time and again. Voice act­ing is most­ly atro­cious; Jack’s love inter­est sounds so bored and tone­less, even in emo­tion­al moments, that it’s easy to see why he seeks refuge in a whiskey bot­tle when­ev­er he has to talk to her. The Chinese side­kick char­ac­ter is both irri­tat­ing and an uncom­fort­able racial car­i­ca­ture. Jack, no doubt as part of his box-ticking char­ac­ter cre­ation, is sar­cas­tic. He is not mere­ly sar­cas­tic in sit­u­a­tions which war­rant sar­casm — every­thing is drawled in a dis­in­ter­est­ed and snarky tone, mak­ing the most innocu­ous of con­ver­sa­tion­al gam­bits sound like sneer­ing jokes. Given the hard-boiled mono­logue which tends to come part-and-parcel with noir fic­tion, you’re going to hear him talk a lot, and the expe­ri­ence never gets any more pleas­ant.

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In other areas, the game can best be described as func­tion­al. The visu­als are noth­ing to write home about, as while the back­grounds are as dark and moody as one would expect (though this often leads to prob­lems, as while they are nice to look at, the lack of light and reliance on dark colour­ing make it dif­fi­cult to spot any­thing) the char­ac­ter move­ments are jerky and stilt­ed. Cutscenes are more of a slow-moving slideshow, as the paint­ed scene will occa­sion­al­ly morph into anoth­er shot while Jack ram­bles over it. Most like­ly due to Face Noir’s trans­la­tion from its native Italian, mouth move­ments dur­ing con­ver­sa­tions don’t match up to the audio track. On occa­sion, even the sub­ti­tles don’t quite match to the words being spo­ken. Not that you’ll real­ly care, as the con­ver­sa­tion is usu­al­ly as bland as a drink of tepid water.

Face Noir was released on the 18th of July, and the embar­go on reviews ended. The rea­son you’re read­ing this now instead of then is because quite frankly, the game is a chore. The puz­zles are frus­trat­ing, the char­ac­ters are unin­ter­est­ing and the sto­ry­line is revealed in such a way that there is no aware­ness of an over­all mys­tery for the first sev­er­al hours and thus no desire to push ahead and solve it. It’s a very bad sign indeed for a title when a review­er has to drag them­selves away from more enjoy­able games — my inten­tion to fin­ish the game before writ­ing the review began to feel like masochism as it dragged on and on. In this, I failed. It may be unpro­fes­sion­al to review a game before com­ple­tion, but the thought of drag­ging myself back into Jack’s world is too depress­ing. I don’t hate the game. I don’t love the game. Aside from frus­tra­tion, it fails to evoke any emo­tion at all. Face Noir has pre­cious lit­tle in it to care about.

  1.  Except the logo, which for some odd rea­son bears heavy resem­blance to the orig­i­nal BioShock logo. []
  2. Interesting side note: Discworld Noir opens in sim­i­lar fash­ion, as the pri­vate eye Lewton is chased down and killed. In terms of appeal­ing to my nos­tal­gia, so far so good. However, Face Noir dif­fers from Discworld Noir in that watch­ing Jack take a bul­let will later become a fond mem­o­ry for play­ers and a high­light of the game. []
  3. Thankfully the devel­op­ers have includ­ed a quasi hint sys­tem, where a tap of F1 will bring up an (all too brief) high­light on every inter­ac­tive object on the screen. It’s a good idea in the­o­ry, but let down by the clut­ter of use­less objects and points of “inter­est” which lit­ter the screen. A tap of the but­ton may reveal ten areas of inter­ac­tion, of which one will be use­ful and exam­i­na­tion of the other nine will pro­voke a weari­ly sar­cas­tic and “amus­ing” quip from Jack. []
  4. Jack is, as exam­i­na­tion of the pic­tures of his office will reveal, a nat­ur­al born Italian. The play­er can be for­giv­en for not know­ing this as his accent is bland­ly American (unlike every other non-American, who have exag­ger­at­ed accents; the osten­si­bly “comic” relief char­ac­ter, a Chinaman, has such a heavy accent that even his sub­ti­tled dia­logue will replace let­ters to reflect the poor pro­nun­ci­a­tion) and other than his annoy­ing quirk of using “dan­nazione!” when frus­trat­ed – except for all the times he sim­ply uses “damn” instead – there are no reminders of his her­itage. []

Tom Dawson

About Tom Dawson

Tom Dawson is, in no particular order; a two-time Olympic bronze medallist (synchronised swimming), ancestrally Atlantean, a compulsive liar, the Green Lantern of space sector 2814 and the inventor of the cordless drill. His fondest wish is that someday he’ll get paid for writing stuff like this.