Checking in at Hotel Dusk

Checking in at Hotel Dusk

imageThe Nintendo DS, with its tactile interface, is often cited as an ideal platform for a new era of adventure games. Games like Trace Memory and the Phoenix Wright titles certainly demonstrate the handheld's ability to transform tired point-and-click adventure interactions into novel new gameplay, leading some to look forward to a Nintendo-enabled adventure game revival. The latest DS title to attempt to reinvigorate the genre is Cing's Hotel Dusk.

Hotel Dusk follows in the somewhat tired footsteps of the prototypical noir tale. It relates the exploits of hard-boiled former cop Kyle Hyde as he spends a single evening in the game's titular establishment, a decrepit, small-town flophouse. Having long ago left his law enforcement career to work as a traveling salesman, Hyde arrives at the hotel on an errand for his employer. As it happens, Hyde's boss runs a side business helping people find "lost things," and so Hyde arrives at Hotel Dusk prepared to engage in a bit of informal detective work.

Hotel Dusk is played with the DS held sideways, its screens offering vertical portraits of the action. The entire game takes place within the old hotel, and its drab rooms and hallways are rendered by the game in an unimpressive, utilitarian style. The left screen typically displays a low-resolution 3D image, while the right portrays a maplike, top-down line drawing of the same area. Navigation is simple, and accomplished with either d-pad or stylus. Certain areas and objects can also be examined more carefully from a zoomed-in perspective.

From the outset of the story it's readily apparent that, despite the game's title, the hotel is not the focal point. Instead, it's the richly crafted characters that Hyde encounters inside the establishment. Though the hotel offers some opportunities for exploration, the vast majority of the game plays out through long, detailed conversations with its inhabitants.

imageHotel Dusk portrays its characters, including the protagonist, as skillfully drawn black-and-white pencil sketches. Each dialogue places Kyle Hyde and the subject of his inquiries on opposite screens, and as their words and thoughts appear as text, they're accompanied by subtle, emotive animations. Occasionally a wash of color will pass through a character to indicate an extreme emotion. It's an undeniably compelling presentation, and the quality of the illustrations really serves to make the game's characters memorable.

The hotel staff, including a gruff penny-pinching owner and a brash but gregarious maid, are among the first individuals Hyde encounters. Others, including several hotel guests, are quickly introduced. Although the characters are superficially stereotypical, the story wastes no time in asserting that each has a rich and enigmatic backstory, tied to the histories of both Hyde and the hotel. As Hyde encounters each guest, he senses that during his stay at the hotel he'll resolve some nagging questions about his previous career, and the mysterious disappearance of a fellow officer.

When it comes right down to it, Hotel Dusk is more graphic novel than traditional adventure game. Its story unfolds almost entirely through Hyde's frequent, lengthy, and sometimes tedious interrogations of other characters. Although Hyde can often choose the tone and direction of his inquiries, the story plays out in a completely linear fashion. Conversations are occasionally interspersed with simple item hunts, minigames, and familiar point-and-click interactions that offer brief respites from the text-based segments.

imageAt its worst, Hotel Dusk's adventure game components devolve into tedious examinations of various locations, with stylus clicks rewarded by bland descriptions. Exploring the hotel lobby, for example, may yield such tantalizing details as, "There are a couple of chairs in the corner of the room," and, "There's a simple wooden table in front of the chairs." Once in a while Hyde will make a wry comment on the hotel's lackluster decor, but usually the only fun to be had in poking around is the occasional discovery of a useful object.

Over the course of the story Hyde finds himself making inventive use of mundane items in typical adventure game fashion. Like a low-rent MacGyver, he fashions lockpicks from coat hangers, discovers hidden messages with chalk dust, and uncracks secret codes with connect-the-dot games. A few of these mini-games are truly clever, but most simply capitalize on the magic of the DS's touch screen to enliven otherwise dull events.

Hotel Dusk's plot, while inventive, includes more bizarre coincidences than a Seinfeld episode, and enough backstory convolutions to confuse Hideo Kojima. Mercifully, an in-game notebook is included, so you can jot down notes with the stylus for later reference. Occasionally, failing to complete a critical task or walking through the wrong doorway at the wrong time will result in Hyde getting booted from the hotel, followed by a "Game Over" screen. More often though, the game engages in unnecessary hand-holding via a steady stream of reminders.

In the final analysis, Hotel Dusk's gameplay isn't nearly as interesting as its story, and its story isn't nearly as engaging as its characters. Although its exposition tends to drag on, and its minigames often fail to excite, few games offer such memorable characters. It's a step forward for adventure games, to be sure, but not the leap that fans of the genre may have hoped for.

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Hotel Dusk is a work of genius, standing defiant of pretty much everything mainstream: the graphics are extremely minimalistic and absolutely gorgeous; Dusk's dialog is lengthy, purposeful and natural; character animations are short and brilliantly expressive; and the game-play serves primarily to immerse the player in the story, which weaves unlikely coincidences and circumstances with masterful care.

The quality of the characters in this game is absolutely amazing. You have characters that you'll both love and hate... but for all the right reasons; each character is a believable blend of admirable and unlikable. You'll truly empathize with these characters in one way or another.

The game is not perfect, but the end result far outweighs the flaws... and that's about all we can ask from a game.

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This is a game that's ALL about story and arguably kicks player freedom to the curb. It brilliantly excels in several story related areas that Warren Spector criticizes mainstream gaming for. It also leads me to really question if there is some sort of inverse relationship to player freedom and storytelling. Could Hotel Dusk have had more freedom and still rocked my socks off with its story?

Anyway, Warren, if you're reading this, you should play this game (if you haven't already); unplug that Xbox 360 and power on your DS Lite. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this game. ;-)

 

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