The Nintendo DS will turn 15 years old this year (although not in Europe). The original DS was a fantastic hotbed for unique and original games. Obviously, among those games were the Ace Attorney trilogy but there was also another name that was absolutely killing it in the point and click detective genre: A little development studio called Cing.
Cing’s first DS game was Another Code, a story about a young girl exploring a haunted mansion. It was fun and featured some genuinely ingenious puzzles, but it didn’t really have a crime-solving, detective feeling to it that would appeal to me in the same way as Phoenix Wright. Then there was Hotel Dusk.
This is a game for adults. I don’t mean that it’s full of blood and guts, or swearing and boobs. I don’t mean the false maturity the videogame industry loves to chase. Hotel Dusk is genuinely mature. It plays on a DS held sideways like a novel, controlled entirely with thoughtful taps and swipes of a stylus.
Hotel Dusk: The Secret of Room 215 is achingly cool. The visual style, with a grimy 3D hotel and hand-drawn, Take On Me- esque characters is absolutely gorgeous. The music has a unique, jazz vibe that drips with atmosphere. And the story is sublime.
This isn’t a complex tale with multiple murders, supernatural elements and elaborate criminal schemes. This is a story about a sad ex-cop on the trail of his missing partner. It features crimes and betrayals and twists, sure, but its really all about characters.
Our lead is Kyle Hyde, a classic grump with a heart of gold. He was a New York Cop but his partner Bradley went on the take. Kyle confronted and shot him, but has a suspicion he’s still alive. He’s been investigating Bradley, and the art theft ring that turned him, while working as a door-to-door salesman who “retrieves” sensitive items for clients.
He arrives at the eponymous hotel and the entire game takes place within its walls. This is a story about one night in a contained environment with a slim cast of characters, but every single one feels incredibly alive. Some of them are simple and archetypal, and as the plot unfolds there are some incredibly convenient coincidences, but nonetheless the pure human drama of it is consistently engaging.
I remember reading reviews of Hotel Dusk in NGamer more than a decade ago, being taken by the look and the concept of it. I picked the game up on release and started it on multiple occasions as a teen, but never made it more than a chapter or two in. The slow, deliberate pace and the sedate opening failed to grab me but on my most recent playthrough, taking leisurely play sessions during lunch breaks or train rides, it was perfect.
As I said before, this is a game aimed at an older player, and I enjoyed it far more now that I am more able to associate with the tired sadness of Hyde and the small character beats of the cast. This is pulp 70s America through a uniquely Japanese lens, with one character who has stepped right out of every anime ever, but it has a subtle warmth that runs all through it.
If Hotel Dusk were released today, it would be counted among indie darlings like Gone Home. I can imagine it would be somewhat shorter in length, and have a clean, Unity visual style. I’m sure the charm of the writing and the hand drawn art would shine through, but there’s something about this game that could only exist on the original DS. This is a small window into a time when unique, experimental games were full-price, boxed releases. Simultaneously, this is a window into 1970s LA and a time when people could disappear completely, and when drinking whiskey and playing some bowling with a stranger was all you could do to while away an evening.
If you have a DS and you’ve finished the Ace Attorney games, or if you liked their concept but bounced off their whacky aesthetic, I cannot recommend highly enough that you track down a copy of Hotel Dusk, pour yourself a half-decent scotch, and settle in for a night with what feels like a damn good book.
Luke Summerhayes recently played through the entire mainline Ace Attorney series and reviewed them case-by-case. Those reviews started here.
Keep an eye on gintendo for more discussion of quality whodunit gaming. Case Reviews will return!