Time Hollow review
Adventure Gamers Awards
The day I first heard about Time Hollow was like Christmas. No, better than Christmas. It was like hearing the reindeer on the roof and Santa ho-ho-hoing down the chimney and suddenly realizing that Christmas has somehow snuck up on you, and you're about to get a whole bunch of unexpected loot.
A little background, lest you think I'm some kind of weirdo who can't keep track of major holidays: Shadow of Destiny is one of my favorite games of all time. I played it on PC about five years ago, and then played it again... and again... and again. This was partly due to the game's multiple endings, which are just begging for replay, and partly due to the fact that it had practically everything I look for in a game. A great story with several layers that you have to peel away to get at the core of what's going on. A main character whose emotions became real to me as I followed him on his bizarre, and yet relatable, time travel journey. Several "a-ha!" moments as the puzzle pieces fell into place. And best of all, deliciously tantalizing unanswered questions that left me thinking about the game long after I finished it. (And, ultimately, that prompted me to play it again... and again... and again...)
When I found out that Junko Kawano, the designer of Shadow of Destiny, had designed another time travel adventure, this time for the DS (my platform of choice these days), I put in a preorder for Time Hollow immediately. And what a wonderful gaming experience it turned out to be. I devoured Time Hollow over the course of three evenings, with a manic replay that took up an entire Saturday. While it didn't turn out to be as good a game as Shadow of Destiny, I don't regret the impulse buy or the short playtime in the least. My experience playing Time Hollow was the most engrossing, couldn't-put-it-down DS gaming experience I've had in the three years I've owned a DS. For a handheld that's easy to put down at the smallest flicker of boredom -- and as a person who tends to get bored incredibly quickly -- that's saying a whole lot.
In Time Hollow, you play as Ethan Kairos, an ordinary student who wakes from a nightmare on the morning of his 17th birthday to find himself in an extraordinary situation. He learns that his parents, with whom he believes he has been living his whole life, have actually been missing since he was five years old. This contradicts Ethan's own memories, as well as the player's, since we got to see and interact with Ethan's parents during the game's prologue, set the night before his birthday. So what's changed? How is it possible that, overnight, the last twelve years of Timothy and Pamela Kairos' existence have been erased?
"What's changed?" turns out to be a central question in Time Hollow, a game that follows the development of Ethan's supernatural ability to open "holes" in the present and reach through them to alter the past. He does this using a Hollow Pen delivered to him by his cat, Sox, the morning he finds his parents missing. Ethan can't alter past events to save his parents until he understands what happened to them twelve years ago, so he sets out to unravel the mystery of their disappearance, all the while dealing with the unintended results his tinkering has on the present.
The plot grows to encompass Ethan's uncle and now-guardian Derek, a rough-around-the-edges freelance writer who doesn't always show how deeply he cares about his nephew, and a girl named Kori who inexplicably shows up in Ethan's class around the same time the strange events start happening. As the story unfolds, Ethan learns he is not the only person in possession of a Hollow Pen, and his priorities shift into a race against time to protect his friends, his family, and ultimately his own existence from the wrath of an embittered, dangerous foe.
One of my favorite aspects of Time Hollow is how much I came to care about the main character and his situation. While Ethan works to rectify the past and find his parents, he unwittingly gets his friends, his uncle, and a few total strangers involved in unpleasant alternate versions of reality. Each time he fiddles with the past, Ethan must ask himself, "What's changed?" and go around town, speaking to people and making observations, to discover how his actions have affected the people he cares about. Sometimes the unintended results are for the better, but Ethan does have to ask himself moral questions about the consequences of his actions. Since the game is extremely linear, the player is not faced with these moral questions (at least, not from a position of being able to do anything about them), but experiencing Ethan's struggle to accept that he can't avoid changing one person's life to save someone else's helps define him as a character and makes him worth caring about. Realistic character emotion can be difficult to achieve and it's a rare game that gets it right. Shadow of Destiny was one of them; Time Hollow is another.
Time Hollow was designed specifically for the DS, with graphics and cinematics that span both screens and an interface that makes good use of the touch screen. The anime artwork is less stylized than Phoenix Wright, and as a result Time Hollow feels less like a cartoon and more like a drama, which is appropriate for the storyline. Although the gameplay is in first-person perspective, Ethan is often shown on-screen during conversations and cutscenes, which makes him easy for the player to identify with.
The bottom screen displays environments that can be explored. If interaction is possible, tapping the stylus causes one of several icons to display (i.e. a finger to inspect the area, a talk bubble if you can speak to another character, or a walking stick figure if you can travel). When this icon appears, you can tap a second time (or press A) to follow through with the interaction. It's possible to scroll environments from side to side with either the +Control pad or by dragging with the stylus. Most locations are not much wider than what initially appears on the screen, but sometimes you'll find a person or area of interest off to the side.
The map is also available on the touch screen, with seven key locations that you can usually visit, as well as some additional locations that show up and disappear depending on what's happening in the story. For the majority of the game, you can return to the map and go to a new location whenever you feel like it. Although Time Hollow's storyline is very linear, a fair amount of alternate dialogue and interaction can be uncovered by checking out every available area on the map whenever the story advances. The first time through, you'll probably want to focus on the main storyline, but this freedom and incidental content beefs up a replay.
