Lacuna – A Sci-Fi Noir Adventure Review: An interplanetary conspiracy off the rails
Neil Conrad hasn’t been the most devoted husband or the most present father — his failed marriage and crumbled family are proof of that. But that’s just the life of a CDI agent, sworn to protect humanity in this corner of the star system — or at least, enforce the rule of the powers that be. A lot of long nights at the office, weekends at a crime scene, and in the blink of an eye, his wife and child aged and moved on without him. All his life choices culminated at this point — in this shitty apartment, alone. It’s at this point where he gets an urgent call that, little did he know, would change his life forever…
So opens Lacuna – A Sci-Fi Noir Adventure, one of the most innovative pixel noirs I’ve ever played. Developed by Digitales Interactive and published by Assemble Entertainment and WhisperGames, Lacuna – A Sci-Fi Noir Adventure asks players to “help CDI agent Neil Conrad make a string of increasingly difficult decisions in this modern dialog-driven adventure set in a gorgeous 2D sci-fi noir universe.” Featuring voice acting, multiple endings, and a slew of quality of life updates that improve upon the genre, it’s safe to say Lacuna – A Sci-Fi Noir Adventure is a polished experience pixel noir fans won’t want to miss.
From the beginning, it’s clear Neil is pretty conflicted. He’s presented with a lot of options that will have consequences down the road, from solving mysteries to navigating familial relationships. Although his story starts out relatable enough — his ex-wife having a serious talk with him about deprioritizing work to spend time with their daughter — his world is far from familiar. You see, Neil lives on Ghara, one of “the Six” — two other notable planets being New Joran and Drovia. Additionally, his life as a CDI agent keeps him busy to the point of self-harm. Although nothing was ever impossible for Neil to handle, life went from crazy to chaotic the day the Drovian foreign minister was assassinated on his first night of what was supposed to be a peacetalks tour with the Gharian president. Instead of playing bodyguard, Neil now must solve a murder — and quickly, before interplanetary war breaks out.
If that plot sounds like a lot to take in… whoo boy. The backstory is far, far richer and deeper than any detective game I’ve played in recent memory. In fact, the interplanetary politics is the driving force behind the entire game, centered around a conspiratorial cover-up from decades prior. Lacuna is only a 4 – 5 hour experience, but it’s so extremely detailed in its world-building that you’ll feel like you’ve read a thick sci-fi novel or watched an entire series. If you’re looking for something that feels much bigger than it actually is, Lacuna fits the description perfectly.
It always feels a little strange to talk about the aesthetics in pixel art games, if only because I feel like their beauty is pretty obvious, but this goes doubly so for Lacuna. Neil’s world may be cramped in that cyberpunk kinda way, but it’s undeniably fascinating, the dev team taking every possible opportunity to show a stunning cinematic landscape. As Neil runs, the camera will pan upwards to show air traffic, spaceships flying to and fro above his head. I personally was mesmerized by the subtle movements each character made — a deep draft of a cigarette, shifting weight from one leg to the other, or a shocked expression shown through shadowing and movement instead of actual facial expressions. Everything here moves with such purpose, like something is in the pixelated air, and it feels heavy with story, history, and atmosphere.
While plenty of games make claims about revolutionizing their genre, Lacuna actually fulfills its promise. For one, it’s not a true point and click in the sense that you don’t point and click to move, but use WASD (or controller) instead. Conversations don’t repeat themselves, either — if you speak to a witness or colleague for information, they’ll only say it once. It’s okay if you weren’t paying attention, though, as the pertinent information is stored in your cell phone. The dev team has also removed puzzles that rely on objects and pixel-hunting in general; Neil will be able to investigate crime scenes by pressing the space bar, objects of note immediately interactable, and can highlight items and people to interact with by pressing “h.” I don’t think I’ve played a point and click that introduced so many quality of life updates, and a futuristic cyberpunk setting was perfect for a game that took such forward-thinking leaps.
When it comes to its story, Lacuna has multiple endings, meaning you might actually get a true noir title or something far less bleak (if you play your cards… right? Wrong? Depends on your goal here). Because it’s more of a combination of possible outcomes instead of a set number of endings, players will experience quite different endings from each other. There is one ending in particular that feels the best in terms of a happy ending, but that wouldn’t make for a good noir, would it? Rest assured that no matter what ending you get, you’ll be satisfied but curious enough to try playing again to get another.
I don’t have a lot of complaints regarding Lacuna, but I do wish for a few changes to make life a bit easier. For one, I don’t understand why save states worked the way they did. Saving was automatic, and you couldn’t manually save — not even a quick save possibility was available. I also wish that inputting information into the sheets section was more fluid; essentially, you fill out a worksheet for each crime scene, reporting on information like what color the perp’s hair is or what building you think he went to. The information is all in your cell, but clicking around from place to place to find it, then input it into the sheet, was more annoying than cool and felt a little bit like an open-book test. Regardless of any perceived shortcomings Lacuna may have, it’s hard to truly knock it, considering its style and efforts to improve the genre greatly outpace any possible negatives.
Lacuna is not your average pixel noir. Its incredibly complex backstory and rich world-building will shock players expecting the standard murder mystery fare. There’s an extremely brilliant and complicated story here, and although it’s only a 4 – 5 hour experience, it’s not a game one can breeze through easily. If you’re looking for something that breaks the mold in subtle but genius ways, Lacuna – A Sci-Fi Noir Adventure should be at the top of your list.
Final Verdict: 4.5/5
Available on: PC (reviewed); Publisher: Assemble Entertainment, WhisperGames; Developer: Digitales Interactive; Players: 1; Released: May 20, 2021; MSRP: $15.99
Editor’s note: This review is based on a retail copy of Lacuna – A Sci-Fi Noir Adventure provided by the publisher.