Fave Film Noir Homage : A Review of Face Noir
Face Noir is a film noir style point-and-click adventure game set in Depression-era New York. As far as adventure games go, it doesn’t change any paradigms or break out of any boxes – but you shouldn’t look at this as a game. Face Noir is an homage to the great genre of film noir; it’s a movie that you wander through slowly, savouring each moment – and because of that, this game is quite good*.
Just as an example, look at the player character, Jack. He’s a grizzled stereotypical Private Investigator: an ex-cop who was kicked off the force for something he didn’t do, he now spends his time doing crappy little jobs like getting pictures of runaways and adulterers. The money from that goes straight into whiskey and his one-room office that has a murphy bed disguised as a file cabinet. When you think of film noir protagonist, you think of this guy, down to the 5 o’clock shadow and trench coat.
Sure, Jack is pretty straightforward stereotype, but he totally pulls it off. Because I know how these games work, I went around clicking on everything and trying to pick everything up – and was delighted to find that they had a huge variety in the ways he’d say “no.” There are a few generic responses (“No… it doesn’t make any sense” or “I don’t see how I could use those together”), but there are a surprising number of custom responses, some of which made me literally laugh out loud. My favourite came when I told him to pick up one of the crates at the dock:
“They don’t fit in my coat – otherwise I’d be more than happy to carry a huge wooden crate around New York. These are the typical things that are essential to making it in the big city.”
Gotta love a sarcastic PI.
Where the game really shines is its overall ambience. The music’s muted horns and lonely piano make the rainy, dirty city you’re walking through feel that much more desolate. The neon signs, the patrons drinking at the bar, the body slumped at the end of the dock; the game screams “Film Noir” like Humphery Bogart in a fedora. They even reference some of the classics: one of the characters is a Peter Lorre knockoff (see Casablanca), and in Jack’s storage closet is a bird statue, eerily reminiscent of the Maltese Falcon). Generally, I don’t like point-and-click adventure games, but I love film noir. Based on that, I loved Face Noir.
But beneath its gritty atmosphere, the game is rough around the edges. Jack does a good job of telling you what leads to follow and where to go, but for the handful of times you don’t know what to do, there is no journal or log to fall back on. The game was originally written in Italian (referenced by Jack’s heritage, and the fact that his one expletive is “Dannazione”), but the translations to English are surprisingly good. My only objection is that only one of the characters has an over-the-top-almost-racist accent with the subtitles written phonetically – he’s your Chinese “cab dwivew” / comic relief. All the characters have voice actors, but I found that to be hit-or-miss. Jack is fine (if a little too gritty), but others really bothered me; there aren’t many female characters, and the ones I did hear seemed really phoned in.
As for the actual gameplay, it’s a point-and-click adventure game with all the trappings and pitfalls. They do a good job keeping the process intuitive (to get through the dark areas, use your flashlight. Duh.), but sometimes you know what you have to do but need to complete some other trivial task before you’re allowed to. Conveniently, there’s a button you press to show you everything in the scene that’s clickable (but sometimes it doesn’t tell you that a specific part of an item is relevant – the interface will show you the drainpipe, but not highlight the spout at the bottom). The game’s designers have broken up the potential monotony with a couple of different mini-puzzle mechanics; you’ll switch into a kind of first-person mode, and then use your hands to flip switches, rotate blocks, piece together broken things, type in names, etc. It can be awkward, but I appreciated the break. A nice touch was that the recurring lockpicking minigame could be skipped after a couple of seconds, so you wouldn’t need to fight with the door for too long.
The best of these mechanics, however, is the “Reflection Mode.” Every once in awhile, Jack will find a piece of evidence that rings a bell or need manipulate someone into helping. At this point you go to another screen where you have all the relevant snippets of information that you’ve gathered on the case, and you need to match the pieces together. You need to get Dudeguy over here, and you know he has a crush on Chicklady – so putting those together, you figure out the way to lure him over here. I thought it was super cool, and drew me in to really make me feel like a legit detective. It really adds to the film noir ambience that makes this game such fun.
I wish I could end the review here, saying that if you like adventure games, this one’s good but not great; but even if you just like film noir, this is a win. However, it gets more complicated. Avoiding spoilers, the end of the game changes tone from film noir to something more like The Mummy with a touch of something Lovecraftian. I was really playing the game because I love film noir, and they took the genre and added some supernatural weirdness. This was all to build up to their next game, Face Noir II, which will be set not in New York but <spoilers> Damascus, Syria </spoilers>. I don’t like how they messed with the ending of this game, but who knows? Maybe the next game will make it all pan out and work nicely. So that’s the asterisk at the end of my review – the end of Face Noir shifted in a weird way, and it really bothered me. Even though I disliked the ending, though, I did enjoy the overall experience – but it likely wouldn’t be for everyone.
Pixels or Death gives it a 3 out of 5.
*Basically, I enjoyed the game because it was a great film noir homage, but that changed at the end of the game which really bothered me. I go into more detail in the last paragraph.