Face Noir hands-on archived preview
I first saw Face Noir back at gamescom 2012, where I had the chance to speak with Italian developers Gabriele Papalini and Marco Sgolmin of Mad Orange. Intrigued by what I learned, I went on to play the German version upon release, but with no English version in sight at the time, we decided to hold back on a preview here at Adventure Gamers until full localization was confirmed – we can surely all think of games that never got translated and left us disappointed. Fortunately, that's no longer a concern for Face Noir, as Phoenix Online Studios (Cognition, The Silver Lining) has just signed on to coordinate voiceovers and help smooth out the rough edges of the original version in time to publish an English-language release this summer. (You heard it here first!)
Face Noir has been in production for quite some time now. Papalini and Sgolmin worked on this project together for four years, putting a lot of their own money into it before finally deciding to hire additional help to speed things up in order to get the game released. At the same time, they decided to split the game in half, as they reckoned it was becoming far too long to be released as one game, ditching the subtitle 'The Cat with Jade Eyes' in the process.
The premise of Face Noir may sound about as clichéd as you can imagine – down-on-his-luck detective with an alcohol problem tries to make money in 1930s New York – but there are some interesting twists that really set the game apart. The story begins with the apparent death of our protagonist, Jack del Nero, a private detective of Italian origin. Arriving at an airport just in time to see a plane take off, Jack curses because he's too late. Then another man shows up, and after a brief exchange he shoots Jack. The camera pauses to show a watch with the hands turning backwards to indicate we're going back in time to learn more about how Jack got into this deadly situation.
During the course of this first episode, we find out (mostly from the protagonist's thoughts) that Jack is an ex-cop who was accused of being corrupt. He has spent some time in jail, while his colleague and friend Sean MacLeane merely got transferred to another city. The two haven't spoken since. One night, after successfully finishing a simple case, Jack goes to his favorite bar to have a drink (or two). Somewhat inebriated, he arrives home and receives a phone call. The unknown person at the other end tells him Sean is back in town and requests a meeting near the harbour later the same night. Jack grabs his gun and heads out, but what he discovers soon makes him the chief suspect in a murder case.
What follows is a complicated story involving Italian mobsters, a Chinese cab driver, a Russian landlord and a Dutch pub owner, ending with a lot more questions left open than answered. Fortunately, Face Noir II is already in the pre-production phase and it shouldn't take another four years to complete the story. The sequel will be full HD, and no longer based on the Wintermute Engine that limits this first installment to relatively low resolutions.
That doesn't mean this game doesn't already look good in its own right, however. A particle system allows for rain and fog, and the designers have done a stellar job of making the realistic backgrounds ooze with a classic 'thirties look. Mad Orange carefully studied furniture and buildings from that era to recreate them as authentically as possible. For instance, while building the Metropolitan museum, they found out what exhibit was actually on display at the time and integrated that. They also painstakingly reproduced the police station from old photographs and stories they found during their research.
Although there aren't many people about, there are cars driving through the streets, clouds drifting across the moon, water lapping and neon lights flickering to give each screen a lively feel. It's a pity, then, that character close-ups and animations are far less nice to look at, and no attempt has been made to lip-sync mouth animations during dialogues (another Wintermute limitation). Complementing the visuals is a melancholy, moody jazz soundtrack that was specifically written for the game. There's not a lot of variety though, so while the tracks sound nice, they do start to repeat during the lengthy adventure.
An original story inspired by the works of Raymond Chandler, Face Noir's atmosphere is the key ingredient, and Papalini and Sgolmin watched a lot of movies with Humphrey Bogart (although these were set in L.A.) to get the right mood. I'm pleased to say that they've succeeded in creating an effective noir vibe. It's dark, it's melancholy, the weather is always miserable, and the effects of the economic crisis are very similar to our own time. Jack is not a classical noir detective, however, as he is neither hard-boiled nor cynical. He does have a love for booze and cigarettes, but he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. He must solve this murder case not out of a sense of righteousness, but because he will go to jail for it if he doesn't. During flashbacks, we also play from Sean's point of view a couple of times.
Jack can't run, but double-clicking an exit will make him go there immediately. Some exits are located just outside the current screen, however, so you'll need to manoeuvre Jack around a bit to make the screen scroll before you can leave. As you move the cursor over an object or person, an icon pops up; a left-click equals 'look' and a right-click lets you 'interact' or 'talk'. With the attention the developers paid to detail, you can click on many things that are of no importance to the investigation to get a description. Some of Jack's responses are fairly dismissive, but others contribute interesting if non-essential bits of information about such things as buildings, exhibits at the museum, and the economic crisis.
In the German version, the rest of the interface proved awkward, to put it mildly. To open the inventory on the left-hand side of the screen, you could either press the spacebar or use the mouse scroll wheel. Jack would open his coat, in a Grim Fandango-like way, but you could only scroll through the visible items one by one, and simply using one in the environment involved an unnecessarily cumbersome process. Thankfully, this is one of the areas the developers are planning to improve for the English release. Some items such as long wooden poles can't be picked up because of their size, but you can lift them to use them immediately on something else, adding a bit of realism to the game.
The puzzles and interactive mechanics are two other aspects being revamped for English gamers. The obstacles demonstrate a nice diversity, but they were originally quite hard – not because they offered an intellectual challenge, as it's almost always very clear what Jack is trying to achieve – but because the interface could be problematic here as well. Whether building a doll out of little wooden parts, putting together a torn matchbox or changing the temperature, all actions are performed with your mouse, but initially they needed to be very precise. Lining up parts in the German version was a nightmare, as I didn't get any feedback on what components were correctly placed and which needed more adjustment. Turning dials and lock picks (which you'll be using a couple of times) was counter-intuitive as well, as is this was done not in a circular motion but a horizontal or vertical one. It remains to be seen how fully these issues will be addressed, but Mad Orange and Phoenix Online are working together to resolve such problems.
The instructions weren't always very clear either, and these will reportedly be more understandable in the translated version, which is good, because the puzzles can't be skipped. A couple of puzzles require some dexterity in rapidly clicking the right mouse button to wriggle free an object. There's a maze and a few timed scenes in which you have to carefully observe guards moving around and time your movements accordingly, or find a few items before you 'bleed to death'. You can't actually die, however, and being spotted or failing to get the objects in time will simply put you back to the start of the puzzle, though this sometimes means repeating a lengthy graphic novel-style cutscene. Fortunately, it is possible to save anywhere, anytime, even in the middle of such a timed puzzle.
Certainly not all the puzzles were problematic to begin with, as there are logical inventory-based ones that work perfectly fine and there's also one inventive type of puzzle that involves connecting different strands of thoughts. Dialogues are sometimes interrupted by these sequences, displaying lots of sentences indicating what Jack has learned so far. These don't always relate to the present case, so you'll have quite a few sentences to choose from. You'll need to make the correct connections between relevant concepts to succeed, but Jack will reject wrong answers and simply let you choose again indefinitely until you make the proper choice.
Despite the changes made with regard to the artificial difficulty of the puzzles, Mad Orange don't want to make them too easy, as it should still be a challenge to solve them. The fixes planned are designed simply to make them easier to manage, not necessarily easier to solve. And with Phoenix Online's established track record of quality voice acting, the partnership between the two companies should bode well for the upcoming English release. It can be frustrating waiting for translated games, but in this case the delay seems like it will pay off nicely. There's still no firm launch date planned yet, but we can officially begin looking ahead to a new, improved Face Noir soon enough.