If you had to spend your whole life always playing by the rules, but getting nowhere, could you do it? You excel at your job, and always help society, yet you always end up losing out financially. How would this make you feel? This is Norman’s life in a nutshell, a career-driven man with a loving and obeying wife, and a child who is seen and not heard. Norman’s Great Illusion has been developed and CivilSavages and published by Sometimes You. It’s a dark and dreary look at the repetitive life of one law-abiding citizen.
You control Norman; he is a supervisor in a factory across town. He spends every day following the same routine; wake, eat, work, and sleep. Now you the player get to grab glimpses of this dull and monotonous experience for yourself. The game is a politics inspired visual novel (VN) that, unlike the Japanese Anime titles, allows you full control of Norman’s movement, and the tasks he undertakes. In all VN’s you make decisions that decide the direction that the story goes in. This one is no different, but *spoiler alert* all the endings will leave you feeling depressed. The title revolves around politics, and an uprising that you must support or oppose. Will you continue to be straight-laced and play by the rules? Or will you break free of the oppressive regime, and fight for a brighter future.
As in real life, money makes the world go round. Unfortunately for our protagonist, he soon realises he doesn’t have enough. You start every playthrough with $300. This amount is to last you the full year that you will live through. Now you may think, “Norman is a supervisor, surely he earns more than enough cash?” Sadly, this is not the case. His base salary, even with a bonus for a fine day’s labour, will leave him in the red. Each day that he slogs away, loses him money. He gets poorer, as the fat cats get richer. You have a decision to make! Do you try to be a decent human being, but lose all your savings? Or do you become like the government and become ruthless? After all, if you don’t do it, someone else will. Whatever you decide, you may not see the instant ramifications of your decisions. But eventually your past will catch up with you. Lets hope that you chose the right path.
The gaming premise is very simple. Everything runs on a repeat cycle, you are free to move around, but the same tasks must be completed daily. His existence is a very depressing Groundhog Day. As you leave the house and head for work you must drive your car from home to the factory. This task is straightforward. A bar appears in the middle of the screen, and you must stop the marker in the green box. If you cannot do this, you will damage your car, if you damage it too much, it will cause you to crash and will cost you vital cash. When you make it to work, you must complete a mini game that comprises multiple mathematical equations. This is has 2 stages, and you can make a maximum of 5 errors. If you are quick enough, and maths is your forte, then you will have no issue with this. If you make 2 or fewer mistakes, you will receive a bonus in your pay. If you get 5 or more incorrect answers, then the boss sends you home, and you receive a fine.
The mini games represent this title’s ethos perfectly. They are mundane, repetitive, and just challenging enough to keep you interested. Success gives you little reward, but failure costs you an awful lot, at worst it will cost you your freedom. They made me contemplate stopping playing, but at the point of quitting, a carrot would be dangled before you. A promotion would be given with the promise of slightly more pay, or story choices that will surely make Norman’s life better. It was enough to inspire me to keep going, even though I knew deep down that it wouldn’t change a thing. The developers got you exactly where they wanted you, experiencing his boring circle of life.
The game has a natural ending that is found through a mixture of luck and being a government suck up. But this isn’t the only manner in which this title can end. If you run out of cash, (I say “if” like it may never happen. *Spoiler alert!* You run out of money all the time.) you will be given 4 decisions, to make, each prematurely ends your run, and you must start from the beginning again. The variety in endings were colourful, complex, and downright unfair. I played this around 5 times before I reached the assigned end of the story. I loved how it finished, even if it was sad and oppressive.
To ensure that the action isn’t too simple, you are given 3 difficulty modes; easy, normal and hard. This doesn’t alter the gameplay choices, it makes the mini games much harder. Speeding up the timers and making success quite a challenge.
This is particularly retro, with the pixilated sprites, and soft tones that are reminiscent of 80s gaming. The city map has a distinct Ghostbusters feel to it. It will not win any prizes for its aesthetics, but its basic and repetitive nature works well with the theme. I have to say that Norman distinctly looks like Simon Cowell. The moment I saw it, it couldn’t be unseen. It made me chuckle throughout, though I’m sure this was not what the developers intended.
The audio was good and used 2 different styles to help set the scene. When you spend time at home with your family, you hear a sombre and calm piano music. This is his safe place. Though the text dialogue may show a different emotion, the family is clearly comfortable with each other. The second style was an upbeat synthesized piece that accompanied Norman during his work day. This added a feeling of high energy and pressure, as if whatever he achieved would never be good enough. I really liked the audio, from the fine mix of music to the tone that accompanies the daily message as you leave for work.
The control system was a bit of a let down for me, it never felt responsive enough. Each time I pressed a button, it lagged. This caused me to input wrong answers and miss the green box in both mini games. When a timer puts you under pressure, the last thing you want is the controller to let you down. You also get no guidance when you start out. I spent the first 5 minutes wandering around in my underpants, with no idea of what to do. Once you get to grips with the basics, you’ll find a game that isn’t complicated, and is easy to play.
There are mixed thoughts on whether VN’s have a high replay value or not. With many choices to be made, and with as many outcomes. I personally feel that if you will play through the game again, then you are rewarded with a different experience. This for me is the definition of replay value. Others say that playing the same story with minimal differences is torturous and repetitive. I’ll let you decide which camp you sit in, but for me Norman’s Great Illusion has a good replay value. The game itself doesn’t last very long, perhaps 2 hours for each run, but with several endings, you are looking at around 6 to 8 hours of gaming to finish this one. Achievements are earned easily through natural progression, and by exploring all the possible outcomes.
So, how did I fare after my depressing experience? Surprisingly well! Despite its controller issues, and minimal approach Norman’s Great Illusion kept me interested during each playthrough. I enjoyed the small talk between the family, and how unfair life was for the people in this era, and town. Everything was an uphill struggle, yet I always hoped that there was a light at the end of the tunnel. Unfortunately, there never was. Do I recommend that you try this oppressive and dark indie title? Yes, I do. It won’t be for everyone, as the game pace is lethargic at best. But, if you want a relaxed pace and a government that keeps its people down, then this is for you. Wake, eat, work, sleep and repeat, life is as exciting as watching paint dry.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Microsoft Xbox One code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to email@example.com.
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Norman’s Great Illusion Review
Gameplay - 7/10
Graphics - 6/10
Sound - 7/10
Replay Value - 7/10
User Review( votes)
This will not be a game that everyone will like. But those who try it will find a dark and depressing tale that you won’t want to put down.
- Retro graphics.
- The audio sets the scene perfectly.
- The mini games capture the essence of this mundane and repetitive title.
- Short play time, but several endings make this good value for money.
- Norman looks like Simon Cowell.
- The controls are not responsive enough.
- The gameplay will be too slow for some.