I’ve never used this term to describe a video game before, but Hotel Dusk: Room 215 for a DS is a real page turner. What I mean is that it’s more of an interactive novel than a game, but its plot can pull you in so well, you’ll overlook the scant gameplay and occasionally cheesy dialogue. Though the game designers have certainly improved their work since Trace Memory, Hotel Dusk still suffers from many of the same mistakes as that game.
Hotel Dusk takes on the guise of a film noir movie. Set in the late 70’s, you play the role of Kyle Hyde; a washed up ex-detective from New York who now works as a door-to-door salesman. Though he’s moved to the West coast now, he’s still haunted by the ghost of his ex-partner, Brian Bradley, who went renegade just before Hyde put a bullet in him and sent Bradley swimming in the Hudson River, never to be seen again. Maybe he’s dead, maybe he stole away. In either case, Hyde has been searching for his fallen partner for three years. Now fate has brought him to a humble establishment called Hotel Dusk, and from the moment Hyde puts his name on the register, things get interesting…
I can’t say any more about the plot without giving away some of the intrigue. You’re just going to have to trust me that it’s a well written tale of conspiracy and betrayal where you can’t take anybody at face value. It’s the kind of story you appreciate more the second time through.
This game doesn’t only feel like a book, but it’s held like one as well. Holding the DS on its side suits this game well, as it allows the screen to zoom in closer on faces and give you a fuller view of the characters – and characters are the driving force of this entire game. While walking around the hotel, the left screen gives you a first person perspective of what Hyde sees, while the right screen displays a map of the area. By using the buttons or the touch screen, you can move Hyde about the hotel, clicking on icons when you want to investigate an area or talk to somebody. You can investigate almost every cabinet, table and wall ornament in the game, but very few of them are actually important. This means you have to take good mental notes of everything you see. If you’d rather take real notes, the game makes that easy by providing Hyde with a notebook you can write in with the stylus to save information. This is a handy tool as you’re often given information long before you actually need it.
When interacting with others, each screen displays one of the characters in a way that you feel like they are actually facing each other and having a real conversation. The characters are articulately drawn and have a wide variety of realistic emotions. Their dialogue is also believable, if somewhat overdramatic at times. This element of realism is important, because beating the game relies on you reading the characters and understanding their personalities.
Despite these interesting aspects, the portion you actually get to control is lacking. In most adventure games, the challenge lays mostly exploration and puzzle solving. Hotel Dusk goes in a different direction, putting the bulk of the interaction on talking to people.
While speaking with characters, various questions will pop into Hyde’s head that you can ask. Asking the right question at the right time will give you more information. Eventually, you’ll have to confront characters about some secret or hidden agenda. To get them to talk, you’ll have to press them hard and show them that you’ve already figured out most of it. Many people compare this game to Phoenix Wright since you have to collect facts and catch people lying. However, Hotel Dusk’s gameplay is more subtle. You’re rarely given evidence to prove people are wrong. Rather, you are given just enough information to get an idea of who they are and why they’ve come to this hotel. From that you have to infer things about them. Since you have to rely more on gut feelings about people and not on definite proof, it can be frustrating when you make the wrong assumptions. Once you figure out enough about them and you press the character hard enough, they’ll spill their guts and fill you in on one more piece of the convoluted puzzle.
Some of the emersion of the game comes in how you’re made to do so many things using the stylus. If you decide to use the crowbar on a door, you don’t simply select “use” and “crowbar” then touch the door. Most interactions like this become simple mini-games involving use of the stylus or some other clever usage of the DS. However, hardly and of the puzzles offer any challenge. In fact, the characters will often spell out exactly what you need to do, or where you need to go most of the time. Other times, you will already know what needs to be done, but you can’t because nobody has told you to do it yet. Other times, you won’t have any clue what you’re doing until you walk to some arbitrary spot that engages the next plot scene. This becomes very frustrating, because you want to exert some control over the story, or at least feel like you’re participating in some way, but in the end you’re led by the hand through all of it.
The game’s sound and artistic style are what pull this game out of the black hole of mediocrity and make it something worth remembering. The music emphasizes the mood and intensity of the story while giving the player subtle reminders of where he is. This is one of the few games where the sound effects really stand out. Distantly opening doors and approaching footsteps create suspense at opportune moments.
The art is reminiscent of A-ha’s “Take on Me” video from 1985; more like character sketches than finished art, but the style brings the game to life. Character emotions and demeanors are perfectly conveyed through their portraits with color added only when it will make a particular impact. Backgrounds are more fleshed out with plenty of detail and realism, except for areas it seems like the art is wearing away. This also reinforces the feeling that Hotel Dusk is some old novel. The camera angels also seem to have been carefully chosen for maximum dramatic effect.
As far as adventure games go, Hotel Dusk: Room 215, brings some new ideas to the table, but I feel the makers were so caught up showing you something new that they forgot that you might want a little more influence over it all. Still, if you’re the kind of person who ranks plot as one of the most important features in a game, Hotel Dusk is worth the 15 hours it takes to beat, and another few hours to watch the story over again (and possibly unlock one of the multiple endings). However, if you’re looking for a game to bend you brain over with difficult puzzles and a thrilling exploration experience, you’d be better off with Shadowgate.