Cing’s Hotel Dusk: Room 215 became one of the rare modern day adventures to capture the attention of both genre fans and mainstream gamers alike. Billed as an "interactive novel" (presumably to avoid scaring off anyone off with the unflattering term “adventure game”), this 2007 title helped establish the Nintendo DS as a viable platform for text-heavy offerings by taking typical noir themes and turning them into an intimate, personal experience. It’s a very unassuming affair, full of gentle jazz music, light puzzling, lots of low-key dialogue, and a muted graphic novel-style aesthetic, but beneath its cool, mellow tone and relaxed pace is a gripping, complex mystery tale. It’s even held sideways like a good book.
Taking place entirely over the course of one night in 1979, ex-New York cop Kyle Hyde is seeking information about the former partner who betrayed him, and his investigation curiously intersects with the secrets of his ten fellow hotel guests. It’s presented in a unique visual style, featuring expressive hand-sketched black and white characters. Some clever puzzles use the DS to mimic in-game situations, but where this game really shines is in its gradually-unfolding mystery, pieced together by wandering the lonely halls of the hotel, chatting with its eclectic guests, and casually poking about for clues at your leisure. Dialogue-heavy and light on puzzling, Hotel Dusk: Room 215 is comfort gaming for those who love story-driven mysteries, and it remains one of the most memorable examples of modern day interactive fiction, portable or otherwise.
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We thought we’d never see an English translation of The Book of Unwritten Tales, but KING Art’s inspired homage to classic fantasy adventures and RPGs finally arrived in 2011, and lived up to every bit of its advanced hype. Its four mismatched characters – elf, gnome, human and critter – embark on an epic journey to save their realm from the clutches of a megalomaniac witch, and en route manage to return adventure gaming to its idealistic, irreverent, inventory-laden, action-packed heyday. Filled with affectionate tributes to pop culture icons like Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and World of WarCraft, the game also charts its own engaging course in the eternal battle of good versus evil. While it ribs the genre and laughs at itself, it's sharp and serious about its business, treating players to a rare depth and intricacy of gameplay. The numerous quests flow seamlessly and intuitively, and even seemingly offhand comments neatly tie up sub-plots hours later.
The action is set in an exquisitely detailed, multi-dimensional world enlivened by outstanding animation, a nostalgia-inducing background score, and exemplary voice acting. The diverse, memorable supporting cast holds its own against the charismatic leads and adds considerable emotional depth to the story. Its deceptively sophisticated script is at once straightforward and wickedly clever: dialogues are crisp and witty, exposition is kept to an essential minimum, and no time is ever wasted in getting to the point. Though the unlikely swashbucklers have a grand, all-encompassing mission, the game focuses on tracing their tiny, wobbly steps as they visit places they've never heard of and collaborate with people they don't like, eventually discovering strengths of character they never imagined they had. In doing so, The Book of Unwritten Tales reveals a great heart of its own, which will most likely melt that of any adventure gamer who plays it.
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The real-life 1946 murder of Elizabeth Short, dubbed “Black Dahlia” for her dyed hair and all-black wardrobe, is an unsolved mystery ripe for a fictional solution. The equally unresolved Cleveland Torso Murders, a series of 12 dismemberments in the 1930s, has similar possibilities. In Black Dahlia, Take 2 took these two genuine cases and built an intriguing narrative around them that goes well beyond the basic details of the cases themselves. The tale of rookie COI (later to become the CIA) agent Jim Pearson’s investigations merge FMV and computer-generated backgrounds seamlessly, and the look of the game catches the period setting perfectly. In an especially welcome feature, Jim also takes notes of important information, saving players from having to do it themselves.
But what really makes this 1998 adventure a classic for the hardcore adventurer is its significant challenge. This is a game that rarely yields to trial-and-error solutions, and actually has Jim mock using that approach when it is possible. Instead, a keen mind is needed to make any sort of progress through its numerous puzzles, especially in the latter parts of the game where the difficulty becomes even more brutal. This can lead to frustration, but it also means that reaching the solution yourself becomes immensely satisfying. While hard, the game doesn’t resort to illogical leaps, though it is not above laying deadly traps for those who don’t think things through properly. This may not make it one for the casual adventurer’s collection, but in a genre that prides itself on requiring brainpower, this is definitely the thinking player’s must-have.
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On the surface, Obsidian may resemble Myst for its first-person, puzzle-centric gameplay. But players entering this wildly imaginative 1997 adventure had best leave all such expectations at the door. As the game itself warns, “your rules do not apply”, and any preconceptions are quickly turned upside down – literally. Biochemical engineer Lilah Kerlin and her husband Max Powers invent a new satellite designed to clean the atmosphere with nanobots, but as happens all too often with advanced technology, the satellite evolves into a sentient being whose nanobots create a giant black crystalline object that sucks the scientists into a bizarre world inspired by their own nightmares. Populated by mechanical vidbots with televised faces, there are several realms to explore in sequence, each with its own unique setting and theme, most notably the memorable Escher-like bureaucratic hell that extends from floor to walls to ceiling.
Obsidian is also filled with puzzles – lots and lots of puzzles, many of them quite difficult. This seems fitting from a developer named Rocket Science Games, whose boast of 60 hours of gameplay may be an exaggeration, but probably isn’t far off. The puzzles are always creative and never unfair, but they do require diligence and careful observation to succeed. Equally challenging (if not more so) are the handful of minigames that require a fair amount of hand-eye coordination, including a randomized one right near the end, but any who persevere will be amply rewarded with a final choice leading to two different outcomes. No matter which you choose, you’ll feel both exhilarated and exhausted by the memorable journey to arrive at that point. And you won’t regret a minute of it. Despite its serious premise, it’s got a touch of subtle humour throughout, and it’s all so deliciously surreal that you’ll never forget the experience. If Terry Gilliam ever made an adventure game, this would be it, though only if he’s a big fan of puzzles.
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If you didn’t know who made it, you’d never guess that Lucasfilm Games was behind the unique Loom in 1990. Developed by Brian Moriarty of Infocom fame, this unusual fairy tale tells the story of Bobbin Threadbare, a hooded member of a guild whose members control the mysterious powers of music weaving. Bobbin is different from the other members of his guild, however, and his story begins as an outsider, forced to secretly learn a few a basic spell chords through the use of a distaff, a magical rod that reads the sounds of different objects in the physical world. With the right combination of sounds, a Weaver is able to produce spells so powerful that they can alter the fabric of the universe. In a shocking turn of events on Bobbin’s seventeenth birthday, the entire guild is cursed, starting Bobbin on an unforgettable journey that will lead him on a collision course with Chaos itself.
Loom originally appeared across several platforms, including the PC, Amiga, Atari St, TurboGrafx-16 and FM Towns. For its time it offered some incredibly polished pixel art visuals. But what makes the game so endearing is the quality of its story and detailed background; the original release even included an audio tape that recounted the rich backstory. The most memorable feature, of course, is its unique control method, which relies on learning new spells and playing their notes on the distaff to trigger different in-game reactions. With no inventory to collect, playing your staff and a single interaction button are the only controls available to the player. Despite its ease and short game length, this boldly creative approach is fondly remembered to this day, and with its haunting coming-of-age story capped off by a bittersweet ending, Loom is as much a work of art as a traditional adventure game, yet fully enjoyable as both.
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