Pixel Noir is a hard-boiled detective JRPG set in American streets

Pinnacle City is a mashup of every big American metropolis. It has an Uptown, a Downtown, and a Little Shanghai. There are barflies, gang members, old women using house cats as drug mules, and sausage stands selling high-grade weaponry. Although I've never lived in a large American city, I like to believe that if I ever do then I too will have a local supplier for my franks and frag grenades.

Pixel Noir's cityscape is dark, sarcastic, and full of quirky anti-heroes. It's an homage to film noir complete with a nameless protagonist, The Detective, who has whisky dinners in his cluttered home office. The decidedly American setting is an odd but interesting companion for its classic JRPG mechanics, a combination reminiscent of Earthbound.

Here's the skinny, son 

Pixel Noir draws on all the usual suspects of classic JRPGs: turn-based combat, a party full of misfits, and eccentric enemies in matching outfits. It was successfully kickstarted in October of 2015 and a beta demo was released to the game's Kickstarter backers at the end of 2017. (The alpha demo is still publicly available on SWD Tech's website.)

In the demo, my investigating abilities were mostly put to use dumpster-diving for food to eat during fights

It’s been over two years since the alpha version of Pixel Noir was first released and it shows in this new beta. There's extra icing in the form of a weapon upgrading system, an investigation mode, comic panel cutscenes, and plenty more.

Pixel Noir's strength is in knowing what to borrow and when to not reinvent the wheel. One of its best borrowed ideas is timed hits and blocks: by pressing a button at the right time, a character can land a critical hit or mitigate some damage. According to SWD Tech's audio composer Kunal Majmudar, the system is mostly inspired by the similar one in Super Mario RPG, which he'd always wanted to expand on. Turn-based games often lull me into idly clicking my way through fights, especially after I've out-leveled the enemies in an area. The ability to block some incoming damage is particularly good at keeping me from zoning out during enemy turns, even if I feel I have them outmatched. 

The Detective's investigation mode is Pixel Noir's most original mechanic. Although it only gets a brief nod in the current demo, SWD Tech's developer updates outline how it will be used during cases in other chapters of the game. While walking around Pinnacle City, The Detective can enter investigation mode, which highlights nearby clues, interactive objects, and characters. In the demo, my investigating abilities were mostly put to use dumpster-diving for food to eat during fights and a couple chase scenes.

One case has The Detective using his ability as part of a follow-your-nose bit that, while entertaining, doesn't showcase the system at its finest. More interesting is how The Detective's investigative ability highlights NPCs according to their disposition. Characters highlighted in red may be hostile, yellow are suspicious, and green are friendly. Other cases, SWD Tech has teased, will have The Detective sussing out suspects based on interactions and overheard conversations. 

The beta demo also features the new weapon upgrading system which allows the player to add modifications to weapons for additional bonuses and properties, which I suspect will play a larger part in the final game. There's also a collectible card minigame, though I confess that my distaste for minigames kept me from devoting much attention to it.

The dirt

For those of us already following Pixel Noir, many of these extra flavor features were expected, but the beta demo marked the first time we got hands-on with many systems that didn't make it into the alpha from 2015. As I played through the demo, SWD Tech's audio composer Kunal Majmudar and creative director Len Stuart chipped in some extra dirt on Pinnacle City and the systems featured in the new version.

Despite replacing the typical JRPG fantasy setting, Pixel Noir packs plenty of personality into its sarcastic and self-deprecating version of America

The story starts up fast, so much so that I was afraid I'd missed some exposition. The first scene is a nightmare sequence ending in an unwinnable fight, and soon after I landed in the lap of my first case, followed by two party members, one of whom showed up sans introduction. Despite being a bit breakneck, Stuart assured me it was a deliberate decision. 

"In Beta we took the two middle chapters to immediately immerse the player into the world without giving away too much of the overarching story," he says. The version of Pixel Noir that's currently hitting the streets is nearly feature complete but only includes two chapters, with six more in the works.

The first half of the demo treads similar territory to the alpha version but the second chapter takes players to a new section of Pinnacle City. Little Shanghai is Pixel Noir's own Chinatown, made complete by a local gang whose dress code is theater usher meets Elvis impersonator. The first area you encounter in Pixel Noir is The Detective's own turf in the Southside, which has a very "anywhere" sort of feeling. Little Shanghai, on the other hand, has a much more distinct influence. 

Despite having more obvious inspiration, Stuart explained that Little Shanghai (and every other part of Pinnacle City) is designed to be a typical example of areas found in most large American cities. "Just as Chinatown areas in cities have a theme, each one of the areas in Pinnacle City have their own social-economic character and feeling as in a real city: poor, affluent, commercial, fun, business, residential, or even just plain nondescript." On his end, Majmuder cites Jake Kaufman's "Mecha Kekai Travels to Chan'an" as a major inspiration for Little Shanghai's soundtrack theme.

Pixel Noir's beta demo doesn't always give its new features enough time to shine, but it did prove that its promises are built on solid foundation. I didn’t elaborate much on its wry humor and noir influences because I feel that’s best experienced first-hand, especially with a free demo available. Despite replacing the typical JRPG fantasy setting, Pixel Noir packs plenty of personality into its sarcastic and self-deprecating version of America where the only guy not carrying a gun is wearing a denim vest. I'm looking forward to some solid investigating and witty one-liners next time I see The Detective.

Lauren Morton
Associate Editor

Lauren started writing for PC Gamer as a freelancer in 2017 while chasing the Dark Souls fashion police and accepted her role as Associate Editor in 2021, now serving as the self-appointed chief cozy games enjoyer. She originally started her career in game development and is still fascinated by how games tick in the modding and speedrunning scenes. She likes long books, longer RPGs, has strong feelings about farmlife sims, and can't stop playing co-op crafting games.