Review: Hotel Dusk

One of my favorite types of game is a good, solid adventure game, which should more properly be called a puzzle game, except the “puzzle” genre has been hijacked to mean “connect these colored blocks”. Oftentimes people will differentiate puzzle-adventure games from action-adventure games by calling them “point-and-click adventures”, which is an inelegant solution in my opinion seeing as how games like Hotel Dusk aren’t very adventuresome at all. More of a mystery, really, but a story above all. So perhaps we must call it a “puzzle-mystery”, or a “point-and-click story”.

More to the point: my problem with most games is that they’re usually fun enough to play that it doesn’t matter that they have utterly tepid, inane or just plain bad stories. Most of the games out there people claim have great stories really have very middling stories with lukewarm writing to prop them up. Good stories “for a video game”, let’s say. If the gameplay isn’t any fun, though, even a “good for a video game” story isn’t enough to keep me interested. I usually quit playing such games without finishing them.

With Hotel Dusk I had just the opposite problem. The game is structured very much like a book, and most of what you do is read. The story is interesting, and the characters are worth getting to know. The mystery comes at you from several different angles and is satisfying to follow. If Hotel Dusk were a book it would certainly be worth the trip to the library. If only the plot weren’t broken up by all that pesky game

(I’m tempted to call it “interactive fiction”, except that’s another genre entirely. Oh, never mind.)

The plot of Hotel Dusk finds our protagonist staying at a dingy hotel in the middle of Nowhere, California. It just so happens that this hotel contains all the dangling plot threads from the protagonist’s sad and shattered past, and he comes to realize he now has the opportunity to tie them all up… and maybe solve a few of the other guest’s problems in the meantime.

Most of what you do in Hotel Dusk involves lengthy conversations with the other folks in the hotel, staff and guests alike. Once in a while conversations yield questions you can ask, or moments where you can interject to fling accusations, and sometimes that’s important. Usually, though, you just read the dialogue and pile the little tidbits of information onto what you already know, and come away one step closer to the Grand Unified Solution of Everything. No, the trick to Hotel Dusk rarely involves saying the right thing or picking up the right item, but rather knowing where the next character you need to talk to is going to be.

See, for most of the game the hotel is entirely empty except for our hero and the one person who is available to advance the plot. The front desk is forever unattended, and the hero won’t ring the bell unless he has some specific purpose to do so. He can knock on doors, but unless he has urgent and immediate business with the person on the other side nobody is going to answer. Even characters that must for a certainty be out and about, say the maid or the bartender, are nowhere to be seen unless they’re the Next Thing To Do. So to say the game is linear is an understatement; at any given moment there is one action to take, and you either take it or you wander around looking for it. Much of the time this works pretty well; the hero will learn some new information about Person A, or pick up some object he thinks Person A might be interested in. The player knows what room Person A is staying in and it’s just a matter of going up to knock on her door.

It’s not always that easy, though. There are times where the hero will not only learn something about Person A, but also Persons B and C, and he’ll have some mysterious object in his pocket as well. In a properly-paced adventure game he would be able to tackle these tasks in the order of his choosing, but in Hotel Dusk he has to take them in the order the game requires, even if that order is completely arbitrary. If you’re not careful you can spend ages walking aimlessly through the hotel with nothing to do and no one to talk to, re-searching rooms you’ve already scoured several times, desperate to find the one magic button that will get the game back on track. I never got so stuck in these moments that I needed a walkthrough, but on one occassion I had a few choice pieces of information and was eager to shake down some of the patrons, but couldn’t because I hadn’t examined some item. The item was linked to the guest I wanted to interrogate, but that was only obvious after I’d examined it, and I only examined it because I was painstakingly going room to room re-re-re-clicking on everything just in case.

And that’s a problem in games like this. It’s not enough that the logic makes sense after the fact; it’s got to be strong enough to lead you to some action in the first place. Hotel Dusk often isn’t careful enough maintaining that sort of logic. For example, why are most of the rooms empty, most of the time? Should I really believe that most of the guests are out running errands, only to return for a ten-minute conversation with me before heading out again? After midnight? Even if they happen to be a fugitive or an old blind woman or a little girl?

