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Gothic romance mystery that adds to Crème de la Crème universe, September 17, 2023
by ccpost (Greensboro, North Carolina)
I absolutely loved Hannah Powell-Smith's Crème de la Crème, and so I've had the follow-up games set in the same universe on my to-play list for awhile. Noblesse Oblige does not directly continue the story of this previous game -- at least to my knowledge, none of the main characters from CdlC recur in Noblesse -- rather, this game tells its own captivating story while building out the history, culture, and social dynamics of the Creme universe from a quite different perspective. Powell-Smith's strong writing and sophisticated approach to romancing characters clearly ties this game to CdlC, but Noblesse is its own game in many important ways -- and a really good game at that.
Both the plot and the tone of Noblesse are very different from CdlC. In this game, you play as a college dropout who has taken a post as a tutor for the niece of a reclusive Countess. Instead of navigating your way up the social hierarchy as in CdlC, the protagonist of this game has to negotiate the challenges of a fall from their expected upward trajectory. In fact, one of the areas where I felt this game did better than its predecessor was in the bevy of choices that invite the player in to the protagonist's interior reflections and thoughts. In addition to external decisions and interactions with NPCs, the game offers several check-in decisions that enable the player to register how the character is feeling about themself and their situation. I felt like I had a much greater role in the character development of the protagonist than in CdlC.
The other major difference is the tone of the story. Powell-Smith fashions this game as a gothic romance in the vein of the Bronte sisters. The setting is an aging manor on a secluded, windswept island, and many things feel just a bit uneasy and out of place throughout the game. Early on in the game...(Spoiler - click to show)Pascha, your charge, howls outside during a stormy night before being captured and brought back inside the manor, all of which felt very much like a scene ripped from Jane Eyre. This tone is established nicely early on and Powell-Smith did an effective job of developing this mysterious, gothic atmosphere as you explore the manor and the rest of the island through proceeding episodes.
The overall structure and goals of Noblesse are somewhat similar to CdlC: you can romance characters and/or develop friendships while unraveling some intriguing mysteries that threaten to alter your situation and trajectory for the better or the worse, depending on your choices. While there's one really big mystery in CdlC ((Spoiler - click to show)the disappearance of the students into the mines), in Noblesse there are three mysteries that you can unravel, one for each of the three major non-player characters that you interact with.
This aspect of the design is the one minor issue that I had with the game. There are probably ways to develop relationships with each of these characters such that you can uncover all the mysterious backstories in one playthrough, but that strategy was not really appealing to me because to do so would have jarred with other plot, character, and romance-based decisions that I was making. I had an idea of what relationships I really wanted to focus on, and I would have had to go against the motivations that felt 'right' with how I was developing the protagonist for the sake of uncovering details that felt really key to the overall plot. I suppose this adds to the replayability, as I could focus on uncovering these other mysteries on subsequent playthroughs, but I just don't like this structure as much. I think I prefer games with the one Big mystery (as in CdlC) that the player can get at in many different ways rather than several different mysteries that can only be uncovered through many playthroughs.
For fans of CdlC, though, this is a must play if only for the new light that Noblesse adds on the bigger universe of these games. Powell-Smith brings in tons of rich detail on Jezhani culture, mentioned somewhat in CdlC but as a minority group to the dominant Westerlind culture. As a tutor coming from the outside, you learn about Jezhani religion and social mores and need to reflect on how you relate to them -- as a neutral observer or really embracing them as your own. As with CdlC, this involves bigger questions and tensions about class and social dynamics that push past the bounds of the game and ask the player to think about oppression, elitism, and cultural appropriation in our own world. Powell-Smith doesn't hit us over the head with these comparisons, but rather the richness with which she develops this world invites critical reflection that spills out beyond this fantasy universe.
Powell-Smith continues to build something really special with this addition to the CdlC universe. I'd recommend this game on its own as an intriguing gothic romance mystery, but of course it really shines within the broader context of the series of games.