Times may change. Newspapers turn into tablets, bottled cola turns into energy drinks, and neon gives way to LED. However, it seems that the desire for noir fiction will never die. Year after year, the genre continues to keep going, despite the fact many of its followers weren’t even alive in the time periods it covers.
The key for any noir game is to stand out of the crowd. Any developer can make a game about a hard-boiled private detective on the scent of some major conspiracy. Any writer can fill the game with overly descriptive metaphors and soliloquies about the wonders of whiskey. While these things are the crux of any good detective story, the overall plot has to do something unique in order for the story to really matter.
In this way, Face Noir kind of works and kind of doesn’t. While it sticks to many tropes throughout its length, it also does throw out a few hooks to keep things from getting stale. The big problem here is that this game is intended to be the first half a two-game series. As such, many of the ideas that prove most interesting end up underdeveloped. It may even be worth it to simply wait until the whole story is available.
The private dick of this tale is one Jack Del Nero. There’s really very little to separate Jack from your average hard-boiled protagonist. He loves whiskey, he smokes like a chimney, he loves describing things to himself, he’s quick with the dry wit, and he used to be a cop a lifetime ago. The support cast includes an ex-dancer who runs Jack’s favorite watering hole, a silent giant with a mean right hook, and a young heiress ready to give it all up for a taste of fame. You won’t find anything original here, but each character is given plenty of time and lines to come across fully. While not all of them are particularly interesting, at least they aren’t simple cardboard cutouts.
Where the game really fails is in its lack of decisiveness when it comes to accents. Most of the characters in the game are immigrants or children of immigrants. Jack himself was born and raised in Italy. However, only some of them have accents. The only Italian Jack ever speaks is a swear word, and it’s the only time he sounds even remotely Italian. Also, out of all the characters, the only one that doesn’t speak perfect English is the Chinese cab driver. The game goes as far as to account for his accent in the subtitles by replacing each “r” with a “w”. If it’s not racist, it’s about as close as you can get.
The plot actually starts to get more and more interesting as it goes. While some parts are glossed over, the ever expanding thread of corruption and intrigue keeps things moving at a brisk pace. A sort of supernatural element is even introduced later on without killing the vibe. The problem here is that the game ends abruptly. If you’re hoping for any sense of closure, you’ll be disappointed. If the game was titled “Episode One” or something, I could kind of understand it, but the game completely feels like a self contained story up until that point. You just reach a certain point and a logo for the upcoming sequel pops up. It’s insanely annoying.
Visually, the game has a decent art style, but doesn’t have the raw power to do its ideas justice. Post-Prohibition New York is an interesting place. The Depression has left buildings unoccupied and decrepit, neon signs are starting to make their first appearance, and a haze of smoke surrounds the city. The game takes place over the course of a night, and finds this ample reason to avoid having people on the streets. In fact, if you see someone lounging about, you’ll end up having to talk to them to advance the plot. It’s a bit limiting, as the city seems almost dead, but I suppose it fits the theme.
The animations are where the visuals fail the game. Jack’s walk is strange to say the least, and no one is capable of showing the slightest bit of emotion during conversations. Sure, their lips move and and their head bobs, but they have the same blank expression no matter what the topic. It’s an understandable limitation, but that doesn’t mean it can be completely forgiven. I’ve seen cheaper, less advanced adventure games offer more.
I’ve already mentioned the voices, which are okay for the most part. The effects are functional, and work the way they’re supposed to. Nothing makes the wrong noise or anything like that. The music is the real star of the show though. Simple jazzy tunes accompany each second of the game. It’s incredibly relaxing stuff, and fits with the game’s slow pace. It can be a bit too relaxing though, when the action starts to die down. You might even find yourself nodding off.
