Adventure Gamers Awards
When Japanese developer Cing announced a sequel to their Nintendo DS adventure Hotel Dusk: Room 215, fans of the popular “interactive novel” rejoiced, but when the studio filed for bankruptcy after finishing the game, it was uncertain if their swan song would ever see release outside Japan. Fortunately, Nintendo saw potential in the title and published Last Window: The Secret of Cape West in Europe, giving English-speaking gamers the opportunity to follow the ongoing story of Kyle Hyde, a man now searching for something precious and ending up with information he may not want to know. We can certainly be glad they did, as the new game is similar to its predecessor in all the ways that made the original so appealing, but also incorporates a number small improvements that may very well make this Cing’s best adventure of all.
Although it is not necessary to have played Hotel Dusk, the new story does refer to it a few times and it adds to the enjoyment if you understand these references. In Last Window, things aren't looking too good for our protagonist, the former New York cop. Beginning a year after the events in Hotel Dusk, Kyle oversleeps an assignment and is subsequently fired from his Red Crown job as a door-to-door salesman moonlighting as a finder of things that don’t always want to be found. It's a few days before Christmas, 1980, so Kyle returns to his apartment in the Cape West building. The structure used to be a hotel, but its current owner renovated a couple of floors and turned the hotel rooms into independent living quarters about a decade earlier. Kyle bumps into one of the other tenants in the hall and is shocked by his question about finding a new place to live. Having not opened his mailbox for several weeks, Kyle managed to completely miss an eviction notice, and now he has until the end of the month to move out before the building is demolished. On top of all that, there's the landlady's request to pay the rent due. Needless to say, Kyle is not looking forward to the next couple of days.
Fortunately for Kyle, he also finds a new order sheet similar to the ones he used to get through Red Crown. This one is anonymous and the item he is asked to find, the Scarlet Star, is conveniently located somewhere in the building. As an added bonus, the mysterious employer promises that Kyle will learn more about what happened to his father 25 years ago if he solves the case. Intrigued, Kyle decides to take on the search even though he doesn't know what kind of object he’s looking for. To locate it, he must talk to each of the tenants and gain access to the fourth floor, which is still in its original hotel state. In doing so, he begins to uncover important background information about his father and his involvement with the original hotel. He soon learns his father may not have been quite what his mother always led him to believe, and there are times he wishes he had never started the investigation in the first place. The less said about his discoveries the better, but Last Window is very immersive in this regard, and Cing have succeeded in creating an interesting story, with a number of unexpected twists that keep you involved throughout.
Kyle has never spent much time with his fellow tenants; in fact, he barely knows most of them. Suddenly finding himself spending a lot of time with them and helping them in various ways, not only does he become friends with some, he also uncovers some very uncomfortable details about them as well. The people living in the building are diverse and interesting, ranging from a widow suspected of insurance fraud to a struggling musician. Several of them turn out to be very different than you first expect them to be, but all of them are realistic and believable. Each has their own detailed background story, a number of secrets to discover and little mannerisms that make you sympathise with them even if they are not necessarily on Kyle's side. The protagonist himself isn't a very friendly guy. He can be cynical, even outright rude, and he sometimes says things you wouldn't dream of saying yourself, but at the same time he's essentially a good guy, just lonely and miserable, and you can't help but feel sorry for him and try to help him out.
As with Hotel Dusk, the DS is held sideways like an open book during gameplay. Depending on whether you’re left- or right-handed, one screen shows what Kyle sees while the touch screen shows a simplified map with representations of furniture, doors, and people, or a close up of an item or person he is talking to. By dragging the stylus on the touch screen, you move Kyle around on the map and the view fluidly follows in the other screen. At the bottom of the touch screen, a number of icons light up whenever something can be interacted with when you’re close enough. These controls are very easy and work well, and other icons provide access to the notebook and inventory. The notebook is used not only by Kyle to copy drawings he sees, keep track of who lives where and record a map of the hotel's floor plan, it can also be written in by the player. This is very handy for a mobile platform, as it eliminates the need for pen and paper.
One new feature in the sequel is an option to fast travel to the door if someone knocks on it or the phone if it rings. It only saves a few steps since the rooms aren't that big, but it's a welcome feature nonetheless. The Cape West apartment building is a bit larger than the hotel in the last game, but there is less aimless wandering about knocking on every door until you find someone who will talk to you, as it is usually quite clear who you should talk to or what you should be doing. It does sometimes pay to walk in a different direction to where you're supposed to be going, though, as the game offers a couple of optional encounters that add to the story but are not essential to its progress. A couple of rooms have already been vacated, which means the number of characters in both games is about the same. During conversations, Kyle's thoughts are displayed in blue to distinguish them from his spoken words, and important key words light up in orange. It is possible to fast-forward through texts to speed things up, which is useful since Kyle offers a description of all the items that can be examined, and there is great attention to detail in his comments.
