Beads of sweat raced down like skiers off a lift, tripping up on the unkempt cactus field along my jaw. It was a hot summer day. People streamed in and out of this place letting in gusts of the Sahara in with them. Those that came in looked like miserable ghouls, eyes squeezed shut from the bright sun, a cocktail of tears and salt stabbing at their eyes. There appeared to be commotion in a dimly lit far corner of the room. For a moment the air hung motionless and still like polished glass, even the foggy collaboration of cigarette ash and dust seemed to hover undecided between the lights and the chairs. Eyes and heads turns ever so slowly. It was nothing, just woman laughing and cackling with her companion, the muffled sounds of conversations crashing headlong once again. It was then my partner Zach clasped my shoulder firmly.”I got something for ya” he said, while motioning to the bartender for his usual concoction.
“What is it?” glancing down I was expecting to be washed away in river of my own perspiration, instead it was two measly drops and a piece of paper with numbers and letters.
This isn’t just a game. This is a tuxedo with a glass of Johnnie Walker Blue, in a tumbler, neat.
“It’s a Steam key, something special, very special… listen I don’t expect I’ll be hearing from you for the next few days, see ya’ around.” With that the dark somber figure, who was my friend, was gone. And, despite the posted notice that alcohol could not leave the building, his drink left with him.
Why am I talking this way? Maybe it’s because Calvino Noir is a blast of Casablanca and The Third Man rolled into a one PC game in classic story of its own? Could be because while playing this game all the visual elements and audio work swept me back to a unique era where Noir exists and lives on forever? Perhaps its the astounding writing and voice acting that scream of the detailed work and love that went into this game? Or maybe, just maybe, all three possibilities are true, and this game is special.
This isn’t just a game. This is a tuxedo with a glass of Johnnie Walker Blue, in a tumbler, neat. This is jazz, not elevator jazz, but smoke and silhouette filled dusty wooden floor-jazz. This game is as classy at is it is drawn from classics. Calvino Noir is part casual stealth, mixed with adventure, wrapped in fine silky architecture, and dripping in atmosphere. It is the kind of game you want to pause and appreciate each moment for the poetry it invokes.
Let me just clarify, this game is not perfect, it has flaws. The most pronounced flaw is the gamepad compatibility and control. It mentions full controller support, but I fought to get my controller to work properly for far too long. Enemy soldiers have really keen hearing, they’ll hear you running from a mile away, this can make sneaking the non-combative characters you control, past guards, rather bothersome. This game has no options menu, what is this 1935? Oh wait…anyway, these are some minor blemishes on a rather spotless suit of armor. I once found an NPC character out of place stuck in a wall; it really didn’t matter in the end.
As far as what Calvino Noir does right: that’s a much longer list.
You play Wilt, a post Great War era Englishman, who’s essentially exiled in Vienna. His view of the city is cynical and gritty, his voice over as well as the narration of the game wonderfully done and spot on. Even his character photo on the top is eerily reminiscent of Mr. Bogart. You immediately begin by entering the bar, and getting into a jab-filled conversation with the bartender before heading up to your room and answering the phone. Your first conversation choice is a direct quote from Casablanca “of all the gin joints in all the world.” You are introduced to Siska, who explains she is trying to get evidence on a corrupt government official, she hires you a “scrambler”, someone willing ignore the law to get what is needed to complete the job. As the story unfolds other characters are introduced into the mix; a shifty mousy gentleman nicknamed ‘the Mole.’ An older mechanical genius names Arno, who knew Wilt during the Great War. “Tell me again I why I didn’t shoot you?” is what Arno says when he agrees to help Wilt. The center stage is always around Wilt, but as the game’s story progresses, more details and backstories are provided that deepen everyone further. So much so I found myself in eager anticipation as to what the next chapter would bring. The unique friendships and alliances that formed between the characters had an interesting take as Wilt and Arno for example, met during the Great War despite being on opposite sides of the trenches.
Architecture and Great Depression era French decor are a large influence on Calvino Noir. As per Wired, the game’s creator, Dan Walters, was once an architect. His level designer still is an architect. These levels and areas are full of detail. From the period wallpapers to the banister and chandeliers, the attention is impressive and exact. Everything is meticulously created to give authenticity and feel to every moment of the game. I found myself walking into every single room just to enjoy the moving artistic masterpiece that is Calvino Noir. The level designs are authentic, they spare no detail. Smoke and fog effects roll through crowded jazz rooms overhead, or mingle in the streets with the cascading sheets of rain. Lightning lights up interior rooms with a nice effect, or illuminate the entire street with a big flash. Guards patrol hallways, and their flashlights cast shadows amazingly well, including shadows of ornate banisters, and trinkets decorating a desk. Everything is laid out to create the perfect atmosphere for this noir tale. Musically, there is always a solemn jazz brewing in the background, it elevates for dramatic moments or skids into higher gear for escapes. There may not be enough there for a standalone soundtrack, but what is there complements the game perfectly.
Inside this digital art masterpiece lies simple but solid gameplay, that mirrors the slower methodical pacing of the game. Guards patrol key areas with flashlights, if the flashlight sees you, they will walk over to investigate. Running causes a noticeable clatter on the wooden floors. Knock a guard out, and have it spotted by others, and these guards will be alerted and looking for you for an extended period of time. The AI is not out of this world but it is effective. Fortunately, you rarely have to act alone. As the game progresses you can play as Wilt, Arno, The Mole, and others. Each character has their own ability. Arno can manage and interact with machinery. The Mole being a government employee can walk by guards without alerting them, making him the perfect scout. Managing two or three characters becomes key to solving some of the games guarded locations. Distracting and confusing guards to sneak your companions by, while simple in execution, is accentuated by the fantastic lighting and locations. At times I found myself getting extra creative controlling multiple characters. I would run one character around creating noises to entice a few guards to come towards a hidden Wilt, then expertly dash him away. I would then swiftly have Wilt knock them all out from discreet hiding spots. I am usually not one to easter egg hunt every single treasure for completionist goals, but I found myself joyously exploring every single room, even though I fully knew they had nothing to do with the ongoing main story.
Voice talent is superlative in this game and pushes the gritty hardboiled noir style into sublime levels. I felt as if prior to making this game, the developers and actors really studied, or were already a fan of, many of the classic names and films of this era. Playing this I felt as I was amongst like minded fans with the game’s creators. These old souls have brought to life a wonderful experience drowing in magnificent little details. I genuinely felt pangs of sadness during some of the scenes of loss. Without giving too much away, losing one or two characters even for an act, impacted gameplay noticeably, I actually missed them for more than one reason.
So what is Calvino Noir? It’s part film, part noir detective crime novel, part video game. It’s a moving homage to an great style of storytelling and executed to near perfection. I stress near, as there were some issues. While mouse and keyboard were great, issues with the controller are a disappointment. Other quirks, no option screens, casual play, perhaps short game length, are mere minor complaints when compared to the oveall enjoyment I gained from this game. This game embues and captures an era of films and novels perfectly. Recommended for fans of noir, good stories and stylish presentation.
UPDATE: Shortly after releasing the review, the official game released on Steam, it already game with a couple of updates, one an option menu for windowed gaming and improved controller support.