Pecaminosa – A Pixel Noir Game
Developed By: Cereal Games
Published By: Badland Publishing
Category: Role-Playing, Action, Adventure
Release Date: 5.27.21
How can you not love a gritty, hard-boiled detective story? A thrilling tale of a tough-talking, hard-drinking, quick-thinking gumshoe on the hunt for justice in a city that doesn’t know the meaning of the word? The allure is hard to ignore for me, at least, and that’s why I find it odd that the noir genre isn’t more prevalent in gaming. L.A. Noire the best known example, but we just don’t get many. So when I first saw Pecaminosa for the Nintendo Switch, I was intrigued by the possibility of combining my love of gritty noir detective stories with my love of retro-inspired pixel graphics. The end result is sort of a mixed bag, but it’s an experience I’d still recommend to anyone who asked – with a few caveats.
Border Towns and Badlands
Pecaminosa takes place in a city of the same name on the US-Mexico border, and follows the adventures of former police detective John Souza. One night, as he is drinking heavily, the ghost of a gangster he killed barges into his apartment and tells him that his former partner, Sullivan, has been kidnapped by different, still living gangsters. The ghost and his henchmen tell Souza he has to kill everyone on their hit list before he can save Sully, and Souza doesn’t really question it as deeply as maybe he should? I’m just saying maybe don’t make decisions about who is and isn’t a ghost on a mission of heavenly importance when you’re lying around in your underwear tore up on whiskey.
Anyway, Souza sets off on a bloody tour of the Pecaminosa underworld, leaving a trail of bodies in his wake. It’s a fairly standard noir story; there’s plenty of dames, drinks, and dark alleys to scratch your gritty crime itch. The writing features some decent hard-boiled detective banter and the story moves along at a decent pace. I try and keep my reviews spoiler-light, but there are plenty of twists and turns that keep the story interesting to the very end. Overall, it ain’t exactly Raymond Chandler, but it gets the job done.
Pixels and Jazz
Pecaminosa is the kind of retro game that looks exactly how I remember my favorite games on the NES looking. The character sprites are as detailed as you can find in the 8-bit throwback realm, and the same goes for the game’s urban and desert environments. If you have any kind of affinity for the 8-bit era, you’re going to love the way Pecaminosa looks. As for the music, if you think the phrase “chiptune jazz” is a recipe for disaster, think again. The moody, dark soundtrack makes me want to light up a cigarette and lean against a flickering streetlight in the rain – and I hate smoking and rain. The art direction in this game is top notch.
Shootouts and Streetfights
For the most part, Pecaminosa is a standard top-down, twin-stick shooter: move with the left thumbstick, aim with the right. You can choose to fight with your fists or a variety of firearms, so long as you stay stocked up on ammo. A quick item menu lets you assign healing items or different weapons to a directional button. The pace of most combat segments and the game in general are a little on the slow side, but for the most part they’re competently designed and fun enough to support the story. The standard movement pace is a little slow, but you can dash to go slightly faster… sort of. Dashing uses up your stamina bar, and if that bar is too low it actually slows down your movement pace until it refills sufficiently.
You can supposedly ameliorate the movement speed issue a little bit by leveling up. When you gain a level, you get points to invest in the game’s LIFE system – Luck, Intelligence, Force, and Endurance. Luck lets you occasionally dodge attacks, Intelligence is mostly useful for opening up new dialogue options, Force increases your HP and melee damage, and Endurance increases your walking speed and reduces the amount of stamina dashing uses. Well, that’s what the game says Endurance does, anyway – honestly, I couldn’t detect any different in movement speed even after spamming all my points there. Maybe it was just too gradual to notice, but it never really felt like I moved much faster – which is a shame, because a faster Souza would have addressed the biggest complaint I had with the game’s boss fights.
Bullets, Booze, and Boss Fights
There’s nothing inherently wrong with Pecaminosa’s boss fights, and perhaps I was just triggered by some jibes on the game over screen, but they don’t fit the pace of the rest of the game’s action. Certainly, bosses should have some elements that challenge players in order to be worthwhile, but a good boss fight is at its core a test of skill, not luck or patience. Souza’s movements are just a little too sluggish to react efficiently to most boss attacks – especially if they have an area attack – and the stamina bar regenerates too slowly for dashing to be a reliable way to dodge. Since Souza moves slower in general if his stamina bar is too low, dashing is sometimes actually a liability in boss fights! I’m pretty sure I was only able to beat any bosses at all by spamming healing items.
Luckily, many boss fights have henchmen or crates that break to get more ammo and healing items, but some don’t, or do so infrequently. And if you just don’t have enough bullets or booze to get you through the fight, you’re minorly screwed. Manual saves can only be made at typewriters, which can leave you to do a ton of backtracking as you go scrounging for medicinal booze. As for auto saves, those happen at the start of every boss fight, not right before it. So either you potentially replay a fair chunk of game or tough it out and hope to catch a break with item drops and that the boss won’t spam attacks that require a dash to dodge. If you get to that point (and you may not, but I did during the Vinnie Questions fight), it feels like skill is completely irrelevant, and that’s the harshest criticism I can think of for an action game. It also doesn’t help that you have to go through all of the pre-fight dialogue every time you have to retry a boss fight.
Pecaminosa Means Sinful
The groundwork was laid for Pecaminosa to be an instant classic. The writing and story fit the genre – which I find to be underrepresented in gaming – very well. The 8 retro graphics are eye-catching and attractive, even amongst the glut of retro-inspired material being released nowadays. The music is jazzy, dark, and never annoying. The gameplay is mostly solid, if a little slow for my tastes. Things don’t really fall short until the boss fights start to feel poorly balanced, which isn’t a universal problem for all boss encounters. Even then, while I wouldn’t call Pecaminosa an instant classic, I still found it to be a worthwhile experience, especially for fans of the crime/noir genre.
Pecaminosa – A Pixel Noir Game
Digital – $14.99
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The Switch Effect was graciously supplied a code for review purposes.