It’s rare to see noir done well in video games. The very tropes it relies on to form its structure are usually the same ones that are its undoing. A grizzled cop who puts his work before his personal life. A chief who is on his ass. A femme fatale. An ex who still holds a candle. A mystery that could potentially go all the way to the top. A ton of cigarettes.
In the wrong hands, these kinds of tropes result in stories that are generic, stale, and formulaic. But then there are the exceptions. Great writing can weave the things we come to expect from noir into something more subversive. Gameplay elements that require immersion in the story result in a far more satisfying experience. And while Lacuna contains all of the tropes mentioned above, it also has cracking writing and interesting gameplay. You will actually feel like a detective, which is half the battle won already.
Sure, Neil Conrad of the CDI (Central Department of Investigation) is as hardboiled a protagonist as they come. But since Steam is littered these days with “dystopian narratives”, “cyberpunk adventures”, and “noir thrillers”, it’s nice to actually play something that not only lives up to the genre, but gives us an antihero we can get behind.
The setting is a planet called Ghara, where a faction from the neighbouring planet of Drovia is demanding independence from Gharan rule. The Gharans want to keep control of Drovia for its rich mining opportunities, while a third group known as the Saviants (an anti-science organisation) are also stirring the pot and want Drovia to back off. So when a Drovian ambassador is assassinated during a peaceful visit, it’s up to Conrad to investigate.
This all sounds pretty complicated, and it’s quite easy to get a bit bogged down in the different worlds, organisations, and beefs going on. Thankfully, Lacuna has a splendid interface that logs the essentials for your background, as well as every conversation you have in the game. This last point is crucial to the actual gameplay. This isn’t a point-and-click, more like a visual novel with a few side beats and some detective work thrown in. But the puzzles require a good amount of investigation. You will need to scour areas using your detective mode — think a 2D pixel version of the Arkham series' tool — interrogate suspects, and put together motives. The cases you have to solve as part of the wider investigation take the form of Sheets which are sent to your phone. These are split into different multiple choice questions: once you’ve gathered enough information from suspects and the crime scenes, you can select each answer, submit the Sheet, then wait to find out if your hunches were more Columbo than Clouseau.
The great part of this is that you don’t have to be right to proceed. Every choice you make will impact the story in some way. Do you get a colleague to help you access restricted data for the greater good? Do you let a powerful person escape because you agree with their motives? What happens if you cock up identifying a potential killer? The story marches on regardless, your actions noted and commented on in one form or another. Even simple decisions are touched upon later, either in conversation or via the downloadable news articles you can pull into your phone from the outlets dotted around the city. Sorry, save-scummers, there are no save slots, only an autosave. Make your choices and live with them, kiddo.
This kind of gameplay is not without its occasional frustrations. I thought I had picked up all the clues for a perp, but the outcome suggested otherwise. Without being able to revisit, it’s hard to say where I went wrong. Did one of the witnesses lie? Was I being played? Lacuna is the kind of game that could benefit from multiple playthroughs, given there are clearly multiple endings. Even so, I feel the ending I received was fair. I’d played Conrad the way I wanted, and was satisfied with the closure of his story. I’m not sure I’d personally revisit six to seven hours of game to play out a relatively linear story again with a few (potentially massive) story changes, but the option is there if you want to.
Lacuna’s atmosphere is conveyed fabulously, especially given the low-res pixel art. The near-future Gharan city of Louville is filled with neon signs, high-rise slums, back-street eateries and shiny megacorp buildings. The soundtrack (which is worth picking up alongside the main game) is brimming with piano earworms, jazzy interludes and moody synth. Conrad is voiced earnestly during his monologues, and just about manages to steer away from Max Payne levels of melodrama. The package pulls you in effortlessly and keeps you there, zipping from scene to scene as more plot details are revealed. There is at least one twist halfway through that wouldn’t sit out of place in an episode of 24.
Better still, you won’t get stuck on the next move to make since your phone will always point you to the next destination, including optional stops. A lack of a map did make navigating an apartment complex a little tricky, especially since the 2D environment and similar layout had me wandering back and forth for a few minutes. However, in most scenes hard walls and neon blue arrows will ensure you find your destination.
It’s hard to find much to criticise in Lacuna. DigiTales’ story touches on religion, philosophy, colonisation, and capitalism, but it does so subtly. Like true noir fiction, the predominant shade is grey: outside of the extremes there are not necessarily any truly right answers, but there are opportunities to nudge Conrad into the light or dark if you so wish. That this is portrayed so well in a game is recommendation enough to pick it up.
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