One of the joys of the indie game market is that every now and again, we get a game that appeals to our nostalgia for older types of gameplay. Face Noir is Italian developer, Mad Orange’s, attempt to scratch that itch for good point-and-click puzzle solving while wrapping it in the skin of a post-war detective drama. In some ways, it is successful, but it brings with it remnants gamers were happy to leave behind a few eras ago.
The story focuses on Jack Del Nero, a former cop turned private dick, who goes to investigate a tip from a mysterious phone call and ends up being accused of murdering someone once very close to him. The premise is not atypical in the least, but the game smartly adds fantastical and unexpected plot elements that make this case anything but something out of L.A. Noire. Although the antagonists and their motivations become a tad confusing by the ending, the plot is satisfying. There is also one moment where a character makes a comment on the unfolded events that serves as an excellent observation about the basic nature of interwoven character stories, such as this one.
Gameplay is as easy as pointing and clicking to move Jack around and investigate his surroundings. The inventory is accessed by moving the cursor to the top of the screen to view the shelf. In the options, players can switch to a 3D mode, where the inventory is accessed by middle-clicking the mouse and scrolling through 3D models of the objects. The only benefit I saw to the latter option was the ability to see any details or words on each object, but for the most part, I used the traditional shelf.
Right-clicking on any object or person allows the user to switch between two possible actions. The eye icon begs Jack to make some stereotypical and trite private dick observation. A yapping mouth initiates conversation with folks, and gears indicate interaction. When it comes to the last ability, sometimes it wasn’t ultimately clear what it is Jack would do with the object, and Face Noir could have benefited from some additional use icons.
Now and again, the player will actually be well aware of what actions needs to be done, such as unlocking a gate to access the area behind a building, but Jack is the most disagreeable avatar I’ve witnessed in a point-and-click adventure. It belies a modicum of realism, I suppose, that he’s not willing to break into places without an explicit purpose, but when you’re ahead of someone whose job requires deduction, something feels awry. There are also times when you can hopelessly try to interact with many objects that Jack will never touch, wasting time.
Face Noir’s setting is a foreigner’s misunderstanding of New York City in 1934, and this fact tends to make more engaging elements of the story less impactful. Despite how large NYC is, the only police station you visit, Jack’s former workplace, is that of Hoboken, which services the “State of New York City.” As a resident of New Jersey with minimal history knowledge, I was forced to laugh at this inaccuracy, but one learns to just go with it.
Despite mistakes that basic research could have prevented, I must admit that the environments Jack visits are extremely lovely, some of the best in the genre. Each screen is impressively filled with detail and character, perfectly invoking that crime drama vibe. The constant rain pours on stylishly slick streets, offices are populated with varieties of objects both utilitarian and personal, and bars are colorful with unique flair. To complement the experience, an excellent jazz soundtrack pervades each scene, really driving home the essence of the genre without being intrusive.
I only wish the same effort put into these lovely environments and objects was put into character models, which end up being bad throwbacks. Their level of detail is that of side characters from Final Fantasy X, and their animation is stuck in The Longest Journey. When entering conversations that close in the camera to shoulders and above, you find yourself checking the year on your own calendar to make sure you weren’t literally transported to some bygone era. Characters’ mouths endlessly move as they speak with no syncopation to the actual words spoken. This could have been circumvented by skipping the close-ups and just having the characters speak in-scene, so the extra effort put into these moments only worked against Face Noir’s charm. The hammy and flat voice acting might have also been less noticeable via this solution.
With a curiously unique noir story that sets up the sequel, I found myself wanting more by the end, in both good and bad ways. I wanted more of the beautiful environments, interesting puzzles, and weird plot. But I also wanted more from the technical execution and localization. Mad Orange is definitely onto something with Face Noir. I just wish the irrelevant title didn’t sound like “Black Face.”