After a dry year, a third adventure game has finally been released for the Nintendo DS: Atlus' Touch Detective. This game follows on the heels of Cing's haunting Another Code (Trace Memory) and Capcom's energetic Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, and it serves as a prelude to their respective follow-ups in Hotel Dusk: Room 215 and Phoenix Wright: Justice for All, along with a couple of recently-announced adventure games under development by western studios. Until these are released, Touch Detective is the only new offering for DS owners hungry to play an adventure game on the handheld platform. So how does this middle child fare? Stereotypically, it tries hard but never really lives up to its potential. Think of it as the Jan Brady of the DS world.
Touch Detective is a simple game about a little girl who has apparently inherited her father's detective agency. Her father's death is alluded to in the beginning of the game but never explicitly stated; Mom is completely out of the picture. Mackenzie's only family is her butler, Cromwell, who encourages her throughout her investigations, builds a few handy contraptions, and is always on hand to serve tea. A detective just starting out, Mackenzie's dream is to earn her way into the prestigious Great Detective Society, but she must first solve enough cases to build up her reputation.
The point-and-click interface that is so common in PC adventure games has been translated well to the Nintendo DS. You control Mackenzie by tapping the stylus on the bottom screen. Alternatively, you can move the arrow keys on the D-pad, which causes a small cursor to move around the screen, and hit A when the cursor lands where you want it. This method works okay, but isn't as precise or quick as using the stylus. The area at the bottom of the screen contains icons to access the main menu and the inventory. Tapping the stylus on an inventory item provides a closer view, and touching various parts of the close-up may reveal new information about the item. Items can sometimes be combined by using one on another while in this close-up view. All of these actions take place on the bottom screen.
Some of the things Mackenzie touches as she goes about her investigations are added to a seemingly arbitrary "Touch List" that lives in the main menu. This is reminiscent of the point lists in old Sierra games, and encourages the player to interact with as much of the world as possible. Mackenzie tells you when something has been added to the Touch List, but you have to save your game and go back to the main menu before you can see the list and read what she has to say about the item. This cumbersome process quickly turned keeping up with the Touch List into a low priority for me.
When the characters speak, text scrolls onto the screen, word by word, in talk bubbles above their heads. The A button clears this, but only after the line is fully visible—there's no way to jump ahead manually as the dialogue scrolls out. This annoyance is exacerbated by the fact that you'll only know if you've exhausted conversation with someone by tapping the person again and getting the same lines you've already seen. Since characters often change what they have to say only after you've done something seemingly unrelated in another part of town, you'll find yourself in this situation often as you try to figure out what's been triggered. Brace yourself for a lot of repetition.
Not surprisingly, the game has no voice acting, but as text scrolls onto the screen, it's accompanied by a sound that changes in tone depending on which character is speaking. I thought this was a nice touch that helped establish each character's personality, in spite of the DS's functional limitations.
The top screen is hardly used at all, which is a real shame. At almost all times during the game, that screen shows a close-up drawing of Mackenzie and a placard that displays the case's title and the location you're in. This is fairly unnecessary information, since there's no way to jump from case to case, and the game has only about seven locations total (three of which are not accessible during early portions of the game). Occasionally Mackenzie's facial expression will change in reaction to something she's learned, or her thoughts will appear in a bubble above her head on the top screen, but she only has about three expressions and her thoughts are often unrelated to what's going on, not to mention fairly mundane. For example, as a client describes a case to her, Mackenzie's worrying about her tea: "My tea is getting cold. I should add ice. Then I'll have iced tea!" I quickly got in the habit of ignoring the top screen.
Touch Detective's four cases, which can only be accessed in a linear order, follow Mackenzie on fairly simple, traditional quests. (There's also a so-called "bonus episode," a series of side quests with no central plot to string them together. This can be accessed at any time, but since the game only has one save slot, you can't stop mid-case to try out the bonus episode without erasing all of your progress in the current case.) The four main cases all have something to do with Mackenzie's oddball friend Penelope, a bubbly blonde with a taste for bananas and an affinity for getting herself into sticky situations. To give you an idea of the flavor of these cases, the first involves Penelope's recurring dream about playing with ducks in the park. Penelope wakes from the dream just as it's getting good and has an "empty feeling in her heart," which she's convinced is the result of someone stealing the rest of her dream from her. Penelope wants Mackenzie to find the dream thief. Mackenzie doubts Penelope's suspicions at first, but grows to believe them as she investigates, and the case takes an absurd turn near the end. I won't give away the details, but in the end, after all this work, the resolution of the case is silly and a big let-down. Unfortunately this is true of all of the cases. They build to a climax, and then end suddenly and neatly, with an explanation so simplistic, I was left wondering why I did all that footwork for so little payoff.
All of Touch Detective's cases have a decidedly juvenile tone. The player is constantly reminded that Mackenzie and her friends are kids with kid problems. Adults are given little reason to care about the characters and their situations, and the cases never really extend past the realm of childhood make-believe. The stakes just aren't high enough. But this is not a game for children—at least, Atlus' positioning of the game has given no reason to believe so. If anything, they're targeting the same adult crowd that enjoyed Phoenix Wright, but this game is nowhere nearly as complex or engaging. Children may enjoy Touch Detective, but I think it would be too difficult for the very young kids who would take the stories at face value, and still too juvenile for older kids more equipped to solve the game's puzzles and cope with its gameplay mechanics. No, I believe this is a game intended for adults; it just doesn't have the right balance of amusing childhood situations and mature observations and motivations for adult players to relate to it.Continued on the next page...