NORCO is a point-and-click adventure about a futuristic Louisiana and the changes that took place while a scientist’s daughter was away. This game is perfect for those looking for mystery, cult conspiracies, and dark humor all mixed into a dystopian sci-fi future. Seriously, if you don’t mind reading a bit of text, you’ll probably enjoy this game (Note: I may give out some spoilers, so if you want a fresh view on it, I’d say just go and play it).
There’s a reason why it won the first ever Tribeca Games award for its storytelling and narrative. Made by Geography of Robots and published by Raw Fury, NORCO is a cinematic morsel just waiting to be chewed through. The gameplay is pretty simple for the most part: click on things, talk to people, solve puzzles by giving people stuff, etc. All actions are done with the mouse. Hover over objects to walk up to, talk to, or inspect them. When dialog is happening, the player has the options for what they want to say, to influence the other person they’re talking to a certain way. At first it may seem like these dialog choices are important, but they’re just variations on how the conversation could go, the main point of the conversation is always reached. There are also some mini-games that the player does, but they’re nothing more than squeezing around a maze or remembering a numeric pattern from a riddle.
While the whole theme of Norco is shrouded in mystery, it still tries to help the player get through the game. If you are stuck on puzzles, the game provides obvious clues to help you move the game along. NORCO took me about six hours to complete, and almost none of the puzzles are terribly challenging. I think this is because the game does a great job at directing the player to what they need to focus on. When dialog happens, sometimes the characters say important tips that the player should remember, or uncovers part of the storyline, and a small notification update will pop up, or the text will be highlighted to mark it as important to remember. I think this mechanic is great because as the player reading a whole bunch of text, it can be difficult to sift through the dialog and discern whether it’s important or standard chatter.
I’ll try not to ruin the good parts, but I should probably talk a little about the story. You start as Kay, the daughter of a mischievous scientist and the sister of a washed-up drug dealing brother. You took a few years to escape from Norco, Louisiana to travel around the US a bit before getting a call from your brother that your mother has passed. Getting back to Norco it appears nothing has really changed, except your brother is suddenly missing and there seems to be mysterious people interested in the cause of your mother’s death. Moments in the game you play as Kay’s mother, Catherine, uncovering part of the back story and connecting the past and the present.
As great as Norco is, there are some minor things I had problems with. The differences between Kay’s and Catherine’s stories gave this cool perspective on what was happening. They both had different mechanics and tools to work with. Kay had this interesting Mind Map, which the player could use to search through parts of the story that they couldn’t remember. Catherine had a phone mechanic that could observe the world and see hidden objects. There comes a point near the end, however, where these differences combine: Kay gets her phone back and has all the same abilities Catherine had. It lost the feeling of how special their differences were and how to change your mindset based on who you’re playing as (like I said, these are minor grievances, the mechanics fit within the metaphor of the storyline).
The ending felt a little lack-luster. You become forced into doing what you don’t want to do, and it just doesn’t feel as solid as the rest of Norco. Perhaps there is an alternate ending that I missed, but that’s up to you to find. There were a couple of bugs I found that happened during scene changes (during the drone puzzle and when you’re overlooking the city in the end). Unfortunately I had to restart the game, but luckily the auto saves brought me to a close enough point where I didn’t have to replay much.
NORCO has a grimy, almost cyber-punk, vibe to the art style that you won’t see in any other game. It’s almost as if it’s the time right before people got into their own cyborg body modifications. The main parts of the game involve colorful lo-fi pixel art, while the UI elements remind me of some kind of futuristic command-line terminal. The two styles clash slightly, as I kind of want the tech-y interface to also be pixelated to have a constant theme, but I think they work fine together in context. Some of the scene transitions and story reveal impacts miss the beat, as the player could accidentally speed through a section if the text is moving along at a certain pace.
The music is mostly atmospheric. While it’s not dynamic (as in, responds to the player’s actions), it does set a tone for Norco, having synthwave tracks play in the background gives a retro/nostalgia feeling to it. These elements are also mixed into the sounds of a suburban city, with honking of cars and gusts of wind blowing in the background. Characters that you talk to have their own kind of speech sounds (like Animal Crossing), and add to the ominous story. Some of the sounds don’t fit the scene exactly. There were times, especially at the bar scene, where while talking to a character they would burp or hiccup, and the sound would break me from the flow of the game. The scene is supposed to be dark and moody, but then you hear this bright and happy exclamation and it ruins the vibe. It’s more surprising when you speed through the text, as the sound still happens, but if you’re skimming the text you’ll hear the sound before the word “burp” appears, so it plays out of context.
In summary: gameplay was a nice mix of point-and-click with puzzle elements that didn’t get in the player’s way. The storyline was mysterious, intertwining, and wholly cinematic that needed a more refined ending. The art mixes other-worldly with the mundane city life, while the futuristic synths add to the Norco’s atmosphere.