Developer: Geography of Robots
Despite having a lot of great game on my backlog, I've been itching to try out more games released this year. We're already halfway through the year and I don't have a lot of games I that stand out to me from 2022. I figured this was a good reason to jump back on PC Game Pass and try out some of these fresh titles. First on my list was NORCO, as I've heard a lot of recommendations for it. NORCO is a point-and-click adventure about coming home to a dystopian Louisiana town, finding your brother, and figuring out the mystery your mother left behind. NORCO is incredibly raw, real, and bizarre at the same time; its storytelling and gameplay are incredibly well connected and its journey takes you through every emotion.
You play as Kay, a woman who grew up in Norco, Louisiana but has since left to travel around the US. Norco is an industrial swampland, with refineries right next to crumbling homes. The refineries are operated by Shield, a giant oil company that has control over much of the city. Despite her plans to never return to Norco, Kay receives news that her mother has passed away from cancer and finally returns to her hometown. You start the game at your childhood home, exploring the memories scattered about. You try to find your brother Blake who still lives here, but he's nowhere to be found. While looking for him, you start to discover that your mother, Catherine, left behind a trail of mystery for you to uncover. You get to play through not only Kay's perspective, but also Catherine's from before her death. During her final weeks, Catherine spent time uploading her memories to a "headdrive", doing odd jobs through an app, trying to infiltrate a cult set up in a mall, and seeing a strange orb of light float around the swamp lands. You'll travel around the region as both Kay and Catherine, visiting areas from the French Quarter to a Shield refinery.
NORCO has a gorgeous, detailed pixel art style that drew me in right away. The game actually gives you an option to turn on a CRT filter that gives the game a more retro feel. I initially had it off as if it felt a little distracting, but once I switched to playing on my TV I found it actually made the game look a little better from a distance. It may be hard to tell from the small images below, but you can compare two screenshots I took in similar scenes. Whichever way you choose, the environments and skylines are absolutely majestic. NORCO takes a polluted, burning sky and makes it a melancholy and beautiful background. The music is a fitting industrial electronic soundtrack that feels both gritty and mysterious, with some distorted-sounding metal tracks. The soundtrack is a collaboration between South Louisiana artists and it's awesome to hear the authentic music actually created by members of this region specifically for this game.
The image on the left has no CRT filter, the image on the right has CRT filter on.
When I first heard about NORCO, it was being compared to Kentucky Route Zero. This worried me a bit as I had a mixed experience with KRZ. However, I think the games' similarities mostly lie in the "magical realism" they both tell stories within - this, to me, means mostly that they both are based in reality but with surreal and dystopian elements. NORCO is set in a real location and is based heavily on real dystopian problems in that region, but it also tells its story through magical, sci-fi events. Shield's refineries in the region are not only destroying the swampland, but also killing people through sickness and contamination. It's a place that feels forgotten and abandoned by the rest of the country. In some ways, NORCO even reminds me of Disco Elysium. The dialogue choices as well as the "think trees" that allow you to think about topics independently are similar in the two. Also, they both have an incredible sense of humor and goofiness despite the grim nature of their environments.
What really stands out to me about NORCO was that it actually integrated very interesting and captivating gameplay into its point-and-click story. It could've suffered from the same issues of too much dialogue as some similar games have, but instead it keeps you engaged by solving puzzles, using tools, and quickly reacting in occasional fight sequences. It's very descriptive in its language, but it doesn't overwhelm you with metaphorical and symbolic statements - it gets to the point. Often times I had to retrace my steps in order to figure out what details I might've missed, and even had to write down clues for myself for later. In certain parts of the game, it costs money to travel from one part of the map to another so you have to savvy about how you move around. The game also makes you pay close attention to dialogue, as you'll sometimes need to use that specific bit of dialogue for a quest.
NORCO is very likely one of my favorite games this year. It's unlike anything else I've played - the ending both made me incredibly emotional and very bewildered at the same time. It's full of surprises as well as characters that feel multi-dimensional. It may be about one specific location, but it shines a great light on the entire issue of environmental justice in the United States and how companies have and will continue to use deeply ingrained systems of oppression to profit at the expense of the people who are most vulnerable. I'd recommend this game to anyone interested in puzzle-solving mysteries and dystopian worlds, but it's a game I really think everyone should play. I love to see a clever use of games as a medium make a unique and resonant story into an experience.
NORCO is available on PC
Played on: PC
Playtime: 8 hrs