Despite their success in the medium, film noir inspired video games remain an anomaly. Titles such as L.A. Noire, Hotel Dusk: Room 215 and Grim Fandango managed to meld the intoxicating atmosphere of a neo-noir with traditional gaming genres to create wholly fresh experiences. Those games were more critically than commercially successful, though, so the genre has been moth-balled for some time now. So, when developer Italo Games came forward with Milanoir, I was intrigued. It’s not often you see a new title claim to be inspired by classic Italian cinema, after all.
In Milanoir, players step into the often bloody shoes of Piero. Clad in a bright red sweatshirt, Piero is a highly-successful hitman for a powerful crime family. After a hit goes south in a major way, though, the Italian killer finds himself betrayed by the people he thought he could trust. An extended, and often unpleasant, stint in jail only makes our hero’s quest for vengeance that much stronger. Upon getting released, almost everyone is a suspect as Piero looks to dish out revenge on anyone that took part in the conspiracy against him.
I’ve seen some film noirs that border on melodramatic, but I don’t think I have ever encountered one as ridiculous as the one here. The story of Milanoir is grim and serious to a fault. Everything from suicidal parents to prison rape is used in order to give the story a harsh edge, but instead just makes the whole endeavor ridiculous. It’s pointless shock value schlock that lands with a thud. Not helping matters is the fact that Piero is one of the more repugnant protagonists I can remember. He’s a one-note psychopath that offers nothing but obnoxious quips and F-bombs. None of the other characters in the game are developed enough to even talk about, either, so you’re stuck with this dolt as your only source of entertainment. A great noir is supposed to feel cool and dangerous, but the story here is more juvenile and hammy.
Rather than tap into the noirs it supposedly draws inspiration from, Milanoir instead plays like a third-rate Hotline Miami. You won’t be investigating leads and intimidating civilians as much as you’ll be gunning down wave after wave of faceless henchmen. The gameplay is a cross between a twin-stick shooter and third-person cover shooter. One joystick moves Piero around, while the other moves his aiming cursor. Besides directly shooting at enemies, you can utilize street signs to ricochet bullets off of. As for defensive techniques, Piero can duck behind certain objects, and can dodge enemy fire with a well-timed dive.
Milanoir has the unfortunate luck to arrive in a time where the twin-stick shooter genre is not only over-crowded, but also full of good-to-great efforts. Italo Games’ debut effort can’t even match up to some of the lesser works out there, however. The gameplay is a complete bore in it’s best moments, and downright infuriating at it’s worst. The aiming is slow, and the auto-aim lock the game uses makes the sign-shooting mechanic a pain to use. You can’t auto-lock onto these signs for some reason, and if an enemy just happens to be next to one (which there definitely will be), you’ll get stuck on that guy instead. Maybe the aiming would feel better with a mouse and keyboard, but playing it on the Switch was torturous.
If the busted aiming system wasn’t already a struggle, then the over-the-top difficulty of the title only amplifies that problem. Right from the start, the game routinely throws an over-bearing amount of enemies at you at once, often with little wiggle room for cover. Not only are these foes total bullet sponges (why does it take 5+ bullets to kill a prostitute with a knife?), but their weapons are better than the rinky-dink pistol, and later SMG, Piero is stuck with. Oh, you can also pick-up molotovs, grenades, and a magnum, but there are probably less than 10 of those across the entire campaign. I don’t have a problem with something being difficult to finish, but this is more cheap than challenging. The bad guys aren’t smart, and they’ll often just stand around waiting to be murdered. There are just so many of them at a single time that it’s impossible to make it through certain areas with anything other than luck. Playing through the story with a friend in co-op mode makes things a little more bearable, but that’s not an actual solution to the problem at hand. It shouldn’t only be manageable with more than one person.
If the core gameplay of Milanoir wasn’t already bad enough, the few times the title tries to do something else are even worse. Each chapter of the game typically carries at least one half-baked vehicle section, and boy, are they terrible. For some reason, the aiming feels even more restricted and slow, which makes trying to hit a moving target that much more challenging. Also, you have to drive during these parts as well, so good luck trying to weave in and out of traffic while also haphazardly firing away. The boss battles are also a total slog and usually carry terrible stipulations. One boss can’t be shot at while he is in the shadows, despite the fact that you can clearly see him, while another can one-shot you with the truck he is driving. They are dire, overly-long and made me long for merely getting lit up by 10 goons at once. A forgettable, atrocious stealth section is also thrown in for good measure, because everyone loves those.
Milanoir is a largely awful experience, but it does have a great aesthetic going for it. The colorful visuals feature some gorgeous sprites, and for as terrible as a character as he is, Piero at least looks cool. Same goes for all of the forgettable boss characters, who not only have interesting looks, but also shine on screen. I would have liked a little more variety for the basic enemies, but I would have liked a lot of things to be better here. Repetition is a problem that plagues the music of the game, as well. It’s a moody, synth-heavy score that definitely fits the vibe, but since you’ll be dying so often, the same beats become bland after awhile.
Milanoir disappointed me in many, many ways, but it’s the amateurish story that really soured my mood. It’s noir by way of Michael Bay, and it lacks not only subtlety, but also any semblance of intrigue. Piero is a trash-tier protagonist, who would embarrass even the main character of Hatred with his attitude. And with a story as pitiful as this one, dealing with the obnoxiously cheap gameplay is completely out of the question. Why put up with the broken challenge of the title, if your only reward is more garbage? If you want to experience a better noir, why not seek out the films that game draws inspiration from? At least those movies only last a few hours.
This review was based on the Nintendo Switch version of the game. A copy was provided by Good Shepherd Entertainment.
Aggressively unpleasant and a chore to play, Milanoir is a bloody dud of a tale. A slick visual style is the only positive to take away from this lousy slog of a game.