Relatively hard to find upon its initial release, Hotel Dusk: Room 215 was eventually re-released by Nintendo under their "Touch Generations" label, with a giant orange banner plastered on the cover unambiguously labelling it "A MYSTERY NOVEL". It's a fair enough description, and not only in the sense that it is one of the rare DS games played with the console held sideways, book-style. Hotel Dusk walks a very fine line between being an adventure game and being a straight-out read-through of a story. Fortunately, the story is sufficiently good, and so brilliantly presented, that it is hard to object to being led through it all by the nose.
There's no denying that Hotel Dusk is a very, very linear game. The story takes place over the course of ten chapters, each occurring over either a one-hour or half-hour period on an evening in December 1979. As you might expect from similar games, such as the Laura Bow mysteries, Cruise for a Corpse, or The Last Express, the clock automatically advances after key events. However, there is almost always only one thing going on in the hotel at any given time: one place where anything is happening, and one place where you need to be. On the one hand, this structure allows for the construction of a tidy, straightforward narrative, with each chapter ending in a dramatic confrontation of one of the characters; on the other hand, the replay value is rather diminished, except for maybe exploring the various means of failing. (There is a "second quest" available if you start the game over after finishing it once, but the only changes are very, very minor and you have to get through most of the game before anything different happens. It was good of the developers to try, at least.)
The story is concerned with one Kyle Hyde, a former officer of the NYPD who resigned following an incident which resulted in the shooting of his partner, Brian Bradley. As the story opens, Kyle is ostensibly employed as a traveling salesman, but all is not as it appears: Red Crown, the company he works for, also has a side business of discretely "finding things" for people. It is another such assignment that leads Kyle to Hotel Dusk in the Nevada desert - but naturally things don't quite go as planned. In short order you are introduced to the hotel staff and Kyle's fellow guests.
Characters occasionally comment that Kyle's brusque manner doesn't seem to be particularly fitting for a salesman. Fortunately, some people also regard him as having the ineffable quality of a person to whom they can readily confess their various secrets.
The owner of Hotel Dusk, and definitely not a people person. Dunning seems to be lurking around every corner just waiting to kick Kyle out, ending the game, as soon as you make the slightest wrong move. Is it just because he doesn't like cops, or is there something more?
Surprise, surprise, there's someone at the hotel who recognizes Kyle from his NYPD days. Louie is something of a slacker-hippie type who doesn't work very hard at his various jobs at the hotel, but he's ever-present and all too willing to help Kyle out over the course of his investigations.
The hotel employee who seems to get the real work done, Rosa works as the cook and otherwise is busy keeping the hotel spotlessly clean when she's not yelling at Louis. On more than one occasion, she dragoons Kyle into helping her out with various tasks.
An old woman with an eyepatch, Helen checks in at the front desk just after Kyle arrives. She's a little annoyed that Kyle is assigned Room 215, which, according to Dunning, has a reputation for granting the wishes of whoever stays there. It seems she's after something.
Martin is a novelist by trade and has a vocabulary that shows it. But why would a famous writer be at a hotel in the middle of nowhere?
A rather obnoxious and rude young man, Angel succeeds in stirring up trouble for Kyle during the first half of the game, though he stays out of sight afterwards.
Yes, just Iris. Mysterious enough? A minor character, she doesn't do much for most of the game except act very ticked-off about something. You find out what that is eventually.
An innocent but somewhat cranky child, all Melissa really wants is to see her mom again.
Melissa's father. It may suffice to say that he is not out to win any parenting awards.
A real mystery, Kyle first spots Mila walking alone on the highway towards the hotel. Even more mysteriously, she doesn't seem to be able to speak.
Kyle's boss at Red Crown, still well-connected with the police, is just a phone call away to provide further information on what Kyle uncovers during his investigations.
Ed's secretary, with whom Kyle probably converses just about as much as he does with Ed. The game ever so subtly hints that she might have a thing for Kyle.
Absent but central to the plot, the discovery that Bradley was on the take during Kyle's time at the NYPD continues to constantly haunt Kyle. Considering Kyle personally shot Bradley, it's very odd indeed that Mila happens to be wearing a bracelet just like the one Bradley used to wear.
