Inside Pulse 12

Review: Time Hollow (Nintendo DS)

Time Hollow
Developer: Tenky
Publisher: Konami
Genre: Adventure
Release Date: 09/23/08

It has almost gotten to the point where I will buy any new adventure game that comes out for the DS. That’s not to say there’s something wrong with Time Hollow, but rather that the Ace Attorney games have gotten me hooked on the genre in a way I never thought possible. In fact, when I agreed to review this game, I had no idea what it was about! I heard something about time travel, but all I really needed to know was that it was an adventure game for the DS.

There’s always one big question I have before playing any of these. Is it really a game or would it be best described as an interactive novella? Time Hollow shows up with a unique premise and the promise of some good stylus controlled fun.

Let’s see if it delivered.

Story

This is some good stuff here.

You play as Ethan Kairos, a 16 going on 17 year old kid whose biggest problem seems to be how bland his mother’s food tastes. (He even has some good old fashioned teen angst about this in a hilarious moment.) One morning he wakes up to find his room has changed. Not only that, but his parents have been missing for twelve years! While trying to deal with this, Ethan discovers he has inherited the Hollow Pen, a magical item that allows its wielder to open a portal through time and alter the past.

Ethan decides to go right to work on finding a way to restore the past and bring back his parents. After he solves a case of his friend’s disappearing sister, he realizes the true power of the pen. Sadly for Ethan, he’s given almost no time to do what he wants as he keeps finding himself whisked to a different world where something horrible has happened. There’s one sequence where he tries to keep someone from dying, only to have another death result from his actions. When he fixes that, one of his friends ends up killing somebody ELSE. He spends the game trying to find out what he can change to bring this whole thing to a peaceful solution and end up bringing his parents back.

What’s really great about this is that you too are sucked into this world. Every time Ethan fixes something, several images flash in his head. These give him clues as to what he’s changed. He then goes around surveying the damage and seeing if maybe he’s finally fixed things. The best thing about this is watching how the different characters he interacts with change through the game. For instance, one of his best friends goes through a major transition after Ethan changes something that seemingly wouldn’t have affected him as much. It’s a great exploration into how the smallest changes in the past can make waves in the future

The story deals with some pretty serious stuff. Ethan’s decisions often deal with the life and death of those closest to him. The character maybe doesn’t react to the deaths as harsh as you’d like, but by this point he knows he has the power to change the past.

The story is really good. I don’t want to tell you more as it could spoil some of the games great plot twists. Suffice it to say that there is a nice build up to the final two chapters, which are truly exceptional. The most important part of any Adventure game is the story, and this one hits home.

Graphics

Calling Time Hollow an anime inspired game would be a bit of understatement. The characters all have the Japanese school uniforms, big eyes, and wacky hairdos that you don’t find on American television.

The entire game is a series of static pictures with some text boxes on the top screen, and another static picture on the touch screen. You’ll get a broad view on the touch screen that shows you where you are and who’s in the area. Even when someone leaves, they just sort of disappear from the screen. On the top, you get a close up of whomever you’re speaking to. Their portrait will change depending on what’s going on, but there is never any animation.

There are a few cut scenes scattered haphazardly throughout the game. These are exceptionally well done and look just like an anime. It would have great to have a few more of these, but that’s the way of adventure games I guess.

The art style is pretty basic, but most of the characters are well drawn and the emotions they are experiencing are clear. The only problem I had was Ethan’s hair. Here’s a kid who’s waking up each morning to find some major change in his life. People die and it’s up to him to try and save him. Yet somehow, he still has the time each morning to put his hair up in that ridiculous style! Every single strand is pointing to the left! For as serious as the story was, I couldn’t ever take it too seriously because of his damn hair.

Audio

As you’d expect from this type of game, there’s a lot of music and very little voice acting.

