Noir: A Shadowy Thriller

Developer:  Mainstream Interactive
Publisher:  Cyberdreams
Year Released:  1996

Review by Steve Ramsey (August, 2002)
Despite simply meaning "black", the word "noir" in the context of film or fiction immediately conveys a multitude of characteristics. Cynical, sleazy, brooding, sultry, sinister, obsessive: any or all of these spring to mind.

A certain look is also conveyed. Bright and colourful it is not; dark and grimy it certainly is. It permeates everything - the streets, the buildings, the characters - with the notable exception of the platinum blonde.

It is a style much hyped, and much appreciated. Attach it to a product and one knows what to expect.

Here's looking for you, Jack
So it's no surprise to find that Noir: A Shadowy Thriller puts you in Los Angeles in 1940 and casts you in the role of a colleague of Jack Slayton, a private investigator who has gone missing. His current case files are the only possible leads to his whereabouts, so it looks like you're going to have to work through them to see what you can find. If you happen to solve a few along the way, so much the better.

It's also no surprise to find that the game world is shot entirely in black and white. It wouldn't be noir if it wasn't.

The opening video sequence sets up the game nicely. Streetscapes and the Hollywood hills, a tramcar rattles by, a man walks out of the gloom and smokes a cigarette under a lamp post before making a note in his little black book. The grainy video works well, and it's all undercut by an almost grating brassy soundtrack.

You find yourself in Jack's office, where you learn of his disappearance and get the opportunity to rummage around. Never know what you might find. A short while later and it seems Jack was working on about half a dozen cases. None seem any more likely than any others, so pick one and get going (assuming you have worked out the method of locomotion).

You have a seemingly open book, but you will soon find that several cases appear to offer nothing but dead ends. Nonetheless, like a good detective you will poke around and learn what you can, and threads will start to unravel.

Or come apart in a great big rush. The first case I picked was pretty much solved, complete with a newspaper headline, in not much time at all. But after that it slowed up a bit, although I made fairly steady progress.

The manual says you can solve the cases in any order, which is true to a certain extent. The cases, though, become intertwined and you must learn certain information in some cases before you can advance in others. The openness is therefore less than absolute.

Easy does it
The game is not difficult, and is made less so because there is no inventory management. You will collect items, but they will be automatically used when needed (if you have found them). A notebook will also automatically keep track of the relevant pieces of information. You can't, therefore, inadvertently fail to note something important, even if each pertinent clue wasn't accompanied by a musical fanfare (you know the one).

Curiously though, the notebook stays in the drawer of the desk in the office, so if you do want to check something, you must return there. Which you probably won't need to do very often, as having taken note of the information, much will again be automatically used when needed.

Further, you have an informant who I thought at first functioned like an in-game help desk. However it became clear that he is more than that. His calls to you are a necessary part of advancing the game, and he will tell you what to do whether you want him to or not. It's no good trying not to answer his calls.

An informant makes sense in a detective game, but the way it is used here is a bit too unsubtle. Between him and the notebook there is not a lot left to work out yourself.

You can choose to play on three difficulty settings, but as far as I could tell the only difference between medium and hard was that the hotspots are not indicated by a changing cursor on the hard setting. You just click away on everything to see whether you get a response. I didn't tinker with the easy setting.

Looking around and around
Given the way the game plays, much of the play consists of finding the objects and information which will open a path to find more objects and so on. Yet you won't find it as easy as it sounds.

This is primarily because it can be incredibly fiddly to navigate your way around. Your cursor will indicate the direction you can turn from each screen, which can be of varying degrees and up and down, and you mouse click your way about. It all sounds straightforward, but the perspective you get from each turn can be startlingly different to what you anticipated, which can confuse you no end about where you have and haven't been. Also, certain views are only accessible from certain other views, so you are well advised to pirouette giddily which adds to the confusion. I walked past a closet in Jack's office about ten times before stumbling on an orientation I hadn't seen before and suddenly finding it, and the Chinatown alleyway got me hopelessly lost. I was never confident I had managed to find all of the views (and therefore the hotspots I was looking for), and I am sure it wasn't just me.

The scenes themselves can be quite excellent and well detailed, like a series of good black and white photos. The period is created admirably, with many of the settings being actual historic landmarks and buildings, others recreated from photos and sound stage shoots. However they have a very noticeable flatness about them and they are almost totally devoid of any movement or anyone else. You will get an occasional cut scene with another character, and travel between locations will usually result in a video sequence, but apart from that the whole place is still and lifeless. This is no doubt a result of the game's age, but it made the whole experience quite arid.

The characters that are present in the video sequences, though, are all quite good, and the shots are very noir-ish, making use of the awkward camera angles and orientations that are typical of the style. The music is reasonably well used, although there is minimal ambient noise so much of your play will be silent.

There are some gaps in the various plot lines, and depending upon how you uncover information they may come together in a jumbled sort of way. This means you will get some redundant information, and on one occasion the informant gave me information about a clue I had not found. If you get mugged you might also forget things you have uncovered. Persevere and you can solve the cases and find out what happened to Jack. You can also fail miserably and end up dead.

The game is on two CDs and you will have to swap them about to access certain locations. It has no subtitles. Noir: A Shadowy Thriller is not a great game by any means, but it is not without some merit. If you are a fan of noir material, and don't set your sights too high, then it might well appeal. rating:  

Copyright © Steve Ramsey 2002. All rights reserved.

System Requirements:
Windows 3.1 or higher, 486/66MHz DX, 8 MB RAM, 10 MB free hard drive space, 2x CD-ROM Drive , SVGA (640x480) Windows-compatible sound cards.
Recommended: Windows 95, Pentium, 16 MB RAM, 500 MB free hard drive space, 4xCD-ROM Drive.