In sharp contrast to a lot of adventure games, Hotel Dusk is pretty serious. There's hardly anything but dry humor to be found, and aside from some very, very brief references to the wish-granting properties of Room 215, everything is kept wholly realistic. Arguably the most contrived thing about the game is that there could be such a collection of characters assembling all at once, each with their own convenient little secret. That said, the game's "T" rating from the ESRB almost seems a little harsh. Drugs are strictly limited to a relatively small amount of alcohol, at least in comparison to a lot of other mystery stories. Sex and romance, those other mainstays of detective fiction, are limited to the appearance of a "men's magazine" that factors into the story just enough to suggest that there was some subplot tossed away during development. Aside from Bradley's oft-mentioned untimely demise, death and murder are largely not even hinted at. A recurring element throughout the game is a crime syndicate known as Nile that seems to be entangled in some art thefts, and that's about as bad as it gets. Look at it from the right angle, and you might see the game as a whole as a thematic morality tale about people with wishes of their own, and the lies they're willing to tell and facades they're willing to wear in order to get what they want.
Probably the most striking feature of Hotel Dusk is its unique visual style. Readily compared to the music video for "Take On Me" by A-ha (recently made famous by a hilarious parody), each character appears only as a cut-out pencil sketch, with the sketches changing subtly from moment to moment. The characters consequently have a kind of lifelike quality that static portraits could never manage. While the portraits are all realistically done, there's just enough detail left out that one's imagination can readily fill in the details. Each character also has a considerable range of emotional responses - exhaustively animated through live-action rotoscoping - that they'll go through over the course of a dialogue, and while some of them are obviously re-used, they remain remarkably expressive. (The one exception might be this weird kissy-face that Louie gets when he smiles, of which you see a good deal, considering how much you deal with Louie.) Combined with a top-notch script, in which each character speaks with his or her own distinctive mannerisms, it's easy to get caught up in the story.
Further enhancing the presentation is a quality soundtrack worth raving about - an important attribute to have, as the game otherwise only has ambient sound effects. Generally consisting of smooth lounge-style jazz, it's very fitting for the game's noir mood and is perhaps only slightly marred by the synthesizer quality of the instruments. Particularly nifty is a track near the end of the game that seems to riff appropriately on Hotel California. There's a jukebox in the game that will let you sample all the different tracks as they become available, though unfortunately it is only available during particular chapters.
It is good that the music and character portraits work so well, as playing Hotel Dusk involves reading a tremendous amount of dialogue. A veneer of interactivity is spread over it to keep things engaging: you can typically ask questions of a character from a list in any order you choose, and occasionally, you'll be given a choice of two dialogue options to choose from, or prompted with a flashing triangle indicating that someone can be pressed for more information. But most of the time, it's all paper-thin: responses to questions are generally the same regardless of the order they're asked in, choosing the wrong dialogue option will often just cause the dialogue to loop over so you can choose the right one, and even if you miss a flashing-triangle prompt, the question it would have brought up will just spontaneously occur to Kyle after the conversation is done. It's possible to mess up the big end-of-chapter interrogations badly enough that Kyle gets discouraged and retires to his room (resulting in a Game Over), but you really have to go out of your way to make it happen. At least you have some incentive to pay attention, since at the very end of every chapter Kyle will pause to gather his thoughts, meaning there's a multiple-choice mini-quiz about the events that transpired.
One of the game's nods to non-linearity comes in the form of the hotel vending machine, which seems a bit poorly thought-out. There's exactly one time period that you're allowed to get the quarters you need in order to use the machine, which can dispense exactly four different food items, as well as a fifth item whose code has to be deciphered from clues scattered around the hotel. While none of them have any effect on the story, each guest reacts to each item differently - unfortunately, some will also take the item from you without warning and without any tangible benefit, which means you're stuck re-loading if you want to hang on to the item to see if someone else has something to say about it. Again, it's nice that the developers tried, but after doing so much to earn the player's trust, these one-shots stand in sharp contrast.
When you're not chatting with someone, the main interface of the game features a simple 2D floor plan on the touch screen, and a first-person view on the other screen. Moving about often involves stopping to open doors, a feature that, like the controls, readily draws comparison to Resident Evil. The choice of textures in the first-person view sometimes seems a little weird, but given that the hotel is supposed to be somewhat dingy and run-down, it's entirely forgiveable. Approaching an area of interest causes a magnifying-glass icon to flash on the touch screen, which in turn allows the area to be more closely investigated in a zoomed-in perspective that can be rotated with a one-dimensional slider. This being the DS, every object is rendered in relatively simplistic low-poly models that stand out neatly from the background, though some objects provide a digitized photo if you examine them further.
