I was on my second whisky when she walked into my office. With legs that went up to her neck, and ruby-red lips that were completely out of sync with her voice, I knew she'd be trouble. She wanted me to review her, and I was just about drunk enough to take her up on that offer. Her name was Face Noir.
Okay, so I'm not going to be the next Raymond Chandler. But the pulpy depression-era detective yarn spun in Face Noir is such an earnest attempt to recreate the tales of Chandler's Philip Marlowe and Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade that it's hard not get caught up in the world of the hardboiled private detective.
An unrepentant love letter to the genre, Italian studio Mad Orange's sepia-toned point-and-click adventure game revels in its status as an homage, and it immediately draws comparisons to the fiction that it apes. Lamentably, it's hampered by a poorly-implemented engine, hideous character models, questionable design decisions, and a slew of translation problems. So why, with all these frustrating issues, do I still find myself a wee bit enamoured with it?
Face Noir (PC)
Developer: Mad Orange
Publisher: Phoenix Online Studios
Released: July 18, 2013
Rig: Intel i5-3570K @3.40 GHz, 8 GB of RAM, GeForce GTX 670, and Windows 7 64-bit
Jack Del Nero hasn't met a hardboiled trope that he doesn't love. An ex-cop, a cynic, a functioning alcoholic -- he gets things done by being a dogged investigator who isn't a stranger to the occasional scrap. And like most hardboiled detectives, he's down on his luck, living in the shitty part of town, and stuck doing menial work catching spouses fooling around and taking pictures of people from outside hotel room windows.
His dreary life of being an errand boy for suspicious husbands and angry fathers ends up in the rear view mirror, however, and he rapidly becomes embroiled in a tale of international conspiracies, a murdered ex-partner, and, of course, a dame that needs his help. Real surprises are few and far between, and the biggest one will likely leave players baffled, but Mad Orange clearly knows its stuff, and the narrative rarely strays from authenticity. Del Nero's escapades could comfortably sit on the well-worn pages of countless pulpy novels.
Frankly, there were moments when I wished that Face Noir was a novel, because the high notes are almost completely consigned to the narrative, even though that would leave me without the, frankly, wonderful soundtrack, filled with jazzy trumpets and old crackling radios. If only the voice acting was of the same high standard. Instead it's, to put it lightly, rather bad. Del Nero is one of the few exceptions, with his dry, sardonic delivery perfectly encapsulating the men he emulates. Though his almost inexplicable, yet frequent, utterances of "Dannazione!" grate on the nerves quickly. His name is the only Italian thing about him, so it's very out of place. The rest of the cast? I wish they'd just shut up.
The characters themselves are not exactly wonderfully written, nor are their motivations particularly complex or interesting, but they are elevated by the solid story, and then brought back down again by voice actors who just sound bored. It's not that I don't sympathize with small studios -- small budgets means you probably won't be getting the best voice actors, but a modicum of enthusiasm goes a long way.
Unfortunately, the most enthusiastic voice actor plays a dated, racial stereotype: a stupid Chinese cabbie whose poor grasp of English exists to be mocked. The voice actor gives it his all, and too his credit even managed to elicit a few chuckles from yours truly. But most of those chuckles really stemmed from the disbelief that in 2013, there are still those who believe that the low-brow borderline racist humor from the '30s is relevant or worth mimicking.
The humor is not the only thing that's dated -- Face Noir is a game that could have easily come out a decade ago, in terms of its visual presentation. Most of the issues are related to the character models, since the environments are, while not of a high visual fidelity, lavishly detailed and surprisingly active, with torrential rain pouring down on Del Nero, and cars and trains roaring past him. Though they are more difficult to appreciate thanks to the game not using modern resolutions.
The aforementioned models, though? They are a hideous mess. Poorly animated, lips clearly not synced to the English dialogue, and seemingly slapped onto the environments like magnets stuck onto a picture on a fridge. And they apparently can't be pushed very far, because whenever a Del Nero needs to do something that's more complex that walking and talking, we're treated to a shoddy cutscene that amounts to an ugly static image.
There's relief to be found in the puzzles, but only some. They run the gamut from logical conundrums to baffling busywork hampered by strange design decisions. The former are what you'd expect: combination locks, figuring out the right items to use in the right situations, manipulation of the environment -- they are rarely imaginative, but they are functional. But then there are all of those times where the puzzles amount to trying to figure out what the hell the developers were thinking.
Early on, Del Nero wants a whisky, and he has a fat wad of cash that's already come into play when he bribed a hotel clerk at the start of the game. So surely I should be able to select the money, and buy a drink. Nope. Of course not. Instead, I have to get rid of an annoying bar patron, put on some music (but inexplicably, only one song, even though there are others and the game never tells you that a specific one is required), and then chat up the barmaid.
Just as infuriating, items in Del Nero's inventory cannot be interacted with. One must use them on something else. So, for example, if you need to go to a certain area to interact with an item in your inventory, you have to select the item, and the use it on the area, not in the area. The challenge is not finding a solution, but finding the very arbitrary way the developers want you to employ said solution.
It's when Del Nero starts acting like a detective that things get interesting. When questioning folk, he's able to draw from clues he's discovered, represented by floating bits of text, and link them together to drag out a confession or particular piece of information. While it just amounts to clicking on the right things in an area, it's far more thematically appropriate, and there's a nuance there that doesn't exist in the rest of the interactions found within the game.
There's a welcome bit of physicality present, too. It's a simple, but tactile element that has players actually turning dials, opening panels, and it feels like you're controlling Del Nero directly rather than via a cursor.
Going through this review, I find myself asking my original question more and more: Why am I a wee bit enamored with this game? It's the homages, if I'm honest. It's the recreation of Edward Hopper's Nighthawks, being reminded of the first time I read Chandler's Big Sleep, or imagining Sam Spade and Jack Del Nero sitting in a shitty bar, drinking shitty whisky, recounting old cases.
For some, the promise of a genuine noir adventure will be enough to capture their interest. But absent a love for the genre, its strange mix of cynicism and romanticism, even staunch adventure game fans might find that Face Noir has a few too many problems.
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