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.
The hotel, while detailed, also tends to be drab—there's an awful lot of brown. More striking are the characters, who are drawn in a sketched, pen-and-ink style. They appear in color at times but are usually black and white with white outlines around their bodies, almost as if they have been cut from a piece of paper. They're well animated, with expressive faces and gestures that the game cycles through depending on the tone of the conversation. Unfortunately each character has only a few key gestures, which start getting repetitive by the end of the game. The game doesn't give any explanation for why the characters are so visually different from the environment, but I didn't have a problem with the art style. It gives the game a unique look.
Having so many characters in the game means there are plenty of people for Kyle to talk to. The conversations are fairly simple, with dialogue trees that are only one or two questions deep, but they can also be long. There's no voice-over, just text, so expect to do some reading. One feature from Trace Memory that has not carried through to Hotel Dusk is the ability to skip dialogue with the click of a button, although you can hold down buttons to make the text print out on the screen faster if the lines are repeats. At the end of each chapter, Kyle interrogates one of the characters and ultimately gets them to reveal why they ended up at Hotel Dusk and how their situation relates to the other guests. These are generally the most interesting dialogues, the ones where it felt the most was at stake, not just for Kyle, but also for the character being questioned.
Hotel Dusk is definitely a longer game than Trace Memory (about sixteen hours for me), but it's often apparent that the developers worked hard to make it such a long game, with many of the puzzles feeling like filler. The earlier puzzles felt better integrated to me than the later ones, but that could just be because the game's novelty had worn off. My favorite puzzles were the ones that made sense to the story. I especially liked unbending a paperclip, then attempting to pick a lock with it by using the stylus to fiddle around with the tumblers. In general, though, I didn't find the puzzles to be particularly challenging or innovative, and several fall into the same sort of mundane gameplay that would be heavily criticized if this were a PC game. (A few examples: sliding boxes around in a closet to find something at the back; solving a completely unrelated riddle before a character will tell you about her past; running errands for the maid who claims she's much too busy to deliver a wine label to a customer's room, let alone remember which bottle of wine the customer drank, leaving Kyle to figure this out by a process of elimination.) I was particularly unimpressed by what should have been a climactic moment, when the many disparate story threads came together, because all the information I needed to reach the final conclusion was laid out for me in one small area. Sure, this made solving the puzzle easier than it would have been if this information was scattered across the hotel, and I'm not one of those players who demands mind-numbingly difficult puzzles, but it didn't make sense from a story standpoint.
As a heavily story-driven game, Hotel Dusk is also extremely linear, although there are a few apparent opportunities for replay. For example, finding all the numbers posted around the hotel supposedly results in winning a prize, which I didn't win because even after finding the numbers I didn't know I was supposed to do with them. I would like to go back and try to figure that part out, but with only three save slots, it's difficult to do any experimentation without replaying the game entirely. I'm not sure if Hotel Dusk has any dead ends, but it does have a number of "game over" situations, so I found myself saving fairly regularly. Sometimes, just saying the wrong thing to someone can get you booted out of the hotel for good.
As in so many games that take place in a closed area with a large cast of characters, certain logistical problems arise in Hotel Dusk. Often, when you knock on someone's door, you're told that they're not in—sometimes even after you just had a conversation with them in the hallway outside their room and saw them enter it. The hotel is not a big place, and the fact that characters are often not in their rooms started annoying me after a while. Hotel Dusk is well-paced in general, but a few times I wasn't sure what to do next, and the game didn't give me any clues. At these points, knocking on doors only to be told that the guests weren't in, when I'd already been all over the hotel and knew there was nowhere else they could be, was frustrating.
Hotel Dusk: Room 215 is by no means the amazing, innovative experience I was led to believe based on the hype it's received. That said, it's still an enjoyable, solid adventure gaming experience, and I definitely recommend it to DS owners with a penchant for story-driven games. Now that I've played it, I'd like to go back to that store and find out if Hotel Dusk was everything the clerk thought it would be, and if so, if he's played any other good adventure games lately. Chances are I'd just get a blank stare, but if he and so many others out there are finding Hotel Dusk as new and exciting as the reviews and posts I've been reading make it seem, that can only mean that the market for DS adventure games will keep getting bigger. Hey, I'm not going to argue with that.