A few years back I bought the game Hotel Dusk: Room 215, made by the now defunct company, Cing, on a whim. I’d heard it was supposed to be one of the better visual novel games of its time. As a veteran of the genre, I had expectations of a good story with lackluster gameplay, but still wanted to see how the game held up. Having now finished it, I have some strong feelings about the game, bot in its narrative and its gameplay. So I’d like to take a look at the two, how well they work on their own, as well as how they serve to help or hinder each other.
One of the first things any player will notice about the game is the choice the developers made by having the player hold their DS like a book in order to play it. I hadn’t seen a game use the dual screen idea that way before, and even had a friend ask me why I was holding the game the wrong way. The choice serves to heighten the novel aspect of the visual novel style. I thought that was a bold choice giving the genre’s history of criticism within the gaming community. The second unique choice here is in the game’s art style. The visual style here is like no other I’d experienced, and gave me the feeling of looking into an art book. The scenes feel like three dimensional water color paintings, and the characters all have a pencil sketch type of look. These two aspects immediately set Hotel Dusk apart from other games, even other visual novels. I believe they serve no small part in the game being remembered as a stand out from the score DS games in the genre.
Unfortunately, after these standout points, the game shies back into a more typical visual novel style. Though the player does get to control the main character, Kyle Hyde, as he explores the titular Hotel Dusk, the majority of the gameplay takes the form of walking and talking to guests. It’s notable that the player is allowed to move freely in the environment and explore the hotel on their own, since most visual novels don’t offer that sort of interaction. There are also a few puzzles to solve, some of which have particularly interesting solutions. Despite that, most of the actions I took gave me the feeling of running errands or doing chores, rather than the intended feeling of solving a mystery. The gameplay picks up in the last few chapters, giving the player more freedom and finally touching on the larger mysteries presented at the start of the game, but by then I’d been bogged down by hours of monotonous gameplay, and the damage had been done.
On top of this, the game played over linearly for my tastes. Hotel Dusk takes a lot of inspiration from classic point-and-click style games. In those classics, players are allowed to pick up and inspect items whenever they choose. But in Hotel Dusk, I was forced to wait until the exact moment items were needed in order to pick them up, even though I knew I would need them later, which lead to a ton of unnecessary backtracking. Hotel Dusk has the drawbacks of any other visual novel in its bland gameplay, which I expected going in to the experience. But because of the point-and-click aspects, it felt as if the carrot of good gameplay was dangling just out of reach, which only emphasized how little control I actually had.
The praiseworthy aspects of Hotel Dusk take shape in its narrative. Within the first few minutes, players are confronted by a mystery that I personally was excited to solve. Over the course of the game, the mystery branches off into smaller side stories that connect to one another through slight plot chains. The hotel setting is used very well, with each guest having their own plot thread, presenting Hyde with more secrets that he can’t help but involve himself in. Every character is very well written, except for out protagonist, Kyle Hyde. He sort of lacks a personality, which may be a choice the developers made to allow players to graft their own thoughts and feeling onto the character they control. In my case though, it only made him harder to relate to. The other characters however, offered an eclectic cast that I enjoyed learning about through the course of the game. Many of them had excellent character development, and served as a string used to tie the overarching mystery together.
I did have some trouble suspending my disbelief though. The idea that all of these characters who held connections to each other would all stay at the same hotel at the same time struck me as a little coincidental. But all that is saved in the culmination of the game’s story. The feeling when all of those plot threads had been untied and the foremost mystery came undone gave me a true feeling of satisfaction. There were some plot twists that surprised me, even though I should have seen them coming from the very beginning. The way a large story is told by bringing all of the character’s individual narratives together is exceptional. I felt satisfied with the end result, even if they setup was a bit hard to believe.
For of the issues with its gameplay, Hotel Dusk does a good job of integrating the story into it. There are several points in the game where the player gets a break from the monotonous walking and talking gameplay and gets to use the DS touch screen to preform actions such as sewing, turning keys, and sharpening pencils. Mundane actions, sure, but using the touch screen for them was one of the better parts of the game. My favorite gameplay choice by far though are a few puzzles that must be solved by closing the DS itself, and opening it back up. I don’t want to spoil the game for anyone who might want to check it out, so I won’t say more, other than that this sort of solution can only be found on this console. The puzzles and physical actions often serve to push the narrative forward, as well as provide a break in the typical style of gameplay. Though very different on their own, the developers did an excellent job of integrating narrative and gameplay together.
As a whole, Hotel Dusk wasn’t quite what I expected. It has its high points, mostly in the final two chapters, and its clear low points. But still, it’s remembered as one of the best visual novels on the DS. It even received a sequel. However, it was never released in the US, so my chances of playing it are slim. Hotel Dusk tells a good story. That’s something no one can deny. But I almost wonder if it could be told better on the page, or as a movie or TV show. The game didn’t provide any concrete reason that it had to be a video game in order to tell its story, and that may be where it fails the most.