(Mythos) Monster In My Pocket!

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

As I detailed in part 1 of my epic 2-part Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition Kickstopper article, there’s a new regime in place at decades-old game company Chaosium and they’re doing their best to turn the company around. One of the new projects to emerge under the new regime is Cthulhu Chronicles, a mobile game developed by MetaArcade under licence.

In terms of its format, Cthulhu Chronicles is basically an extremely cheaply-produced visual novel – the artwork being either recycled from existing Chaosium resources or derived from public domain photographs from the 1920s (which can occasionally throw the player if you recognise that, say, Charles Fort has been cast as a prominent character). You pick your character who has a Health score measuring how much punishment they can take before expiring, a Sanity score detailing how much their mental stability can be shaken before they are unable to cope, and three basic skills to cover all areas of human activity – Athleticism for physical stuff, Intelligence for mental stuff, and the highly misleadingly-named Appearance for social stuff. When attempting something challenging you can be obliged to make a roll against Athleticism, Intelligence, Appearance, or occasionally Sanity, with your odds of success being based in part on your score in those attributes and in part on the difficulty of the test.

Continue reading “(Mythos) Monster In My Pocket!”

I Hate It When An Investigation Is Cut Sho-

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Chase: Cold Case Investigations – Distant Memories is, let’s make no mistake, an incredibly awkward title for a game. I can only assume, based on issues with the plot and characterisation I will get to in a bit, that the title reflects the ambitions of the designers – that this is supposed to be the first episode in a series of Chase: Cold Case Investigations, and we are supposed to understand Distant Memories as being the title of the episode.

The premise is this: Shounosuke Nanase and Koto Amekura are detectives stuck in the dull, dead-end job of running the Tokyo police’s cold case department. Amekura is an idealist who is keen to get her teeth into a real case; at first, Nanase seems lazy and cynical and shows no real desire to investigate anything, but as the episode progresses and a fire gets lit under him we see another side to his character – and hints at a tragic past which might explain his reluctance to emerge from the safe obscurity of his office.

The detectives’ idle existence is shattered when someone telephones them with an anonymous tip. Five years ago, there was an explosion at Ryokudou Hospital, and a janitor died. Officially, the incident was found to be an accident – but the anonymous tip claims that the janitor was murdered. As the duo pore over the original case reports and reinterview witnesses, they discover a tangled web that will take all their skill to unpick.

Continue reading “I Hate It When An Investigation Is Cut Sho-“

Handheld Tear-Jerkers

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

In some respects, the Nintendo 3DS couldn’t have come sooner; lately I’ve been finding the DS shelves at my preferred game shops increasingly clogged up with an enormous tidal wave of shovelware. A while back, before Game decided to have a purge, the PC games section was dominated by various varieties of hidden object game (potentially a side-effect of most canny developers giving up on the idea of selling boxed PC games in shops in the first place); at points it’s seemed that the DS selection has been getting that bad. If the 3DS is substantially more expensive to develop for then hopefully that will mean the market isn’t swamped to the point where shovelware crowds high-quality games off the shelves.

The crappy selection of games currently out for the DS is particularly unfortunate, because I think the best console games often come out comparatively late in a console’s life cycle. Once you hit a point where developers are both comfortable enough with the system in question to really be able to put it through its paces, and the prospect of an upcoming new generation of consoles make them want to push the constraints of the old hardware in order to compete with the flashier offerings on the horizon, sometimes wonderful things can happen. The first Silent Hill game is one of the most visually arresting games on the PS1 and came out barely a year before the PS2 arrived; the PS3 had been out for years when Persona 4 came out on the PS2 and amazed me with how good the graphics on the old system could still be.

So I was quite glad when a while back I was able to score the latest sequels to some of my favourite series on the DS, and found that in both cases they pushed the graphical capabilities of the system to the limit. On top of that, I don’t know why it is but for some reason both of them seemed to take a more pessimistic, downbeat stance than is usually typical for downbeat games, which got me thinking about downer gaming in general.

Writing games that make people feel sad or bad about the things that happen on them is kind of a tightrope. Spec Ops: The Line, I would say, is a superb example of a game which did it right, not least because whilst it does teeter towards the trap of blaming players for attempting to engage with the scenario that a game presents them with (if a game gives you no option other than to kill people, is it really your fault when you kill those people? Is it really fair to expect people to play a game without partaking of the core activity of the game?), but it also spends just as much time analysing how games of its ilk are put together and presented by the industry in the first place.

