I'm suffering from a serious case of déjà vu.
About a year ago, I reviewed a crime-themed adventure game for the DS named Jake Hunter: Detective Chronicles. It wasn't pretty. At the time, I worried that the days of high quality DS adventures from developers like Capcom and Cing were over and such mediocre new efforts might signal the beginning of a trend of handheld titles becoming decreasingly interactive and increasingly sloppy... but I tried to shrug off this concern as the irrational fear of an adventure game fan who has lived through lean times.
Fast forward to the present day. This time I'm reviewing Miami Law, a crime-themed action-adventure game for the DS released by Hudson Entertainment. Billed by the developer as "worthy of its own prime-time TV show," Miami Law boasts five cases full of realistic crime scene drama, exciting action sequences as well as brain-teasing puzzles, and the ability to swap between two playable characters, changing the outcome of the story as it unfolds. It sounded like a Phoenix Wright game with a gritty twist; a CSI game with a faster pace and more to do. I had no reason to expect another Jake Hunter.
Within five minutes of starting Miami Law, I feared the worst.
The setting for this prime-time-worthy drama is the seedy underbelly of Miami, where drugs and gangs are rampant and rogue Cubans seem to be causing a lot of the trouble. The game stars a police officer named Law Martin, who's royally pissed at the world because his partner was recently killed in the line of duty. (That's right, he's a cop, and his name is Law. Just in case you were unclear about his motives.) With his new partner, an attractive and brainy FBI agent named Sara Starling, Law is attempting to take down the Miami Syndicate, a local drug ring. (That's right, Law's partner is a busty blonde named Sara Starling. But she's no bimbo. She's smart, really. The game keeps telling you so.) As Miami Law's five cases unfold, the initial drug bust leads to the discovery of a dangerous terrorist plot that could result in the annihilation of Miami and the deaths of millions of people—a plot that only Law and Sara are capable of foiling.
It's trite, but so are many of the crime dramas on television. With the right presentation, memorable characters, and engaging gameplay, this premise had the potential to be as dramatic and action-packed as the marketing materials made it out to be. And to Hudson's credit, Miami Law does try to put a new spin on the now well-worn CSI-style format, but to my disappointment, it doesn't deliver on this potential. Instead, the game suffers from banal writing, a storyline I felt like I've heard a million times before, and a severe lack of interactivity that makes for a pretty uninspired experience.
If not particularly engaging, Miami Law is at least a decent looking game. True to its gritty premise, it has realistic 2D art, mainly slideshow-style locations with characters overlaid during conversations. The artwork is competent, but not extraordinary. Law and Sara each have a few different expressions and poses that change depending on what's happening; the rest of the cast (supporting FBI and police officers and a handful of shifty bad guys) are usually limited to one facial expression with an occasional change to their eyebrows or mouth to indicate a mood shift. Several of the backgrounds are based on actual Miami locales, which adds a nice touch of realism, but not enough to really make the graphics stand out.
Most of the time, the backgrounds and characters are displayed on the bottom screen, with a map of Miami on the top screen marked by dots representing Sara and Law's current locations. I would have liked this if it had been integrated into the gameplay, but as designed, it feels gratuitous. Much of the time the two characters are together in the same place, making a record of their whereabouts unnecessary, and at points when they're separated, it's usually not important to know where the other character happens to be.
One of my main gripes about Jake Hunter was that it placed extreme limitations on the player's freedom to explore and interact with the world, making the player's role feel more like a passive viewing experience than active participation. This is my main problem with Miami Law as well. Your main interaction with the world is via on-screen menus, which can be navigated using either the +Control pad and buttons, or the stylus. (There are a few times when you must sweep the stylus across the screen or blow into the microphone, but these are the exception, not the rule.) To talk, look around, or move, you simply select the action you want from a list. You don't get many options to choose from, and the ones you do get aren't very interesting.
Outside the Miami FBI office (one of the game's central locations), for example, the list of what you can look at reads Entrance, Plant, Window, Lawn. Look at the plant, and Law comments: "It's well maintained." The window? "Can't see inside." The majority of the game's "exploration" is like this, with only relevant items eliciting anything more than the most bare bones response. As an adventure gamer, I'm accustomed to receiving interesting or amusing tidbits as my reward for clicking on a hotspot, and with good writing, this exercise can be entertaining on its own, even if the observations are not directly linked to the plot. Not so in Miami Law. Since the characters don't have much to say about their surroundings, I wondered why I was even given the option to "explore" these areas in the first place.
What Miami Law lacks in exploration, it (sort of) makes up for in the ability to choose between Law and Sara as the playable character throughout the game. This is the game's biggest selling point, with Law's character promising a high-energy action experience, and Sara's more thoughtful, brain-teasing gameplay. While it's true that you get to experience the story and gameplay from slightly different points of view, choosing between the two characters also leads to some awkwardness that could have been avoided with better game design.
Since Law is the hothead cop and Sara the brainy FBI agent, I was under the impression that I'd experience "all action" by choosing to play as Law, or "all adventure" when playing as Sara. For this reason, I played exclusively as Sara the first time through, hoping to experience all of the adventure elements Miami Law had to offer. As it turned out, these distinctions aren't quite accurate. Most of Law's sequences are action-oriented and most of Sara's aren't, but a few shooting sequences are required no matter which character you choose, and some of the most iconic adventure game puzzles can be experienced only when playing as Law.
Of course, rogue cop Law Martin also engages in a lot of shootouts and car chases, which I found to be pretty easy. The shootouts are in first-person perspective. You tap on the enemies with the stylus to shoot, and can usually tap on a crate or some other barrier to duck behind it and avoid being shot yourself. Law and the enemy both have health meters and the goal is to deplete the enemy's meter before yours is depleted. I'm hardly the poster girl for first-person shooters, but I managed to get through these sequences with few problems. The occasional car chases are also easy, with Law trying to catch up to a speeding car without hitting other cars in the process. These top-down chase scenes are easily navigated using either the +Control pad or the stylus to change lanes and the shoulder buttons to accelerate or break. For all of the action sequences, if you lose, you can try again immediately.
The supposed adventure gameplay designated to Sara turned out to be less adventure-y than I expected. Rather than searching for clues, interrogating suspects, and analyzing forensics -- you know, the type of gameplay you'd expect in an investigative-themed adventure game -- Sara is usually faced with timed challenges that feel more like something you'd find in a browser-based casual game. In these "puzzles," you must hurry to complete an action before the clock counts down to zero, such as inputting numbers on a keypad, spotting all of the people lurking in a surveillance photo, or defusing a bomb by completing a 9-tile slider puzzle. (Yes, apparently today's terrorists are safeguarding their weapons of mass destruction with sliders.) These race-against-time scenarios, which occur often in the game, felt repetitive and gimmicky to me. The pressure of completing a task before the timer zeroes out didn't make me feel like an FBI agent in the field, but a gamer being condescended to.
Although these timed activities comprise the vast majority of Sara's repertoire, she sometimes branches out a little by using the machines in the forensics lab once or twice (not enough, in my opinion, for the supposed brains of the operation), shooting her gun (usually as a sniper taking out a single target, rather than the multiple targets present in Law's gun-blazing shootouts), and having drawn-out and often frustrating conversations with her superiors (who get annoyed with her for drawing absolutely reasonable conclusions as the investigation unfolds).Continued on the next page...