HOTEL DUSK / Nintendo / Nintendo DS
Hotel Dusk is a game clearly written by Japanese people for a Japanese audience. It's supposed to be set in the Nevada desert somewhere outside Vegas, but everyone has little Japanese mannerisms that you'd never see in America like handing each other things with two hands, that little "no thanks" hand wave that they do, and all those weird things that burly guys are apparently required by law to do with their shoulders. It's also supposed to be set in 1979, yet everyone talks like a Dashiel Hammet story for some reason. So the writers (or at least the localization team) could have been a lot more familiar with noir and American culture before they plunged into this, but one thing they did nail was strong characters who shine regardless of the awkward, anachronistic dialogue.
And it's a damn good thing they did, because after an hour or two of play the game reveals itself to be a traditional "visual novel" despite some gimmicky use of the touch screen here and there. Gameplay is shallow and secondary to simply following the story cues and doing a lot of reading. It's also one of those early DS games that was determined to use touch controls for every little tedious task BECAUSE TOUCH CONTROLS. For the most part, the only way to get a "game over" is to pick the wrong dialogue options in certain conversations, so the game is largely on rails with very minimal challenge.
We play as the guy from Take On Me after he decided to cut his mullet and join the NYPD. In the introduction we find out he's left the force after having to shoot his rogue partner, and now he's a traveling salesman based out of Los Angeles. A sales job brings him to this run-down hotel in the Nevada desert, where he's just supposed to find some missing items and hand them over to a client. But it turns out the hotel is full of mysteries, and somehow this is all going to tie back into finding his missing ex-partner, who he believes isn't really dead.
Our main man Kyle is kinda like an early version of whatshisname from L.A. Noire, he comes across as needlessly dickish and snippy with everybody at first. He actually has development over the course of the story though, as does almost all of the supporting cast, which is the main thing that makes the game worth sticking with through the more tedious bits. That, and the unique art style, though the effect kinda wears off when you realize each character only has five or so animations that you'll be seeing over and over. The jazz-lounge soundtrack isn't anything stunning, but it isn't bad either and is nice at times.
The game is divided into blocks of time, but it doesn't pass in real time (with the exception of one puzzle that comes out of nowhere at the tail end of the game). The system is more like The Colonel's Bequest or Dagger of Amon Ra, where you basically just wander around until you stumble into a key event that advances time by a block of 10 to 20 minutes. You can't miss anything crucial here though, just about every event is mandatory and it's all pretty linear.
This investigation is occasionally punctuated by the need to do something with the touch screen, like snip a wire or sift through a pile of linen. And once in a great while there's a basic logic puzzle, like a jigsaw you have to solve to make a kid feel better or when you get challenged to an after-hours bowling match in the hallways. But mostly, you just talk. Most conversations just have you passively taking in information, but once in a while you shake down a character for their innermost secrets, and picking the wrong response in these sequences ends the game. The game also occasionally surprises you with an out-of-left-field game over, like when the hotel manager decides to start searching people for some stolen property, and if you walk in the wrong area carrying contraband you get busted. But such incidents are very few in number and usually telegraphed. You can also save the game at pretty much any time outside of conversations, and I can't think of a place where you could save into an unwinnable situation.
Kyle "smooth with the ladies" Hyde
While "game overs" occasionally put you in a position where you'll have to re-read a bunch of the same text, that's avoidable with judicious saving. The only thing that REALLY rubbed me the wrong way about the game was the editing. The text really needed to be cut down some; characters repeat information way too often, and the quizzes that end each chapter seemed pointless.
Hotel Dusk is one of those games I personally liked, but I'm giving a 3/5 as I'm certain that a lot of people won't have patience for the talky-talky that comprises most of the playtime. If you stick with it to the end, though, you find a satisfying conclusion to the mystery that's mostly unpredictable, doesn't rely too much on common tropes and doesn't have a cartoon villain lurking in the background. I dunno about playing this as a main game at home, but it is well-suited to long bus or train commutes and such.
* Gameplay Video