Face Noir is a straight up adventure title. You’ll point and click your way to success via puzzle solving and use of interactive objects. All you need is a mouse and your thinking cap. Conversing with characters is a key part of moving the story forward. There will often be several different things you can ask them, and occasionally you’ll actually have a choice in how you respond. Some characters will require an incentive in order to help you out. You may need to bribe the clerk a few bucks or get rid of an annoying customer for your barkeeper friend. You can only talk to people that will help you move forward in some way, so there’s no worry about chatting up some guy for no reason.
To represent detective work, you’ll occasionally have to “think” about something. This involves pulling bits of information together and combining them into a new lead. For example, let’s consider that annoying customer. You know he’s expecting a call at the bar, and you know that phone lines are down all over the area. By connecting these two ideas, you can convince the guy that his call might not make it through, and that he’d better meet up with his business contact in person. Some of the thoughts in Jack’s head won’t ever get used, so there’s always a bunch to choose from. It’s not the most complicated of systems, but it is nifty when it shows up.
What would an adventure game be without mini-games and/or puzzles? This game has them in spades. A recurring mini-game is lock picking. It basically involves rotating a pick back and forth until you hear clicks. You’ll also have to solve a jigsaw puzzle or two along your way. A few of the puzzles can get a bit annoying however, as the game is very specific on where you put things. You may have that piece in the right spot, but it won’t count unless the angle is perfect. There’s also an incredibly annoying stealth section where you can only move when the guards move. However, you’re not told this in advance, so it just feels like Jack is ignoring your mouse clicks.
The inventory is your handy system for collecting and using objects. A few of them will stay with you throughout, such as Jack’s license, lighter, and lock picking kit. Most objects you pick up will disappear once you use them, and occasionally you’ll need to combine items instead of adding them to your stock. For example, you might think you can pick up that bucket of kerosene, but instead you simply need to click and drag it over to that lantern. Most of the item interactions are fairly logical, though there are the customary few that will leave you scratching your head.
Though there is no hint system, you’re not entirely left in the dark. You can click a button that will highlight every item on the field that you can interact with. While most of these will simply spawn a one-liner from Jack, you’ll eventually figure out what you have to do if you try them all. The tried and true method of clicking things until something happens is in full effect here.
Like many adventure games, Face Noir is linear to a fault. Even if you’ve figured out what you need to do, Jack has to figure it out before you can move forward. For example, you might know that you need to pick the lock on a gate so you can get up a fire escape and take some pictures. However, Jack won’t even try to pick the lock until you’ve done something else first. This can make progression a chore, and is extremely frustrating. It also kills the pace at various points, as you’ll have to run back and forth between locations like a mail carrier in order to progress. Still, this is a problem with the genre in general, so it’s not really all that fair to blast this one particular game too much.
Completing the game will likely take you close to ten hours your first time through. While this might seem like a good length, it’s kind of padded by all of the running around. Rather, I should say walking around. Jack takes his time, after all. It’s not like there are lives on the line or anything (there are, including his). It’s also worth nothing that, as per the genre, this is a one and done game. There’s no reason to replay it after you beat it. You’ll know all the tricks, you’ll have seen all of the story content, and there simply won’t be any more fun to be had. As such, it’s kind of hard to recommend paying more than ten bucks for this. Steam sale anyone?
While this game isn’t without its hiccups, I would honestly call it a pretty decent adventure title if it weren’t for the fact that it ends on a damned cliffhanger. With no advance warning that this was a two-parter, the ending serves as a major blow against the game. It will be especially annoying if no one bothers to bring the sequel stateside.
Short Attention Span Summary
Face Noir is a pretty typical adventure title. It focuses on story over gameplay, is full of fetch quests, and has zero replay value. That being said, it has fun puzzles, interesting characters, and a setting that never seems to get old. I could easily recommend it to genre fans but for one thing. You see, this is the first half of a completed story, and it ends as such. There’s no closure to be had. While it might simply whet your appetite for the forthcoming sequel, it will more than likely just come off as cheap and annoying. If you dig the concept, you’re better off just waiting until you can play through the whole story in one go.