Review: NORCO

Trying to describe what the world of NORCO — the new game from Raw Fury and developers Geography of Robots — and the stories within it are like is similar trying to describe what outer space would taste like. I can list off the individual elements and describe them and how they come across, but trying to describe it as a whole is something different entirely. And something different in the best possible way, to clarify. NORCO easily offers up one of the most unique worlds in gaming right now, one that you’ve likely never seen before, and one that you’ll want to explore.

Describing the actual gameplay of NORCO is easy. It’s a point-and-click adventure game, dialogue-based with a few puzzles and QTE moments. The basic setup is that you play as Kay, a young woman returning to their small town of Norco, Louisiana after their mother Catherine has passed away. When they arrive, however, their brother Blake has turned up missing, and so it’s up to Kay to try and find them. The story also switches back to Catherine from three weeks ago at key points, where we walk in their shoes as well as they try to complete one last job for some money before their cancer overtakes them. Along they way, secrets are uncovered as we learn what Catherine was up to and why she’s suddenly so important as more and more strange details start to emerge.

“Strange details” would be putting it mildly, though. NORCO describes itself as a “Southern Gothic” narrative adventure, which is true, but without trying to go into spoilers, it also has elements like memory backups that wouldn’t seem out of place in a cyberpunk story, more straight sci-fi elements like the robot fugitive Million that Catherine took in, elements of an industrial dystopia courtesy of the local refinery, twists that almost feel supernatural in nature, detective tales, strange journeys into cults and Christianity, folk tales and urban legends, basic day-to-day life courtesy of the locals, not to mention a tale of guilt and family all at the center of things. Oh and there’s a stuffed monkey in there as well.

It can be a lot to take in, but looking at it further, that’s what makes the world of NORCO work, in that it makes a central character out of…well, Norco. The use of such a small-town suburb and other parts of New Orleans alone feels unique, as it’s a part of the world that you never associate with bizarre sci-fi tales such as this, despite New Orleans itself being a major American city that’s associated with lot of colorful imagery and bizarre tales of its own. But what makes it work is how the many different flavors of story elements seems to merge together to create one of those cases where the sheer variety of different characters and backgrounds merge together to make things feel like a living, breathing city with people from several different walks of life.

As hinted at earlier, NORCO is dialogue-heavy, be it through conversations or descriptions of various scenery. But you feel rewarded for exploring every little detail in the background and how Kay and Catherine see it, or for going through every piece of dialogue. At one point, the opportunity to visit the home of Catherine’s partner Dallas was unlocked and I decided to visit it. Nothing there ended up advancing the plot, but we saw Dallas’ family and got to learn more about his life through various organic interaction, which just felt satisfying. At one point, you trick a man into eating decades-old hot dogs from a street vendor in order to learn a secret knock (it makes sense in context), and what results later is a hilariously twisted anecdote from the same man concerning what happened afterwards. It just feels like every part of this world has its own story.

What helps is that while the world of NORCO is clearly still a sci-fi universe, it never feels far into the future, as outside of the constellation-faced android that acts as a sidekick, most of its sci-fi elements are rooted in reality: automated Amazon Go-style stores where you just scan items and leave, elaborate augmented reality trials set up by cults, the aforementioned memory back-ups, etc. It gives off the feeling these sort of big advancements are only just beginning to slowly creep into the town, as if they were slowly crawling out of the marsh and that, as marked by Catherine’s death, major change is on the horizon, be it insane tech experiments, the behavior of the locals or both. And setting it right during such a turning point in the smaller parts of the land as opposed to a full-on cyberpunk metropolis makes things stand out.

It might feel like there isn’t much to say about the central narrative, but there’s still an extremely captivating mystery at the center of things. It’s just that some of the more gleefully-insane twists are probably best experienced by going into the game blind, and as mentioned, Norco is a major character in the story that you’re constantly interacting with in one way or another, with every bit of it being a part of the ride somehow. Kay’s journey to find Blake is the central story, but it’s just one story here. And every story is beautifully written, with not only some of the year’s sharpest writing, but writing that somehow manages to juggle comedic moments, poetic moments, introspective moments and a large variety of different tones in general without ever dropping the ball.

Of course, the visuals in NORCO also play their part in helping to craft an astonishing world as well, making great use of murkier colors throughout everything, as if to showcase how the local refinery has taken its toll on everything, practically smothering everything around it. And yet things never feel lifeless or grim. It feels just like almost any small industrial town. The developers basically had to pull off this sort of balancing act where Norco feels rather imposing and frightening, and yet warm and welcoming at the same time. After all, the player may see such a town as being rather crude, but for Kay, it’s still their home, and one they might have some fond memories of. And it’s a balancing act that’s superbly pulled off.

The pixel art is impressive as well, but what stands out with it is the variety of detail in certain areas and how its used. Kay and Blake are, rather creepily, depicted as just having crudely-drawn smiley faces, as if to highlight a lack of any impact they’ve had on Norco. Meanwhile, more detailed characters with frightening appearances stand out when they creep into view and take up a chunk of the screen. Some of the more visually-impressive areas can take up more than one screen, but then you get areas where you have to make your way around City Hall at night, and the journey is only shown through texts and floor plans. NORCO basically knows when to use what level of detail for great effect, be it grandiose scenery and figures or stark minimalism, whichever hits hardest at the time.

Bonus points for authenticity as well, especially when it comes to the refinery, modeled after the Shell refinery in the real-life Norco (depicted as “Shield” here). But even more authentic is the soundtrack, courtesy of the Louisiana-based musicians Gewgawly I and Thou. But while Thou provide a few sludge metal tracks, Gewgawly I’s score once again feels like this perfect level of murkiness as well, this set of atmospheric, haunting synth tracks that terrifically set the mood. It sound odd, but you can almost hear this perfect thin layer of grime over everything, even a more relatively peppy tune as you visit the French Quarter.

Oddly, after all of this, the only real letdowns in NORCO are in the gameplay department. Granted, as a point-and-click adventure game, things are perfectly nice and simple at its core, with good puzzle design, great pacing and a few boating mini-games to liven things up. But there are a couple of areas that feel like they don’t live up to their full potential. Kay’s Mind Map springs to mind, largely just serving as way to keep track of characters, locations and events as they connect together via thoughts strung together (and where Disco Elysium comparisons likely come into play). Which is perfectly fine, except one early puzzle requires you to make a connection in the map, and it’s the only such puzzle in the game, which is a disappointment. Then there are the turn-based RPG combat sections, where the QTE bits come into play, and while not bad, these parts feel simplistic and underwhelming as you basically just trade blows with no big strategy.

Closing Comments:

If nothing else, NORCO will go down as the game this year that had the most unique world, but it also stands a huge chance of going down as the game with the best writing, story (or stories) and atmosphere. Who could have thought that Louisiana would be a perfect backdrop for a bizarre sci-fi mystery? Geography of Robots did, and it’s thanks to them that we got this memorable journey that folks should check out, even if it may be hard to describe what happened.