The Norwood Suite review
I’ve been known to embrace weird media – anything bizarre or strange, creepy or mildly disturbing with a heaping dose of interesting story. Lucky for me, The Norwood Suite has all three! The second game in the Off-Peak series but the first to be sold commercially, this spin-off adventure from indie developer Cosmo D takes us out of Off-Peak City for a welcome chance to explore more of the eccentric world established by its free predecessor.
At the start you are dropped off at the bottom of the hill leading to the Hotel Norwood and given a mission by a woman named Murial – to do… something. You’re told you’re working for her but given no further details, though it eventually becomes clear that the only way forward is to assemble a costume of Peter Norwood and then gain access to an exclusive party happening at the hotel.
The characters here are all eccentric, to say the least. For those who have played Off-Peak, The Norwood Suite follows in a similar manner. Names are occasionally given, but they’re not that relevant. What’s important are their stories, like the woman whose father used to be in a band with Norwood, so she decided to bring him back to the hotel to reminisce. Or the couple you meet on the hill who are biking up to attend the concert. Perhaps the most crucial character even without being physically present is Peter Norwood himself, legendary musician and dead icon, whose life story is told through a series of tableaus that you find around the hotel.
If you’re looking for any real narrative cohesion and fully voiced, fleshed-out characters, The Norwood Suite has neither. What it offers instead is what essentially amounts to a walkthrough art piece with a few puzzles and backstories woven in, amidst a techno-jazz soundtrack and jarringly bold colors and visual designs. It’s all very surrealist modern art, and is best described as an experience rather than a story. What your character goes through is not a plot so much as a small snippet of life in the odd world of Off-Peak. Your fate ultimately matters far less than the unusual details of this place itself, and your own interpretation of events that transpire.
Fittingly, then, the art style is charmingly off-kilter. It’s a mix of low-poly graphics with incredibly detailed textures mapped over them. This combination is genuinely unsettling, giving an almost Twilight Zone effect to the environment. For the most part the surroundings are similar enough to resemble our real world, which makes it harder to put your finger on exactly what’s “off” about them at first. And yet even on your walk up the hill to the hotel, you pass by unicyclists, giant rocks carved into heads with light pouring from their eyes, levers shaped like hands, and, for some reason, a turtle in an aquarium that is built into the hill. Just a turtle, nothing else. Even the people look strangely unnatural if not downright spooky. I’m not saying I’d run from Murial in a dark alleyway, but I’d definitely be sprinting from Peter Norwood himself.
As is appropriate for a game taking place at a former musician’s estate, the soundtrack adds to the bizarre atmosphere. It’s definitely not music for everyone, particularly if you’re not a fan of techno or jazz, but it sets the tone perfectly and is available to buy on its own if it does happen to appeal to you. The dissonance when the score changes at the end of the game is a sure sign that things have gotten serious and far less whimsical, though certainly no less strange than before.
The gameplay is simple, and all the first-person keyboard controls are explained to you at the start, though I do recommend playing with a mouse instead of a touchpad to control the camera if at all possible. For the most part, the environment is open and you can explore at will, though of course you cannot get into the basement concert until the end of the game. The handful of puzzles presented aren’t particularly complex, most of them involving simple fetch quests and talking to different patrons of the hotel. While they won’t break your brain, they’re enough to keep things interesting and their objectives are primarily what drive the story, forcing you to solve problems to accrue the items needed to finally access the party. With the lack of any formal narrative structure otherwise, it works well.
All this adds up to a short but sweet adventure, taking about 2 ½ hours to play through. However, for fans of modern art, or those who just want to enjoy more of this decidedly oddball game world, there’s nothing stopping you from wandering around and exploring the hotel for hours. Plenty of pieces connect this game to both Off-Peak and the next game in the same universe, Tales from Off-Peak City: Volume 1, and it’s fun to look around and see what Easter eggs and other links you can find, though it’s not at all necessary.
Overall, The Norwood Suite can be a great experience, but will definitely not be for everyone. If you’re not into surrealism, instead preferring more straightforward stories and puzzling gameplay challenge, it’s probably not going to be up your alley. But for anyone looking for an original sort of adult Wonderland to lose themselves in for a few hours, with a quirky soundtrack and visuals to match, you’ll likely find this to be a true hidden gem.
Forsaking both challenging gameplay and a traditional narrative structure, The Norwood Suite is a welcome odyssey into oddity that will more than satisfy those craving strangeness or just another piece of the delightful Off-Peak universe.