Norco Review – Soul Food

At the turn of the century, point-and-click games cemented the enormous potential for interactive storytelling, with innovative ambient/dialogue puzzles and evocative pixel art and chip music. Today, we’re lost in an impossibly large sandbox with an equally broad choice-driven plotline. So it’s fitting that Norco feels like a treasured relic from the golden age of Sierra-led digital adventure. The inaugural title of Robot Geography ponders the unbridled capitalism and classism of America’s often overlooked heartland of the Deep South. Plus, Norco’s retro-futuristic and web-art aesthetic is underpinned by some of the best surreal stories I’ve witnessed since Kentucky Route Zero.

Norco reimagined the estuary as a series of interconnected nodes on the map. I hopped around in many places, parsing historical manuscripts in rundown stores, buying dog food at convenience stores, fetching hallucinogens from filthy bathroom cubicles, and talking to townspeople. Each vignette is psychedelic – rivers glisten under treelines, half-lights cast long shadows on grass, and watercolor clouds form above empty highways. Norco’s text may suggest that the city is twisted and sickly, but it’s still beautiful.

Protagonist Kay is back, just as her titular Louisiana community is on the verge of being wiped out. Kay’s younger brother, Blake, was nowhere to be found, and her estranged mother, Katherine, recently died of cancer. In the months before her death, Katherine was researching a floating anomaly in a nearby lake, raising suspicions from the evil oil group Shield. As Kay, I wandered into a strange, modern Norco, hoping to find Blake and complete Katherine’s life work. Filled with delightful twists and terrifying realizations, Norco brought me face-to-face with fallen detectives and grotesque machines and many other weirdos. There’s a lot of dialogue and world-building, but the dreamy and philosophical quality of the prose makes every piece of text a pleasure to read.

On the rare occasion when I couldn’t keep up, I visited Kay’s “Mind Map,” a smart twist on the traditional quest journal where important objects, NPCs, and locations are linked. Here, I can recall important events and relationships for more detail, advance the plot, or recall secondary goals. Norco mainly touts puzzle-based gameplay, but don’t be fooled. The loop is full of its nuances. At one point, a multi-part task required me to use my phone camera to hover over the background to reveal invisible solutions, adding depth and wonder to the revisited area. If I hadn’t carefully explored the environment with the cursor, even subtly paralleling the mystical and unreal nature of the story, I might even have missed some of the peripheral puzzles.

One complaint I have with the Norco is its additional combat system. At times, Kay and her growing ranks of party members—for example, a stuffed monkey, a fleeing security robot, etc.—run into invaders. Attacks are mini-games, from duplicating on-screen patterns to tapping on enemy weak spots at time intervals. I quickly got tired of these redundant encounters. In a game full of unique design choices, combat pales in comparison, and I’m relieved that there are only a handful of these sequences.

I’ve never played a game like Norco, which elegantly celebrates and admonishes its cultural roots while documenting a bizarre apocalyptic scenario. Kay and Katherine’s heartbroken America is not so different from our own – booming industrial complexes threatening the displacement of low-income families, automated systems replacing human workers, dirty rich working around the clock to prevent upward mobility flow. The game isn’t always shady. One cool night, I sat atop City Hall, staring at the constellations with a stranger. A few hours ago, I was flipping through cherished memories on a faulty flat-screen TV. Norco is an unforgettable reminder that there is an inner beauty behind the madness.