Proverbial Jon Reviews...
Time Hollow is essentially an interactive graphic novel that was released in 2008 for the Nintendo DS. The game follows Ethan Kairos, a normal high school student who wakes up one morning to find his parents are missing. Not only that but they have suddenly been missing for 12 years. Oh, and his cat brings him a Pen which can draw holes in time. Confused? Well it's about to get a whole lot more complicated!
Time Hollow is a little light on gameplay but what little there is works quite well and is genuinely fun. The main feature of the game are Ethan's flashbacks, still images that appear whenever time has been altered by a mysterious antagonistic force. But before Ethan can put time back in the right order, he has to gather all the facts. Each flashback image is significant but nothing can be done until all the details of a flashback have been "verified". Ethan can do this by gathering information from the various other characters of the story. Each time Ethan learns something new, the flashback is updated.
Ethan is able to travel freely between the various locations within his home town via a map. To uncover the information Ethan requires he must travel to the various locations, explore the environments and talk to the characters. There is very little logic as to where each person might be loitering and which person might know a specific piece of information so you'll end up travelling to every location in turn, talking to everyone as many times as possible and hoping that someone has the right information. Not all information is revealed at once either. Sometimes you'll have to ask the same character the same question multiple times just to get the full story and this just feels counter intuitive and downright daft. Esspecially when you want to know if character A knows character B and have to say "Do you know Character B" three times in a row.
Once Ethan has gathered the neccessary information and "verified" the details of a flashback, he can go to the location featured in his vision and start a "digging session". This is where you get to use the Hollow Pen, Ethan's mysterious device that can open holes into the past. From these holes you can interact with a specific moment in time and change the past to avert whatever dissaster had occured previously. It's a neat little idea but it usually only involves taking an item from or placing one into the past and even if you don't follow the story closely, it's easy enough to guess what that might be. You do however only have a limited amount of tries and the holes are quite small, so it helps to know what you're doing before you start messing with time. I did manage to fail on several occassions. Once the hole has been closed and time has been changed a whole new set of flashbacks will appear, for better or for worse.
It wouldn't be entirely unfair to say that Time Hollow's storyline is completely bonkers. It's certainly not as crazy as most Japanese games but some of the plot twists did make me raise an eyebrow in suspicious disbelief. The plot is easy enough to grasp in the beginning but eventually time is being re-written so often that it's hard to follow what is going on. Some of the character's motives are sketchy at best and a certain chapter involving a murder is pretty unbelievable when you hear who did it.
As for the characters, well they're huge stereotypes and there's only really a few that are worth paying much attention to. But they're pleasent enough to be around and the experience never drags or becomes tiresome because of it. Due to time being altered so often, Ethan's relationships with each of the principal characters changes too and, depending on the nature of Ethan's meddling, this can be good or bad. If you enjoy tales of time travel in general and feel you can wrap your brain around the concept, then this will still be an enjoyable ride.
If you like Japanese Anime then you'll most likely enjoy the artistic style of Time Hollow. Occasionally an animated cutscene will play in order to advance the story and these are fully voice acted and mostly on par with any anime that you might find on TV. Sadly there are too few of these moments. The locations Ethan visits are hand painted 2D backgrounds which have been layered, so as to give the impression of depth when you scroll across them. Nothing is highlighted or particularly brought to the players attention, so finding areas of interest sometimes comes down to bit of trial and error.
The soundtrack is fantastic and can range from catchy upbeat melodies that will stick in your head to dark and unsettling undertones that will cause you to fear the next revelation. I felt genuinely uneasy on one occassion when I was playing this game at night and the music changed to suit a recent and terrible new twist in the story. Time Hollow also has one of the most awesome theme tunes I've heard for a game.
Time Hollow isn't perfect but it certainly has some good ideas. The overall style may not be anything you haven't seen before but there's a light hearted charm at work that serves to keep you engaged at all times. The time manipulating sections are good fun and always a highlight however they would benefit from a little more depth and a little less hand holding. Overall, Time Hollow is an enjoyable and fun experience that is definately worth your time. (See what I did there?)
I thank the wonderful Susan Arendt for introducing me to this interesting game through her comments in the Escapist Podcast!