Milanoir Review

The noir genre is one of the most eccentric in all of fiction. With its hard-boiled protagonists, femme fetales, and dark, moody backdrops, noir fiction has given rise to countless classic novels like Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep, and L.A. Confidential, many of which have spawned equally successful film adaptations. Initially a literary and cinematic movement, noir has since spread its influence to the world of video games. From Remedy's Max Payne series to Team Bondi's L.A. Noire, there's no shortage of games that put you in control of gruff, hot-tempered males with a knack for shootouts and fisticuffs.

Milanoir, developed by Italo Games and published by Good Shepard Entertainment, provides a similar hard-boiled flair to games from recent years. Set in Milan, Italy, in 1970's, Milanoir is an ode to the era's Italian crime films, complete with car chases, frantic gunplay, and enough explosions to give even Michael Bay pause. With its gritty atmosphere, well-paced levels and varied boss fights, Milanoir offers some unique thrills for fans of classic action movies and hard-boiled fiction. At the same time, however, a clunky cover system, frustrating final sequence, and disappointing narrative hold Milanoir back.

The protagonist, Piero Sacchi, is a shoot-first, ask-questions-later member of the Lanzetta mafia. When a member of the rival Beretta mafia tries to assassinate Piero, Lanzetta tasks him with taking down the opposing organization and its consiglieres for good. When this order is carried one step too far and results in the death of a child, Piero is ratted out by someone close to him and sent to prison. Three years later, he's released and hellbent on getting revenge on the people who wronged him.

The game's story plays out across eight levels (seven chapters, plus an interlude). Over the course of three to four hours, players run, duck, dodge, and shoot opposing henchmen in themed areas of Milan. One level, for instance, sees Piero fighting his way through the Naviglio canals - back in 70's a means of transportation, but in 2018 a thriving hub for bars, shops, and nightlife. There's also Lambro Park, a massive green space that is still a popular spot for locals today. And, of course, players also have the opportunity to have a shootout in the city's famous "Duomo" cathedral.

Gameplay itself is fairly simple. As players navigate through these linear levels, they aim an on-screen reticle with the right stick and shoot enemies with the right trigger. A tap of the right bumper reloads (a necessary act, as guns won't reload automatically), while the left bumper (or trigger) has Piero crouch. When behind an obstacle like a table or car, crouching acts as a pseudo cover system, allowing Piero to duck from gunfire and recover his health. However, like in Gears of War, the button also allows players to roll, as well as vault over obstacles, when combined with a direction on the left thumbstick.

This system works about as well as you might expect. Gunfights are frantic bouts that test your aim and reflexes as you dive around the environment like the protagonist of a John Woo film, shooting everybody and everything in sight. At the same time, bullets hit hard, and health is slow to regenerate. Thus, Milanoir's gameplay is more often than not about showing restraint behind a sturdy wall as opposed to rushing in like Rambo.

As you also might expect, mapping crouching, vaulting, and rolling to a single button works far less well. As Gears of War veterans can attest to, having a single button be responsible for contextual movements often leads to doing the wrong thing in the absolute worst situation. There were many times when I struggled to get Piero to vault over an obstacle, despite being right next to it. Rolling is also sluggish, often (but not always) being interrupted by a stray reload animation. Oddly enough, the game allows players to reload even when their gun is fully loaded.

The shooting itself fares better. Aiming sensitivity, while slow by default, can be upped in the settings, and while the game never feels as tight or as challenging as recent top-down shooters like Hotline Miami, fans of the genre should feel right at home here. While the levels themselves are straightforward, mostly repeating the same two or three enemy types of gunmen, crazed knife-holding women, and ax-wielding men, Milanoir keeps things well paced. The early and mid chapters progress at a nice clip, and I always felt as if I was met with a story sequence right when things were beginning to get boring.

A big help with this comes from Milanoir's unique end-of-chapter boss fights. These battles, typically waged against rival mafia members, showcase the very best of the game's design. From bouncing bullets off of street signs to shooting candles to reveal an enemy's position, and to taking cover from gunfire from two different sides of a train car, Milanoir's bosses are as challenging as they are entertaining.

Unfortunately, the fun wears thin during final two chapters. Although the game had always felt a bit frustrating, the difficulty spikes at the end with the introduction of enemies capable of one-shotting Piero. Combine this with a lack of checkpoints during Chapter VII, and I found myself dying and being forced to restart the final level over and over again trying to progress.

The bosses of Chapters VI and VII are even worse. Beating VI's baddie heavily requires dodging and vaulting - two mechanics that, while already shaky for most of the game, are even more aggravating here. VII's boss, meanwhile, simply feels cheap; it was only with patience and a good bit of luck that I was able to make it to the end of the game. While not inherently a game breaker, this massive difficulty spike undoes much of the good will Milanoir earned with its previous boss fights.

Putting up with loose controls and convoluted bosses might have been worth it had Milanoir's narrative been more engaging. While the game oozes style - the prelude's title screen is especially well done, and levels are accompanied by a moody, groovy soundtrack - Milanoir fails to deliver on what other classic crime dramas have done time and time again: tell a compelling story.

While the game introduces numerous characters and has plenty of dialogue in-between gunfights, there's little to no depth here. Every character has the same hard-boiled, no-f's-given attitude, and it's near impossible to care about any of them by the time the credits roll. Piero is especially unlikable, lacking the character growth and subtleties that made other genre protagonists like Tony Soprano or Cole Phelps so fascinating. The story's "who's the rat?" plot thread has about as basic a twist as one could imagine, and the game ends on an unsatisfying cliffhanger that left me asking myself "...Is that it?" While Milanoir delivers the B-movie goods in excess, it lacks the novelty needed to elevate it to stardom.

Milanoir is an enjoyable, bite-sized action game. Its combat stays fresh despite its simplicity, and well-designed boss fights allow the game to put its best foot forward for most of the campaign. However, the final act walks back much of what made the main game fun, while the story fails to coalesce into anything particularly moving. Milanoir may provide some fun thrills for action-movie junkies with an appreciation for Milan and its culture, but those looking for anything deeper would best look elsewhere.