Tuesday, 16 July 2019 14:43

Pixel Noir Early Access Review

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Edited by: Jade Swann

To me, the Super Nintendo era of JRPGs never died. In my eyes, nothing comes close to Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI (aka III) for the greatest RPGs of all time. And it turns out I’m not the only one that misses those glory days when the pixels were so big the story had to be good. Some indie developers missed them so much that they decided to make their own — Pixel Noir. Needless to say, I was excited when I heard it was in Early Access.

Pixel, sure, but Noir?

Pixel Noir does a good job of capturing the feel of SNES-era games, and some of the mechanics are clearly inspired by the greats. There are bonuses for timing button presses with attacks like in Super Mario RPG, there are skills reminiscent of the special abilities in FFVI, and there are multiple character combos like in Chrono Trigger. The artwork also flows perfectly with those classic titles, alongside nice upgrades like modern text bubbles that nevertheless fit right in.

But what isn’t traditionally associated with classic JRPGs is a noir setting. I, for one, think it’s a great idea, and that’s why I actually went out of my way to review Pixel Noir. But the noir setting, unlike the other elements, is unexplored territory and it shows in this title.

The opening is filled with standard noir clichés — a voiceover about how dark and sad the city is, an alcoholic detective, and a mysterious case. The dialogue pokes fun at these clichés at times, but the opportunity to do something new with the genre seems to have been missed.

That is, until the plot begins to unfold.

After a very standard start, the ideas finally start flowing.

Pixel Noir is so indie that it’s a bit charming because you can see points where someone had a cool idea that didn’t quite belong, but they put it in anyway. For example, there are cutscenes between chapters that are done in stylized, manga-esque (and not very noir) comic book pages. No idea was left out of the story either — you play through an entire story before you ever even gain a second party member. And the plot itself quickly departs from many of its noir elements, instead plunging into a gritty gangland setting.

None of these things are particularly bad, and in fact there are some fun and interesting ideas that really hint at something special here, it’s just that some of these ideas could have been saved for another game. And since they weren’t, the pacing of the plot and the difficulty curve are very uneven. That isn’t helped by the fact that there aren’t very many areas to grind for experience (pretty much a must-have for any RPG), and the grinding that is there feels, well, too grindy. In other words, this game hasn’t been balanced.

And it’s a little frustrating that the tools to fix the problem are there, but they’re just not being used yet. It’s great that you can gain experience by solving cases, since you are a detective after all, but there aren’t a whole lot of cases to be found and not much effort has been put into making them interesting. Simply adding more cases would be a good way to even out the difficulty curve and make the title less grindy, but cases are, of course, nowhere to be found when you need them most. 

Instead, you advance in chunks rather than an even progression. This means more often than not that you get totally destroyed in the boss fights, forcing you to grind a while and get new items, then when you come back, the fight is suddenly a joke. Likewise, many other parts of the title are in need of some fine tuning.

More like Glitch Noir, innit?

Pixel Noir is in Early Access, and indeed, it is an unfinished product. Hopefully it can be fixed, but right now there are a lot of bugs. Pixel Noir play sessions don’t end because you run out of time or you have other things to do, but because the game eventually freezes or crashes pretty much every time.

Hopefully, as development continues, the bugs will be ironed out, the battle algorithms will be tweaked, and maybe the plot and dialogue will get another pass or two. In any case, this plucky little indie game is a good first release, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see some great ideas from these developers (SWDTech Games) in the future.


The Verdict: Good

Pixel Noir attempts to bring the best mechanics from the golden age of JRPGs and combine them with a gritty, noir atmosphere. It achieves uneven success with its mashup of interesting ideas, making it rough around the edges, but indie to its core. While the pacing and difficulty curve need to be dialed in, it does have a bit of the nostalgic essence it’s aiming for.

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Nicholas Barkdull

Nic is a writer and narrative designer with a PhD in Social Research and Cultural Studies. He thinks real time strategy games are still a valid form of e-sport, that true RPGs should be turn-based (with huge casts of characters), and that AAA games have a long way to go before they earn back our trust. He is the Lead Writer for Pathea Games's My Time at Sandrock, and his work can be seen in Playboy, South China Morning Post, The Daily Beast, and many other places.