NORCO review - A surreal-yet-real dystopia

Welcome to Norco, Louisiana (Screenshot from NORCO)
Welcome to Norco, Louisiana (Screenshot from NORCO)

At first glance, NORCO is one of those games that might look like any other retro-inspired offerings that crowd the indie gaming scene these days. But make no mistake - this is something much more than that.

Developer Geography of Robots has fashioned an experience that's peculiar yet immersive. It's admittedly a journey that's not for everyone, considering that point-and-click games are a dying breed.

However, those who manage to devote themselves to this "Southern Gothic" adventure will find themselves hooked on some of the most well-written and presented gaming content this year. Here's why it's worth a pickup, even if you're not a fan of dialogue or puzzles.


NORCO is a future that's not unlike ours

Eerie but somehow calming (Screenshot from NORCO)
Eerie but somehow calming (Screenshot from NORCO)

NORCO's story occurs in a dystopian semi-futuristic rendition of well, Norco, Louisiana. Players take on the role of Kay, a young girl arriving home from a trip across the states only to find tragedy has struck. Her mother Catherine passed away, leaving behind her son (and Kay's brother) Blake and their housekeeper Android Million to keep things running.

Although the brother is missing too, Kay had to track him down. Additionally, players will also control Catherine throughout sections from the past when she was still alive - she too plays a crucial role in the overarching narrative.

What follows is not just an adventurous tale - but a thoughtful, solemn trip down the harsh reality of life. Most residents of this quaint city are just people living their lives.

Or at least trying to, in the face of adversity like poverty, discrimination, substance abuse, etc. Unfortunately, something more sinister is brewing behind the walls of this oil-refinery smoke-laden place that's also home to a megacorporation called SHIELD.


Time to get clicking

There's a handful of areas to explore in each locale (Screenshot from NORCO)
There's a handful of areas to explore in each locale (Screenshot from NORCO)

Gameplay is traditional: players can move between screens by clicking on highlighted sections and performing contextual action. This way, you can talk to non-playable characters (NPCs), observe elements in the environment and interact with objects.

Conversing with NPCs provides dialog options, leading to providing more info on that subject. Sometimes these details can be crucial to knowing what's to be done next or shed light on the world's lore.

The Mind Map is home to any and all information deemed important by Kay (Screenshot from NORCO)
The Mind Map is home to any and all information deemed important by Kay (Screenshot from NORCO)

Learned information is added to the Mind Map, a collection of intertwining thoughts and memories. Going through the works and connecting these dots can reveal new conclusions too.

There is also a small map at the bottom of the screen, which easily allows traveling between areas (like indoors and outdoors). But overall, NORCO goes beyond the steps of a normal point-and-click by having Quick Time Events (QTEs) and minigames in addition to puzzles.

These QTEs can be pattern memorization or demand quick inputs. The minigames involve maneuvering a boat during a side-section or some logical puzzle. They're all decently designed. And speaking of puzzles:

NORCO's plot is linear, so players will need to perform a series of tasks to proceed. This can include finding a specific person, doing something for them (like bringing them an item), or just small puzzles.

The latter includes manipulating items for progression, like finding, then clicking-and-dragging over dog food to lure a dog—even the occasional combat, which is turn-based and utilizes QTEs for inputs.


Is this all a dream?

The game's vivid artwork and imagery is almost hypnotizing (Screenshot from NORCO)
The game's vivid artwork and imagery is almost hypnotizing (Screenshot from NORCO)

If all of this sounds surreal, it's because it is. While the game's setting might not look ordinary at first, there will be times when the game sprinkles in some creepy vibes and imagery, like a puppet show with a talking alligator that asks the player to seek revenge by killing a fisherman.

The dialogue is well written and descriptive yet also humorous when it needs to be. It is represented in gritty yet colorful pixel art, which looks like a watercolor painting. Heavy hopelessness hangs about in Norco's atmosphere and permeates its citizens.

On that note, the cast of the game is relatively varied. From the reclusive oil-pirate Lucky to the uncouth detective LeBlanc, they're fleshed out well throughout the game's half-a-dozen hour-long stories.

The game's NPCs help set up the downtrodden and hopeless tone (Screenshot from NORCO)
The game's NPCs help set up the downtrodden and hopeless tone (Screenshot from NORCO)

Since the game is so heavily narrative-driven, I won't spoil anything further. However, it is steeped in conspiracies, superstition, and the effects of corporate greed on nature and its people.

The writing often comes off as poetic and philosophical, although the game does inject a dose of modernity with the occasional texts depicting internet meme language. Taken as a whole package, it's quite reminiscent of Disco Elysium, particularly with the inner monologues.


Drawbacks

There's not much to complain about NORCO, given its simple nature. Sure, some of the audio can consist of annoying sounds that grate after a while (like honking in the Eagle Warehouse entryway). But it's just a pet peeve.

The minigames can be jarring, though, given how drastically different they are in execution, but thankfully they're few and far between. The game also has multiple save slots to save progress.

However, I noticed that none of them show the timing for when each save was created. This adds some frustration when both your save slots offer the same character portraits, and you end up loading the wrong one.


Graphics, performance and audio

Given that it is a simple point & click, anything made in the past decade should run NORCO well. The graphics options are pretty much non-existent, apart from the variety of resolution options to pick from. Players can also adjust the text spacing and font as desired. However, there is a scanline filter for your old-school needs.

On the audio side, the game does a decent job with it. There are some catchy tunes here and there, but certain areas can be devoid of music altogether. It's just the lone pixel art accompanying the player.


In Conclusion

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NORCO's flaws are minor compared to an otherwise gripping narrative at the end of the day. It quietly nudges the player down an uneasy tale that feels all too real despite being set in an era of security drones and sentient AIs.

At every turn, it's evident that there's something wrong going on here, but you can't pinpoint it. Not at the start anyway, because the game eventually opens up, taking sharp turns into a sci-fi mystery bound to keep you on the edge of your seat.

But even when the game is flowing through more slow-whirring segments, it never lets go of the player's arm, thanks to a down-to-earth setting and relatable characters. For a debut project, the team at Geography of Robots has done a marvelous job.

NORCO is one of the few games that showcases a humble depiction of humanity's future. And thanks to this modesty, it can tell a tale that's one hundred percent human in its most authentic moments and yet unsettling to the core.


NORCO

Final verdict (Image via Sportskeeda)
Final verdict (Image via Sportskeeda)

Reviewed on: PC

Platform(s): Windows (Steam, Xbox Store, itch.io)

Developer(s): Geography of Robots

Publisher(s): Raw Fury

Release Date: March 24, 2022