The developers have used the same hand-drawn graphic novel style to establish a film noir-like atmosphere, employing a technique called rotoscoping. After the storyboard for the game was finished, suitable actors were found for each role. These actors were filmed while talking, gesturing and showing emotions, then animators traced their faces frame by frame. Compared to its predecessor, a little more colour has been added to Last Window, and the actors have a few more stances, but the variety in facial animations is still rather limited and a feeling of repetitiveness creeps in after a while. Still, the characters are nice to look at and the locations are full of little details that make all the rooms unique and interesting to explore. One of the tenants has a collection of crystals and butterflies, while another favours antique furniture and vases. As with most DS adventures, there is no speech in Last Window, but a jazzy musical score and occasional sounds like footsteps, a door slamming, or a phone ringing accompany the action. The soundtrack can also be accessed from the jukebox in the building’s café or the main menu. Each tune is pleasant to listen to in its own right, and they nicely suit the respective locations and help set the appropriate mood.
Other new options are the ability to read back the most recent few conversations, and the addition of a novelized account of the game. Both features are very useful whenever you pick up the game after a while away. Everything that occurs as you play, including the puzzles Kyle solves, is recorded by Martin Summer, one of the characters from Hotel Dusk, written as if it were a book. The novel is very verbose, and easily spans several hundred pages per chapter (although the font is quite large and each double page contains 80-100 words on average), but there is a bookmark feature that allows you to keep track of which page you last read. You can select one of the music tracks to play while you read or put them on shuffle mode, and you automatically unlock more songs as you progress. At the end of each chapter, a couple of "sealed" pages include extra hints. These can be opened by sliding the stylus along the screen like a letter opener. The paper manual included with the game also contains a folded and stapled page containing hints that can only be read after using a pair of scissors or a knife.
The puzzles in Last Window are varied and fun, often making good use of the DS touch screen as you rewind a tape, unscrew lids, tune a radio or turn dials. There are even a couple clever instances that require some outside-the-box thinking about the DS functionality. The puzzles are well-integrated in the story, involving tasks like getting money out of a jar, switching off an alarm and developing photographs. Most of them are straightforward enough and some even have multiple solutions, though a few require some unconventional thinking and can be quite hard to solve. Certain conversation trees can be considered puzzles themselves. When Kyle is talking to someone, especially if he touches on a sensitive subject, a flashing exclamation mark will show up on the screen. By touching it, Kyle will start an inquiry that gets the suspect to answer in more detail. It is also possible to ignore the inquiry and resume the original conversation. What makes these puzzles is that it’s possible to get a 'game over' if you ask the wrong questions and anger the person. It's not easy to find the perfect balance between getting all the answers you need and going too far, but I enjoyed the challenge a lot.
The game can end in other ways as well, as failure does sometimes happen quite unexpectedly and more often than in Hotel Dusk. Once or twice I had trouble figuring out what I was supposed to be doing with a particular object when suddenly it broke, making it impossible for Kyle to solve the case. When I loaded a saved game and tried again, I still had no idea what to do and tried something else with the same result. This can be a bit frustrating, so to avoid having to replay entire chapters, make sure to save your progress often. Fortunately, except during conversations, the game can be saved at any time in one of three slots. The saves are labelled with the time, date and location in the game, but they can't be renamed by the player, which makes experimenting with particular dialogue choices a bit difficult.
At the end of each chapter, which represent one day of game time, Kyle reminisces on what has happened and asks himself a couple of questions in the form of a quiz. These are usually not very hard to answer if you've paid even the least bit of attention during the chapter, but occasionally a tougher question challenges you to remember the exact order of certain events. Thankfully, unlike some of the more punishing scenarios, here if you get it wrong Kyle will simply say so and give you another chance.
Last Window: The Secret of Cape West is everything you'd expect from a sequel to Hotel Dusk: Room 215. It has an intriguing story, interesting characters, stylish graphics, and a dark film noir atmosphere. It’s easy to pick up and play, and offers a nice variety of puzzles with just enough improvements over the first game to be considered a worthy sequel, while at the same time being similar enough to make series fans feel right at home. Even if it didn’t represent Cing’s last game, this is virtually a must-play for any adventure fan with a DS, and is sure to keep you thoroughly engaged, playing and reading avidly for 15-20 hours. If this is the last we’ll see from the acclaimed Japanese developer, reaching the end is a bittersweet finale, but at least they’ve gone out in style.