Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Last Window

After bursting to the scene in 2005 with Another Code/Trace Memory,  CiNG’s adventure games on the DS promised a new era of adventure games on a major game platform.  By 2010 however, CiNG ran into financial difficulties and filed for bankruptcy just as their last game, The Nintendo published The Last Window: Secret of the Cape West saw release in EU markets after a release in Japan.

Either due to CiNG’s bankruptcy or Nintendo of America’s conservative release schedule, CiNG’s swan song would not see a North American release, much to the dismay of adventure fans stateside. Regardless of the reasoning, the circumstances around the game’s release is worthy of CiNG’s pedigree of coincidental storytelling.    The Last Window is an aptly named title for it marked the end of the Touch! Generations period for Nintendo and the burst of energy that emerged from the company during the first few years of the Nintendo DS.  It was our last window into that period.

Despite these hurdles, North American fans can still enjoy the game by importing the European release of the game, localized in English, thanks to the decision not to saddle the Nintendo DS with any region locking at the time it was designed.

The Last Window continues the story of Kyle Hyde, the protagonist from Hotel Dusk Room 215.   Like Hotel Dusk, the game opens around Christmas.  It is 1980 and it has been a year since the events at Hotel Dusk.  Kyle Hyde wakes up from an afternoon of napping only to be chewed out and fired by his boss, Ed Vincent, an ex-LAPD cop and owner of Red Crown, a company specializing in finding things for clients while using a door-to-door sales business as a front.
The unemployed Kyle returns home at the Cape West apartments only to find the landlord sent out notices a week prior about an imminent eviction by the end of the month as the building has been sold.   Kyle is then confronted with a rogue order sent to his door directly by an unknown client asking him to recover the mysterious diamond the Scarlet Star which disappeared from Cape West 25 years ago.  His interest piqued, he slowly unravels the secrets hidden in the apartment complex he has lived in for four years.  A story that would ultimately span 25 years, involve 2 murders and a notorious crime syndicate.

The game’s scale is ambitious, spanning more than week there is a lot more to do and examine and the mystery is far more layered and complex.  Scenario designer Rika Suzuki maintains the hard-boiled noir feel of Hotel Dusk throughout this adventure. Compared to Hotel Dusk,  The Last Window does suffer due to its scope and the game feels a little less focused in the middle part of the adventure.  This may be in part due to the game structure which spanned multiple days and lacking in end of chapter interrogations like in Hotel Dusk which is structurally similar to ‘boss battles’ found in traditional games.  The Last Window eschews from this formula and as a result the pacing didn’t feel as tight.  I was certainly much more enthused to power through several chapters at a time in Hotel Dusk in 2007.

The game’s core mechanics remain in-tact from Hotel Dusk.  It is divided into a free mode where players explore their environs, interact with objects and solve puzzles and a conversation mode where the story is revealed, players ask questions and the game’s equivalent of ‘boss battles’ occurs in interrogation sections though as noted, these don’t necessarily occur at the end of each chapter but are rather placed where the story requires it.   In Chapter I, there is some hand holding features added explaining how the interface works, which is a nice addition.   Furthermore, players can more easily avoid a red wave during questioning by asking the right questions simply by keeping the overall narrative arc in mind and using common sense.   Avoiding a red wave was crucial to earning a ‘good ending’ in Hotel Dusk, but avoiding them  in that game often required memorization of the right questions to ask as they  often weren’t obvious in the context of the story but were native to the individual quirks of each character as written by the scenario writer.

The Last Window reuses the same engine from Hotel Dusk, and the interior environs are rendered with the same pleasing watercolour motif.   Characters are animated in a sketch-book style reminiscent of A-HA music video.  To enhance the authenticity of the visuals, CiNG used models as references and rotoscoped the hand drawn animations overtop of them.  This explains the personalities of each of the game’s characters.  The way they hang their head, their smirks, the frown lines on their faces and way they smile give away the personalities of each individual. Each is unique and distinct and there is an authenticity their expressions that lend weight to the story.  The game also improves on Hotel DuskThe Last Window features animated title sequence with watercolor studies of a fictional downtown LA  in the 1950s, 60s and 1980 with Hotel Cape West.   There are also animated sequences bridging between chapters.  Improving on the  cramped pancake architecture of Hotel Dusk,  the architecture of the Cape West apartments feature a roof top sequence set in the middle of downtown LA, and an expansive lobby with a four-story tall glass window, providing a sense of scale as Kyle Hyde traverses the four floors of the Hotel..

The soundtrack by Satoshi Okubo is solid, if perhaps less charming than in Hotel Dusk.   It lacks the recognizable leitmotif’s of Hotel Dusk , instead the game ties themes to different parts of the  apartment building.  Even then there isn’t the immediately recognizable and catchy ‘Hangover Blues’, Dunning Smith’s theme, from Hotel Dusk.  That is not to say there aren’t good music in the game.  The universe Rika Suzuki and the team at CiNG created includes fictional background characters like jewellers, politicians and artists that add depth to the story.  In The Last Window, music is part of the story.  Whereas the fictional artist Osterzone in Hotel Dusk and his painting ‘Angel Opening a Door’ drove me to Google Osterzone when the game was new (something I would not recommend for neophytes who want to avoid spoilers),  The Last Window’s equivalent to ‘Angel Opening a Door’,  a theme called ‘ Promise’ was very clearly something made just for the game due to the MIDI treatment. 

The Last Window is a fitting end to something that started out with so much promise.  Along with Hotel Dusk  and Trace Memory, the CiNG trilogy on the Nintendo DS are stylistically unique titles.  They offer engrossing stories with interesting twists and turns, even if some of the coincidences prove a little too coincidental.  (d)

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