Diligent readers may remember that I quite liked the massive, free Japanese-style role-playing game Master of the Wind. Since it was completed, developers Solest have been working on two other games, the short puzzle game Labyrinthine Dreams (which recently had a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund an art overhaul), and the detective game X-Noir. X-Noir was announced first, and the news about Solest’s Kickstarter campaign reminded me to catch up on their catalog. So I decided to take X-Noir for a spin.
To be honest, I didn’t know X-Noir wasn’t complete until I downloaded it. It seems that Solest are taking the same approach they did with Master of the Wind, releasing the game in chapters and offering improvements to the whole with each new segment. The current demo contains the first three cases, which provide several solid hours of play and a good sense of how the full game will shape up.
X-Noir is still a Japanese-style role-playing game built in RPGMaker, but it’s an unusual one. Inspired by film noir, it’s set in a modern (or possibly near-future) city, rather than the more typical fantasy or science fiction settings. And right off the bat, players are introduced to the non-traditional combat system. There’s no separate screen for battles; instead, the player and his opponents position themselves in the standard overhead view and trade fire with their pistols, shotguns, or other firearms. This happens in real time, making the fights feel more like an action game than a RPG. When enemies are in range, an auto-target system keeps protagonist Eddie’s gun trained on the enemy even if Eddie moves sideways or backwards, letting him dodge fire while responding in kind. Different guns have different effective ranges, and some have a spread, able to hit multiple enemies even if they’re not directly in the line of fire.
There are, however, some problems with the combat, likely stemming from the limitations of the RPGMaker software. Movement is still done tile-by-tile, which feels clunky when trying to dodge and shoot multiple enemies. It’s entirely possible to fire at enemies through walls, and enemies often get stuck on the scenery. It’s also far too easy to dodge enemy attacks, since enemies take a long time to “aim” before firing. Guns must be reloaded once they’ve run out of ammo, but this happens automatically and barely slows one’s shooting, making it feel like a half-baked mechanic. Most of the time I was able to wade through hordes of enemies with ease, and it wasn’t until the third case, when I actually started to run low on ammo, that the fights got tense and interesting. Which leads me to the biggest problem with the combat: effortlessly shooting through packs of enemies just doesn’t feel right. The opening of the game asks players to believe that Eddie has never fired a gun before, but then he proceeds to shoot his way through a whole building of goons in order to confront a mob boss. This makes for a rather unbelievable opening, and the fact that shooting all those goons and then the mob boss himself was forgiven because Eddie found evidence of their crimes doesn’t help.
Fortunately, the non-combat sections of the game work much better. The game proper joins Eddie several years after the introductory sequence, now a suicidal alcoholic who is barely making ends meet as a private investigator. Naturally, he sports a hat and trenchcoat, and I was pleased to see his “hat” equipment slot, envisioning ever more stylish headgear that would improve Eddie’s sleuthing skills. Strangely, however, the hat slot remained empty for the entire demo, despite Eddie’s hat in his portrait, and it wasn’t actually possible to buy any hats in the hat store. Perhaps this is something that will be added later, or perhaps it’s a sly dig at a certain other popular game’s obsession with hats. Anyway, I was soon tasked with following leads and solving cases. While X-Noir presents a linear story, it gives the player free run of the entire city and allows the various leads to be tackled in any order. There are also interrogation sections, where the player must determine whether or not a person is lying as they answer questions. The correct choice can be made based on previous testimony, by looking for tells (necessarily crude ones, given the text-based dialogue) or simply on a hunch. Choosing incorrectly does not derail the investigation, but it does increase Eddie’s stress level (measured on a meter that is cleverly introduced during a session with Eddie’s therapist), which can eventually result in a panic attack if he doesn’t head home to relax or seek solace in booze. These parts of the game do an admirable job of creating the feel of solving a mystery, despite the linear nature of the tale.
The story itself quickly takes a turn into science fiction territory, which may bother players who are looking for a traditional noir narrative, but I admit I was intrigued to see where it all would lead. Solest’s political views are on display again as well, and may be harder to ignore this time around. In Master of the Wind, it’s possible to enjoy the game even if one does not entirely agree with the characters, but Eddie might be harder to sympathize with, especially during a scene in which he drunkenly rages against the rich. Then again, a noir story necessarily has a flawed hero at its center, who must win over the audience despite his or her faults, and that scene in particular serves as a reminder that despite his recent (player-driven) successes Eddie is still a depressed alcoholic. His character had already started to develop by the end of the demo, and I was genuinely interested to see what would happen to him.
Overall I found X-Noir to be an enjoyable game, but it remains to be seen how long Solest will take to finish it, especially with their focus shifted to their recent Kickstarter project. For those new to Solest’s work, I would recommend taking Master of the Wind for a spin first. X-Noir has some interesting ideas, however, and is worth a shot for those interested. The combat is functional despite its shortcomings, the writing is generally strong, and the investigations are well executed. And like Master of the Wind, X-Noir features an excellent selection of music from various sources; I especially enjoyed the themes for Eddie’s apartment and the city streets. Solest’s talent is evident, and I think the complete game will be something to look out for. Those interested in trying the demo out now can download it for free from Solest’s site.