Developer: Cing / Publisher: Tecmo / ESRB: Teen (Blood, Mild Language, Use of Alcohol and Tobacco, Violence) / Played on: DS / Price: $19.99
Adventure games, once a dominant presence in the video game industry, have witnessed a precipitous drop in popularity from their heyday in the early to mid-1990s. Yet in recent years the genre experienced a mini-revival due to the efforts of talented developers like Telltale Games and Capcom (with its Phoenix Wright series). Among these is the Japanese studio Cing, which produced the cult hit Hotel Dusk: Room 215 in 2007. Hotel Dusk was a perfect example of Cing skillfully delivering the “visual novel” style of Japanese adventure games on the Nintendo DS. Now Cing has produced a second neo-noir mystery for the portable system, entitled Again. Although perhaps it should have been called Never Again since the company declared bankruptcy in early March.
As with most adventure games, Again’s driving force is its story. The game puts you in the shoes of FBI Special Agent Jonathan Weaver who, along with his partner Kate, is tasked with solving a string of ongoing copycat killings in the fictional American city of Clockford. These murders mimic several 19-year-old unsolved homicides committed by the serial killer dubbed “Providence.” To avert more murders in the present, the FBI reopens the nearly two-decade old case in hopes that Weaver can uncover some pertinent clues. While analyzing these old cases Weaver discovers that he has the ability to see into the past. He soon realizes that both his newfound ability and personal history are enigmatically tied to the Providence murders.
All in all, Again is a compelling detective yarn with some original elements. Yet the tale is not without its faults. The narrative possesses numerous plot holes. It is unlikely, for example, that the FBI would allow Weaver to investigate the Providence case given his personal history with it. Even worse, the story frequently resorts to cliché by featuring stock characters such as the snobby, FBI-hating cop. Yet with all its predictable moments Again’s plot is engrossing enough that you will want to see how the mystery wraps up.
Unfortunately the glut of dialogue between characters bogs down the story. You will spend most of the game interrogating suspects, chatting with witnesses, and comparing notes with fellow law enforcement officers. Needless to say the copious amount of dialogue becomes quite tiresome. The characters tend to unnecessarily narrate every event, as if assuming you’ve either forgotten or are not sharp enough to comprehend what just happened. Moreover there is no efficient way to skip through these segments.
Thankfully the actual crime scene investigations are significantly more entertaining (in large part because there is no one to talk to you!). The use of Weaver’s psychic ability in these segments is the game’s undisputed highlight. The game gives you a first-person view, with the present day in color on the right screen, while the past – colored in sepia tone – is presented on the left. To unlock what transpired at these locations you must match the crime scene with how it appeared in the past. For example, in one scene Weaver must destroy a light in present day because a bullet damaged the light during the murder nineteen years prior.
How to manipulate the environment is not always readily apparent, but perseverance combined with a degree of meticulousness will usually yield success. Often you must backtrack to previous locations to obtain additional information and clues about a crime scene. While this could have been a chore, thankfully such navigation is a breeze with the user-friendly menu system the game employs.
Alas, not even these crime scene investigations are without blemishes. These otherwise compelling experiences are partially marred by Cing’s inclusion of the “Psyche Gauge.” Each time Weaver psychically interacts with the wrong object (i.e., one not pertinent to the past murder), you lose energy. If you run out of psychic power it’s game over. This feature can be quite frustrating because it discourages experimentation. Often I was forced to leave an area just to save the game in case the potted plant I was about to touch would spell my doom. This mechanic is unwelcome and feels like an attempt to artificially inflate the game’s difficulty. I would have much preferred the LucasArts style of adventure games, in which you could not die at all.
Again unsurprisingly features a similar presentation to that of Hotel Dusk. For example both games require that you hold the DS vertically, as if you are reading a book. There is no inherent advantage to holding the system this way, except that doing so more closely approximates Cing’s attempt to create an “interactive crime novel”.
The majority of the gameplay involves two or more characters – represented by motion-captured actors – engaged in conversation against drab, static backgrounds. While graphical quality of these characters is admirable, they unfortunately suffer from a scarcity of animation. You will often see the same mannerisms repeated even if they do not match the emotional intensity of the on-screen dialogue. The actors Cing chose also have the propensity to look like Spanish soap opera rejects, which makes the their performances unintentionally amusing. Meanwhile the game’s 3D, investigatory segments feature crisp visuals (for the Nintendo DS). This is a godsend considering the amount of detail you must pay attention to during crime scene investigations.
The sound effects are so generic they barely warrant mentioning. You will be underwhelmed by the sound of footsteps, doors opening, and other audio clichés ripped from a sound bank. The music fairs little better, as it ranges from elevator fare to hackneyed renditions of 80s television cop dramas.
You must use the stylus to accomplish most in-game tasks. This is fitting since, as previously mentioned, a large portion of Again involves the use of a menu system. The D-Pad is used to navigate Weaver in first-person around various crime scenes. The controls in these scenes are clunky and slow, but since there is no immediate danger (other than the aforementioned Psyche Gauge), it doesn’t really subtract from the game’s fun factor.
It takes a truly grand adventure game to warrant repeat playthroughs. Unfortunately Again does not reach this high bar. The storyline will propel you to finish the game, but there is no reason to slog back through the mystery unless you possess the masochistic desire to re-live the mind-numbing dialogue and tedious Psyche Gauge. Again is definitely worth a rental, but only the most die-hard of adventure gamers should pay the full price of admission.