The time has come again to talk about presentation versus what is presented. This seems to be an odd reoccurring theme in some of my reviews, perhaps as some sort of sign of the times. Regardless of its greater implications, today we’ll be walking through the rain-slicked streets of Face Noir, a point-and-click noir mystery by Mad Orange. This dark detective story is set during America’s great depression, a fact which seems sadly fitting for a game sorely lacking in quality in almost every way possible.
The first thing to note about Face Noir, however, is actually on a high note. From the get-go, the game’s visuals, art style, and soundtrack come together to do a quite charming job of presenting the jazz-tuned depression of the 1930s. Upon starting the game, a classy film noir vibe surrounds you instantly. The sad part is that this charming presentation is utterly deceptive of what lies below.
Even this presentation, though, has some serious weak spots. The nature of the game’s puzzles and scenarios clash with the locations you visit. Areas are littered with dead-end superficial details that seem to have more to do with things than what turn out to be the actual key points, not in a clever way, but in an unintentionally distracting one. There are also points that clearly try far too hard to be artsy. Your character will wake up in the dark, forcing you to click around his apartment to find the light switch as the rooms only lighting comes through the blinds of a window. The effect is pretty cool visually, but a complete pain from an actual gameplay perspective.
Face Noir puts you in the well-worn shoes of detective Jack Del Nero. The character weaves a classic film-esque narrative, attempting to capture the writing of classic detective stories. Unfortunately, between writing that varies from charming to (more often than not) laughable, and questionable to dismal voice acting, the narration simply doesn’t work. In fact, this collection of flaws plagues the entire game, as virtually every voice in the story-heavy game either overacts to an ear-grating degree, or is dull enough that I seriously began to nod off a time or two. While the writing attempts to create a personal story that makes the lives of its characters interesting and sympathetic, all it does is spend too much time on things that don’t actually affect the mediocre plot, and side-stories whose only purpose is to over-emphasize “we’re in the great depression and everything sucks”. This never really lets up, and is truly obnoxious by the game’s end. The dialogue is often awkward, lacking any real sense of flow in favor of making more references to the time period. “Hey, guess what era WE’RE in?”
So, how about gameplay? How does it actually feel to be that deadbeat detective, tired of working the same poorly-paying jobs over the years? The answer is over-encumbered and lost. The game plays as your general point-and click fare, with emphasis on talking to NPCs and using the many tools in your investigator’s arsenal. Unfortunately, the design of many scenarios combined with the number of items in your possession frequently makes puzzles feel contrived or simply confused and without direction.
In playing the game, I noticed two basic common threads. One is the frequent and obvious use of padding. Okay, I finished a job getting photos of this girl cheating on her husband, now I just need to get home. Wait, my car is dead? Okay, so I have to call a cab. But oh no, what a horrible twist of fate! There’s something wrong with the phone line, and I’m the only one who can fix it! Bits such as these pepper the entire game, and are tedious beyond salvation. The second commonality throughout the game is the above mentioned lack of focus in puzzle design. Because you are given so many items to work with from the get-go, there often appear to be multiple ways around a problem. Problem is, there never actually are, and the only true way to reach your goal is almost invariably the longest, least obvious, and most contrived method. There is no clever trickery on display here, only cheap deception and counter-intuitive design. The game’s entire design philosophy seems to have been to pad it out as long as possible with gameplay, as a way to make up for its extremely bland story.
Face Noir features a mechanic intended to make you feel like a real detective, but really all it does is highlight the fact that Jack Del Nero is far from the best of the best. All you’re doing is matching together bits of information to unlock new dialogue options, a process which feels like a simple gimmick and rarely much more. Then there’s the “hands-on” mechanic, one of those odd and out-place tropes sometimes found in PC games. Need to fiddle with a switch box? You’ll have to move the cursor to the switch, hold down the left mouse button, and move the mouse in the appropriate direction to get the intended result. You get the picture. It’s intrusive and pointless, and only feels like yet more padding.
Face Noir is, indeed, a great depression. Its presentation shows a lot of heart, creating an enjoyable film noir setting with well-chosen art and sound design. Unfortunately, that’s where its charms end, as shoddy voice actors deliver hammy,badly-written dialogue that just drags on and on into the night. The story is bland and distracted, seeming more intent on fulfilling the tropes expected of film noir than actually creating an engaging tale. The gameplay isn’t exactly bad so much as contrived, considering how it is presented to you. You’ll find yourself tearing your hair out trying to figure out why none of the solutions you’ve tried, all of which should work by any semblance of actual logic, continue to fail you. It’s more unique mechanics range from decent but simple to downright shoehorned into the game. The game captures the great depression well, but will remind you why we don’t really talk all that much about that time. Like the great depression, Face Noir is, at its core, a depressing, hopeless chore.Face Noir gets 2 successful investigations out of 5.
Final Verdict: 2/5
Available on: PC (reviewed) ; Publisher: Phoenix Online Studios ; Developer: Mad Orange ; Players: 1 ; Released: July 18, 2013 ; ESRB: M for Mature ; MSRP: $9.99
This review was based on a review copy of Face Noir provided by the publisher.