Lacuna doesn’t miss much as the game’s investigation leads you through unfilled spaces and into a deeply compelling sci-fi noir story.
Developer: DigiTales Interactive
Publisher: Assemble Entertainment
Release date: 20 May, 2021
Lacuna – an unfilled space or interval; a gap or missing part – a very intriguing title choice. Lacuna – A Sci-Fi Noir Adventure moves beyond visual novel yet doesn’t really play like a point-and-click game; however, the story and overall feel are sure to please fans of the Blackwell series and similar investigative adventure games.
Other than a brief stint as the teenage Mira during the prologue, players step into the shoes of Neil Conrad, an investigator on the planet of Ghara. Neil has the classic noir detective cynicism, dogged motivation for the case, and (if the player chooses to play it this way) a smoking habit. However, in a pleasant deviation from the ‘traditional’, Neil still has his ex-wife’s last name.
Lacuna seems to take place in a universe with humanity but no Earth and deals with themes such as science, religion, colonialism, and colonization, and Neil’s choices have interplanetary impacts in the primary storyline and personal impacts in the secondary storyline involving his ex-wife Catherine and daughter Laura. Although the game perhaps goes too far down the expositional rabbit hole at times, this does generate a deep foundation for worldbuilding and the political conflict at play. One example of the deep worldbuilding surrounding gameplay is the included backstory reason for why Neil always chooses to take the train and dislikes cars.
Gameplay and Mechanics
Lacuna isn’t a point-and-click game, so the player has no inventory, but there are ways in which the player must do more than simply watch, read, and click through the game. A device called a Cell will record chat logs of all conversations, clues, emails, and news articles, many of which are essential to progressing the plot and getting particular endings. The Cell will also be used to submit Sheets, where the player must enter what they’ve deduced from the clues. It is possible to submit wrong deductions, which does lead to different endings along with making certain choices in dialogues. The Sheets reminded me of an adult version of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?.
The player explores the world using their AR Module, which has an Outline Mode, Investigation Mode, and a Number Pad. The Outline Mode makes objects or characters have different colors of outlines if they are able to be interacted with or if they’ll have new information relevant to the investigation. Certain objects will have to be investigated using Investigation Mode to collect Clues. I did encounter a couple of places where objects that needed to be investigated did not have an outline in Outline Mode, but it was usually a useful tool.
The tutorial is effectively repeated twice, once in the beginning with Mira and then again later when we switch to Neil as the main character. I found some aspects of the tutorial design a bit confusing at first. For example, when the game is explaining how to walk around it shows a ghost figure of your character going the direction the game wants you to go, and at first I thought that was somehow part of it being futuristic space technology. I played with mouse and keyboard (although the game has full controller support), and I also found it challenging to figure out some of the keys in the tutorial because they showed a picture of the common icon used on the key rather than naming the key. For example, on my keyboard the shift key just says ‘shift’ and doesn’t have the common upward pointing arrow icon. Once I got past this brief learning curve, however, the gameplay experience was immersive.
Progress is saved automatically at specific checkpoints with no manual saving or reloading of previous saves allowed. The game has multiple possible endings, so this currently means getting each ending would require multiple full playthroughs, which seems like a bummer. However, in News from the developers on May 28, 2021 it sounds like they hope to add more options as far as saving is concerned, and if that happens it would definitely be a quality of life improvement.
The gameplay experience can be customized in a number of ways. For example, there is a dialogue timer that can be turned on or off. If the dialogue timer is on, the player will have a limited amount of time to choose their responses in certain conversations, while if the dialogue timer is off then the player can take their time deciding on a response. For my first playthrough, I chose to turn the dialogue timer off because of not being able to reload previous saves. The player can also turn on or off colored text, which highlights important keywords in conversations and chat logs. I opted to leave this on for my first playthrough.
Art Style and Graphics
The art style is retro pixel with 2D graphics, although the developers did something interesting where the player does use forward and backward movement to travel up and down stairs. The dark color palette is interspersed with neons that emphasize the sci-fi noir feel. During dialogues, character portraits appear at the top of the screen, and during Neil’s monologues the text scrolls. On my monitor (which has a 1680 x 1050 display resolution), the game in fullscreen had black bands at the top and bottom, and the settings wouldn’t let me change it. Although this was initially distracting, the game’s immersiveness soon made it a non-issue.
Sound and Music
The music perfectly hits the jazzy notes of the game’s noir ambience, although I had a harder time feeling more than the occasional sci-fi vibe. Some of the tracks are really beautiful and stirring, and the composer’s excellent work riffing off the leitmotifs creates a thematically connected musical throughline. The sound effects are spot-on for sci-fi tech. As far as voice acting, the only character to get voiced lines is Neil, and only his monologues during transitions, but the voice actor superbly conveys Neil’s noir detective cynicism.
At $15.99 at the time of review, 5-6 hours for first playthrough, and an engaging investigative gameplay experience, Lacuna is worth buying at full price despite not currently having any achievements. If the achievements and additional save loading options promised May 28, 2021 from the developers do come to fruition, that would only increase the value definitively. I do hope that this happens because I’d like to explore the multiple endings without having to do a full playthrough for each one.