Norna is a game about manipulating people towards their fate. Each person is meant to end up in a specific area, live, die, and so on. It’s up to you to guide that fate, even if the path there is a bit tricky.
There’s not really a lot of story content here in terms of narrative. What there is, however, is a degree of subtext. Puzzles only end when everyone on the field has met their fate, whatever that may be. That speaks to the inevitability of their lives, but also yours. After all, it is your fate to be stuck in the same area until you’ve managed to guide others successfully. You are as much a prisoner of fate as they are. The only difference is your fate is to pretend to be a deity of sorts.
Visually, the game doesn’t impress, but it still has some charms. Backgrounds are solid colors, and the puzzles are made up of squares with directional arrows in them. The character comes from the various models. Despite few animations and little detail, they end up emoting quite a bit. A person will drop down and sob if they come across a fallen comrade, a maniacal gunman will weep in sorrow when he runs out of bullets, and a solider will swear in terror when they know they’re about to die. It’s function over form, but there’s still enough form to give the game a unique feel.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the game is the lack of music. There’s a nifty acoustic tune that plays during the credits, but that’s it. Each level is silent except for the steady click when you press forward, or the occasional gasp of a person. It’s haunting in an appreciable way. My favorite bit, though, is the hub, where incomplete levels will blink in a musical tone. When you have several unfinished levels highlighted, it becomes a strange song in and of itself.
When it comes to controls, the game does a lot with a little. You don’t move the characters on screen per se. Rather, you can use your powers alter their path. Each tile on the map has a directional arrow. You can move the cursor over any tile and adjust the direction by using the WASD keys. The catch is that you can’t point an arrow in such a way that it doesn’t lead to another tile. The other controls are the move button, the undo button, and the redo button.
When you press the space bar, any person or object that can move will do so according to the direction of the tile they are currently on. Press the undo button, and they’ll go back a step. Press the redo button, and they’ll forward again. The catch is that using the undo/redo buttons doesn’t change the directions of any of the tiles. In this way, you can have a character move against the arrow. In plainer terms, let’s say you press the space bar twice and your character moved to the left twice because they were following the arrows. If you undo twice, point those arrows to the right, and then press the redo button twice, said character will still move two spaces to the left. However, any future movements on those tiles will go to the right. It helps create some devious and fun puzzles.
On to the mechanics. So each time you look at a puzzle, the first challenge is to figure out just what you need to do. There are several clues. People have symbols over their heads that fill you in. A colored dot means they need to end up on a tile of that color, a moon-like symbol means they must die, and a sun-like symbol means they must live. It might seem simple at first, but it gets complicated real fast.
Firstly, there are all kinds of different people. Civilians just wander around, soldiers fight other soldiers, fireman can carry people through fire, hostages can be rescued and turned into soldiers, etc. The more people there are on the field, the more crazy it gets. For example, you might have two opposing factions of soldiers. Any time they cross paths, they’ll fight. The trick is that the team with the most people wins, and ties end up with everyone dead. So you might need to group people together to create advantages and/or ties in order to fill the conditions of that puzzle.
There are also various obstacles. Fire spreads easily and kills people, cars bounce objects around, water sprayed from a hose can douse flames, etc. There are even several levels where one machine feeds another with some sort of material. If that flow is interrupted, the whole room fills with poisonous gas and kills everyone. Again, the more stuff that’s on the screen, the crazier it gets.
The game has a good sense of progression. You’re usually introduced to a new concept or person with an easier puzzle. Things get out of hand quickly, but logically. Also, various paths will open up on the hub so that you can tackle all kinds of different puzzles at your leisure. If the fire puzzle is getting too difficult, you can switch to a solider one and vice versa.
Many of the puzzles are short, but there are plenty of brain teaser that will take a good deal of time to figure out. As such, the amount of play time you get out of the game will vary drastically depending on how good you are at these kinds of things. For more advanced players, this game offers a hefty challenge, even if the rewind mechanic makes it comparably forgiving.
It’s also worth noting that this game is very hands off. The first few level serve as a basic tutorial, and pretty much just show you how the controls work. When you’re introduced to a new concept, you have no choice but to explore to figure out how it works. This can be frustrating at times, but is rewarding and interesting more often than not.
Short Attention Span Summary
Norna is a fantastic puzzle game that will appeal greatly to those seeking out a challenge. For those types of players, the low end production will mean nothing, and lack of hand holding is a definite plus. On the other hand, the game is not ideal for more casual fans. While the undo mechanic is forgiving to a degree, it’s pretty easy to get stuck for long periods of time until you stumble across the answer. Still though, the game is only five bucks, and worth a look for any fan of puzzles.