I didn’t know a lot about the Norco game going into it. The main image on Steam shows a refinery burning off gas fumes in the middle of the night, which is exactly how the Blade Runner movie showed off its sci-fi dystopian landscape. Who knew that nighttime shots of refineries were the perfect way to portray man’s conquering of nature, and our displacement from it? Anyway, it was enough to hook me into giving it a try, and then Norco won me over with its unique take on what is essentially a point and click adventure game.
Getting hooked into the world of Norco is pretty easy if you are even remotely interested in the point and click adventure format. Had Norco come out 20 years ago, it would probably be up there with King’s Quest, Grim Fandango, Monkey Island and all of those other classic titles that set the stage for this genre. These days, it’s not easy for a point and click adventure to turn heads. There is too much competition, and many gamers have moved on to more advanced genres of games. But Norco provides a good reason to revisit the format as it delivers a rather unforgettable experience.
The game starts off strong by presenting a unique setting that I have not experienced in other titles. It’s set in Norco, Louisiana (which is a real city) in a not-so-distant future. But the future world where the game takes place is a strange one. Humans have advanced their technology forward in a lot of ways compared with today. For example, one of your companions in the game is an android that may have become sentient and has run away from its job as a security guard. Although the world is more technologically advanced, it’s also a much darker place in a lot of ways. In the introduction, we are told about a civil war going on in the United States although it seems to not have touched the city of Norco very much at all. This city does not need any more problems as it seems to be ruled by a soulless oil-drilling corporation (hence the refinery picture at the beginning) called Shield which is polluting the land and also forcing people to sell their homes as it expands.
Your character apparently did not want to get trapped in Norco and left the city for about five years. The character’s backstory as presented at the start of the game shows all the crazy things they got into over that time (it is here that we learn about the civil war). It gives the impression that the character would have stayed away, only they were called back by their brother because their mother is sick and dying of cancer. The main character arrives back home too late as their mother has already passed. But more disturbing is the fact that the character’s brother is missing too.
Eventually, you will learn that the character’s mother was working on something big that Shield either didn’t like or wanted to get for themselves. It’s up to you as the main character to try and find out what that was, while also looking for your missing brother. You do this by journeying from scene to scene around Norco, solving light puzzles, and talking with lots of strange characters. Some of them will even join you as you travel, like the aforementioned android, and you can sometimes ask them for help if you get stuck.
The world of Norco is bizarre. It’s not quite as strange as Disco Elysium, but similar in a lot of ways. However, the strangeness is a little bit more subtle in Norco. There are all these strange things happening all around town, but everyone just kind of accepts them as normal which only adds to atmosphere of the game. It’s actually difficult to describe the game’s setting. It’s cyberpunk in a way, but also has a swamp gothic aesthetic (if there is such a thing). It also very much leans into its southern roots, with lots of cultural references and talk of real places that exist in the deep south.
Graphically, Norco uses pixel art, but this is some of the best pixel art that I have ever seen. At times the game looks almost high-resolution. There is even a CRT monitor filter that you can apply to the game which adds scan lines for that extra-realistic old-time feel. The sound is also top notch. There are atmospheric sounds recorded in the field by sound artist fmAura. The soundtrack features a post-industrial electronic score from Gewgawly I.
There is not too much negative to say about Norco. Most of the puzzles are pretty interesting. For example, if a bully demands that you (as the character) give him some illegal drugs that your missing brother used to sell to him before he will let you pass into a critical area, you can backtrack to your house and grab some of your mom’s leftover cancer pills. He will never know the difference. There are, however, some arcade-like puzzles and even combat that might give some players difficulty. These involve hitting a circle at just the right time to score a hit or following a pattern of blinking symbols and trying to recreate the pattern like the old Simon game. These sequences are currently not skippable (the developer says they will do something about them eventually), so if you are bad at those kinds of quick, coordinated movements, then you might be out of luck in places.
Norco is a perfect example of how an indie game developer can surprise players with a unique gaming experience. Not every title needs to be backed by a AAA publisher or studio to make a difference. By leaning into good storytelling, world-building and through making the most of the pixel art (and really pushing those limits), developer Geography of Robots has created a memorable game and experience that players can enjoy for under $20 which is a very good deal.