If you're a fan of adventure games, you've probably had at least one experience (if not half a dozen) of going into a store, asking for a game, and getting a blank stare from the clerk. I'm so used to this by now that it doesn't faze me, which is why I was a bit taken aback when, as I was buying the new Phoenix Wright game at a local store a few weeks ago, the clerk said, "Hey, if you like this game, there's this other new one you'd be interested in, where you play a detective." I told him I'd already bought Hotel Dusk: Room 215, and that I'd be reviewing it soon for an adventure gaming website. (This brought on a blank stare—should have seen that coming.) I said that I hadn't started the game yet, but I thought I'd like it because I really enjoyed Trace Memory (also known as Another Code), the other DS adventure game released by Cing last year. "That's the same kind of game?" he asked. "Huh, I see that game all over the place and I don't know anything about it."
What a difference a year makes. Trace Memory was the first adventure game to come out on the DS. It has always been easy to find at retail, and although it got a decent amount of mainstream attention, the reviews were lukewarm. Some of the biggest complaints were the game's short length and, well, the fact that it's an adventure game. Hotel Dusk, on the other hand, is being advertised heavily, seems to be scarce in the stores (which of course makes everyone want it more), and is getting a lot of praise from all types of gamers for its unique gameplay and "interactive novel" aura. All this hype led me to believe Hotel Dusk would be much better than Trace Memory (a game I enjoyed very much in its own right), which left me kind of surprised as I played it and found out what the game actually is—a plain old adventure game.
Hotel Dusk: Room 215 is set in 1979, a few days after Christmas. You play as Kyle Hyde, an ex-New York City cop turned traveling salesman, who is checking into this hotel in the California desert for the night. In snippets of flashback, we learn that Kyle turned in his badge three years earlier after an incident involving his partner, Brian Bradley. He's now selling household goods for a company called Red Crown, but true to his sleuthing roots, Kyle does some private eye work on the side.
As the game opens, it becomes clear that renting a room isn't Kyle's sole objective at Hotel Dusk. Kyle's boss Ed needs him to find a few items around the hotel for a client. From a gameplay perspective, this premise has the potential to turn into a tedious fetch quest, but it isn't. Kyle locates these items fairly early in the game. The rest of the ten-chapter experience is spent connecting the dots between the ten people staying in the hotel, and unraveling the mysteries that brought all of them here on this fateful night. Kyle is investigating a mystery of his own—what happened to Bradley, the partner he shot after Bradley betrayed him—which will inevitably intersect with the secrets of Hotel Dusk's other guests before the night is through.
The game takes place entirely inside the hotel, over the course of one night. As you'd expect in this sort of closed setting, the gameplay consists of a lot of walking up and down halls, knocking on doors, and talking to people. You hold the DS vertically instead of horizontally, and as you walk around, the dual screens show two different views of the immediate area. The touch screen, which is on the right (if you're right-handed), displays a simple floor plan that marks the location of doors and furniture, with Kyle represented by a red circle and any other characters in the room as blue circles. To walk, you either drag the stylus across the floor plan, or use the buttons on the D-pad (which I found easier).
The other screen, on the left, shows a more detailed view of the environment. The graphics on the left screen are far more interesting and pleasing to the eye than the bare-bones floor plan on the touch screen, but due to the orientation and the tendency to read left to right, I found myself staring at the ugly floor plan, not the rendered graphics, most of the time. This seems to be less of an issue when the game is played in left-handed mode, with the touch screen and floor plan on the left and the detailed graphics on the right, but then I had to reach over the right screen to use my stylus, which was a bit awkward. (This reaching is only a problem for a right-handed player using left-handed mode; I'd think that for a leftie, the navigation would be just fine.) After a while I got used to holding the DS sideways, and looking at the floor plan instead of at the nicer, rendered graphics didn't necessarily detract from the game, but in general I don't think holding the DS this way results in enough of a benefit to justify the clunky navigation.
In addition to showing the floor plan, the touch screen also provides access to the inventory and main menu, and shows close-up views of certain areas or items. The touch screen is used for all of Hotel Dusk's puzzles, usually in combination with the stylus and occasionally other DS features. When you click the magnifying glass icon to get a close-up of an area, you can then use the stylus to click on the various objects, and Kyle will describe them. This method of exploration works well overall, but with no obvious indication of where the hotspots lie and with accessible items not always visually distinguished from the many inaccessible ones, you will encounter the occasional pixel hunt.
Kyle's notebook, which can also be accessed on the touch screen, is a nice feature. Sometimes other characters write in it (particularly Mila, the mysterious teenager who shows up at the hotel unable to speak), and you can also use it to write notes by using the stylus like a pen. The notebook records your notes exactly as written, which is good considering that handwriting recognition in games like Brain Age doesn't always work that well, but it can also be a problem since writing with a stylus in such a small area can get pretty messy. In spite of this limitation, I thought this was an ingenious use for the DS capabilities, since adventure games often require a bit of note-taking. Later on, however, I was disappointed when I encountered a situation that was ideal for using the notebook, yet it was not made available to me. I ended up digging around my room for a piece of paper and a pen to take notes the old fashioned way.Continued on the next page...