[4 November 2008]
No, I haven’t completely lost my mind, but damn it, I just love Rocky that damn much. There is a reason for the Stallone reference, though. The adventure genre, which by all means should have died on its ass years and years ago, refuses point blank to stay down for the count. In that regard it’s very much like the gaming version of Rocky—Cut, hurt, bleeding bad, but never knocked out.
At one point Queen of the PC, technology and the popularity of the quick-fix run ‘n’ gun style games have of late condemned the genre to a cult like devotion. Loyal developers and fans strive to keep the flame burning while the rest of the world carries on, as though it never existed.
Up steps the fair maiden’s white knight, draped in its touchy, shiny armor, stylus geared for poking and scratching, I am of course talking about the Nintendo DS. The resurrection of the graphic novel is as much due to the touch screen oddity as it is to Nintendo’s ability to attract the types of odd folks that like this casual non shooty, non Mario stuff.
And, of course, developers such as Level 5 with their own Professor Layton series and Capcom with the Phoenix Wright franchise have both enjoyed immense commercial and critical success. Heck, even Zack and Wiki sold in decent enough numbers, vindicating the adventure-starved market out there. More companies should make an effort to feed these tendencies.
The input device, be it stylus or Wii remote, coupled with an increased emphasis on involvement through further control over your avatar has led to a small, yet significant change in the basic gameplay. This is, of course, a compromise that aficionados may argue has come about at the price of tradition and ‘dumbing down.’ But hey, if you want to sell a relic to the kids of today, you make your relic seem familiar. It’s simple, really.
So here we have Unsolved Crimes, via Japanese outfit Now Production. Set in ‘70s New York, it comes packaged with all the glorious stereotyping of us westerners one could surely hope for. Starting off as a rookie cop, you’re greeted first by the expected ‘70s cop drama TV intro, with a quick breakdown of who’s who, and yes, your chief officer is a no-nonsense, tough-talking black dude with all the trimmings that decades of generalizing have embedded into our brains.
For all its clichés, Unsolved Crimes does fizzle out at, well, probably the most crucial elements: storytelling and characterization. The eight cases revolve around a number of kidnappings and ultimately finding out why a key character, the link that chains the game together, went missing. Sadly, the dialogue is often one-note, monotonous and void of any personality. While the humor isn’t as clever as it likes to thinks it is, one must take into consideration whether this is down to Now Production not having a professional writer, or simply a case of “lost in translation”.
Bizarrely, it’s not a deal breaker, thanks to gameplay that is solid without ever being spectacular. The game is viewed from a first-person viewpoint with all the movement you’d expect, as you freely investigate and explore crime scenes, piecing together your jigsaw and trying to catch the guilty culprit. Use of the touchscreen comes into play in not just movement (D-pad/face button combo is available) but also in some really inventive ways.
For example, one could illustrate a bullet’s trajectory, or piece together broken bits and bobs to form evidence. In fact, your DS acts as a police officer’s notebook. Throw in a subtle SFX score—you know, background chatter, sirens, phones ringing, people typewriting, etc.—and you’ve got yourself a fairly immersive experience.
The niggles, though, come in the form of your rookie status, as you’re accompanied through the cases by your partner. Once you’ve gathered enough evidence, your partner initiates ‘query’ mode. Answer the questions correctly and the story progresses. The problem is, though, that the answers are always obvious and you don’t even require the necessary pieces of evidence to figure them out. However, the game can also halt you (and fail you, forcing you to restart) if you don’t have that vital piece of evidence.
Though the puzzles are logical, they’re very rigid in how you approach them, i.e. play them my way or you don’t play at all. They’re often far too easy; it’s as if the developers thought “hey, you’re a rookie cop so we don’t wanna push you too hard, here take care of all this small fry that no one else can be assed with.”
Another downer is the visuals. 3D on the DS is always a bit hit and miss, but in this genre they’re vital. Maybe 2D backgrounds and a third person perspective next time, huh guys? Anything would be better than this garish, hideous mess.
Also, play up to the era a bit more, because it’s just not ‘70s enough. It’s refreshing not to have another CSI rip-off, but I want more disco cheese. Playing with the stereotypes and the time setting would have injected some much needed humor, but also a bit of personality.
I believe the best way to describe Unsolved Crimes would be as a snack between meals. It’ll fill you up sufficiently without spoiling your appetite. Try it out—it won’t give you an upset stomach, but sadly, it just ain’t tasty enough to be a full meal.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/unsolved-crimes/