Review: She swaggered into my office. Her pixels would have made a blind man's retina's burn.
All hail the adventure game! The Nintendo DS with its touch interface has managed to become the new home for this once prevalent genre. The popularity of titles like Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney show that these games still have a niche in today's industry, even after the figurative death of greats like Sierra On-Line. Nintendo seems to recognize this, being the reason why they recently published Hotel Dusk: Room 215 for the Nintendo DS. The result? Hotel Dusk is without a doubt one of the best adventure titles on the DS and hopefully an omen of good things to come for the genre.
Hotel Dusk: Room 215 is a detective tale that pays homage to classic film noirs of the early 20th century. The player steps into the shoes of Kyle Hyde, a burnt-out former NYPD officer turned traveling salesman in Los Angeles. Hyde left the force a few years previous after a case that involved him being betrayed by his ex-partner Brian Bradley. Even though Hyde moved to the west coast to forget his troubles, the case and its unanswered questions still plague him. In addition to selling novelties, Hyde's new employer, Red Crown, also requires him to find ?lost? items for clients. At the game's beginning, Hyde's employer Ed sends him on such an assignment to the dilapidated Hotel Dusk where Hyde checks in as a guest. Through the course of his stay there, Hyde encounters a series of characters, both employees and guests, and begins to unravel the mysteries behind their individual tales of woe and what brought them to the steps of the out-of-the way hotel. He soon learns that each character's tale is eerily connected to one another, and to a larger mystery involving the case that still haunts him.
The game's story is without a doubt its strongest highlight. Hyde acts as catalyst hero, going through the game's ten chapters, and uncovering the mystery behind each guest. This, combined with the nature of the gameplay, results in the plot moving at a somewhat slower pace than many gamers have become accustomed. However, in the long run it is time well spent, for when things pick up in the later chapters, the player is more emotionally invested in the characters and the narrative. Those who feared this would be the video game equivalent of a Ridley Scott film (especially Legend) can rest easy.
What really sets Hotel Dusk apart from many games is that the characters are not video game stereotypes, but genuinely fleshed out individuals. Hyde himself is a dynamic character who manages to pull off the classic detective anti-hero while never falling into clich?. The characters' relationships are also compelling. Special notice must be given to the friendship that forms between Hyde and the petty thief turned bellboy Louis. The player actually is able to see, and more importantly feel, this relationship build while playing. This is all aided by snappy dialogue that gives each character a unique voice of his or her own.
Despite all this, the story is not without some minor shortcomings. It does at times stretch the suspension of disbelief. Although the game offers some explanation, to think that these inter-connected souls are all staying at the Hotel Dusk at the same time is a bit of a stretch. What is this, Crash? Also, the game has its share of melodrama that will have some players rolling their eyes. However, if you can wink at these moments and simply enjoy the ride, the peaks are more numerous than the valleys.
As with most adventure games, Hotel Dusk's gameplay emphasizes puzzle solving. These are mostly inventory-based and not overly difficult. More importantly they are also logical. When you find a sewing kit, you can safely bet that it will be used for its intended purpose, not to brain someone. There are unfortunately a few instances of pixel hunting for items, which quickly becomes annoying. This is further complicated by the fact that Hotel Dusk, like many games of its genre, relies on triggered events. This means that unless you complete Event A (finding an item or solving a puzzle), Event B will not take place to further the story. This occasionally results in the player wandering around the hotel, trying to find an item or detail they missed in order to continue with the game. The annoyance level of this is largely dependent upon the individual player's experience level. Die-hard adventure players might not have a problem at all, while newcomers may become quickly become frustrated.
The game also features a number of Myst-like environmental puzzles that require the player to manipulate objects via the touch screen. These are slightly more challenging but none will cause you to start pulling your hair out (mental disorder permitting). Trial and error combined with a little patience often produces fruitful results. A few do stand out as somewhat tedious however. A good example is a coin puzzle Hyde must solve before a character will talk to him. Does this make any sense? I don't carry around a Rubik's cube to hand out to anyone who asks me a question.
Aside from the puzzle solving, the core gameplay, and as a result how you will spend most of your time, is in conversations with the other guests. Let me forewarn you that if you do not like reading, Hotel Dusk is NOT the game for you. To say the game is dialogue heavy would be a gross understatement. It is dialogue obese. Solving problems and unraveling mysteries involves the player asking the correct questions of the other party. Many characters will not want to tell you the information you seek right out, so the player will have to take off the gloves and outright interrogate people while presenting evidence against them. When a guest is being stubborn or unresponsive, you must press them for info (indicated by an icon you literally press with the stylus). From here you can make choices in how you want to stem the flow of questioning.
The way you choose your words is important. At the end of several chapters there will come a part where a certain character will begin to confide in Hyde. Here you must ask the proper questions to solve that character's mystery or risk losing the game. This is never very difficult, but it can be annoying if you mess up since you have to sit through all the dialogue again. I suppose however this punishment serves as a stronger emphasis for the player to be careful and choose the proper questions the first time around.
Hotel Dusk has a unique presentation. The game requires that the player hold the DS vertically like a book. The player moves and interacts with the environment almost exclusively with the stylus. While traversing the hotel, a map takes up the touch screen, while the top screen allows Hyde to look around his environment. The latter uses a FPS approach with 3-D environments. The environmental detail level is high, which aids in locating items and moreover conveys the hotel's atmosphere. However, the character sprites you run into while navigating are 2-D cutouts that possess little to no animation whatsoever.
The graphics take on a very stylish tone once Hyde engages in a conversation with another guest. When this occurs, Hyde and the other character take up one screen each, creating the split-screen telephone conversation effect seen in movies. In noir fashion, most of these characters appear in black and white. The characters here are highly detailed and expressive. They possess a sort of shaky animation that calls attention to them being drawn figures. The closest way to describe this effect would be its similarity to the classic music video for A-Ha's ?Take On Me? (if you weren't a child of the 80s, just YouTube it).
The sound effects are nothing to write home about. They are simple environmental noises like doors opening/closing that you have probably heard in countless other games. The music is hit or miss. It seems the developers were going for a sort of jazz mix to compliment the noir inspired nature of the game. However, what results is very repetitive elevator music as you explore the hotel. These tunes quickly become tiring, especially when the player is unclear of what to do next and has to wander around a bit. The music fairs better in other parts of the game, where it is up or downbeat at the appropriate tense or meditative situations.