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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- Except the logo, which for some odd reason bears heavy resemblance to the original BioShock logo. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- 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. [↩]