What this all boils down to is a very reasonable alternative to the obnoxious pixel-hunts from the 2D adventure games of yore: you have to do just enough hunting around to present a little bit of a challenge. The game could probably function just as well if you just jumped from location to location via a menu, as in the Phoenix Wright games, but being able to wander around freely does wonders for immersion, even if it's largely unnecessary. It's also worth pointing out how remarkably detailed everything is. For example: as you might expect, every room in the hotel has a bathroom, and every bathroom pretty much has the same fixtures, and yet each time you examine a different stack of towels or gleaming toilet, you'll actually get a unique description from Kyle. Someone actually came up with around a dozen different ways to comment on a roll of toilet paper!
Puzzles are also neatly streamlined. Kyle occasionally remarks that he should write something down in his notebook (which is your cue to do so), but most of the time anything you should have written down just comes up again naturally. Abilities such as hiding objects in Kyle's suitcase are neatly but discretely spelled out, and the game does a very careful job of making sure you never have unnecessary items on hand. A good example comes early on in the game, when you have to pick a lock. Another game might let you hold on to your improvised lockpick for the rest of the game, and let you futilely struggle with every locked door in the hotel, but once Kyle is done with it, he just decides to put it away, and that's the end of it. You'll also never have to combine two items in your inventory directly, saving you from trying to use everything on everything else: at most, you'll be able to use an item on some object in the room, and then use another item on the same object. Typically, such a use will bring up a simple little touchscreen minigame: unfolding a paperclip, shaking a box, and so on, all neatly enhanced with realistic sound effects. Once again in stark contrast to many other adventure games, pretty much every such minigame would function perfectly well in real life. Often criticized is a twenty-piece jigsaw picture puzzle belonging to Melissa that you'll have to deal with two or three times, but given that it's only twenty pieces, it is hardly worth getting worked up about. Puzzles really only start to unravel a bit towards the end of the game, but even then you don't have to deal with anything like the bizarre mechanical contraptions of, say, Syberia or Sanitarium.
Despite the game's earnest efforts to keep you anchored firmly to the rails, the ease with which you can bring the wrath of Dunning down on Kyle's head is almost reminiscent of Sierra at its worst. Ask the wrong question, or get caught with the wrong item at the wrong time, and he'll kick Kyle right out. Nonetheless, on those rare occasions when it isn't perfectly clear what you shouldn't have done, you're never left wondering exactly what happened, and the game is generous about letting you continue from where you messed up. There's a bonus scene at the end of the game if you stick to reloading saved games rather than letting the game give you a do-over.
Getting kicked out is still slightly preferable to getting completely lost, of course. Fortunately, the hotel slowly opens up as the game progresses, and even once everything is unlocked it's still a relatively small place. You can usually figure out where you're supposed to be at any given time, especially if you pay attention. The only particularly unforgivable puzzle comes relatively early on, when you're supposed to knock on a character's door. Inexplicably, the dialogue will only proceed properly if Kyle is carrying certain items, and they're items that would have gotten Kyle booted if they were in the inventory moments earlier.
Hotel Dusk: Room 215 is unquestionably a solid piece of work, with the kind of finely-polished script that makes it hard to tell it was ever a Japanese game to begin with. The developers even included extensive support for left-handed controls and even the DS Rumble Pak, of all things. In the end, your enjoyment of the game comes down to how willing you are to sit back and enjoy the unique presentation of the tale of Kyle Hyde's investigation. If you're looking for a game in which you're going to have to think even a little about your choices and their implications, you'd best look elsewhere.
Last Window: The Secret of Cape West / Last Window: Mayonaka no Yakusoku (ラストウィンドウ 真夜中の約束) - Nintendo DS (2010)
For unknown reasons, Cing's final game was only released in Japan and Europe (in a multilingual version, no less). Like many other video game sequels, Last Window builds on what worked in Hotel Dusk while paring down aspects that were less effective - but in the process loses some of the pacing and focus that made its predecessor so effective.
The game engine itself is largely unchanged from Hotel Dusk, with the first-person perspective, dialogue trees, and end-of-chapter quizzes working exactly as they did before. DS Rumble Pak support is even still included for whatever reason. There are a few improvements here and there, the most useful of which is an instant-dialogue review available at any time by pressing Select. The graphics seem to have been improved slightly, with a little more detail in objects, and shifting the perspective in zoomed-in views is a little smoother. The textures of the first-person view feel a little cleaner as well, and there are some nice subtle lighting effects. Near the end of the game is an all-too-brief section in which Kyle is obliged to wander around with a flashlight, impressively handled by the engine. Last Window also has proper pre-rendered FMV cutscenes as opposed to the cobbled-together animations of Hotel Dusk, but they are used to poor effect, primarily serving as brief and fairly meaningless inter-chapter transitions. Without the charming "Take On Me" of aesthetic of Hotel Dusk, the opening cutscene - while stylish in its own right - just seems strangely out of place, considering the rest of the game is still spent chatting with the artful, sketchy portraits.
