Noir detective-style games are few and far between, ones worth your time are virtually unicorns. Luckily, Lacuna A Sci-Fi Noir Adventure – as it is so descriptively named on its steam page – is one of those mythical beasts. This game from Assemble Entertainment, the same publisher behind Orbital Bullet, delivers an immersive and clever mystery experience that is so much more than a walking simulator. The game’s details and nuances are simply delightful, but hey, that’s what this Lacuna review is all about.
Lacuna A Sci-Fi Noir Adventure Review: What Is It?
As the name implies, Lacuna is a sci-fi noir adventure. It follows a detective on the hot trails of a catastrophic event. As the minister of a colonized planet gets assassinated on Ghara, your planet, it is your responsibility to crack the case before a full-on war breaks out; but of course, it keeps getting deeper.
The sci-fi noir setting of the game benefits from the imagination of fantasy while still being grounded in gritty reality. And soon you learn the game has one and only one rule. The opening screen greets you with the rather ominous words “you can’t save or load, there is no going back.” This adds a lot of significance to every choice you make.
As an agent of the Central Department of Intelligence (CDI) you talk to people, gather clues and evidence, and continually build narratives in your head with what little info you manage to find. The majority of the game revolves around you talking to people, inspecting items, and revisiting logs and news to build a clearer picture. In short, the game’s puzzles are all very… detective in nature. It lets you find your own answers and even lets you go with them – correct or false they may be.
All the while, you progress a plot wrought with inner conflict, everyday struggles, and interplanetary politics. In fact, the narrative is a huge part of the game. It’s just that the “game” part of the game is significant enough to slide Lacuna out of the narrative-driven genre.
The Trail Is Fresh
As far as noir mystery games go, Lacuna is one of the best-assembled games out there. Writing this Lacuna review, it was hard not to gush over the game as a whole and try to break it into its good parts. But indeed, there are so many good parts.
No Turning Back
“Given the opportunity, players will optimize the fun out of a game.” is a great quote from a great design blog. I find myself turning good games into a slog by being too much of a scaredy cat; I hate the consequences of my decisions. Lacuna’s philosophy of no turning back is a ridiculously effective way of making players – me – live the narrative.
In a lot of cases, you have to make decisions (closing cases, bluffing suspects, reaching conclusions) that have irreversible effects on your playthrough. If that sounds too harsh for you, don’t be scared. While your decisions will come back to bite you, they will do so gently. The repercussions of your actions matter, but they are not so harsh as to make Lacuna any less enjoyable.
I once read Titanic being summarized as “a young man sacrifices his life for a cruise-ship fling.” Since then I’ve been very aware that the way stories are told is so much more significant than their premise. Lacuna’s plot is not shifting any paradigms, but it’s a fun sci-fi story.
However, the way the narrative progresses makes all the difference. The game’s major interplanetary conflict is told through the perspective of a CDI agent who’s also struggling on the inside. The world may be burning at work, but you still have to think of the feelings you have for your ex-wife, being present for your teenage daughter, and a dysfunctional society plagued with a widening wealth gap. It all seems so random, but this is what gives the otherwise linear world of Lacuna a whole lot of depth. And you do all that while helping a workaholic man quit smoking (if you choose to).
And speaking of rich worlds, the world of Lacuna couldn’t have been as immersive without its accents and details. A Noir anything wouldn’t be complete if it didn’t give off this lingering melodramatic air.
Lacuna does this through a combination of exceptional visuals and a killer soundtrack. Neither on their own is mindblowing but coupled with everything else you couldn’t ask for a more fitting ambiance. The visuals, although simplistic, make the mishmash that is Noir and sci-fi feel awfully natural. The soundtrack is akin to a movie score, it sets up every scene to convey strong emotions; but remember, this is still a “silly” pixel-art game. How does it do it? Beats me, but you should witness it first hand.
All things considered, Lacuna isn’t flawless. To be blunt, the game is not for everyone. Maybe this is by design, but I feel the game tried to minimize the elements that made it unpalatable to the masses – with varying degrees of success.
I grew up playing JRPGs so the sheer amount of text was no big deal. I enjoy creative narratives, like Before Your Eyes, and it would take a lot of passive listening/reading to deter me from a good game. However, I can see that for some going back through conversations you had an hour earlier with an NPC to gather abstract evidence can be a little too much. Make no mistake, for a game of its genre Lacuna minimizes text very successfully. It’s just the nature of the beast.
Moreover, Lacuna has multiple endings (no spoilers ahead). With its no going back philosophy, this might cause people to be turned off by the game. Yes, if you screw up you have to do a new playthrough. It’s harsh, but it’s all thematically consistent.
Lacuna is a rare gem that everyone ought to give a try. The plot is immersive, the gameplay is innovative, and the ambiance is spot-on. The game may not tickle everyone’s fancy, but – trust me – this is a game you need to experience whether you enjoy the niche or not.
If this Lacuna A Sci-Fi Noir Adventure review got you hungry for more games with excellent narratives, make sure to check out Narita Boy and Paradise Lost. Lacuna is currently only available on Windows through Steam and GoG.