One of the things I’ve had to come to grips with over the 13 years (!) I’ve been reviewing games is the slow but steady drift in my own preferences vs that of the greater gaming community. In many respects this has been great, the genres that I find myself interested in expanding exponentially ever since I started challenging myself to play and review more games. However I’ve also noticed how I’ve started to drift away from some of the genres that I once felt drawn to, chief among them being the pixel art adventure games. Maybe it was saturation of the genre, or possibly my trend towards wanting more brainless entertainment given my lack of energy (I mean really, who could’ve guessed 2 kids could do that to you), but the result was the same: I’ve avoided the genre for a while. So it was with some trepidation I dove into NORCO, a true to form pixel art adventure game that tickled that same part of my brain that Kentucky Route Zero lives in, and for good reason.
Home was always a fickle concept to you. The place where you grew up, Norco, was a towering behemoth of corporate power, it’s petroleum industry shaping not only the skyline but the very people of the town. Perhaps that’s why you had to leave, the only way to free yourself from the town’s unrelenting influence was to leave it behind for good. To do so though meant leaving your family behind and it was only many years later that you’d return, your mother having passed and your brother disappearing. What follows is an exploration of your history with the town and how the varying intersections of technology, capitalism and the darker sides of the human condition can all culminate into real events that are far stranger than any fiction you could dream up.
NORCO’s pixel art blends traditional stylings with only a few tweaks from the modern era. Primarily this comes through in the use of colours and a handful of modern effects which means you’ll never fool your brain into thinking that this was a game from decades past. That’s a good thing though as it reflects the game’s overall construction, bringing with it mechanics that you wouldn’t have seen from your traditional point and click adventure game. Given it’s on the Unity platform I don’t doubt we’ll see a multi-platform release soon as it feels like it would be very much at home on a mobile platform.
It’s been well established that whilst the original point and click adventure formula worked for its time there are many improvements that could be made to the experience. The devs have taken these lessons to heart and NORCO incorporates a lot of quality of life improvements to the typical formula. For the most part you’ll still be following the original tropes: talk to people, find items, use items to get past the current blocking objective, rinse and repeat. However mixed in there are things like dialogue highlighting for key phrases/actions, a “mind map” which allows you to explore your relationships with all the characters and your phone which acts as a repository for everything else that doesn’t have a home. Taken all together NORCO is a far more approachable version of the classic point and click adventure.
How this all plays out will feel very familiar to anyone who’s played games in this genre before. You’ll exhaust dialogue with someone, explore all the things in your near vicinity, find items and then try them out in varying places until you figure out how to move onto the next stage. NORCO’s rapid fire dialogue presentation does a good job of keeping you engaged in the story, something that other similar games have struggled to do as they present a giant wall of text which you then have to chew through with no sense for pacing. Where things start to get interesting, and where I feel the comparison to Kentucky Route Zero is apt, is how much of the game is optional but is there to help build out the world and your own personal backstory.
Kentucky Route Zero did this superbly, blending in numerous dialogue options, encounters and all manner of things that, on retrospect, were completely irrelevant to the game’s overall narrative. What they did shape though was your view of the world and the story you’ve crafted in it. NORCO does the same, the various interactions with NPCs, flavour text and other things you’ll stumble across building out the world that this game lives in. For someone who likes richly detailed world I was really appreciative of being given enough detail to be able to immerse myself in the world whilst also not drowning in exposition.
Although I’d rate the craftsmanship of NORCO quite high it still suffers from some of the usual foibles that the genre is known for. Some of the puzzles are quite specific in their required solutions and, should you manage to get to something out of order or miss a single critical step at one point you can be left feeling stuck without having an idea of how to progress. It’s also easy to get stuck in an idea that you think should work but doesn’t, sending you for a loop for a while before you either step away or get hit with a bolt of inspiration to break yourself out of it. Some of these issues come from the fact that the game does have quite a lot of optional content that looks like it should be part of the main narrative, potentially sending you down a path you don’t necessarily need (or want) to go down.
What really got me interested was the game’s narrative which, backed by the game’s excellent worldbuilding, makes for a captivating experience. All of the main characters are given sufficient backstory and time on screen to grow, numerous side stories are given solid resolutions and the overarching narrative maintains a good consistency even when you consider it’s more surreal elements. I couldn’t really tell you if the game had a message though, more it feels like a reflection of life (or a fantastical representation thereof) in a particular part of the world. This seems apt given that the game grew out of a documentary that the devs were making about their hometown of Norco Louisiana,
NORCO was quite the unexpected joy, smashing through my trepidations about getting back into adventure games and reminding me why I enjoyed the genre in the first place. For a first time game dev team NORCO punches well above its weight, delivering a well crafted game and narrative. There are some small issues that are more of a problem with the genre than the game per-se and whether or not these are deal breakers to you will depend on how faithful you need your adventure games to be. For a game I could have easily left on the table NORCO shows that sometimes we need to reevaluate our opinions on certain kinds of games because what you find might surprise you.
NORCO is available on PC right now for $21.50. Total play time was 4.1 hours with 40% of the achievements unlocked.