The story takes place almost exactly a year after the events of Hotel Dusk. It opens with a bang: Ed fires Kyle from his job at Red Crown, having grown weary of his attitude. Despondent, Kyle returns to home at Cape West Apartments, only to quickly learn that the building has been sold and eviction notices have been issued. But there's another surprise in store in the form of an order sheet of the sort normally issued by Ed: "Item: Locate the Scarlet Star, which disappeared at Hotel Cape West 25 years ago." Little does Kyle know that, as artfully pointed out by the opening cutscene, Cape West was the site of two murders, one 13 years ago and another 25 years ago, associated with some sort of attempted diamond theft. But who sent the order sheet? And why has the building been sold?
Whereas the story of Hotel Dusk took place over the course of an evening, the subsequent events at Cape West are drawn out over the course of a week; in terms of gameplay, it's only slightly longer. The clock still advances only when the story demands it, often jumping to some arbitrary hour rather than increasing incrementally. Kyle occasionally narrates tales of leaving the building and wandering the city, but the action is confined to the interior of Cape West and to Kyle's dealings with the departing tenants. While most of them are at least familiar to Kyle, he's never bothered to get to know them particularly well until his current predicament.
The elderly landlady, Mags purchased the building thirteen years ago, when it was known as Hotel Cape West, and renovated the rooms - except for the fourth floor, which remains untouched. She has good enough reasons for selling the building, but there's a lot more than she's letting on.
A friendly musician who's down on his luck and getting just a little bit desperate.
A perky young woman, Betty is best described as pretty much the least interesting character in either of the two games. Whoops.
Marie is troubled and possibly a bit paranoid, having attracted the wrong kind of attention.
Making use of his position as the building's maintenance man, Dylan seems to have some sort of pathological need to pry into the lives of its inhabitants. Or is there more to it than that?
Frank initially seems to be a cantankerous old man, but he too has a lot more to him than initially appears.
Charles is a French exchange student hoping to become a movie director. In that regard, he's slightly more interesting than Betty, but not by much.
Sidney is the longtime proprietor of Lucky's Cafe on the ground floor of Cape West. He's familiar with the tenants and knows a few things about the building where he's been for so long. Kyle also eventually learns more about his absent wife.
Sidney's cheerful daughter, who works in Lucky's Cafe.
A shifty character hanging around the building for unclear reasons, Rex seems to know a little bit too much about Kyle. Though Kyle doesn't spend too much time dealing with Rex directly, his presence is felt for much the story.
Introduced as a salesman, Will is never even mentioned until halfway through the story, at which point he abruptly shows up, turns out to have everything to do with the plot, and then disappears just as quickly. Whoops again.
Mila from Hotel Dusk does turn up in a brief cameo, but her activities in the meantime are probably the least plausible thing in either of the two games, and ultimately dealing with her is an inconsequential waste of time. In fact, the events of Hotel Dusk are only touched upon very briefly over the course of Last Window and you can easily play through it with no knowledge of the first game; nor is Hotel Dusk particularly spoiled by Last Window.
Last Window is still a very serious game, and there's even a teensy bit of love and betrayal sprinkled in this time around, along with a politician and shenanigans in the Los Angeles Police Department. Unfortunately, as you may surmise from the character descriptions, it's just not as compelling as Hotel Dusk. That game may have been a little bit cliched with each member of its cast conveniently having his or her own little secret, dispensed literally like clockwork at the end of each chapter. But while the cast members of Last Window are more realistic in that sense, the story suffers for it and having to deal with each of them gets to be a bit of a chore. The dialogue is still well-written and everyone still behaves in a consistent, believable fashion; it's just that few of them are particularly interesting. Nor does it end with them: instead of a driven man almost bizarrely tortured with the need to resolve the events of his past, the Kyle Hyde of Last Window just comes across as depressed and moody, chatting with his mom on the phone, and answering the door when people knock. Without the tension of the evening ticking away, you may start to wonder just how much of December 1980 you're going to be obliged to sit through as you slowly wait for Kyle to figure out things you probably guessed when you watched the opening cutscene.
