Let's start with a question: what was the first thing you thought when you heard there was an adventure game called Face Noir? In a genre that has previously provided us games titled Noir, Discworld Noir, and L.A. Noire, you might be somewhat surprised to learn that "face noir" is actually a French term that represents the dark side of destiny. Of course (wink and a nod), this first installment in the two-part adventure by Italian developer Mad Orange just so happens to embrace the film noir of its name and provide a very competent private eye mystery straight out of the Raymond Chandler era.
Our hero is Jack Del Nero, a Depression-era private eye who makes camp in a seedy downstairs apartment on the Lower East Side of New York City. Del Nero plays up every noir P.I. stereotype that you can find—he nurses his drinking problem down at the "joint" owned by a girl he's got his eye on, while getting prodded by his corrupt Russian landlord to finally pay his back rent, and getting by on minor jobs like illicit-romance-in-a-hotel-room photography. A late night phone call from an old friend awakens an intoxicated Jack, and one trip down to a dank, rain-soaked port later, a dead body and a hiding little girl ensure that this is going to be a long night. Much of the mystery takes place over the next few hours, as Jack hunts down leads amidst the dark dreariness of the big city to uncover the conspiratorial group that has placed the utmost importance on this child and what she means to the future.
Mad Orange has released this game in Europe previously, and Cognition developer Phoenix Online saw fit to shepherd it to an English-language release. Although it may almost seem self-defeating to release another detective game right as Cognition is building momentum to its concluding episode, do not make the mistake that these games play in the same space. While Cognition is a bloody, hyper-stylized modern mystery with a supernatural twist and a great deal of injected intensity, Face Noir is a methodical slow burn, the type of soft-paced private eye mystery that revels in its seediness with no extra urgency or modernized violence. There is a crime, and there are clues, and the clues take you from one scene to the next just like a nice rainy-day mystery does, without ever acting in a way that would seek the label of "thriller". No double-clicking to run, either; this is one private eye content to take his time.
The game remains entirely faithful to classic point-and-click adventure mechanics, with some modern touches. There is substantial use of inventory in about as logical a fashion as you could ask—after all, what would a private eye be without his gun, cigarettes and lighter, flashlight, and lockpick tools? The interactions (I hesitate to use the word puzzles) that utilize these items are simple and straightforward—if it's too dark to see, you should use your flashlight—and there is minimal inventory combination. Further, when clues are discovered, the inner dialogue of Del Nero usually makes it pretty clear where your next destination should be. It's tough to feel lost when your player-character pipes up with: "I should go see if Slovanski knows anything about this."
There are a couple nifty mechanics present that allow Face Noir to establish some of its own identity. Adventure fans are used to picking up disparate facts from various places, and once those facts are discovered, seeing some new dialogue options open up when talking to characters. Face Noir at least forces a bit of intellectual investment into the process: in the midst of conversations, you'll enter "Let's Think About This" mode with 10-15 various facts you've gathered literally floating around the screen. Connecting the correct two with the current conversation topic continues your interaction down the right path. This is certainly never challenging, but at least it feels much more like actual detective work then simply exhausting conversation trees, and you'll likely find multiple instances where you have simply not found all the facts yet and now know that some more digging is necessary.
The game also makes liberal use of close-up sequences for actions as simple as opening a mailbox or attempting to break off a doorknob, but these close-ups have a catch designed to increase interaction. Rather than simple repeated left-mouse clicking, the mouse is meant to feel like an extension of the character's arm. So opening a door involves clicking, holding, and dragging the mouse off to the side to open. While it isn't exactly the perfect PC equivalent of touch-based mobile games, it is a passable attempt to at least do something beyond a lot of clicking, and it's not overused. There are also five lockpicking minigames of increasing complexity, requiring actual precision and a bit of trial and error (though ultimately offering the ability for wimps to skip the sequences, though I never had to). Again, hardly the harbinger of a mighty new genre convention, but it's refreshing to see a game so rooted in old-school tradition show some modern design sensibility.Continued on the next page...