NORCO – PC, Mac OS X, PS4, PS5 (2022)

Yuts was an artist who was doing a project with some fellow creatives on a unique place in Louisiana called Norco, a “census designated place” basically under the thumb of the Shell Oil Corporation that literally stands for “New Orleans Refining Company.” The project was meant to be a sort of multimedia documentary, using real stories with an unorthodox style of presentation and even media. This included making sprite art that they shared on tumblr, and got so much feedback about wanting to play the game this sprite art existed in that they decided to, you know, make this a game project and fund it via patreon backers. It may even be a full trilogy, though that seems up in the air.

What is clear is that the resulting initial game, NORCO, is easily one of the most notable indie releases of 2022, a tightly designed narrative game that went through all sorts of weird forms in development (including a platformer) before becoming the adventure game it is now. Set in an alternate bad future of our world, NORCO follows a young woman named Kay returning to her old small town after her mother’s death, only to find a mystery surrounding the circumstances of her mother’s death and a missing brother.

That sounds simple, but a few minutes into the game makes it clear there’s a lot more to this. Along with Kay’s family having an android roommate, there’s lot of strangeness revolving around memory preservation, unexplained swamp sightings, and a possible religious event occurring in the town. This is all alongside the more mundane oddities of modern living, like a drug selling Santa who stabs people (every dollar belongs to him), or that cult of dudes dressed in mall uniforms who want to blast off into space with a rocket.

About the closest contemporary NORCO has is Disco Elysium in terms of writing, tone, and its artistic goals. Bitterly melancholic over political reality, ethereal and beautiful in looking at the suffocating normalized decay of the world around them, and just extremely funny almost constantly. Every tone and idea blends together almost naturally, the contrast between the more wild ideas and the lived in recreations of real people and places actually making both equally believable. The amazing sprite work and beautiful music and prose sews everything together into a single, almost memorizing experience, the spell breaking only for much needed comedic breaks between the drama and emotional turmoil.

Actually playing the game is a different experience entirely, even if the writing has a similar sort of feel and use of tone swerves. NORCO is a fairly concise narrative that uses elements of point and clicks, RPGs, and visual novels, lasting a solid eight hours or so and having replay value in getting any achievements you miss and their attached goofy events. Progress is fairly simple, based around exploring a variety of screens as you go from place to place, gathering information you can track in your mind map, talking to people, and figuring out solutions to problems as you come across them. Just eavesdropping on some people can lead to surprises, from moody ruination on the world to bizarre comedy bits.

The game also shakes things up by tossing in mechanic change ups. There are a handful of fights that uses a minigame input system, where Kay can do a sort of simon says minigame to get in hits while party members hit dots in the right timing for stronger attacks. There are instances in two parts of the game based around exploring the local swamps via an overhead boat steering game, each with different goals to pass them, and secrets to find among the branching paths. Sometimes the shake ups are just in the presentation, like a sudden cutaway to a side character starting their news livestream that had been built up the entire game, setting the stage for the next chapter. The goal seems to be to never keep things too comfortable for too long, letting you get absorbed into the atmosphere before you’re transitioned into something completely different.

Despite the fairly short length of the adventure, NORCO makes sure to make every moment memorable and entertaining or engaging. This allows the story to actually breathe in a way we see a lot of other adventure games struggle with, as they put the puzzles so first and foremost that it distracts from pacing. Here, things are more paced like a solid novel, with a simple plot structure that darts between segments with Kay and past ones with her mother shortly before her death. There are things to accomplish and puzzles to solve, but they never distract too much from the story.

The flow of information is so constant and clear that you forget just how complicated the mystery really is, and the lack of any sort of massive puzzle or mechanical showcase just makes the game stronger on the whole, never distracting you to make it feel like a big adventure. The feeling of adventure comes from entirely how wild the story gets and where it goes, something it feels like this medium has become scared of in order to give players value for their dollar and measuring in time played.

The game is simply confident. It is confident in the out there ideas it throws at you alongside details taken directly from reality. A major plot point relating to a refinery explosion is based on a real one at a Shell refinery in the area’s history, and the mother’s friend, Duck, is based on an actual resident named Stacey Ryan. Like Duck, he was a final holdout on a real estate buy out, with a full documentary made about his story. Even the more outlandish ideas have some clear real world connection, like an app that pays in cryptocurrency (the outlandish part is when you find the one that runs the app), or that cult we mentioned having some similarities with the following of Elon Musk and similar tech grifters that promise the stars instead of actually doing anything for the world we live on.

It is an interesting mix of outsider artists doing something unique, but still with some solid understanding of game design. Chapters are well divided and knowing what to do is always clear. There are a variety of angles in the case to look into at any time. Party members come and go in natural ways that blend well with the story focus, and often have surprising facets to them that can come into play with how the chapter progresses. You’re often rewarded for experimenting with phone apps in puzzles, usually in more goofs. This is a proper game, just one that knows when to bow out, a rather rare trait these days.

It’s…refreshing. NORCO doesn’t feel quite like anything else, and also manages to convey something sadly resonate. It’s a game all about the rotting world, the destruction those higher than us bring about, how mundane it becomes, and how we react. Some people lose their minds, others try to keep going in their own ways. Everyone has a story of some sort, sometimes meaningful, sometimes just worth a laugh. Cancer drama and the hell of poverty are placed against LARPing teens doing bong hits in an abandoned mall and a man’s long story about the time he couldn’t find a bathroom (involved phone sex). NORCO is a game both tired and bitter, but also enjoying the moment, for as long as it lasts, showing people still finding something to live for even as things get worse and worse and out of their control.

Incredible sprite art, haunting sound design, and a story that can only really be described as “life.” NORCO is some of the best work on the indie scene right now, and while it is difficult to talk about plot details due to spoilers, make no mistake it has a tale unlike anything else out there. It’s a brilliant mixture of cyberpunk, politics, the world around us, and video game ass moments, and hopefully is a signal for more interesting work from this group.

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