During those cut scenes I mentioned earlier, every character gets a voice and it’s all good. You only get the English voices, but they are surprisingly solid. Other than that, the only other voice action is Ethan going “everything is falling into place” or something of that sort whenever you find all the pieces to a flashback. (More on that later). It is sparse, but what’s there is good and I honestly didn’t expect much from the outset.

The music in this game is just creepy. Sometimes, like when a particularly fiendish change has occurred, the music fits right in, but for the most part the whole soundtrack feels like it should have been for a horror game and not an adventure game. That’s not to say the music is bad or anything. I liked it quite a bit. Still, it didn’t fit the game and had a tendency to go loop way to much. Since the music only changes when an event triggers it, you’ll hear the same song over and over again if you get stuck. This being an adventure game, that is going to happen a lot!

Elsewhere, you get the occasional sound effect such as a cat meowing or a glass breaking whenever the story calls for it, but the sound you’ll hear the most is that ticking sound when the text scrolls on the top screen. These sounds can be a little drowned out by the music, but they’re there only to accentuate the action and do a great job at that.

Gameplay

There isn’t that much to talk about here. This is an adventure game. You use the stylus to click on objects or person of interest. If you managed to hit something good, you’ll get a either a brief text description, or you’ll open up a branch of dialogue. If it’s the latter, you can tap the screen or one of the face buttons to move it forward. This is standard adventure stuff here.

There are some issues when you want to click on something though. The accuracy isn’t always there. For instance, there are several times when you need to tap an item twice. Far too often you’ll tap what seemed like the object again, only to have the game think you hit somewhere else. Also, if you hit the wrong thing, you’ll have to gamble and try to hit something else to cancel the first hit. Most of the time you’ll just dig deeper into something you never wanted to look at in the first place.

At the beginning of each sequence you are given a series of images called “flashbacks”. Ethan will need to explore and research in order to fill in the details of each flashback. One of these flashbacks will give you the location of where you can open up a portal using the Hollow Pen. However, if you get there and don’t have all the information gathered, you won’t be able to continue. You’ll need the who, what, when, where, and title of each flashback. You get these from talking to people and finding clues using the stylus. Once you think you have it all, you go into the menu and open the flashback. If you get all the information, the flashback will be verified and you will be one step closer to being able to use the pen.

Once you get to the location where you can use the pen, you’ll have to draw a circle to open up a portal. This is called “digging” You have a set number of tries, so if you open the portal in the wrong spot, you’ll need to close it and open another. Time is frozen on both sides while the portal is open, so no one will see you. You’re normally tasked with either taking an item away, like the keys to a bike, or putting an item in the past, like a letter to someone. It is a fun mechanic to play around with, but you only ever have to do one thing with it so the portal is open only for a minute or so. Plus, the hit detection issues I mentioned earlier are at full force here. This drove me crazy as I was constantly clicking on the wrong thing. This is alleviated somewhat by Ethan pretty much telling you if you’re on the right track.

There are no branching pathways anywhere. If you want to move forward, it has to have been triggered by a specific event such as talking to a person. This can lead to several frustrating moments where you eventually realize that you didn’t click on one random piece of paper on the wall in the corner of a room all the way at the end of the building. I’m not kidding.

The Hollow Pen attempts to bring this game out of the shell of adventure games, but it is used to infrequently and doesn’t last long enough when it does to make this anything less than a “click on everything until something happens” game.

Replayability

There is only one mode, and that is the story. There’s no way to jump to your favorite part and there aren’t even multiple save files. When you turn on the system, its either new game or continue.

The story will last you probably around eight hours unless you get really stuck. I was able to finish this the day after I got it. The story is good, but not good enough for me to be playing again any time soon.

This is a one and done game for sure.

Balance

There’s only one way to “lose” in this game. You have a limited number of tries to use your pen to open a portal. If you use them all, you’ll fail and have to start from your last save. This can be easily avoided by saving often, and by using common sense.

