What a resurgence the graphic adventure has had in 2022. The poster child for that resurgence is undoubtedly The Return to Monkey Island, being a game full of returns: whether that’s Guybrush Threepwood or Ron Gilbert. But, for a genre that was supposedly dead or dying, it’s been pumping out titles that could justifiably land on any end of year list. Aside from Return to Monkey Island, there’s been Pentiment, Perfect Tides, The Case of the Golden Idol and, right at the end of the year, NORCO.
At the risk of sounding like a damn hippy, NORCO is a vibe. It’s one of those games that will suits a review, particularly a written one, as the majority of what makes it remarkable is in its texture. You have to wade through its sludge, be exposed to its wild, dreamlike structure, and contend with its wayward logic. That’s the only way it will make sense. Skip the review if you fancy: it’s a 4.5/5, and every bit the recommendation. Go play. Be exposed to it.
Still here? Well, we should probably try to bottle the genie. What makes NORCO NORCO is its setting, story and characters. We are in a version of South Louisiana that feels like it’s going to sink into the bayou at any moment. Persistent flooding and disasters by way of Shield, the local oil company, have made the area unliveable, but locals haven’t given up on living there. They have stubbornly remained in their sinking houses, holding onto their sense of humour like it’s a perch.
The sense that humanity is sinking pervades NORCO. Half of the people you meet are trying to rise above it – some emphatically, by building themselves a spaceship – while others are content to wallow in it. But what’s common across all of them is a sense that they’re being distorted, likely from one of the area’s many pollutants. Some are visibly rotting away, others are mutating into terrible shapes (a fleshy totem called Superduck needs to be seen to be believed), while others are affected mentally. As you’d expect from the description, they are a wild bunch that wouldn’t be out of place skulking out William S Burroughs’ or Franz Kafka’s imagination.
There is a personal journey to hang onto through this fever dream. You swap between two characters as you play NORCO. The first is Kay, a runaway from South Louisiana, who wisely left to pursue, well, anything other than South Louisiana. But by running away, she left behind her mother, who was already succumbing to cancer when she left, and her good-for-nothing brother, who wasn’t fit to look after her. The second character is Catherine, the cancer-ridden mother. Her story takes place weeks before the arrival of Kay, as Catherine tries to make enough money to survive, all while holding onto some secrets about Shield, the faceless corporation of the town.
Kay’s story is the heart of NORCO, and it’s simple, at least on the face of it. Her brother, Blake, has gone missing, and Kay wants to get him back. But in NORCO nothing is simple, and his disappearance seems to be wrapped up in a nearby cult, a folk-prophecy that centres on the family, and a conspiracy that may well involve aliens.
In gameplay terms, NORCO is, in very vague, hand-wavey terms, a point-and-click adventure. You can’t see your character, so it’s not a point-and-click in the Monkey Island sense. Instead, you’re presented with rooms and scenes, and you get to move your finger-cursor over them in the hunt for areas of interest. No more than two contextual actions are available, and they tend to be an eye – to look at something – and a hand to show that you can fiddle with it.
But NORCO has fun with the simplicity. There is a fantastic memory mechanic at play. When you talk to characters or investigate journals, you begin to accumulate memories. You can access your memory map at any point, visualised as a series of diamonds. But more than just being an archive of everything you’ve found (and therefore being a good prompt if you’re lost), it allows Kay to separate herself from you, the player, and recall what she remembers about all the characters and events.
It’s all kinds of masterful. Whenever you play a narrative adventure, the game will swing to two extremes. Either the main character will be an empty vessel, an amnesiac, and you have to ignore the fact that they know bugger all, or they will be Threepwood, continuously carping on about stuff whether you like it or not. Here, you can talk to Kay almost like another character, and her memory of stuff can be the trigger to the next section of the game. It makes Kay a living breathing character, but not in a way that gifts you the answers.
Although NORCO does still feel oddly conservative in the way it deals with friction. It never wants you to get stuck, and deeply wants you to be progressing at all times. But it gets hasty sometimes, handing overly obvious hints when we didn’t want them, thank you very much. In one sequence, we needed a code to activate something. We then came across a corpse with the code written on it, which was enough of a wink-and-a-nudge that we let out a sigh. Then one of our companions piped up, saying that the number must be the code. No shit, sherlock. There are a few examples of these moments, when we’d have appreciated the hand letting go of us.
Interactivity is the bane of a point-and-click adventure. Often, it’s easy to label them as cinematic and lacking gameplay. So NORCO makes some overtures to including gameplay moments, and they’re a deeply mixed bag. There’s some combat, which looks like it might take the form of JRPG-style turn-based battling, but actually becomes a memory game and a rhythm action thing. While NORCO plays with the formula, subverting it where it can, there’s no getting round them both being a tad pants. The rhythm action stuff is counter-intuitive, never quite feeling like you’re tapping when the game wants you to, and the memory stuff is ridiculously basic. It’s just Simple Simon.
Luckily, you can ignore it. It’s trivially easy and pops up rarely enough that you can, at least momentarily, forget about it. Because NORCO soars when you’re talking, exploring and solving problems through, well, talking and exploring. NORCO has a superb knack for constructing completely illogical scenarios with logical solutions. Need to infiltrate a cult? You’ll need the cult’s augmented reality app. Need to get through their defences? You’ll need to convince a leader that the cult members are all off playing video games and taking drugs when they should be living an ascetic life. Nothing and everything makes sense, and that’s NORCO.
We felt a film of grime developing on us as we played. NORCO’s world is decaying and warping, but we couldn’t help but sift through it, looking for the next hideous artefact in the sludge. This is a hypnotising point-and-click adventure, full of unforgettable characters, moments and puzzles and we suspect that much of it’s going to haunt our subconscious for longer than we’d care for.
You can buy NORCO from the Xbox Store