It’s crammed to the gills with set pieces that the Call of Duty clones of the world unimaginatively cough up time and again, and has a perfect knack for making them very slightly fucked up, and generally getting across the idea that once you are in the midst of a full war situation then things are already fucked and nobody is getting out clean, and that’s not something to cheer or celebrate or valorise or treat as being a Good or Strong thing; instead, the capacity of a human being to do awful things because they are persuaded that they are the Hard But Necessary things is, in Spec Ops, something to deplore.

However, for every Spec Ops: The Line that comes out there’s a dozen indie attempts at Challenging Your Preconceptions which fall flat like The Path or Dear Esther, and two or three major league developers revealing the extent to which their artistic pretensions overreach their craft, as happened with Mass Effect 3 or Grand Theft Auto IV. And yet here are two games in series which had previously proven quite cheerful which had me genuinely engaged and mooping away at the moop-worthy things that happen in them, and they make the whole thing look easy. What gives?

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A Hollow Experience

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Perhaps the hype was to blame. I’d heard that Time Hollow, a time travel themed adventure game for the Nintendo DS, was written by the same guy (Junko Kawano) who wrote Shadow of Memories – AKA Shadow of Destiny in the US – a time travel themed adventure game for the PS2. Shadow of Memories was brilliant and featured some of the best writing I’ve ever seen in an adventure game – not in terms of the dialogue, which was hampered by a lacklustre translation, but in terms of its narrative structure, which managed to incorporate an impressive number of outcomes. It’s one of the few adventure games out there with genuine replay value – although any particular playthrough doesn’t take especially long to get through, you’ll want to see all the endings because the plot takes you down all sorts of strange and mutually exclusive paths, as the main character’s efforts to prevent his own murder by meddling in time creates, eliminates, or irrevocably alters various crucial plot elements.

So perhaps it’s my fault for expecting the same sort of thing from Time Hollow. If you want an unusual, nonlinear adventure game with multiple outcomes, Time Hollow really isn’t going to deliver that.

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Traces of Dusk

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Trace Memory, known in Europe as Another Code: Two Memories, is the game which Japanese developers Cing produced before the excellent Hotel Dusk, and is in a very similar vein. You’re a teenage girl whose parents died – or disappeared – under mysterious circumstances when you were very small. After receiving a mysterious note and a technological device that looks curiously like a Nintendo DS from your father, you and your aunt trace him to the mysterious Blood Edward Island, at which point your aunt disappears and you have to rescue her, find your dad, and help a ghost boy named “D” to recover his own memories. The DTS’s special capabilities – among which is a camera function – is helpful in this regard, as is the Nintendo DS’s – like in Hotel Dusk, the full range of the DS’s capabilities and properties are used to full effect in the various puzzles presented (there’s one which relies on the reflective properties of the two DS screens – how cool is that?).

Nonetheless, while it is presented in a very similar manner to Hotel Dusk, it isn’t quite as good, for a great number of reasons. The most obvious is the presentation; it simply isn’t as innovative as Hotel Dusk‘s. It lacks the sketchy animation style which made the graphics look much better than they actually were, and it lacks the intriguing holding-the-DS-sideways feature which fools you into thinking you’re reading a book. The next feature that Dusk veterans will probably stumble over is the somewhat shakier technical implementation. While the camera feature is fun, there’s two problems with it: you’re limited in the number of photos you can take (why? All the images are stored on the DS memory cart anyway, so it can’t be a memory issue), and whenever you delete photos to make space for new ones the new pictures appear not at the end of the album – that would be too logical – but in the slots where the old pictures used to be. Some of the puzzles where you have to turn keys or spin zoetropes are a little difficult and fiddly to control, and for the wrong reasons.

There is a greater problem, however, and that is the game’s structure. Compared with the beauifully byzantine Hotel Dusk, the main plotline is pretty simple, and is literally linear: you proceed along a set path throughout the game world, eventually leaving the island when you get to the end (and for some reason the appropriately-named Captain decided to relocate his boat to the island’s north beach as opposed to the southern pier where you left him and where you would presumably expect him to wait). By the end, you’ve solved the problem of your father’s mysterious science project. You might also have solved the mystery of D’s origin if you clicked on every single object in the gameworld in the correct order. Although some of the puzzles are in fact more imaginative than Hotel Dusk‘s this benefit is hampered by the fact that you’re essentially only solving one puzzle at a time.

