Review: Nine Noir Lives spins a thread that could be tighter

Classic film noir tells tales of cynicism against a backdrop of violence and addiction, but Silvernode’s adventure game Nine black lives lives up to expectations with fast-paced dialogue and plenty of cat-related puns. There’s an impressive amount of text in this indie title. But when not focused on its main story, this volume can make it difficult to maintain interest. Like a ball of yarn untangled by a cat, all the strings eventually lead to the center. But untangling it can be unnecessarily complex and a more difficult task than expected, because your cat wants to keep doing mischief.

In Nine black lives, you play as Cuddles Nutterbutter (yes, that’s his name), a detective from the town of Meow Meow Furrington. He receives a job from the police and investigates a murder at the Knitty Kitty Club. However, the victim turns out to be the club owner’s son, who also happens to be the head of one of the city’s major crime families. With the help of his faithful secretary Tabby, Cuddles must bring the murderer to justice.

For starters, it’s impossible to play the game without noticing something: the art style. It looks incredibly dated. The aesthetic resembles an early 2000s Flash game that you would play on your browser. It works, though: the colorful approach to portraying dark fiction is certainly unique and matches the game’s extremely tongue-in-cheek and sarcastic dialogue.

Cuddles is a very interesting protagonist for a film noir-inspired game because he lacks the outright cynicism of most detectives in noir. He’s more of the intelligent type, like Andy Samberg’s Jake Peralta as opposed to Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. He always has a joke or a sarcastic observation for every weird situation he finds himself in. Unfortunately, so many of the characters have the same sarcastic or lampshade hanging humor, so Cuddles’ constant banter can start to get snarky.

I didn’t think twice before the game used symbols instead of numbers or characters with stereotypical “pet” names like Cuddles or Gumdrop. But the game refuses to let you suspend your disbelief, repeatedly going out of its way to point out how ridiculous they are. Nine black lives I can’t seem to let this self-conscious strain of humor last long enough to let the jokes breathe.

But then why are they like that? Why not just ask Tabby or Cuddles to say something like “Oh, it’s so hard to use symbols in an emergency!” and stop there? Instead, Tabby fumes like she’s recording for a YouTube video. This kind of humor is not bad in itself. However, it works best when a single character acts as the sane man pointing things out while the other characters take him in stride. Instead, it’s everyone, and the jokes can not land when actors constantly point out how they are joking won’t ground.

Hardly anyone can walk two lines without exercising their biting wits. Even the safe you need to unlock keeps insulting you. I didn’t get past the first area you investigate and was already sighing for myself. 30% of the game’s writing, when played straight through, is incredibly emotional and incredibly engaging. The rest is mostly jokes. The game is a dark comedy but I didn’t expect the writing to cast the gags as a parody of Plane!.

The irreverence with which the characters speak can make it incredibly difficult to stay invested in the story. If no one seems to want to be here, then why would I? Things get better when you start to really get to the bottom of the mystery and things get serious. When the writers take off their gloves and show their claws, the dialogue is amazing. But those moments are too little, too late.

However, to say that the writing of Nine black lives it feels like one from a Marvel movie would be doing the game a disservice. There’s a truly extraordinary amount of dialogue in the game. On top of that, every line is voiced. Each item you show to a character will receive a specific response. Even though the majority of responses basically boil down to “I don’t know,” there is a unique voice line for each item. To Tinkle, the cake crumbs and the coin mean absolutely nothing. But instead of just giving a generic “What’s this?” response, it actually changes its response depending on whether you show it the crumbs or the coin.

This staggering attention to detail isn’t just limited to NPCs. Cuddles has three actions he can perform on objects in the environment: look, use, and lick. Running each item generates a single line (voice). Instead of just saying “Yuck, I don’t want to lick that,” he refuses to lick a puddle in an alley specifically because he’s worried about germs. He again cites germs when he refuses to lick a random pole outside the Knitty Kitty Club, but the line is different than the one about the puddle. It’s honestly impressive how much time has gone into the game’s many text strings. The small, self-funded development team’s love and passion for this project shines through in the obvious time and care they devote to it.

Although the writing of the character is breathtaking, the mysterious part of Nine black lives is mind-boggling. It never quite comes close to “moon logic”, but some solutions are absolutely obscure. You use more than half of your items in weird ways with minimal prompts or hints. The game is fully immersed in an old-school point-and-click adventure design school, which tends to expect the player to read the mind of the puzzle designer. It’s a little shocking to see these days, but I imagine older players who have nostalgia for that era might enjoy it.

As a game reviewer with deadlines, however, I was grateful for some of the advice Silvernode itself provided with the review copy. Without them, I might have finished Nine black lives around 2030. I left an area so many times to realize what I needed was in my inventory. I just assumed the item was a hint for later so never considered it. Why would I use an object that could be a clue in a murder investigation to eavesdrop?

Cats may like to jump into boxes, but to solve this game you need to jump. Flexible thinking and imaginative creativity are the keys to success in Nine black lives.

Nine black lives is available on Windows PC.

Review: Nine Noir Lives spins a thread that could be tighter