Another time the game locked me in a room I hadn’t explored yet, with all kinds of little bits and baubles and doodads to play with. This was a standard “perform X actions in Y moves or die” puzzle. This one stumped me for a while because the room offered a lot of valuable information about the story but seemed to have very little going for it as far as finding a way out. Getting all the information took up a lot of moves (and involved some clumsy “you can’t take this obviously-useful item because you didn’t examine the thing you need to use it on yet” maneuvering) and I figured I could take care of that when I wasn’t, you know, dying. In fact, the hero told me specifically that he should be looking for a way out. Except there was no way out. You’re supposed to spend your time learning the information. Once you know it all you are miraculously saved by some mechanism that is completely unrelated to anything you were doing.

So yes, it is possible to lose the game. Doing so just puts you back at the beginning of whatever scene you were already in, but remember, this is a game with a lot of dialogue. Repeating a scene often means climbing a wall of text you’ve already toppled… and the text speed is slow. (You can tap the screen to speed it up a little bit if you’ve read the message before, but it’s not fast enough.) Most game overs are earned as the result of saying the wrong thing to the wrong character. Most times this is avoidable. You don’t, for example, want to show the hotel manager the stuff you snagged after breaking into his office. Sometimes, though, a conversation will get railroaded into a choice between two reasonable-sounding options. One lets the conversation continue, the other ends the game. Sometimes you can use what you know about a character to navigate these choices properly, and sometimes you can logically deduce the correct answer… but sometimes it’s a coin flip. A 50% chance of replaying the scene.

At the end of each chapter the hero will quiz himself on what he’s learned, which helps put the story into better focus. I never got one of these wrong, so I don’t know what happens in that case. I thought the quizzes were kind of jarring and unnecessary, but I suppose they’re there to help players who would otherwise have trouble paying attention to the plot. Heck, that player is usually me, but I was enjoying this plot, so the recaps weren’t really necessary. Your mileage may vary.

There are “puzzles” too, the old adventure game standby. Unfortunately these are DS-style puzzles, which breaks down to “wipe your stylus around the screen until the game dings at you”. All your favorites are here: slowly scan a giant picture for some tiny detail, scrape the crud off the thing to read the hidden message, pull the thing from the other thing, tap three things in a certain order… and my own personal favorite, close the DS. There were two of those actually.

Several of these were particularly harrowing, because the stylus just didn’t seem to be doing what I wanted to do, what I figured was the obvious action. Example: at one point you have to find a small item that has slipped into the folds of the inside of a cardboard box. My solution would be to reach in and lift up the folds; there’s only so many places something can hide in an empty box. The hero’s solution is to hold the box and thump each side in succession, until the thing starts to appear, then very slowly and carefully remove it. If you don’t remove enough of it fast enough you fail the puzzle and the hero says “Hmm… nothing here,” even though you could very clearly see half of the thing poking out.

Oh, you have to put together a jigsaw puzzle. Twice. The same puzzle, both times. Putting together a jigsaw puzzle with a tiny touchscreen and one giant fat finger is no fun at all, so that was dumb.

As I said, though, the payoff is worth it. The game world isn’t so huge that triple-checking everything really only takes a few minutes. As long as the constant “clomp clomp clomp” of the protagonist’s feet don’t drive you mad you should be in good shape. Even better, find a spoiler-free walkthrough to learn the proper order of events and eliminate the wandering altogether.

I picked this up out of the used bin for about $13, and it was at least as good as a decent book. Just imagine someone has ripped said book up into about ten parts and hides them one-at-a-time throughout your house, forcing you to stop reading and hunt for the next section each time you finish the previous one. That’s a good summary of the Hotel Dusk experience.

I’ve been informed there’s a sequel in the works. I haven’t decided if it’s something I want to pay full price for, if it even gets localized. We’ll see.

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