As darkness closes in on a grimy, rainy city in the 30’s, a lonely trench coat paces across the street. Cigarette smoke escapes the wearer’s tight lips into the night sky. This is the first, and defining, image presented when you load up Calvino Noir, a stealth and strategy game with a piercing noir style and point and click controls.
The aesthetic design of this game stands out heroically. Combining crisp, clean artwork with eerily concise sound effects, the game plays like a work of art that just keeps giving. Playing as Wilt, a despondent “scrambler” with no hope and nothing to lose, Calvino Noir takes you into the 30’s underworld of stolen government documents, corrupt politicians, and flashlight wielding guards. Through seven levels divided into three acts, you rely on your cunning and develop tactics to sneak through beautifully designed labyrinths of buildings, collecting information to save your companions and unravel the mysteries of the city. The ability to switch out to other characters with different abilities, such as Siska who can pick locks, and Arno who can operate machinery adds an entertaining dynamic to the strategical elements of the game.
The plot is a simple relay of quests as characters and broken elevator shafts that stand between you and the truth send you out into the night in search of fake passports and incriminating files. Set up as a ‘doll’s house’ type arrangement, the game truly scores best in its graphical prowess. The architecture provides the game with both the foundations for some dynamic strategical decision making, as well as gifting the player a beautiful playing experience.
Dripping in film noir atmosphere – from lightning flashes to heavy use of shadow and intriguing manipulation of light and dark – the essentially black and white locations scream creative finesse. Characters appear as small figures against a vast backdrop which distances the player but maintains the minimalist, silhouette style of the game. It also encourages a focus on the wider narrative of events such as the location of each character as well as that of guards. The world operates on a horizontal plane, though it only struck me about three chapters in that it follows the same mechanics as a platform game purely because the backdrops are so engaging and the content feels so matured.
The audio also accounts for much of this atmosphere, with small but incisive features that dramatically change the feel of the gameplay. Outside, pummelling rain pervades but as soon as you cross the threshold into a building, the echoes of footsteps and the muted rain sounds from outside instantly create a completely different mood. The voice acting leaves something to be desired and often comes across as extremely cliche however the dialogue itself, including that of the unknown narrator, is well written and provides a chuckle every now and then. A word has to be said about Siska’s constant mantras that seem to ring out every time you swap into her character and become extremely annoying during gameplay however.
Calvino Noir definitely excels in its artistic presentation. Gameplay itself is fraught with strategical thinking; it is extremely engaging to spend time considering which characters to put where, who to take down to the basement and who to leave upstairs in the safety of the shadows. The time you take deciding whether to take Siska in before Wilt to unlock all the doors, or whether to take out all the guards before bringing other characters into play is testament to how much of this game takes place inside the imagination of the player. The detailed, Watchmen-esque prose of the narrator is often the driving force behind the plot and descriptive information meaning the game plays like a story with an artistic backdrop to ground it.
This is particularly evident in the gameplay style, the point and click mechanics. This is where the game falls somewhat short. Playing on PC, the point and click can often make a player weary and resent their mousepad. Point and click mechanics that don’t always work, and don’t always work on time can be extremely frustrating. Unfortunately this is sometimes the case with Calvino Noir. In a stealth and strategy game, it is extremely important that the player’s commands to the character are executed quickly; moving from a hiding position to an attack, the response needs to be snappy. This is why it is especially aggravating when characters often stall, taking a couple of random steps to nowhere, for a few seconds before coming out of a hiding spot, or when the point and click simply stops working during particular sections of gameplay.
Overall, even though Calvino Noir stutters in some aspects of gameplay and the point and click controls are not best suited to PC gaming, its artistic merits shine through. The overall style and presentation provides a captivating landscape for some dynamic strategical elements. While some dodgy voice acting and frustratingly frequent snags in gameplay detract from this, they are by no means a deal breaker and are often glazed over by the impressive aesthetic polish that seems to glean from this title.
Fun to play, better to watch
Gameplay - 5/10
Plot - 6/10
Design - 10/10
Calvino Noir plays like a smooth gin and a cigarette with some velvety jazz in the background, set a world of fedoras and expensive suits.