James Noir’s Hollywood Crimes review
It’s taken a while in coming, but adventure games are slowly beginning to emerge for the Nintendo 3DS. Despite the unique stereoscopic 3D effect of the new handheld, however, so far the new games are looking a lot like their 2D predecessors, in more ways than one. Traditional adventures are actually quite rare on handhelds, but puzzle-centric story games have been rapidly filling the gap since the success of Professor Layton. The latest is James Noir's Hollywood Crimes, which offers lots of puzzles within a televised game show setting, combined with an intriguing story about a serial killer. Ultimately, though, the murder mystery isn't enough to camouflage the lack of variety in the gameplay and some disturbingly poor visuals.
Without ever learning anything about James Noir (neither the manual nor the game ever explains who he is), players audition for the role of a contestant on a popular ‘60s TV show called The Incredible Puzzle Masters. This premise provides the context (excuse?) for the main part of the game: namely, lots of random puzzles to solve. At the start of the game, the 3DS asks you to fill out a form (name, gender, city), takes your picture and occasionally uses the image throughout the game, such as showing you having your makeup touched up or appearing in a newspaper article. This is a nice touch that helps you feel a bit more involved than just being a faceless contestant in a first-person game. If you don't like the original photo, you can even have it retaken at any time.
The format involves you and one direct competitor playing alternating rounds each week, solving puzzles until you reach a certain score. Once you get the minimum number of points needed you automatically advance, and you and your competitor will both progress until one of you fails to reach the required total. It is not necessary to have more points than your competitor in any round, but you will be more popular with the audience if you do, which leads to more fan letters that sometimes contain additional puzzles. Solve these and you gain hints for the 'story' puzzles that become important later on. After successfully completing the first round, your old friend Matt, now an FBI officer, asks for your help in solving a case he is working on. A serial killer has been attacking previous winners of The Incredible Puzzle Masters and leaving behind puzzles as clues. Since you are so good at solving puzzles, he thinks you might be able to help crack this case and prevent more intended victims from dying.
Each game show round has twelve puzzles to choose from, in three different point brackets. These challenges range in type from puzzle boxes and colour-based Sudoku variants to drawing lines between identical numbers and throwing colored balls or coins into a complicated machine using switches to change the way they fall through. Disappointingly, only a couple of puzzles make use of the system’s unique features, like moving a 3D picture to just the right angle to reveal a letter or number, or freeing a ball from a maze by tilting the handheld. Initially there seems to be a fair amount of puzzle variety, but after playing a few rounds they tend to get repeated quite a bit. Fortunately, because you only need to reach a certain number of points, you can skip (or back out of) puzzles you don't particularly like or are unable to solve.
For every puzzle, a few increasingly strong hints are provided, but you get fewer points each time you use one, which may force you to solve more puzzles to reach the required score. Generally the game show puzzles are fun to solve but on the easy side, so chances are you'll get through without needing any help. In addition to the clues, there are a number of other features to assist you. One very nice option is an in-game panel you can open up to reveal a semi-transparent overlay for writing on with the stylus. This sheet can be erased in its entirety, but there is no way to remove only part of your scribbles. You can also restart a puzzle at any time, reverting to the starting position or layout. As you play, a shadowy audience applauds and cheers whenever you solve a puzzle. When you lose or back out of a puzzle, there is an ominous silence and the crowd can be heard quietly discussing your failure amongst themselves, but there is no real penalty. The ones you skip can always be revisited from your hotel room, which is where you end up whenever you start up the game again, or when you back out of a story puzzle.
The Incredible Puzzle Masters is presented by a suitably cheesy host named Glenn Darnby. He has a lovely assistant, known only as Monique, whose only task on the show is to look pretty when the score is announced. Unusual for the sixties is that the producer is also a woman, Trudy Mills. You'll also meet your competitor, Marcus White, and a police captain. These characters are shown using very short loops of FMV, consisting of just a few frames each. The clips are fully voiced, but no attempt was made to lip sync or even display various expressions, which is rather creepy and detracts from the story, as some smiles and movements seem eerily out of place. The dark-jazzy soundtrack and B-movie voice acting contribute to the disturbing mood as well, though for much more intentional reasons.
Unfortunately, the visuals are a big let-down, at least during the extensive game show segments. The FMV characters are pasted badly into minimalistic, mostly empty backgrounds – behind the host's desk are only a few giant jigsaw puzzle pieces as decoration and the producer appears against a brick wall backdrop, while the audience is shown only as a static picture that moves across the screen. The puzzles themselves aren't very attractive to look at either, with explanatory text on the top screen and the actual puzzle on the bottom, using only a handful of colours and a very basic, unadorned look. Between chapters there are some moving panels with pictures or text on a pastel-coloured background and a short recap of what you have done so far, showing small black and white photographs of people and situations. These can't be skipped, and they happen just a tad too frequently to be of any help. I was also a bit annoyed by lots of typos in the subtitles and many examples of a sloppy translation.
Story puzzles occur between the game show rounds. There is usually a quality cutscene that takes you to new murder scenes like a beach or an abandoned factory building, where you meet with your FBI friend. Unfortunately, you can't really explore these locations, as there is only a very limited amount of pre-scripted movement possible that leads you directly to the puzzles the killer left behind. All you have to do is solve them to get your clues. These are mostly puzzle boxes, alarm systems that need disabling or levers that require the correct sequence, but they tend to be a bit more varied and more interesting than their game show counterparts. You can't skip these puzzles, only back out of them to return to your hotel room (to quit the game) and try again later.
The story has a few twists to keep it interesting, and every person you encounter becomes a suspect, including yourself. You'll need to make an escape at one point by – you guessed it – solving more puzzles, but there isn't much depth to the story sections and they tend to get rather silly, often feeling like you are literally just going from puzzle to puzzle for puzzling’s sake. Although most are well explained, a few are harder to understand and sometimes you need a couple of hints just to realise what is going on. Others are far too easy, including a simple matter of turning a crank. In general, these story scenes are far too short, as they provide the best moments of the game as the mystery unfolds, yet they don’t last nearly as long as the game show rounds. Part of the problem is that you only get to discover the clues in the boxes that you open, leaving the FBI to decipher them for you. It would have been far more interesting to figure out what the enclosed codes mean for yourself.
After four or five hours, the story comes to a proper conclusion, though you’re not required to personally identify the culprit. Unless you have been revisiting puzzles from your hotel room, you will definitely not have solved 'over 150 puzzles' as the box promises, but since many of them are repeats, that’s not much of a sacrifice. Although James Noir’s Hollywood Crimes keeps you curious and fairly entertained throughout, it ultimately leaves you feeling somewhat unsatisfied, lacking the charm, variety and even depth of similar games that obviously inspired it. As a puzzling diversion it’s not a bad time, but there isn't a lot of variety and it’s never much to look at, in 3D or otherwise. Hollywood may be all about style over substance, but there isn’t much of either here, and that may be the real crime of a game that clearly had the potential for more.