NORCO is a point-and-click adventure with haunting pixel art and some of the best writing of 2022. Here’s our review…
After five years on the road, your rebellious runaway protagonist Kay returns to her oppressively bleak home following her mother’s death from cancer. It might sound like the start of a noughties contemplative tragicomedy and all the feelings of returning to small-town life, but that couldn’t be further from describing NORCO. It’s not even a town – the real place it’s based on in Louisiana has the depressing classification of a ‘census-designated place’, only this is set in a distant sci-fi future where memories are backed up on headsets while climate collapse and military juntas rage on in the background. It’s still a story about a family reunion, albeit that being the goal, as you’re trying to find your brother who went missing just before your arrival, which, in turn, has you investigating what your mother had been up to before her untimely demise.
It’s a journey that takes you through Norco’s run-down community and marshes in still life, its inhabitants rendered both abstract and unusual by the striking pixel art. But what really brings the place and people to life is the text, from the dreamlike poetry of the prose delivered in second-person to the distinct cadences of its characters with deeper dimensions than your average NPC, from fugitive androids to boozy detectives to a cult of young men dressed like store employees, embodying both online radicalisation and shopping mall capitalism. It’s all captured deftly by Geography of Robots’ writer and designer Yuts who also grew up in Norco, riding on the lineage of Southern Gothic style, though this game’s sense of magical realism also interweaves with cyberpunk, socio-political commentary, and a lengthy discussion about diarrhoea.
Which is to say that NORCO is far from the dour, serious narrative you might assume, shifting in tone as well as style. One particularly notable shift is when the game no longer has you merely speculating on what happened to Catherine, Kay’s mother, but instead puts you into her shoes a few weeks earlier. That change in perspective similarly comes with a change in mechanics as she makes use of her smartphone for her investigations, from an AR app belonging to a weird cult to using the voice recorder to record dialogue to use as evidence.
There’s little in the way of obtuse old-school point-and-click adventure puzzles – indeed some characters are perhaps too eager to provide hints – even though the moment-to-moment does feel more involved than, say, Kentucky Route Zero, as it playfully shifts with the form, including moments when you find yourself in an unlikely party-based RPG battle. I’m not entirely convinced its third act entirely works – certainly not if you were hoping for a tidy or upbeat conclusion. The journey in NORCO is fleeting, as if a dream, but what a journey it is, delivered with a sharp, distinct voice confronting the nightmares of our bleak future.
Although NORCO stands strong on its text alone, that doesn’t mean the gimmicks of minigames in-between don’t make for a welcome break for the eyes. Activities vary from manoeuvring a motorboat through the Louisiana bayous via a top-down map to a memory-based QTE-style combat system, which has hilarious results on a store owner’s cat you’re just initially trying to pet.