Back to the future
I miss the 1980s. While it's true that, technically, I wasn’t born until about a decade after Rambo 3 released, that hasn’t stopped me from being nostalgic for a time before the drinking age in the United States was raised to 21. As a kid, I spent more than my fair share of time playing the likes of Monkey Island while watching Blade Runner on repeat, and so unsurprisingly the recent surge in games inspired by my favourite decade has been a prenatal dream come true. However, the problem is that titles with the same style as my beloved pirate monkey simulator, or on a quasi-related note, the clones of the original DOOM, have a tendency to be pretty bad. Thankfully, though, the same can’t be said for Norco, which manages to combine the best aspects of both classic point-and-clicks and that genre’s more modern siblings into a package that is truly fantastic.
Like Disco Elysium, or, well, Monkey Island, Norco is steeped in ‘80s culture. The story follows Kay, a 20-something year old woman who returns home to Louisiana after a brief stint as an adventurer in a post-whatever United States. When her mother unexpectedly dies and her brother goes missing, she (or rather you) are tasked with figuring out exactly why her family tree has lost some branches recently by becoming re-invested in the place that many would rather forget.
The narrative that follows that setup is a six-odd-hour long tech noir investigative thriller that’s reminiscent of the very best classic adventure games from the bygone ages of early PC gaming. Unlike the more recent, and more terrible, Willy Morgan: The Curse of Bonetown, though, Norco strikes the perfect balance between new and old gameplay and story mechanics. To solve the game’s main mystery, you need to interact with characters that are straight out of Blade Runner while investigating a world that blends both present day dynamics and its futuristic setting.
Both of these things are, in a word, perfect. Norco’s setting is truly something to behold; it’s an absolute joy to explore the oil drenched swamps and small city that the title is set in. It combines the traditional roots of that place with a diesel/goth punk aesthetic to create an environment that’s dripping with both sweat and atmosphere in a way that few games do. The characters, too, are not only well-written and interesting, but they force you to examine your own thoughts on relationships. The burnt out detective Brett LeBlanc, your mother Catherine and even the stereotypical southerner Dime are so well written that it’s impossible not to become invested in their stories, and by extension your own.
The overarching story, too, is incredibly interesting. What starts out as a fairly straightforward detective plot quickly evolves into something that’s, and not to keep using this reference, like Blade Runner. You’re forced to contend with an evil corporation, a possibly good cult and the locals of Louisiana to solve a mystery that ends up touching on so many big boy meaning-of-life issues that it ultimately becomes an experience that parallels the very best pieces of science fiction. The story never slows down for pointless reasons, either, and because of this and its perfectly tuned length, it is legitimately one of the most engaging games to release since Disco Elysium or Kentucky Route Zero.
It certainly helps, then, that the gameplay isn’t annoying. When you’re not making your way through lengthy and enjoyable dialogue trees, you mostly interact with the world by either QTE combat sequences or the odd logic-based puzzle. None of these sequences, though, are overly confusing to navigate. Unlike the aforementioned Willy Morgan, every problem in the game can be solved by using common sense. While on occasion it may be necessary for you to pull up a walkthrough of the title to ensure you beat it in a reasonable timeframe, it’s not frustrating in the slightest to actually play Norco, which is a compliment that few ‘80s-inspired games have managed to earn.
Not to belabour the point, Norco also is a fantastic game from a technical perspective. If it wasn’t clear from the screenshots included in this review, the game uses a fantastic pixel art-esque style combined with a fitting score of music that helps ensure you’ll become immersed in the experience. There also aren’t any bugs to speak of, and everything in the game simply works like it should.
And that last bit shouldn’t need to be pointed out, but in an industry that seems hell-bent on destroying gamers’ sanity, it and everything else that Norco offers is truly remarkable. It's clear that the developers not only took inspiration from the very best point-and-clicks on the market, but they managed to build on those titles to create an experience like few others. Norco has a fantastic story, an amazing sense of atmosphere, great characters and solid gameplay. While people who don’t like adventure games won’t like this title either, anyone who’s looking for a game that’s a smidge away from being as good as Disco Elysium or Blade Runner will not find a better title on the market.
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