Calvino Noir was a game I really couldn’t wait to play. Having grown up watching Turner Classic Movies, this was one of my highlights for the month. As the game progressed, I kept reassuring myself that it would pick up, and become a better experience. Sadly, it never did. The game’s challenge is unfair. Its mystery is spoon fed. Everything about this experience, besides the exceptional look and music, is lackluster. It sadly isn’t a great game, and games like Gunpoint does similar gameplay much better and faster, and is less than half the price of Calvino Noir. I really wanted to love this game, but sadly it feels soulless in all the wrong ways.
WHAT WE LIKED
º Visuals are very stunning, capturing the shadowy feel of noir.
º Music is top of the line, a perfectly fitting mix of jazz and rain.
º It’s easy to pick up and play, using simple touchscreen controls.
WHAT WE DISLIKED º The story is weak, and doesn’t feel like a film noir or mystery script.
º Guards unfairly kill you after breaking established in-game rules.
º Severely overpriced, offering a short experience for way too much.
Mystery is one of those genres I don’t think any studio has gotten right when it comes to modern video games. Probably the closest example to an entry doing it correctly is La Noire and Ghost Trick. It’s a shame too, because I spent hours back in the day playing Infocom classics like Deadline, Moonmist and Suspect. These games, despite not having any graphics, did mystery and discovery right, relying on you to discover the information and come up with your own conclusions, and only if you were right did you see the true ending. For me, Calvino Noir didn’t break this unfortunate trend, nor capture the film noir tone correctly and ultimately didn’t provide much of an enjoyable experience. That’s not to say the game doesn’t have some real positives.
The game looks and sounds absolutely fantastic, and really nails the look and feel of the late 1940’s. You can just see the inspiration of classics like The Big Sleep going into the production of this game, with the game’s main protagonist and narrator Wilt looking like Humphrey Bogart, and his client Siska looking just like Lauren Becall. The game nails the characters’ appropriate look, the style and architecture of the buildings, and generally the overall appearance of classic film noir.
What the game doesn’t get right is just about everything else. One of the things you have to nail when it comes to a noir setting is the story. Everyone needs to be self-centered, lustfully motivated and only concerned with self-preservation. Expressionism is an essential piece of the puzzle, and with it usually being achieved through camera use, it’s hard to convey this necessity when every shot is wide. It’s missing the substance that makes noir work, and the game has the emotional weight of a teenager who’s just discovered black and white photography. It also doesn’t help when the game uses classic movie lines as a ploy, instead of creating its own quotable narrative. Sadly, Calvino Noir misses that day in film class, and creates an overly forgettable and poorly constructed attempt at a distinct genre.
The other offense is the complete lack of finesse when it comes to the story. You’re hired to retrieve some very important documents by the femme fatale Siska. The job is assisting “Mole” in obtaining these papers from city hall, where he works. She calls your hotel room to talk to you about it, but then asks you to come upstairs to meet her- why didn’t she just come and speak to me in my room? I can understand that with a game like this, you have to keep things in close proximity- so why not just have her show up at my door, instead of calling me from an adjacent room and having me come to meet her, after getting most of the information on the phone?
So, you sneak into city hall and eventually find Mole, where he reveals that he has the key to the place where the documents are being held. You both retrieve the file, and head up to the roof to wait for the guards to change shifts (even though you could just leave), only for him to turn coat, beating you and taking the documents. Why was I even there? The game explains in a later phone call that you think you may have been set up as the fall guy, but considering you weren’t arrested, or caught with the paperwork, this doesn’t really pan out. I guess they just needed someone to punch at the end of the mission they could’ve done themselves.
Simply put, the story feels like it was glossed over, and doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for any of the characters involved; their motivation is simply to progress the plot forwards to the next set piece. You become entwined in discovering the mystery, despite you having any real stake in its conclusion. As a spectator, this makes the story so bland, it adds to the boredom of the game.
Sadly, the game’s action doesn’t save the experience either. Consisting of all mouse-based controls (clearly being designed for mobile), the game plods along as you click on a location in order to move there. You can sneak around or run to your destination, using a flashlight when you’d like, as you jump between characters with their own unique abilities. If they spot your flashlight, hear you running or stumble upon you- they will shoot on sight, regardless of where you are (even on the street).
It’s especially annoying when you get to three members in your party. The game insists that one character can’t see a plot-progressing item; every character needs to be standing there. Which means, when you find the next location you need to check out, you need to move each character there. This may sound like a minor complaint, but when a building has you backtracking to look at clues, and you have to drag everyone along (no grouping), it gets annoying very quickly when you’ve ran the same hallway six times.
The only character who can attack is Wilt, so you’ll most likely lead with him because he can knock out guards. That is, when the game allows you to do so. Sometimes, for no reason at all, as you’re sneaking up on someone, they’ll quickly turn, and shoot you dead before you can let out a ‘no’. There’s no way to counter, no way you can prevent this from happening. The game just decides sometimes to be overly realistic. Even worst, you’ll sometime hide behind a pillar, only to have one of the guards inexplicitly see you, and shoot you dead. Again, this isn’t something you’ve done, the game just decides that you didn’t hide your body well enough. This is particularly frustrating when you’re seven minutes past your last checkpoint.
In my short time with the game, I even had a game breaking glitch, where the guards shot a man they were suppose to be defending. I found it bizarre that a main character was shot, so I chased down the guard and killed him- leading me back to my Steam page.
The soundtrack however is phenomenal, sounding like it was ripped directly out of the golden age of Hollywood. The main theme in particular is spectacular, featuring heavy bass lines, fluttering saxes, and pronounced strokes on a grand piano. Music in game is also very good, featuring a softer arrangement of similar arrangements, but holding up on its own. The sound of falling rain on top of it all, makes for something that’s very enjoyable to absorb in. It’s just a shame that everything else breaks the atmosphere that the music is so desperately holding together.
Also, the game’s voice actors range from passable to laughable. Thankfully the main cast is far better than some of the other character, but there’s a few in there that sound like their reading their lines as monotone as they possibly can.
As a mobile phone game, I could see this game working as a quick pick-up game, one that you don’t have to think much about, and play while you’re on the toilet. Unfortunately, it’s not a thinking man’s game, and it’s rather bland when it comes to capturing the style and substance that old film noir movies had. The gameplay is vapid, and is entirely unfair. Most importantly, it just not very fun. It is pretty though, and I could imagine it playing decently in small burst- but as a 25 dollar steam game, this outing simply isn’t worth that. Calvino Noir is no Double Indemnity; it’s more D.O.A.