Hotel Dusk: Room 215

January 22, 2007

The sign of any good mystery, be it a movie, book, or video game, is that it keeps the audience guessing until the last possible moment, while at the same time offering just enough tidbits of information so that everyone has their own ideas as to how it will all play out in the end. Developer Cing, best known as the force behind 2005’s Trace Memory for the Nintendo DS, has again graced Nintendo’s touchable handheld with adventure gaming care of Hotel Dusk: Room 215. However, while Trace Memory excelled in spite of its short length and overall lack of difficulty through its endearing story and characters, Hotel Dusk offers players a much more complete, and fulfilling package. Set in December 1979, Hotel Dusk tells a day in the life tale of Kyle Hyde, a former New York cop who through circumstances three years prior has found himself without a badge and working as a traveling salesman while at the same time trying to piece together the loose ends of his former life. As the game begins, his current job has landed him in dive known as Hotel Dusk, which not only turns out to have is own peculiar history, but also seems to draw in elements and people from Hyde’s past in a manner that is far too eerie to be just a coincidence.

Hotel Dusk is unique not only in its Tex Murphy film noir style story, but also in the way in which it is played. Rather than holding the Nintendo DS in the traditional manner, Hotel Dusk is played by holding the console sideways in much the same way as Nintendo’s Touch Generations branded Brain Age. The touch screen displays a blueprint of the current room, complete with icons for both Hyde and other hotel patrons. Here the detective can be moved by using the d-pad, though truthfully using the stylus to touch and drag on the screen to direct him to his destination is much more comfortable and user friendly. The other screen displays a polygonal 3D view of what he sees while walking about, allowing the player to keep an eye out for clues while exploring the hotel.

When near an area that can be investigated, a magnifying glass icon near the bottom of the touch screen will flash, the touching of which switches the blueprint view to a 3D image of the area with various touchable hotspots for further investigation. In addition, perhaps the coolest feature of this screen is a slider bar that allows the view to be pivoted slightly from side to side, potentially highlighting items or clues that were previously obstructed.

However, it doesn’t take a long time spent with Hotel Dusk to realize that besides weaving an intriguing mystery, the game was designed to confound, confuse, and even frustrate time and again. Unlike many of its contemporaries, Hotel Dusk does not hand over every clue and spoon feed directions as to where to go from moment to moment, a design methodology that is sure to please hardcore sleuths, while at the same time only further bewilder those who are either newcomers to adventure gaming or simply might need a little extra hint along the way.

There are few glaring hints to be had here. Information is handed over in pieces, sometimes cryptically so, and many times it is not entirely clear where or how to proceed next. Adding to this is that while time plays an important factor in game’s story, progression is based on event triggers, making the clock more or less irrelevant to Hotel Dusk’s actual gameplay. What this means is that if a clue was missed or overlooked, a player could find him or herself wandering aimlessly about the available areas of the hotel, knocking on doors and clicking on anything and everything in a faint hope to discover the next move while the game world itself sits at a standstill until the next event is triggered. An example of this plagued us during the game’s third chapter, where we were sure that we were to backtrack and find an angelic bookmark for one of the hotel’s more eccentric residents, only to stumble upon the true next course of action purely by accident after over an hour of hitting our heads against the wall.

To help somewhat with this, the game offers a memo notebook within which the player can scribe real time notes, though to be fair, it’s oftentimes difficult to pull the true clues out of a conversations amidst all of the characterization. Because of this, more than a handful of guesswork comes into play in determining what to write down. Thankfully the game does take care of recording some information on its own, namely the names of the hotel residents, as well as where they are staying or what their job is at Hotel Dusk, but the onus for keeping track of any other pertinent details or clues rests upon the the player’s shoulders. Unfortunately, the game really only gives a couple pages of virtual paper on which to write, making Hotel Dusk a throwback to the earlier days of gaming that had players manically taking notes in the real world in order to keep everything straight.

As mentioned, conversations with the hotel residents play a crucial role in uncovering the game’s underlying mysteries. In a typical fashion, dialog breaks down into lengthy conversations that eventually open up a number of story critical and optional branching paths. However, in an interesting twist, Hyde will occasionally be able to interrupt a person’s responses with additional questions or remarks of his own, giving conversations a much more fluid, even dynamic feel than are found in most games of this type. Simply tapping the interrupt icon when it appears will prompt Kyle to hold up his hand and interject in a manner one would expect from a police officer interrogating a witness. Even in a different job, Hyde’s mannerisms are very much that of a detective.

Adding to the conversation dynamic are hot words that Kyle will key on as conversations continue, which in turn open up new topics on which to follow up. The game breaks these topics down into different color coded categories, cluing the player in on the vital or even superfluous nature of the questions being asked. While some topics, colored white, may be specific to the person currently engaged in a conversation with Kyle, other topics, colored yellow, may be carried on from person to person until the issue is resolved. Finally, red topics are critical questions that pertain to a particular problem at hand.

Interestingly, not all of these conversation paths are advised, and it is entirely possible for Kyle to ask the wrong questions or push the wrong buttons, forcing the player to either retry the scenario, or load from a previous save. Thankfully, Hotel Dusk can be saved anywhere, though it only offers three save game slots.

Stylistically, Hotel Dusk marries pencil sketched characters and water colored backdrops with traditional polygonal environments in a manner that should be jarring, but instead feels both unique and altogether perfect. The characters themselves are distinct and very expressive, each displaying mannerisms reflecting their attitude regarding a particular line of questioning. Ask Louie about his past, and he’ll clam up and try not to make eye contact, or sweet talk Iris to see her beam like a schoolgirl. Most every game has characters, Hotel Dusk has personalities.

Overall, Hotel Dusk is a class act. It may not be a cake walk the first time through, but for those who can deal with the occasional head scratching bouts of frustration, this game is another winning addition to the Nintendo DS library. Everyone should spend at least one night in room 215. It’s a mature, thinking person’s game that should not be missed.

Score: 5/5

Questions? Check out our review guide.