norco review

Review

NORCO Review

April 15, 2022

By: Andrew Otton

 
 
More Info About This Game
Publisher
Raw Fury
Platforms
PC
Release Date
March 24,2022 (Calendar)
Purchase (Some links may be affiliated)

Any story that reaches for the fantastical has the added difficulty of balancing the unbelievable with our own understood reality. After all, we have to relate to it in some way, right? NORCO does an incredible job of creating a grounded, realistic, modern world and story with just enough of a sci-fi flourish to accentuate its themes. 

Set in what is more or less a modern-day Norco, Louisiana (just outside of New Orleans), you take on the role of Kay. Kay is just returning home from life as a bit of a drifter, participating in the skirmishes of a world in conflict, riding the rails, and traveling the United States. Immediately upon returning, Kay discovers her mother was investigating some really strange things around town, and her brother has seemingly gone missing.

 

norco review town
I am sure this scene is a perfect encapsulation of Norco and many small rural towns in the U.S. The convenience store is THE place to go for a lot of them.

Life in Norco is suitably sci-fi dystopian, which is troublingly close to our own modern-day. It's small town, Rural America with shuttered businesses, high poverty, crumbling infrastructure, and no real prospects. Everyone works for the nearby industrial plant, which seems to be as dangerous as PG&E was to the town of Hinkley, California -- just with no Erin Brokovich in sight to set things right.

Writer and developer Yuts deserves immense praise for bringing Norco to life. The careful selection of locales and how they're presented does such a great job of feeling relatable that I was immediately sucked into the game. Maybe it's because I come from a small coastal town (very far away), but the general vibe is so perfect I feel like I have my own distinct memories of visiting at some point in my past.

 
 

Sci-fi has a tendency to tell a dystopian story of the evil of corporations, the inhumane price we sometimes pay for "progress," and all sorts of other horrors humans inflict on each other en masse. NORCO isn't about the grandiose, though that does not make it any less profound. It is intimate storytelling about what makes people who they are, how they try to escape their reality, and coming to terms (or not) with hard truths. 

NORCO's story switches between Kay and her mother Catherine, telling two stories that take place weeks apart from one another as we get to know what Catherine was up to until her death. It's noir with a satisfying hook that sees you in a bunch of interesting locales, each of which has their own story to tell if you just take a look at what's on the screen.

 
 
norco review dialogue
Some of the amazing dialogue you will be graced with during your time with NORCO.

While the mystery is the main driver of the plot, the real meat of the game comes from the interactions with the various characters along the way. Many characters serve to offer incisive looks into the problems of modern day life, like people supplementing their income with gig work or the depressing determinism that seems to be associated with never leaving the small town you grew up in. 

I don't want to give the impression that NORCO is just some big bummer, because it has some of the most entertaining writing you'll find in any medium. The game is full of caricatures of real people that are impossible to not relate to your own life. The delusional, the nutty, the downright weird, the apathetic, and more are all just as well-represented here as the sobering truths of how so many of us live life.

Every bit of dialogue is given the proper care, meaning every person is worth talking to. You'll definitely get into some unrelated dialogues that have absolutely nothing to do with the story, but they are all worth it. For example, when you do play the game, you'll run across a guy who is hungry. Have him eat some hot dogs and keep an eye out for him later in the story. When he asks you if you want to hear more of what happened to him, say yes every time. You won't regret it.

norco review point and click
Make sure to take note of what's on the screen, as you may need to pick something up from an earlier scene once you realize you need it.

In true point and click tradition, there are not a lot of mechanics to engage with. From a very simple inventory system to some basic QTEs, that's about all you'll find. Nothing will be tricky, and there are no puzzles or moments that act as big enough gates to bar anyone's progress.

 
 

While getting through the game is often just going through the motions, there are definitely some side things you can do and items you can miss if you're not thinking or paying attention. There are some problems you'll come across you can solve that will definitely be rewarded, but NORCO has no quest log to tell you what they may be. Because of just how engaging the game is in its writing, as long as you're paying attention, you'll come across the neat stuff on the side.

One thing that helps you keep everything straight, at least on Kay's side of the story, is the mindmap. This is like a more intuitive and far more interesting journal system you can continually refer to as the story progresses. It keeps all the new story developments and facts you've learned in one place.

The mindmap is a series of pictures representing people or places all connected together. You can interact with each one, which summarizes the pertinent information relevant to it. It's not long biographies of characters mind you, but things like "someone said your brother may be at the tavern." 

While I think it's a far more interesting and engaging form of some sort of journal in games, it's very sterile. When I hear mindmap, I'm thinking "this is how this character perceives things." This points to the one thing that felt lacking in NORCO, the main character of Kay.

norco review mindmap
The mindmap keeps things straight and is great at distilling long conversations to just the important pieces of new information you learned.

Just as the mindmap feels like a missed opportunity to lend some characterization to Kay by flavoring it with their perception, that is true largely for the rest of the game as well. Other than an obvious sense of individuality and confidence tied to the character, we don't learn much more.

This may be an attempt to let us the player put ourselves in Kay's shoes, but it never really felt like that. We don't see much of Kay's reaction or feelings about her mother's death or the insane things she finds out along the way. There's just a general sense of normal curiosity and family. 

Compared to the sections where you play as her mother Catherine, you get to see the baggage she carries with her in the way she interacts with people. She has a history and agenda, freely sharing her thoughts and feelings on various subjects, including people like Kay. 

NORCO deftly squeezes out so much characterization in just a little bit of dialogue and marries the people to its setting perfectly, which really made it feel as though things happened around Kay and not because of Kay, in a way. She could have been more of a profound force upon the story and exploration of its themes.

NORCO Review | Final Thoughts

NORCO is a brilliant game with an incredibly high level of craft, particularly with its writing. Its satire is clever, the mystery gripping, and the world is so well-realized I feel I have been to Norco. The classic point and click framework is used to perfection, combining its unique style and fantastic dialogue into a work of art. It is one of the most entertaining and thought-provoking games in years, and everyone should play it.


TechRaptor's NORCO review was conducted on PC via Xbox Game Pass.

Review Summary

Review Summary

9.5
NORCO is a brilliant game with an incredibly high level of craft, particularly with its writing. It is one of the most entertaining and thought-provoking games in years, and everyone should play it.

Pros

  • Incredible Characterization
  • Engrossing Plot
  • Living, Breathing World
  • Clever Satire and Fantastic Humor

Cons

  • Main Character Could Be Developed More