I never ran out of tries because it was painfully obvious where I needed to dig most of the time. And when it wasn’t I figured it out by the second dig except on one occasion. Even then, there are refills for your meter all over town. If you go to a location that doesn’t move the story forward, you’ll find your pet cat playing with a little green ball. Click on the cat and you’ll get your meter partially refilled.

When you’re investigating, you also have a pretty good idea of where to go. Most of the other characters have only a few places they hang out at. Plus, Ethan will give you small hints. Every time you’re supposed to go the town library to get a printout from a newspaper, he’ll pretty much flat out tell you to go there. Thanks to the flashback pictures, you’ll often just head to the location in the picture as well. This is as streamlined an adventure game as I’ve seen.

Newcomers to the genre should feel free to give Time Hollow a try. It doesn’t hold nearly the amount of confusion and “click everything until something happens” shtick that its bigger brothers do. Those moments are still there, but they are fewer and far between.

Originality

This is your standard point and click adventure game with a nifty but underused time mechanic added on. This game will not break new ground for its gameplay.

That being said, this is the kind of story I haven’t seen too much in video games, and I give credit to the game for that. This is the kind of thing they should make an anime about or something. In fact, the story could be continued that way seamlessly.

Addictiveness

I’ll admit it. The story had me hooked.

I do normally try and play through a game fast so that I can get the review up as soon as my life permits, but that wasn’t the reason I was playing this game for hours at a time. I was sincerely addicted to the story the game was weaving.

I know time travel isn’t exactly a new topic, but this isn’t quite time travel. This game showed you what would happen if one tiny change was made in the past. Even if all you did was cut a rope or steal someone’s keys, the difference could be between life and death. It doesn’t go as far as I may have liked, but that kind of story should keep most people truly interested until the credits start to roll.

A truly addicting game leaves you wanting more, and I want me some more.

Appeal Factor

This game seems to be designed as a way of cashing in on the success of games like Phoenix Wright and Hotel Dusk. If you add in the promise of the unique stylus controls in the form of the Hollow Pen, they audience for this game is clearly geared to those people.

However, I get the feeling that the game is also trying to extend its reach with its vastly mature storyline and anime inspired aesthetic. That helps the game reach a larger audience then a game like Hotel Dusk when it first came out.

The way has been paved for adventure games on the DS, and there are plenty of people like me driving down the road every chance we get.

Miscellaneous

As I mentioned before, this game doesn’t have any extras at all. There’s nothing but a start menu and the game itself. You can’t even look at the credits without beating the game. That’s the kind of feature that has been standard in most recent games.

What bothers me the most is that inability to jump to a chapter instead of playing the whole game again. One of the draws of other adventure games is the ability to play any chapter you want after you’ve beaten the game. Hell, Jake Hunter allowed you to play any of its three cases right off the bat! Being the newest and possibly the flashiest of the group, Time Hollow disappoints in that it doesn’t have one of the basic staples of the genre.

One thing I wanted to see is more true interactivity. Sometimes the game felt like there was nothing for you to do but read through pages and pages of text. I’m not against reading. In fact, I love it, but this is supposed to be a video game. We’ve seen games with both great stories and fantastic gameplay before, and I want to see an adventure game hit that one out o f the ball park sooner rather than later. The game is good, but it rests solely on the strength of its enticing story.

The Scores

Story: Great
Graphics: Above Average
Audio: Above Average
Gameplay: Mediocre
Replayability: Worthless
Balance: Mediocre
Originality: Poor
Addictiveness: Great
Appeal Factor: Above Average
Miscellaneous: Poor

Final Score: Decent

Short Attention Span Summary

Time Hollow manages to succeed because of its strong story and does enough on the gameplay standpoint to prevent you from feeling this is just a book that you can tap to turn the pages. (Come to think of it, I would so buy a book that came out for the DS.) I honestly think a TV show needs to be made out of this story, and plan to grab any sequel that may come out in the future. If you’re an adventure fan, you should grab this game and if your not, borrow it from someone who is. It won’t blow you away, but you’ll stick with it to the end and enjoy the time you spent.

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