Hotel Dusk: Room 215 is a brilliant example of that most niche of genres, the visual novel. It’s difficult to classify Hotel Dusk as a game, if by ‘game’ you mean having some sense of autonomy in a virtual world – here it’s a mostly passive experience in which you talk to different characters, scroll through reams of text and attempt to ask the right questions to trigger the next plot point. Very few of these types of game make it to the West – the most well-known example is the Ace Attorney series – but they’re hugely popular in Japan, and I’m a big fan of them.
Games like this tend to live or die on the quality of the writing, and thankfully Dusk gets a big thumbs up on this point. The set-up is nothing original – a grizzled seventies detective on a missing person hunt – but the story and setting provide atmosphere in spades, and each chapter throws more intriguing mysteries into the mix. Visually the game is a winner too, and the pencil-drawn animation provides a really unique look that I can’t recall seeing in a game before.
The plot kept me hooked right up to the end, although I was left slightly wanting by the climax – some mysteries are left unexplained, which was frustrating but also brave on the developers’ part. There were a few niggles along the way, too – probably the most frustrating thing was aimlessly wandering the hotel in search of someone to interview. Often you’re given clues as to where to go next, but sometimes it’s really unclear what you’re meant to do, and I found myself consulting a guide a few times. The nadir is probably around a third of the way through, when you’re given a pen with an engraving and a hint that you need to put something into the engraved letters to be able to read them. Cue lots of needless wandering and searching, followed by an exasperated trip to GameFAQs.
Another potentially frustrating feature is the way a single wrong choice can abruptly lead to a game over screen. Annoy someone too much or wander into the wrong place and you’re likely to get kicked out of the hotel by the owner, forcing you to restart from your last save. After the first couple of ‘Game Over’ screens, I learnt to save frequently, and despite the potential frustration, I quite liked this harsh but fair system – it adds a lot of weight and tension to the game and stops you blithely skipping through conversations with no fear of consequence.
Sadly, the developer Cing folded in 2010, but before they went they created a sequel – Last Window: The Secret of Cape West – so I’m currently on the hunt for it on eBay. Cing had a varied and unique output: they created one of my all-time favourite Wii games, Little King’s Story, as well as a few esoteric visual novels that have met with varied critical reception. Importantly though, they weren’t afraid to try doing something a bit different – we could do with a few more developers like them.
[As investigated by Lucius Merriweather.]