The major leap that Dusk made, in fact, was limiting the action to a single reasonably small building and relying heavily on re-using locations and NPCs in order to make a rich gaming experience. This made the place feel like a real, genuine hotel with believably cluttered rooms inhabited by real, genuine people with believably cluttered lives. Conversely, while much of Trace Memory is set in a big mansion it feels like it’s actually set in a long corridor with a series of locked doors, wherein you are pretty much guaranteed to find the key to the next door sitting in front of it trapped inside a little puzzle-box. There’s one bit where you have to backtrack, and it’s just irritating, because you have to tramp through a bunch of boring rooms where nothing much new is happening. Frankly, it’s not quite enough to convince me to replay the game in order to unlock all of D’s memories and allow him to rest in peace, and when the main story takes less than four hours to play through I personally don’t see the point, especially compared with the genuinely epic nature of Hotel Dusk. Yes, that was four hours, not fourteen, not 40, but four. Call me crazy, but that’s hardly enough gameplay to justify the price of a new (or even a second-hand) Nintendo DS game.

Even though you won’t waste much time on Trace Memory, it’s still a bit of a waste of time. While the writing approaches the standards of Hotel Dusk it isn’t quite enough to justify the mediocre gameplay. While the puzzles are fun and innovative and interesting, they’re left hanging in a desperately flawed framework. Go back and play the Hotel again instead, and if you’ve not already played Hotel Dusk, what the hell are you thinking? It’s the best mystery-adventure game on the Nintendo DS.

Poking the Professionals

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

People like doctors and lawyers, that’s why there’s so many TV shows about them – but if that’s so, why aren’t there more medical/legal-themed computer games? The tide is slowly beginning to turn with the release of two point-and-poke adventures for the Nintendo DS…

The Prize Attorney

One of the surprise early successes of the Nintendo DS was Phoneix Wright: Ace Attorney, a remake of the first of a trilogy of Game Boy Advance games which, in their original form, were only ever released in Japan. With microphone and touchscreen support added, the remake proved a smash hit in the US and Europe, prompting Capcom to produce remakes of the two other GBA games, as well as a DS-only relaunch of the series with a new protagonist. The success of the Ace Attorney series not only proved that the DS was a viable platform for point-and-click adventures; it also showed that there was a market in the US and Europe for Japanese “visual novel”-style games such as Hotel Dusk outside of the dating sim and hentai game markets.

But is Phoenix Wright actually any good?

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Poking About In Other People’s Lives

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Much of the charm of the Nintendo DS, like its grown-up cousin the Wii, lies in how charmingly tactile it is. The split between the touchscreen, which you prod and poke at with the provided stylus, and the viewscreen where the other half of the action is displayed – and which you can’t directly poke – opens up a wealth of possibilities which game designers are right now exploiting to the hilt; like the Wii, the DS has prompted a wave of originality in game design. On the other hand, one wouldn’t immediately associated point-and-click adventures, or Japanese “interactive novels”, with an intensely tactile experience. Part of the Phoenix Wright-inspired explosion of adventure games on the DS is Hotel Dusk: Room 215, a hybrid of point-and-click adventure puzzler and interactive novel which makes full use of the DS’s capabilities.

The plot of Hotel Dusk is best described as an upbeat, positive spin on Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett – film blanc, if you will. In late 1976 NYPD detective Kyle Hyde’s partner, Brian Bradley, went rogue while infiltrating an organised crime syndicate called Nile, a conspiracy specialising in art fraud. After a dramatic confrontation in which Kyle appeared to shoot his partner, Bradley’s body was never recovered. Fired from the force, Kyle moved to LA and started to work for an old friend of his father’s who runs Red Crown, a business that acts as a cover for a private detective agency; using his guise as a door-to-door salesman of Red Crown cleaning products, Kyle’s real line of work is in using his sleuthing skills to recover missing items – but all the time he keeps one eye out for a chance to get on Bradley’s trail.

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