Game

Review: Lacuna Is a Brilliant but Brutal Noir Thriller

Screenshot: Lacuna

Ever since I first attempted to figure out who stole the Seoul from South Korea, I’ve been an aspiring sleuth. I’m a sucker for good detective stories, in film and in games. Interrogation, investigation, tense situations and suspicious circumstances have been some of my favorite things, especially when I’m the one leading the charge to find out whodunit. Lacuna is a sci-fi noir that’s got intrigue, suspense, a complicated mystery and nails the noir vibe so well it wasn’t hard to get hooked.

In Lacuna, you’ll be introduced to a whole solar system full of woes, rife with division over issues where people come from, and if they believe in faith or science, in a world where some have it all and many more have next to nothing, but some nations and planets thrive, having found a way to secure all the precious resources. After a brief but arresting prologue, you’ll find yourself in the shoes of Neil Conrad, the standard government agent who loves his job a little too much and hasn’t made much time for love or family. He’s in the midst of one of the most important cases in his life and also at a crossroads in his relationship with his ex-wife and daughter, and will have to figure out how to find a better balance even as his job and family hang in the balance.

Screenshot: Lacuna

It’s well tread territory, but in this case, familiarity with the tropes doesn’t hurt. Instead, it helps set the tone, along with a fantastic soundtrack and some of the most gorgeous pixel art I’ve encountered to date. There’s the standard sultry dark timbre to the soundtrack,  with background noise like the rush of the high speed trains, Neil’s voice over with jazzy piano in the background–it’s pitch perfect. Meanwhile visually, every setting is saturated with that smoky, seedy atmosphere that’s full of wistfulness and decay. There’s even little moments set aside for you to just soak it all in, if you want, in the form of cigarette breaks, that are created just to admire the scenery and catch a breather.

Lacuna’s mystery is also incredibly layered, and though it’s a standard dialog driven adventure, there’s rarely any answer that feels obvious, and sometimes no answer that seems good enough. Neil’s a troubled character who doesn’t really know what he wants and doesn’t always make the right decisions with or without you, and everyone around him is complex, too. What works in one scenario will not work in the next, and working a scene is almost always a high stakes guessing game. 

Screenshot: Lacuna

Lacuna’s lore is deep with a lot to keep track of, but the prologue serves as a satisfactory introduction to the main mechanics other than branching narrative choices. You use standard movement controls and are given a sort of “detective mode” that helps you with finding clues and points of interest, a “highlight” mode that helps you find people and things you might need to interact with or talk to, and a number pad mode in case you find yourself needing to get in or out of places. Then there’s your Cell, which true to even modern life, is the key to everything. Your contacts, emails, and just about everything else under the sun are stored there. You can download the day’s news from screens posted up around the city, be sent information through them and even refer to a glossary that keeps track of people, factions, places and things you’ll need to sleuth out the answers to the high profile crime you’re tasked with solving.

You’ll get in the thick of things pretty quickly, with a spectacular tension that is kept up throughout. Just when you think you’re getting somewhere, another twist can come and break things wide open, or you can find yourself in a whole lot of trouble. It’s hard to know who to trust and it’s hard to know what your next steps are. As you work your way through all the treachery, you’ll be tasked with reporting to your boss Gary with your progress. You do this through “Sheets” you submit to him/the CDI. This is a lot like a quiz at the end of a chapter you’re reading in a book in high school, for better or for worse. It’s multiple choice, and requires you to have paid good attention to conversations, clues and news you’ve read along the way. It’s also pass fail, and you only have one shot–once it’s submitted, it’s submitted. Lucky for you, your trusty Cell records also every conversation you’ve ever had with anyone and stores all the other info you’ll need–it’s just a matter of piecing it all together. 

Screenshot: Lacuna

I’m glad that Lacuna didn’t water down its mystery for the sake of making the game easier, but it definitely feels really high stakes to submit the Sheets. You’ve only got one shot at it, and if you’re wrong, it can take the story in a totally different direction than it would have had you gotten it right, even endangering yourself, your colleagues or your family in significant ways. Everything you do has weight, and every step you get closer to catching the perps means higher risk and scarier situations. Nothing ever feels simple, and while that is frustrating on some levels, it’s also exciting. Lacuna manages to be one of the most exciting narrative driven games I’ve played in a while, with moments that got my adrenaline up in real life–whether it was someone unexpectedly pulling a gun or a phone call I didn’t expect–I never knew when the other shoe would drop.

Lacuna drives you deeper and deeper into your case, adding new elements every so often at a pace that feels just this side of overwhelming but definitely keeps it interesting. Even though you’ll be doing some of the same things–especially going to some of the same places, there always feels like there’s something new to discover, whether it’s a clandestine meeting at the docks or a new person with something to ask or offer. This deepens the feel of the world, too, as you’re not simply focused on a case, but on who you are as a person, and how your decisions affect the world around you. Help someone out now, you might find they are an ally later, but bully them and they may become a huge obstacle–or just the opposite, as Lacuna does a good job of turning the expected on its ear. 

Screenshot: Lacuna

By the end of Lacuna, I was so wrapped up in what would happen next I could hardly look away, and even though the ending wasn’t quite the ride into the sunset I hoped for, I found it pretty fitting for the world, and I couldn’t help but wonder what might have changed had I done things a little differently. I think I mentioned earlier how important making the right choices are, and I think that’s both a high point for Lacuna and a drawback. One decision can dramatically alter the course of the entire story. In the end, I think there were probably even better scenarios than the relatively happy ending I got, and I know from doing some research there were definitely some worse ones. Such a harsh pass/fail to the narrative choices can certainly drive people off, and there was definitely one such moment for me, but like a good book with a good twist, I couldn’t put it down, and could even see myself playing through again just to see what transpires, and to me, that’s the mark of a great story, with the ease and beauty of a good game to back it up. 

 

Lacuna is out now on Steam.

 

 

 

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