Like before, Last Window is also still a very linear game, though the plot does contain a small number of rather well-crafted red herrings. A particularly nice plot line appears halfway through the game, when Ed abruptly challenges Kyle to sell two items of his old Red Crown inventory to his neighbours. The ensuing puzzle has you investigating what various different characters need, and you're even allowed to fail outright while you refine your approach. It's too bad the whole thing could be entirely excised for all the impact it has on Kyle's quest for the Scarlet Star. There's still a vending machine in the lobby, but this time your only obligation is to try to feed it a quarter for each of the first few chapters in order to win your prize: a simple Game & Watch style minigame. Even if you forget, you win by default if you try at the last minute.
Cing's attention to detail still remains as weirdly persnickety as before, though it does show a few signs of slipping towards the end of the game. Unlike the rooms of Hotel Dusk, each location in Last Window contains an assortment of touches that really give you a feel for the person who lives there, however bland he or she may actually be. Kyle will still expound on every single cupboard and toilet paper roll in the game if you are so inclined.
Probably the most astonishing sign of Cing's devotion is the inclusion of the Last Window novel. Both Hotel Dusk and Last Window include brief summaries of each chapter in Kyle's notebook, written from Kyle's point of view. But as each chapter of Last Window is completed, it becomes available as a fully fleshed-out chapter of a third-person perspective novel. It lightly embellishes some of the details and leaves out some of the others, at times potentially divulging an alternative solution to a puzzle that you may not have been aware of, but generally remains a pretty faithful account. The writing is even half-decent, ostensibly provided by Martin Summer from Hotel Dusk, though it can't really alleviate the pacing problems inherent to the story itself. Each chapter is also accompanied by a sealed file containing Martin's notes on Kyle collected through investigation and interviews. The contents of the sealed files somewhat awkwardly include hints if you're stuck in the main game; keeping the files sealed - or at least not saving after opening one - makes a small billiards game available when you save after the credits. (There's no "second quest" this time around, but considering how poorly it was handled in Hotel Dusk, it isn't missed.)
The gameplay is much the same as it was in Hotel Dusk. Inventory management isn't quite as clean: while there's no more messing around with Kyle's briefcase, you'll end up carrying around a bunch of items for most of the game for no good reason, including a screwdriver that seems like it should be useful in any number of places. However, numerous puzzles are designed with Kyle confined to a room which he will refuse to leave until he's accomplished what he needs to do, usually leaving behind whatever items he's picked up afterwards and not returning again. Inventory items also now come with verbs like "combine" and "compare", but they need to be used so rarely that it's a bit strange that they are included at all. Nonetheless, every occasion when they are required still makes logical sense and you will never find yourself compelled to try combining every item with every other item in a desperate attempt to figure out what the designers were thinking - even though there's nothing stopping you from doing so.
Opportunities for messing up and being served with a Game Over screen still abound, some of them appearing with very little warning, though things are a little less touchy than they were in Hotel Dusk. Unlike Dunning, Mags isn't waiting to spring from the shadows to kick Kyle out. Some mistakes will at least reward you with a reasonably entertaining dialogue snippet from whoever it is Kyle manages to annoy to his or her breaking point, but most of them just end with Kyle apparently so despondent over committing some social faux-pas that he inexplicably cannot bear to go on. Like Hotel Dusk, there are a good many instances in which items have to be manipulated on the touch screen, but while Hotel Dusk was pretty forgiving with these (you could chop up a coat hanger early in the game over and over again until you got it right, for instance), there are a couple of times in Last Window where there's no going back if you happen to break whatever it was you were messing with. It's probably for the best that a little tension remains, as most of the puzzles aren't really intrinsically difficult. Yet once again, even though it's more realistic that your failure will not inevitably end with a rude confrontation with the likes of Dunning, the atmosphere suffers somewhat for not having any one thing in particular associated with a Game Over.
At least the soundtrack is generally just as good as before, with only a few pieces recycled from Hotel Dusk. It might be described as more sombre in tone, perhaps fitting for Kyle's disposition. Some of the best pieces are tragically underutilized and only play for very brief periods of the game; some only turn up in-game when the radio and television in Kyle's room are used. There's another jukebox which can be used to listen to all the tracks, but being located in Lucky's Cafe, it's available for the entirety of the game; you can even use it when reading the Last Window novel.
Last Window certainly won't win over anyone who wasn't a fan of Hotel Dusk. But for those who can't get enough of Hotel Dusk, it's all they're going to get, however unsatisfying it may be. Cing filed for bankruptcy shortly after the game was released, which is perhaps an understandable fate for a studio with such a slavish devotion to tiny details. But for all its artistic merit and carefully-constructed puzzles, a game like Last Window doesn't amount to much without its story and characters, and this time around they're not quite up to par.