DS Ports: Ankh and CSI: Dark Motives review

DS Ports: CSI and Ankh
DS Ports: CSI and Ankh

We love 'em, but let's face it: adventure games aren't exactly famous for their high technical specs, awe-inspiring graphics, or groundbreaking physics systems. It doesn't take a lot of horsepower to tell a good interactive story, but this understated approach has ensured the adventure genre remains a niche loved by its diehard fans and more or less ignored by the general gaming public. For a while there, it was looking like adventures could go the way of the dinosaur--err, I mean the Commodore 64--or at least that they'd be forever relegated to the back shelves and bargain bins by an industry that had grown too big to appreciate the minimalist approach most adventure games take. Then the skies parted, the angels sang, and the Nintendo DS dropped from the heavens.

Hyperbole aside, the handheld DS's low specs, touch screen, and stylus make it ideal for the simple graphics and point-and-click interfaces adventure games are known for. Now in its fourth year, the DS has already become a popular system for the genre, with titles such as Another Code / Trace Memory, Hotel Dusk, the Touch Detective series, and the evergreen Ace Attorney series leading the way, but with only a few such releases hitting each year, the offerings have been sparse for hungry adventure gamers.

Now that PC developers have had a little time to catch up, we're on the brink of a larger and potentially more pervasive phenomena: DS ports of existing PC adventures. But is squeezing (relatively) low-spec point-and-click PC games onto the DS as much of a no-brainer as it seems? I took a look at two early adopters to find out: CSI: Dark Motives, the second installment in the prolific forensic crime-solving series, and the first chapter in Deck13's comedic Ankh trilogy. Dark Motives for DS came out in November 2007, while Ankh: Curse of the Scarab King, after some delays, hit retail in the UK this past November.

CSI: Dark Motives


CSI: Dark Motives was developed by 369 Interactive and originally released for PC in 2004 by Ubisoft. The game puts the player in the shoes of a rookie agent in the Las Vegas crime lab, on a team with the cast of the popular CSI television show. In each of the game's five cases, the anonymous first-person player character investigates a grisly crime with the help of a different cast member. The straightforward, no-nonsense gameplay includes combing the crime scene and related locations for clues, processing evidence in the crime lab (with ample help from resident lab tech Greg Sanders), and questioning suspects to uncover the truth.

CSI is an interesting choice for a DS port. Aimed squarely at adults, it's darker and grittier than most of the games coming out for Nintendo's handheld--a rare Mature game among a deluge of Teen and Everyone ESRB ratings--and the realistic graphics are a stark contrast to the stylized cartoon and anime artwork common in DS releases. Yet at its core, CSI's formula is similar to the Ace Attorney games that have done so well on the platform, with investigative and interrogative gameplay carrying the player through five successive cases. The hands-on forensics of a CSI game could make for some unique puzzles involving the touch screen, but you won't find anything like that in Dark Motives. This is strictly a port of the PC version.

CSI uses a first-person perspective, so you see the world through your character's eyes. In some scenes, you can pan 360 degrees by touching the stylus to the edge of the screen, while in others, panning isn't available and you can only see what's in front of you. Tapping with the stylus moves the arrow-shaped cursor around the scene, allowing you to interact with certain areas, and tapping on a person starts a conversation. The cursor changes from blue to green when it's over a selectable area, cluing you in to the fact that there's more to be done here.

This is pretty standard point-and-click gameplay, but using the stylus instead of a mouse has its disadvantages. On the PC, you have the luxury of "sweeping" over an area with the mouse to look for interactive hotspots, but on the DS, you're stuck tapping all over the screen in hopes of stumbling upon one. You can drag the stylus all over the screen if you really want to, but I try not do that too much due to the hairline scratches it can cause. Unfortunately the +Control pad can't be used to control the cursor in Dark Motives. Since many hotspots are very small and the entire game is very dark, making it hard to identify which areas might be worth giving a closer look, I found this "tap everywhere" method of investigation a bit frustrating. It doesn't help that even once you've completed everything you can in an interactive area, the green arrow will continue to taunt you when the cursor moves over that spot, so there's no obvious way to tell when your work in a particular scene is done.

The graphics in Dark Motives are largely static, with the CSIs and other NPCs holding the same pose throughout a conversation and no ambient animations in the environments. This can be annoying in the PC version but works well on the DS's small screens. Fans of the CSI TV shows will appreciate the clips of Las Vegas when you move to new locations, and the animated forensic reconstructions that play as the investigators talk through their theories of the crime.

Dark Motives has a fairly complicated interface, with evidence to keep track of, a slew of collection and detection tools that can be used in the field, and a detailed case file where information about the victim, suspects, and evidence is organized as you go through the investigation. On the PC, this is all accessed using the mouse via on-screen icons. With the DS's much smaller screens, though, there isn't as much real estate for on-screen icons. Instead, the case file is displayed on the top screen, with the rest of the interface crowded at the bottom of the touch screen. The stylus can be used to access evidence and tools, while the right and left shoulder buttons are used to navigate through the case file. It works, but it would have worked better if the interface had been redesigned and simplified.

On PC, Dark Motives' major selling point was that it features the voices and likenesses of the entire CSI cast. The DS version still has the likenesses, but no voice acting (it does have ambient music and some sound effects, though). The dialogue is a bit over-the-top and hard to believe when you're just reading it rather than hearing it spoken and I found myself skimming a lot of it. The lack of voice acting is a problem in the reconstructions, since the subtitles are timed to the animation and sometimes go by too fast to read. Also, with the subtitles on the bottom screen and the reconstruction on the top screen, I missed most of the animations since I was so busy trying to read the words. You do have the ability to replay the reconstructions, but I was disappointed that an aspect of the game that was supposed to be a payoff instead started to feel like busywork.

Each Dark Motives case took me about two hours to play. On all but one of them, I needed to consult a walkthrough, usually because I had missed a hard-to-see hotspot along the way. The CSIs offer hints but these often didn't relate to where I was stuck. For example, I'd be unable to get a warrant, in spite of seeming to have loads of evidence, yet all my partner wanted to talk about was a piece of evidence that Greg the lab tech had already told me he'd done all he could with. As a handheld, the DS is perfect for gaming on the go, but on an airplane or in the dentist's waiting room you probably won't have a walkthrough handy, making the in-game hint system's shortfalls disappointing. That said, you can always fall back on the tried and true "revisit every location and drag the stylus across the screen looking for hotspots" strategy--and pray that your screen doesn't get scratched in the process.

I only encountered one apparent bug during my playthrough: I didn't lift a fingerprint off a piece of evidence before picking it up, and later couldn't seem to lift the fingerprint when I viewed the evidence in my inventory. Since the fingerprint was needed to trigger the next part of the case, I had to start over. I don't know if this also occurs in the PC version. Luckily it happened close to the beginning of the case, so I didn't have to replay too much.

With the exception of the few DS-specific issues I've called out here, playing Dark Motives on DS is basically the same as playing it on PC. (For more details about the gameplay, check out Adventure Gamers' review of the PC version.) Dark Motives isn't a blockbuster by any means, but if you go into it with realistic expectations about the type of game it is, it's not a bad experience on the DS. If you're a fan of the CSI games or TV show, or if you're looking for a Phoenix Wright-type game that's a bit darker than the norm, Dark Motives on DS is worth checking out.

I wish I could say the same about Ankh: Curse of the Scarab King, but unfortunately that's a port with a lot of problems.

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