Conversations are depicted on the top screen, with character art and text. A few of the key cutscenes have voiceover in addition to subtitles, which underscores the game's high production values and enhances the drama of those moments. Although the majority of Time Hollow is not voice acted, the lines that are spoken are well acted. Speaking to characters is usually a simple back-and-forth affair without much player control over the conversation topics, but occasionally a list of options to choose from are displayed on the touch screen. Dialogue sometimes repeats and there's no clear indication if speaking to someone will result in new dialogue or something you've already seen, but you can easily skip through this.
Time Hollow's main strength is a compelling story that makes you want to keep playing to find out what will happen next. Too few adventure games these days have the sense of urgency and building tension that Time Hollow has, and as someone who cherishes a good story above all else, in my opinion this is the game's crowning achievement. The gameplay is less impressive -- or maybe I should say "less present," since there isn't that much gameplay to speak of. Even when you're figuring out what happened and what needs to be changed, Time Hollow really leads the player by the hand. For me, this wasn't a big deal, particularly since I was being led through such an interesting story and the gameplay that does exist is well-integrated into the plot, but it will likely be a sticking point for some players.
Much of the gameplay involves "digging" with the Hollow Pen, a clever (if not very subtle) metaphor for the stylus. When you reach a point in the game that a hole can be opened, you simply draw a circle in the area you want to manipulate in the past. The world outside of that hole is "frozen" and black and white; only the small space inside the hole is in color and can be interacted with during these segments. Each time you dig a hole, Ethan's "time meter" is depleted, with the possibility of running out of time and ending up in a game over situation if you mess up too much while digging. That being said, in most cases it's obvious what you need to do when you open a hole, and even when I wasn't completely sure, I figured it out after a couple of tries. Ethan's cat Sox helpfully roams the streets collecting glowing discs that replenish the time meter, so actually meeting a premature end to the game seems very unlikely.
Digging in the past seems like it would be ripe with puzzle possibilities, with Ethan tweaking past events to affect the future, but unfortunately when it comes to the locations where you can open holes and points when you are allowed to do so, the game is unflinchingly rigid. Each time the past has changed, Ethan has a series of flashbacks, which he must dissect by talking to people, researching past events, and piecing together what happened. Once Ethan completely understands a flashback, he can open a hole in the location where the flashback occurred and reach into the past to try to change what happened. At least, this is how "digging" is initially described, but it turns out to be restricted even further by the fact that Ethan can only open a hole when the Hollow Pen glows (in other words, when the game wants you to). Supposedly this is because you need to gather enough clues about the past and what needs to be changed before the pen will glow, but considering some of the time travel nuances the story wants us to believe, this restriction feels like an excuse to simplify the game design. I know games need to have some structure, but it would have been nice to at least feel like I had more control over what Ethan could do.
There are a few situations early in the game where puzzles can be solved in multiple ways, but other than inconsequential changes in the present, the alternate solutions do not have any significant bearing on the story. In other situations where it seemed like alternate solutions should be possible, the game stubbornly refused to let me try. (For example, I wanted to prevent a character's death by showing him an article about his impending murder, but Ethan kept asking, "Why would I show him that?" Come on, kid, haven't you seen Back to the Future?!) Of course, no game can have infinite possibilities, but considering its premise, Time Hollow would have been meatier if it were a bit more flexible -- something Shadow of Destiny did well.
The game is split up into a prologue, six chapters, and an epilogue. It only offers one save slot that is overwritten whenever you save, but progress is also stored when you complete a chapter, so you can forego your saved game and replay from the beginning of a chapter if you choose to. Unlike its predecessor, Time Hollow does not have multiple endings, although a very short, alternate version of the prologue can be unlocked after you've played through once, tying up a few of the story's loose ends.
Rather than one musical theme per environment, which is the norm in most games, Time Hollow has a few different themes that reflect what's happening in the plot. This sometimes becomes repetitive (particularly the droning "tense" theme that plays for much of the middle part of the game), but overall the music contributes well to the mood of the game. Time Hollow also has a pretty theme song that accompanies an animated opening movie at the beginning of the game, and plays in an extended version during the credits. I liked the song and felt its inclusion contributed to Time Hollow's high production values, but did get annoyed with it upon reaching the end of the game when, in the span of a few minutes, I had to hear the song three times between the initial ending and the alternate finale. Although it's possible to skip through practically any other scene in the game, doing so during the theme song is not possible. It's really a miniscule gripe; I'd just hate to think someone might turn off the game mid-credits and miss the last little sliver of story.
Time Hollow was first released in Japan, and the text seems to be fairly well translated. I didn't notice any spelling mistakes or weird grammar. One complaint I do have, which may or may not be directly related to the translation, is that the story has some convoluted plot points that seemed to make perfect logical sense to the characters, but made absolutely no sense to me, even on my second playthrough. Time travel stories often have leaps in logic, so this could be a problem in the original Japanese as well, but after experiencing the same types of "huh?" moments in the Final Fantasy games, I'm willing to bet something's getting lost in translation. Whatever the root cause, the story is solid on the whole, and these few foggy moments didn't detract from my overall enjoyment.
My only real complaint about Time Hollow is that I wish it had lasted longer. In a way that's a compliment, because I was enjoying the story so much that I didn't want it to end. I spent about twelve hours playing the game -- that's with one playthrough immediately followed by a second to look for alternate puzzle solutions. Worth $30? Maybe not if the "heavy on story, light on gameplay" formula is of concern to you, but for me the answer is a resounding yes. In fact, even having exhausted all of the gameplay possibilities, I'll probably play it again someday...