With its rain streaked cobbled streets, stylish monochromatic aperture and gruff internal monologues, Calvino Noir takes the thematic inclination of its namesake and runs with it, crafting the sort of dour and bleak Noir adventure that one might expect. What isn’t expected however, is just how thoroughly obnoxious the stealth mechanics are upon which the bulk of the game is situated; to the point that it almost entirely undoes the great work that the developer has wrought elsewhere.
We’ll start with the good stuff first though. As befits its moniker, Calvino Noir is absolutely dripping in sombre and downtrodden aesthetic with the bleakness of its environments equalled only by the tortured and cynical denizens that populate its monochromatic cloisters. Interestingly also is the fact that rather than setting the whole thing in America, as most noir yarns so often are, Calvino Noir instead establishes itself against the backdrop of 1930’s Europe.
Naturally the change from the usual noir stomping grounds brings with it a different style than what folks might normally be used to; specifically bringing with it a far more rounded European cast than noir narratives tend to encompass. For the most part too, they’re a great bunch with German, British and Eastern European accents all coalescing together to create a refreshing change from the usual gravelly American tones that are typically associated with the genre.
In terms of the setting, the developer has crafted a commendably gritty tale of high-level conspiracy, loose morals and redemption (essentially the building blocks of the Noir archetype) around its European digs, with a cast of interesting characters to boot. From Wilt, your typical gruff and life-weary private eye who is as loose with his fists as he is with his whiskey to mysterious dame Siska, who has a hidden past and skills above and beyond what one might assume she could possess, Calvino Noir ostensibly does a grand old job of following the noir stereotypes, albeit with refreshing European accents and vernacular.
If the setting of Calvino Noir bears similarity to such silver screen genre classics as The Asphalt Jungle and Sunset Boulevard then, it’s abundantly clear on the other hand that the gameplay is underpinned by similarly classically titles from our own industry’s past. A puzzle adventure with a strong emphasis on stealth, Calvino Noir has the player taking control of Wilt and a number of different characters in order to leverage their unique skillsets to solve puzzles which neatly align with their abilities.
Wilt for example, can incapacitate foes with a suffocating chokehold while Siska on the other hand, can pick locked doors and peer through keyholes to provide some valuable reconnaissance on the room ahead. Likewise, mechanical engineer Arno is capable of operating and fixing machinery while the devious sneak known as ‘Mole’ is invisible to all hostiles and can pass through areas undetected.
As you might well expect then, the bulk of Calvino Noir’s gameplay is centred around switching between these different individuals in order to leverage their bespoke skillsets in order to proceed. Quite honestly, the whole thing would all be tremendously pleasurable to get stuck into if it wasn’t for one thing, the stealth mechanics, or rather more pointedly, the toweringly clumsy application of them.
So basically, Calvino Noir relies heavily on stealth because, quite frankly, every level is swarming to the nines with goons who can one-shot any one of your group and direct confrontation with weapons or other firearms isn’t an option. Now normally, this wouldn’t be too much of a problem because you would cut about the place hiding in cover while taking down these unsuspecting scumbags left and right as the situation allows. The problem here though, is that the stealth elements in Calvino Noir are almost completely broken.
It’s clearly most noticeable when playing as Wilt, whose skill is apparently subduing enemies, because quite frankly, he’s terrible at it. You see, you can creep up behind a foe as quietly as you like to incapacitate them (a handy alertness meter informs you how aware they are) and nine times out of ten they will turn around and kill you instantly like they have some sort of sixth sense. Ironically, I soon discovered that the best way to stealth incapacitate these fellows was to actually stealth attack them from the front. The front.
Worse still perhaps, is the fact that if you didn’t want to partake in any of that silent takedown nonsense, you can’t actually hide properly half the time because the game has stuffed that too. Take the idea of cover for instance, if you attempt to hide behind a group of boxes, nicely tucked away in the shadows and clearly out of sight, patrolling guards will still spot you anyway whenever they get close, which begs the question; what’s the point?
What doesn’t help is the fact that there is practically no tutorial whatsoever. The game simply does not inform the player of how any of it works, from how the stealth is ‘supposed’ to function through to even the action of switching characters, Calvino Noir puts the burden of discovery wholly on the player which quite frankly, stands as an unpleasant polar opposite of heavy handed tutorials that tightly hold your hand every step of the way.
Another transgression, though one which is much less severe than the aforementioned lot, is in how the optional collectibles are handled. Piles of coins are dotted around each of Calvino Noir’s trio of acts and can be revealed easily enough by shining your trusty torchlight on them. The thing is, there isn’t any real reason for picking them up other than trophy hunting and really in the context of the game, these collectibles could have been basically anything else and it wouldn’t have made any difference.
Back on the happy trail though, one area where Calvino Noir can be reliably expect to excel is in the depiction of its noir setting and moreover, the technical feats that the developer has implemented in order to cement the believability of that scenario. Speaking of believability, one thing that Calvino Noir does do especially well however is in the verisimilitude that it applies to its various locations. There are not, for example, any air vents or passageways for the sake of contrivance but rather, that each area feels lived in and practical rather than a game mechanic assault course as so often many other games resort to crafting.
Simply, Calvino Noir absolutely looks the part with its depiction of smoke-filled bars, endless precipitation and seemingly lifeless monochrome filter. Visually speaking though, Calvino Noir’s technical merits are not flawless. Seemingly developed alongside mobile versions of the game, the camera is happy to lurk at long distance where the character models are small and detail is difficult to pick out, while visual glitches such as occasionally blocky backgrounds and the total, inexplicable absence of death animations somewhat tarnish the good work fashioned by Calvino Noir’s artists elsewhere and throughout. As such, it’s difficult not to let the mind wander at the visual splendour that a PS4 exclusive version of Calvino Noir could inflict on the eyeballs.
Of course the visuals are just one side of Calvino Noir’s aesthetic appeal and so special mention must be given to the audible side of the equation also. While the calibre of the voice acting at large has already been established, particular and deserved praise must be given to the narrator who does a great job of anchoring players in this noir more effectively than any visual flourish is able to. The guy just simply spews forth biting, acerbic cynicism and disdain in every spoken word and even seemingly pedestrian descriptions of everyday, mundane objects are brought to gruesome life in his grim, depressingly pessimistic descriptors. In short, he’s properly great and true highlight.
Had it not been for the greatly compromised stealth mechanics, it’s not a stretch to say that Calvino Noir would have scored much higher than the number you can see plastered on the page here. As it is, you could gut your way through the game and still find some degree of satisfaction, but ultimately, like a lovelorn romantic trying to find answers at the bottom of a cheap bottle of whiskey, you can expect frustration and a longing for what Calvino Noir could have been.