Saturday, December 13, 2008

Game Review: Hotel Dusk: Room 215

I just recently completed Cing’s 2007 DS effort, Hotel Dusk: Room 215. This is a spiritual follow-up of sorts to their earlier Trace Memory, another mystery game released before anyone really knew what to do with the hardware. Some of that game's awkwardness remains here in the workmanlike 3D engine and gimmicky mini-games, but taken as a whole it serves as a reminder of the depth and breadth now found in the DS’ once-humble game library.

The game is set at the tail end of the 1970s. You’re a hard-assed film noir-style cop-turned-salesman with some Serious Baggage. This general mood is enhanced by the character art, which is done in a black-and-white pencil sketch style. It invokes the feeling of the genre without being cheesy or generic, and never comes off as forced. It is, if nothing else, a well-written narrative, and the localization team deserves kudos.

The characterizations also shine. In Dusk, everybody is searching for someone else – a partner, a mother, a wife, a daughter, a son, a friend. This is the common thread that ties together these different people, with their vastly different motives and personalities and perspectives. No two people have the same voice, and you’ll manage to like all of them by the end, despite their sometimes questionable histories.

Do not misunderstand me – turn this game into a book, and it isn’t going to win any awards. Outside of the context of video games, it isn’t much better than an off-the-rack potboiler from the mystery section, and it’s a slow-moving one at that. Still, game narrative (and in particular game endings) so rarely attempts to fumble toward anything satisfying that it’s refreshing just to see something more than a credit sequence rolling over the top of a montage of scenes from the game you just finished playing. It has a gruff but likeable protagonist. It has a memorable and diverse cast of characters. It creates a sense of suspense, maintains forward motion, and ties up its loose ends when it’s done. It isn’t groundbreaking, but it’s well-executed, and that is an unfortunate rarity in this hobby.

Dusk falls flat most often when it actually tries to be a video game. Nothing here is broken, but rarely do the touch screen elements – scrape the paint off of something, search a box for some contents, file down a pencil to get graphite dust – actually manage to be fun. It’s like reading a decent book, except every now and again the pages go blank and won’t let you read them again until you refill the saltshaker, or some similarly mundane task. Yawn. As a game, Dusk fails to impress.

But maybe that makes it a more interesting title? The always gratuitous touch screen portions feel like they are a sideshow to the story, where the reverse is typically true – generally we are served up a couple of minutes (or a couple of hours) of pre-rendered cinematic cut scene, then we’re booted into a fifteen minute run-and-gun session that makes us completely forget any emotional impulse the cut scene may have inspired. If you get to a hard section of game, get frustrated, and put it down for a couple of days, that’s even worse. Part of Dusk’s appeal is its willingness to let game take a backseat to story.

Yes, I recommend Hotel Dusk. It’s not great literature, and it’s not a fantastic game, but it somehow manages to straddle that invisible line between game and narrative well enough that it’s worth a look anyway. Just know what you're buying when you pick it up.