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Loretta (XS)

By Lee Mehr 14th May 2024 | 1,648 views 

While some gameplay limitations dampen its mechanical & narrative potential, Loretta remains a harrowing & surreal ride through a twisted psyche.

Early on, the titular protagonist Loretta pushes a road-weary gumshoe to have some ice water in the kitchen.  His reason for interrupting her morning is simple: he's tracking down her husband, who's suddenly vamoosed in the middle of the night.  At a glance, everything seems like the formulaic 2D point-n-click adventure template of fetching an item to give to another character.  But then you see the can of rat poison in the upper cabinet.  You try to combine it with this enigmatic detective’s cup and then you're spotted.  BOOM!  He catches you in the act and puts two bullets through Loretta's skull without hesitation.  But the game isn't over; instead, it’s followed with a "Yeah... I should've known better…" monologue from Loretta, supposedly from beyond the grave, before the consequence is reversed.  Ironically, she takes another murderous route and succeeds only a few minutes later.  You're allowed to explore certain choices – some true and some false – but you're really in the hands of this psychotic blonde.

Despite key differences in structure, it's cut from the same cloth as Gone Girl: a deep-seated discomfort & hatred against your partner borne out of a failing marriage.  Loretta Lou Harris (or Lora for short) didn't opt for the housewife lifestyle on an Idaho farm "surrounded by fucking wheat," as she puts it.  She and her writer husband, Walter, were once urbanites, until Walter's deceased mother bequeathed this remote place and the surrounding acres.  Typical for the genre its aspires to, it's a costly decision that leaves the couple in financial straits.  Tie in some deception, a get-rich-quick scheme, and deadpan monologues disinterring our anti-heroine's true thoughts, and the real question is: how big of a hole does Lora make for herself by the end?

Loretta wears its aesthetic and narrative inspirations on its sleeves.  Before beginning the campaign proper, players can choose between Technicolor or black & white visual modes.  While the latter captures film noir's thematic intentions in contrasting light and darkness, the former's strength comes in subverting the pastoral landscape that's awash in moral decay.  The excursions usually depicted by the genre's classics – rundown private eye offices, seedy bars looking to break anyone who asks too many questions, pitch-black alleyways broken up by a singular streetlamp, and so on – are replaced by a rusted barn, a two-story farmhouse that's seen better days, and rows of yellow wheat as far as the eye can see.  Color also enhances the brief 'action' sequences, where the standard 2D pixelated world transitions to quasi-painterly panoramic shots of Lora by herself in center frame or speaking with someone else (reminiscent of Pokémon pre-battles, funnily enough).  You can immediately sense the resentment and brashness buried behind her gleaming blue eyes unseen in the static 2D viewpoint.

Past the more-unique setting for the genre, several marks for a marital/domestic noir are here.  The in medias res opening literally has a dialogue option of her saying "you can find my husband at the bottom of this well."  The way it explores this disillusionment, from infidelity to spousal hostility, and how she begins to truly know more about Walter after he's gone, is neatly-packed.  From the creaky floors to the damaged walls, every outward-facing issue within her home maps onto the state of their tattered marriage; her natural aversion toward everyone echoes within these disquieting walls.  It all lends itself to this uncomfortable atmosphere, emphasized by sharp sound design that knows when to be loud and when to let the quiet linger.  That also reinforces her psychological drama as well, where twisted reveries (akin to The Shining) continually haunt her as the walls start closing in.

The cleanest deviation away from standard noir tropes is the lack of a femme fatale.  Rather than the alluring & seductive pull of a temptress, she's quite blunt about being a simple girl who – to her late husband's chagrin – doesn’t care to read any great works.  Her only other credential besides housewife is unemployed ornithologist, but even that comes with a subtle revelation.  Instead of conniving through her sex appeal, there's a surprising bluntness to both her dialogue and internal monologues.  A huge part of what I admire about Loretta is how rarely she dissimulates her brash feelings towards anyone, which is explored in a number of ways: sex, class, male/female disparities of the post-WWII era, and more.  The smoothness by which these topics are explored alongside plot threads is downright impressive; moreover, I'd argue this ranks among the most authentic female interiors written in a game. 

Given the natural limitations for what's essentially a quasi-visual novel, the adventure tropes aren’t so rigidly enforced.   Sure, there's necessary item-fetching, but this amounts to little more than skimming through some drawers, cabinets, or whatnot.  It's mostly in service to maintaining a consistent mood before the next story beat.  There are a few trippy scenes that are either short action sequences or minor puzzles, but they're a mix of beginner-level ideas or simply clicking puzzle pieces a few times.  Even if the abstract arcade challenges feel like simple distractions, at least they're still interesting windows into Loretta's damned soul.

Mechanics are not Loretta's strong suit; that said, what's expressed through mechanics can be engaging in its own right.  Certain dialogue options enable 'your Lora' to be so venomous and vile.  Circling back to its opening, seeing the option to bluntly admit that Walter's dead in the bottom of the well (along with the text color transitioning from yellow to crimson), masterfully captures her unflinching disregard.  While there are some alternate decisions, some of which detract from its narrative goals, the most exciting aspect of these choices is how Lora's framed within them.  You quickly understand that there's no way out for her during the start, so navigating this descent is more about capturing her most authentic mindset from your viewpoint.

On top of being mechanically limited, the same holds true regarding its overall length.  For my money, squeezing out a campaign in 3 hours for $15 (retail) is satisfactory; there's little difference between that ask and a night-time theater ticket.  There's also the chance at replaying chapters for both missed achievements and alternate decisions.  Even if replayability is irrelevant and you hypothetically complete it in 2.5 hours, I'd still argue this isn’t a similar situation to Venba because it feels complete.  From the way its non-linear story is structured and portioned, it succinctly captures a beginning, middle, and end.

Where Yakov Butuzoff delivers is by understanding the natural constraints of his workload.  Sure, if you come in expecting more complex puzzles typical for adventure games, then prepare to be disappointed.  By refocusing the 2D adventure towards exciting psychological drama and film noir, Loretta finds an interesting middle more focused on this twisted protagonist's deeper plunge into inhumanity.  How that exhibits itself can get too inconsistent given some superfluous dialogue choices and mechanics; and yet, the portions that harmonize with Lora's depravity still resonate.  The final result?  Like other quality psychological thrillers, it's a thrilling page-turner that provides genuine & intriguing insight into a broken individual.

Contractor by trade and writer by hobby, Lee's obnoxious criticisms have found a way to be featured across several gaming sites: N4G, VGChartz, Gaming Nexus, DarkStation, and TechRaptor! He started gaming in the mid-90s and has had the privilege in playing many games across a plethora of platforms. Reader warning: each click given to his articles only helps to inflate his Texas-sized ego. Proceed with caution.

VGChartz Verdict


This review is based on a digital copy of Loretta for the XS

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