Monday, February 12, 2007

Rome Picks Up

**Spoiler Warning**

I’ve wavered for a bit about Season 2 of HBO’s ROME. After taking 2006 off, the series is back airing its first episode in January. The season premiere was explosive, as expected, then it went into a kind of a lull. The main character arcs got lost somewhere in the latter half of episodes 2 and 3, with the likeable Titus Pullo /Lucius Vorenus friendship being pulled apart as Vorenus is turned into a mob boss.

I felt as if HBO was paying too much of an homage to its other mainstay franchise, the Sopranos with that story arc. Unfortunately, as of episode 5 “Heroes of the Republic” the Lucius Vorenus gangster arc remains alive, but his friendship with Titus Pullo has been repaired and the thrust of the story shifts to the political manoeuvres which took place as Octavian Caesar rises to the top of the heap and the plotting that went on when he declared Brutus an enemy of the republic.

Cicero, leader of the Senate, initially welcomed Octavian’s victory over Marc Anthony, and thought the young Octavian could be controlled by the Senate. With Octavian’s surprise motion to declare Brutus an enemy of the state, Cicero calls Brutus and his armies back to Rome.

That’s where we are at right now. Those who cared to look up the wiki page on the history of the late Republic or is a student of history will know what happens next, but the second season has entered its most dramatic phase. The factual retelling of history builds the mileposts the series must hit on a narrative scale, but what draws me to the series are the little details between the characters and their reactions to the history unfolding around them.

My only concern with Rome is how the Pullo/Vorenus arc plays out. I don’t much care of Vorenus, the conservative family man, being portrayed as the head of what is essentially a crime family, and the story has signaled way too many times that Pullo and Vorenus may eventually end up on opposite sides of coming turmoil. Going down that path may be fatal for the series.

Killing of historical characters like Julius Caesar, masterfully played by Ciaran Hinds in season one, were necessities. However, I hope the series writers don’t screw up the Pullo/Vorenus arc or Rome may yet flounder.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Hotel Dusk – Final Impressions

I blogged about the then upcoming Hotel Dusk a month ago and its release has come and gone. Although the game appears to have a limit print run, I was able to snag a copy at my local EB in late January.

Hotel Dusk Room 215, is in a word, brilliant. It is a classic noir tale spun into a masterfully designed DS game. The game isn’t perfect. Sprinkled throughout are a series of puzzles each with their own DS-specific ‘touch screen’ interface. They are quite literally mini-touch games in of themselves without hints as to how to control them. This ultimately leads to a lot of trial and error that can be frustrating.

The game’s strengths however is in its story telling and writing. Each of the more than 10 characters in the game has their own personality. The amount of text in this game is truly staggering. There are branching conversation paths, objects that can be examined and conversations with Kyle (the protagonist)’s home office which drives the story forward and keep the various disparate threads together.

Hotel Dusk takes place in the span of less than 10 hours inside on run-down hotel, and in this context, the scale of the game is quite huge. The hotel is slowly unlocked room to room and the chapter system breaks down the game narrative into hour long or half-hour long chunks. It truly is a lot like a ‘24’ style game, albeit players can spend as much time as they need on a chapter.

Although Kyle Hyde’s drive to find the partner he shot 3 years ago (Bradley) is what kicks off the story, he and the player must ultimately unravel the secrets within the Hotel Dusk to complete the game. The writers managed to weave a tale so compelling that with few exceptions, each secret unraveled leads the player (and Kyle) one step closer to solving the mystery behind Bradley and his involvement with a shady art-theft ring called Nile.

The game also features a very impressive visual style. The visuals are a mixture of watercolor studies reminiscent of architectural or industrial design and pencil on paper sketchpad animation. There’s also a fairly sturdy 3-D engine representing the entirety of the hotel environment players can explore. The 3-D environments themselves are textured in a watercolor look with the colors fading into white on the edges of a surface. The walls and floors also feature a distinctive gradient look as if painted over repeatedly by an unseen artist trying to create lighting through darker and softer tones of a hue.

The game’s graphical star however is the character animations. Oft referred to as being inspired by A-HA music video, I prefer to describe them as being animated sketchpad drawings. The ‘sketch’ look and the twitchy wavy lines lends the character life, even as the characters are standing still. Each of the characters also have a full repertoire of animated expressions, from glee, sadness, anger, denial among others which aids in characterization and makes this fairly 'old school' way of doing things superior to 3-D facial models or other more advanced techniques. The nuances that an animated character portrait allows for makes this game's characters seem authentic.

Hotel Dusk is a fantastic mystery novel in game form and it’s well worth its low price. Grab this game when you find it in stores. It probably won’t be very plentiful in used stores in the future given its apparent limited availability. If you want to know more about this game, check out its official website.