Poking About In Other People's Lives

by Arthur B

A review of Hotel Dusk: Room 215 for the Nintendo DS.
Much of the charm of the Nintendo DS, like its grown-up cousin the Wii, lies in how charmingly tactile it is. The split between the touchscreen, which you prod and poke at with the provided stylus, and the viewscreen where the other half of the action is displayed - and which you can't directly poke - opens up a wealth of possibilities which game designers are right now exploiting to the hilt; like the Wii, the DS has prompted a wave of originality in game design. On the other hand, one wouldn't immediately associated point-and-click adventures, or Japanese "interactive novels", with an intensely tactile experience. Part of the Phoenix Wright-inspired explosion of adventure games on the DS is Hotel Dusk: Room 215, a hybrid of point-and-click adventure puzzler and interactive novel which makes full use of the DS's capabilities.

The plot of Hotel Dusk is best described as an upbeat, positive spin on Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett - film blanc, if you will. In late 1976 NYPD detective Kyle Hyde's partner, Brian Bradley, went rogue while infiltrating an organised crime syndicate called Nile, a conspiracy specialising in art fraud. After a dramatic confrontation in which Kyle appeared to shoot his partner, Bradley's body was never recovered. Fired from the force, Kyle moved to LA and started to work for an old friend of his father's who runs Red Crown, a business that acts as a cover for a private detective agency; using his guise as a door-to-door salesman of Red Crown cleaning products, Kyle's real line of work is in using his sleuthing skills to recover missing items - but all the time he keeps one eye out for a chance to get on Bradley's trail.

Hyde's journeys take him to Hotel Dusk, a small hotel in the Nevada Desert between Las Vegas and Los Angeles. It's the 28th of December, straight between Christmas and New Year's; clearly, anyone staying at a run-down old hotel at that time of year is going to have problems. Over the course of the game, Kyle gets to the bottom of them all, motivated by his suspicion that Bradley had visited the hotel 6 months previously and may have left behind something of significance. As Kyle's investigation progresses, he learns about the secrets and mysteries plaguing the other guests - and in his own rough-mannered way manages to help put everyone on the right track, leaving them happier than when he found them in a strange but heartwarming inversion of the usual hardboiled detective formula. Recurring themes involve angels, wishes, and broken families; nothing explicitly supernatural ever happens, but a steady stream of apparent coincidences prompts the player to wonder if a higher force isn't at work after all.

The gameplay is simple: for much of the game, you guide Kyle around the hotel and get into long but well-realised conversations with the guests. The dialogue is sometimes a bit stilted, but each character has a very distinctive personality, revealed as much by their mode of speech as what they have to say for themselves. This is helped by the graphics, in which each character is animated as if they were a pencil or watercolour sketch, yielding an effect not unlike the video for Take On Me by A-Ha. This is extremely effective; the characters in Hotel Dusk are easily more expressive than even the most painstakingly rendered CGI character in, say, Half-Life 2. They even do a decent job of characterisation; the characters manage to be archetypal without being stereotypical; occasionally, they're even unique and interesting and original in their own right.

Of course, these guys aren't going to spill their guts to you without a little work. There's plenty of sleuthing to be done in Hotel Dusk; much of it involves cross-examining people, but there's also a number of puzzles to be completed, ranging from searching for clues to more intricate problems. This would be a good chance to discuss Hotel Dusk's interface. The game is actually designed so that you're meant to hold the DS sideways, so that it opens up and closes like a book - the designers win points with me for allowing you to specify whether you're left- or right-handed (the game assumes you'll use your dominant hand to hold the stylus and arranges the screens and controls accordingly). The control system when you are exploring allows you to examine an area more closely when there's potentially something of interest there, and when you do that it highlights objects of interest when you prod them with the cursor; a slider at the bottom of the screen allows you to shift your perspective to more easily see things. This pretty much eliminates the hunt-the-pixel shenanigans that avid adventure gamers will remember from the so-called good old days.

But where the game really excels is in the minigames, which often make excellent use of the DS's capabilities - to the point where the physical game system itself is part of the puzzle. For example, there's one bit where there's a secret message hidden on the back of a jigsaw puzzle; first you complete the puzzle on the touch screen, then it gets transferred to the view screen while a blank area of the table it's sitting on is displayed on the touch screen. To represent you flipping the puzzle over, you have to physically close the DS and open it again - it'll detect this (because closing a DS will put it into hibernation) and flip the puzzle onto the touchscreen for you so you can see the underside.

As far as the puzzles go, the designers are smart enough to realise (unlike the designers of, say, the Broken Sword games) that if you want to design a serious adventure game you can't use the same sort of puzzles that you would for a comedic one; all of the stuff you end up doing in the game is perfectly logical behaviour for a nosey detective.

At a decent playing length (I completed it in 15 hours or so), Hotel Dusk provides an all-round excellent experience, with no component of the game especially letting it down. The only downsides I found were that the conversations occasionally run on for a while, and there's no way to save in the middle of them or skip over exchanges you've already gone through, and that the game only offers you three save slots. (When is Nintendo going to offer memory cards for its handheld systems? It'd be simple enough to make one which would fit into the DS's slot for Gameboy Advance games.) Puzzle addicts might find the puzzles too easy, but I found that they were pitched at just the right level; they required occasional lateral thinking, but didn't involve any of the ludicrous leaps of logic that are expected of you in, say, Broken Sword (or just about any Sierra graphical adventure). If you think like a detective, you'll get the results you'll want.

Oh, one last criticism: the game is extremely linear. Pretty much all point-and-click adventures are, but Hotel Dusk goes a little far: there's a couple of points in the game where it would be perfectly logical for you to go and solve a particular puzzle or follow up a particular clue, but you're not given the opportunity until you've finished the business immediately at hand. The game does a good job of prompting you, so you're rarely confused as to what you're meant to be doing, but having a little choice as to which order I tackled things in would have been nice. This is probably an upshot of the game being at least partially in the "interactive novel" genre, which I understand is fairly linear.

Hotel Dusk is an intruiging slice of life. Although you find out the backstory of many of the characters, only the central plotline is fully resolved - most of the missing persons remain missing, although it's hinted that at least a few of them will be found. We get a chance to meet these characters, find out where they came from, and get a few hints as to where they're going, and I for one am satisfied with that. That said, I do want to see where Kyle Hyde's journey takes him next, and I'd love the chance to match my detective skills against the might of the Nile organisation: sequel, please?

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Comments (go to latest)
Wardog at 13:29 on 2007-11-26
Are you guys accumulating consoles or something? I can never quite get to grip (har har) with hand helds because my eyesight simply can't cope with the size. But the imaginative uses they've put the interface to sound absolutely fascinating. I'm also glad to see the revival of the adventure game. *goes back to garrotting people*
Arthur B at 15:10 on 2007-11-26
Hey, we've been keeping to a steady rate of 1 console every couple of years.

OK, technically we've just bought 2 DS systems so that's more like 1.5 consoles every couple of years.

But you can't do PictoChat with only one DS.
Wardog at 14:37 on 2007-11-28
What's PictoChat...she asks warily...
Arthur B at 16:42 on 2007-11-28
It's the most advanced way to secretly send drawings of dicks to other people known to man.

Specifically, it's a chat program which lets you communicate with other DS users. They have to be using it at the same time, and they can't be beyond, say, 20 feet of you. It's basically designed for people who are skiving at school or work.

Also dick pictures.
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