Calvino Noir is as dark and brooding as its movie influences but hasn’t fared well on its transition from PC to PS4. Our Review;
“The band sleepwalks through a repertoire of jazz standards. If one of them fell dead under the spotlight, the audience of drunken insomniacs wouldn’t notice.”
Grim. Grim is the only word I can use to describe many aspects of Calvino Noir, an atmospheric 2D stealth platformer. Of course, being inspired by its namesake, the Noir films of the 1940’s and 50’s, “Grim” is the tone that developers Calvino Noir Ltd were aiming for. And they certainly managed that.
Much like its movie counterparts, Calvino Noir paints a bleak, dramatically shadowed black and white setting. Set in 1930’s Europe, a break from the traditional American setting of most Noir films, the game spins a yarn that is filled with the iconic tropes that make the film genre so popular. There is the disillusioned, take-no-crap private eye Wilt AKA The Englishman, the main character in the game who ends up on the wrong side of a double-crossing. Then there is the femme fatale and private eye client turned bad ass, Siska, an eastern European version of Jane Greer. Finally, we have Arno, an intelligent foe-turned-friend of Wilt’s who always seems to be bailing him out of trouble.
The trio is on the case to recover important documents pertaining to a particularly corrupt politician’s dodgy dealings and inadvertently uncover a plot that runs much deeper and deadlier. It is typical Film Noir fare with a little European flair added in, most of which is played out in the sombre internal monologuing of Wilt and the patter between the main characters and those they meet. As the gang move through the monochrome environments, a magnifying glass will appear over items or people of interest that will progress or flesh out the plot. Some of these magnifying glasses unveil vital plot points (which show up as blue text on-screen) and others just serve to further set the scene, such as Wilt describing a neglected tablecloth that “has turned the colour of an old dogs teeth“. Grim.
Unfortunately, this is where the fedora starts to slip and the style starts to out weigh the substance.
2D Stealth is a difficult genre to get right. Balancing the threat against your abilities to avoid danger is a difficult line to tread and Calvino Noir often falls off this tight rope in the PS4 version, becoming frustrating in the blink of an eye.
Let’s start with what the game does well. For the majority of Calvino Noir, you will be attempting to reach way point markers that direct you to where you need to go. How you get there is up to you with the game offering branching paths and a multitude of methods to reach said markers. Regardless of which route you choose to reach your destination, there are almost always guards, soldiers or ner-do-well’s barring in your path. These smart figures are deadly – shoot first, ask questions later – leaving you very little room for error and urging you air on the side of caution at all times. Calvino Noir doesn’t give any indication of how loud you are or how far your sounds will carry ahead of time but if you disturb someone, it indicates as much. Before Guards become aware of your presence, a bar appears above their heads when you approach them. This bar fills the louder you are and if it fills completely, a question mark appears above them and the guard will deviate from their pre-defined path to investigate. This question mark changes to an exclamation mark if a Guard claps his eyes on you and you have a split second to break the line of sight or get shot. If any of your characters meet a lead-filled end, it is game over and you restart at your last check point. To avoid the guards, your characters can slip into hidey holes dotted around each chapter naturally, highlighted with a crossed out eye at their base. Even with a myriad of places to hide, Calmino Noir is determined to kill you and kill you often. Hot lead is waiting around every corner and you quickly learn that this is not a stealth game that you can rush though. Patience and identifying patterns are your only hope.
Each of the main characters – Wilt, Arno an Siska – have unique talents which aid their group. Wilt can strangle guards if he can get close enough to them. Arno is a master of mechanics and can turn his hand to using or fixing most machinery. Siska can peer through key holes to scout the rooms ahead and can pick locked doors. Calvino Noir is quite restrained with its guidance, forcing you to discover how to use these abilities yourself as and when they are required. Combining the use of these skills is the only way to progress through the game and thus provides the games first stumbling block on the PS4.
On the PC and iPhone version of Calvino Noir you can control multiple characters at once. Select Arno and use the mouse or touch screen to select a location and a white marker will appear where you select and he will set off on his merry way. While Arno is moving, you can select Siska or Wilt and select an action for those to perform at the same time. Unfortunately, concessions were made to enable the game to work on the PS4 via the Dualshock 4 controller and the same system is not in place here. You can seamlessly switch between characters but you can only move one character at a time and even then you feel like you are shepherding a blind tank up and down stairs. So very clunky and oh so grim.
This restriction immediately bumps up the difficulty of the game compared to the other versions but no allowances have been made for that fact. Parts of Calvino Noir that are a challenge on PC are damn right frustrating on PS4. What you have to do is plainly obvious to see but having to keep an eye on all your characters makes it incredibly difficult to progress though certain sections. Grim.
This is compounded by the checkpoint system. The game has no manual save option and you have to rely on the auto-save function to retain your progress. The game only auto-saves once you have reached a way point which can be quite a distance from your starting location, proving to be a real test of patience. Also, inexplicably, actions you performed before you reach a checkpoint are often undone. Doors that Siska unlocked relock themselves and when you are trying to be as stealthy as possible, having to unlock doors all over again is annoying. Because of this system, it is often tempting to try to take the most direct approach to your way point which negates the freedom to explore that the game attempts to create with its level design. Exploring the games nooks and crannies can reap great rewards in the form of hidden “coins”. These collectables can be spent to increase the movement speed and stealth of the games characters but because of the games difficulty, unless you stumble across them, it is hardly ever worth the risk to go out of your way to find them. Grim.
Its monochrome elegance and Noir film posturing are unique for the 2D Stealth genre but for all the style that Calvino Noir packs into its grim tale, the substance is grim for less entertaining reasons. It has not fared well on its journey from PC to PS4 and what was once an enjoying challenge now borders on a maddening test of patience that will tempt you to reach for the bottle as much as Walt, the main character does. The Noir theme is easy to fall in love with and might be enough to get you through the more frustrating moments of Calvino Noir but prepare to rip out chunks of your hair along the way.
Calvino Noir is available now on iOS, PC via Steam and PS4 (review version)
Developer: Calvino Noir Ltd.
Publisher: Calvino Noir Ltd.
Disclaimer – In order to complete this review, we received a code for the game from the publishers.
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