Interested? Read on.
Professor Layton and the Curious Village
Game type: Adventure/Puzzle game (mostly puzzle, slight adventure game framework)
Time demand: About eight hours, easily taken in small chunks of whatever you like.
Platform: Nintendo DS
What it is: This is the newest game of the bunch, released in February of 2008. It's also the least of a straightforward adventure game, using the adventure genre only as a novel framework to present the various puzzles in, and to give some structure and variation to how you tackle them.
The premise is this: You control the main characters, Professor Layton and his apprentice Luke, known for their puzzle-solving abilities. When they are invited to the village of St. Mystere to solve the mystery about finding an object to unlock a large inheritance, they find a very curious village indeed. The residents are obsessed with puzzles, hiding them around town, using them to guard their treasures and secrets, and even stopping you on the street to solve a new one they've learned. So in the end, you have a framework of one mystery to solve in adventure-style, while most of the actual gameplay consists of solving (and often finding) the various puzzles in order to progress, or just to wring more from the game.
How it works is generally this: each puzzle is worth various amount of Picarats, and the amount you receive is reduced slightly if you attempt to answer and are wrong. Eventually if you get enough Picarats you're supposed to get "something good": I think it just unlocks more bonus features such as profiles and so on once you're done with the game, but I could be wrong. Some puzzles also give you a gadget, a piece of a painting, or a piece of furniture, all of which are used in three meta-puzzles that, when solved, unlock other bonus puzzles that you can reach through the main menu when starting the game, which in turn can give you even more picarats. The puzzles themselves range in difficulty, with the tougher ones being worth more picarats, and the tough ones are in fact pretty tricky. Overall, I'm pleased with the puzzles: some are decidedly easy and a few are pretty overdone, but there were a lot here that were new to me, and really teased my brain for a while.
Each puzzle also has three hints that you can unlock using hint coins. These are found in the process of the adventure-portions of the game, wandering around town and searching various objects, and there is a limited number that you can collect overall. This makes the puzzle-solving a bit trickier - you've got to work with the hint coins you have, and also try to decide how many you might need to save for even trickier puzzles later on. There are enough hint coins to not make you have to completely hoard each one away for the most important puzzles, but at the same time, there are well over 100 puzzles, making it tough sometimes to decide just how many you should spend early on in the game.
The actual adventure framework of the game is really its weakest point - it serves fairly well to present the puzzles themselves, but in itself it consists mostly of wandering from point A to point B, maybe with a bit of extra wandering around town to look for extra puzzles, searching for hint coins, talking to people, and doing what you're told. There's not much in the way of actually working to solve the mysteries for the story - the mysteries themselves, and the solutions, are pretty much spoon-fed you at intervals as you complete the various tasks you're led around to by the hand.
The characters, story, and game elements are... okay. I wasn't repulsed by them, but I also wasn't really drawn in. The voice acting is okay for the most part, although the accents sound fairly cheesy on occasion. The setting is fairly generic slightly-steampunk Victorian, not anything spectacularly new but pleasant enough. The music works for the game, but isn't very memorable in its own right.
As for replay value... there's probably not too much. I imagine that once the puzzles fade from your mind, this would probably be fun to replay in order to puzzle them out again, but other than that the main replay value would be from the new puzzles that you can download weekly from Nintendo, although these aren't actually put in the framework of the actual game - they're just bonus features.
So all in all, the main reason to buy this game is for the puzzles. If you love puzzles, and especially if you'd like a semi-novel presentation of them rather than the usual "here's a bunch of puzzles, have fun!" presentation, then this game might well be for you. If you don't much like puzzles at all though and just want an adventure game, you'd probably be best off looking elsewhere. I had fun with it, but I suppose it's not everyone's cup of Earl Grey.
Hotel Dusk: Room 215
Game type: Mystery (Noir) Adventure
Time demand: Around 6-8 hours, taken in chunks of whatever you like.
Platform: Nintendo DS
What it is: I'll admit straight out that this is one of the adventure games that I have general warm-fuzzies for in the cold, dark cockles of my heart. It's a fairly straightforward point-and-click-and-choose-text-options adventure, wrapped in the format of a noir mystery. Purr. It was released in January of 2007, making it over a year old, but still not exactly old in the overall video game market.
In the game, you take on the role of Kyle Hyde, an ex-NYPD officer who left the force three years ago, after his partner Bradley went rogue. Hyde shot Bradley in a confrontation on the docks, Bradley vanished, and Hyde turned in his badge. Since then he's been working as a salesman, which in turn is a bit of a cover for a job finding and acquiring "lost" items that people want found and retrieved, but his main driving goal is to find Bradley and get some long-overdue answers.
The "present" in the game is actually during the seventies, and sees Hyde going to a two-bit hotel called Hotel Dusk in order to collect a package, and find some requested items. The real story starts though as Hyde starts to interact with the various inhabitants and other guests within the hotel, learning their stories, finding various mysterious that all come together in the end in one long woven tapestry. Mysteries which, in the end, tie in to his own mystery that has been the center of his life for the past three years.
Now, onward to the game itself. It uses a partly full-color, partly sepia-tinted rotoscoping techique that really makes everything seem both animated and realistic, and helps add to the overall noir feel. Generally the hotel background, objects, etc. are in color and quite solid and complete, while the characters are rotoscoped in sepia tones, with a sketchy, incomplete texture. This seems to be a bit of an odd match, but in practice it works very well.
The gameplay consists partly of Kyle wandering around the hotel finding and interacting with various things, sometimes led a bit by the nose, at other times having to use intuition and maybe even trial-and-error to figure things out, which is rather nice if you want to actually have some challenge rather than feel like you're just reading a book. The game is also largely driven by dialogues though as well, with Kyle having to use some creative questioning to find out the answers to his various questions, and unlock the mysteries of the people and the hotel. And yes, you can screw up in either of these areas, and end up with a "game over" if you do something too wrong. So yes, you do have to be careful what you do.
As for the characters themselves... these are to me the very strongest point of the game. They just feel so damn REAL. Part of it's the visual presentation - with the rotoscoping capturing some subtle and very realistic emotions and mannerisms, and the realistic look overall, it makes the game seem less of a game and more a slice of life that you're looking in on. And then too, the characters are written very well - they reveal personalities, quirks, and insecurities in the smallest interactions, not only visually but textually as well. They're also not the usual video game everyone's-young-and-beautiful crew, which helps. And the story that binds these characters all together is deep and intriguing, and just sucks you deeper in as you get mired in the middle of the mysteries.
All in all, everything about this game is well-done and engaging. A decent challenge but not hair-pullingly frustrating, wonderful characters and an intriguing story, good, apt music for the background, nicely paced... the main weaknesses are that it's fairly short overall, and that there's limited replay value, at least right away. Apparently there are a few more things that unlock during a second or subsequent playthrough, but once you've just played through once, I don't know if the limited changes are enough to make you want to immediately sit down and play again. Later on perhaps, once you've had a break and can be a bit challenged and want to see the characters and their stories again, but not right away.
the Phoenix Wright/Ace Attorney series
Game type: Courtroom Adventure
Time demand: Probably 10-15 hours, savable mostly when you like.
Platform: Nintendo DS
What it is: These games seemed quite odd when the first one came out over here, and no one was sure what the reception would be, but they're quirky and engaging and just fun enough to have built up quite a following in the U.S. as well, and the series is still going strong.
There are four of these games out in the U.S. so far: the original Phoenix Wright-based trilogy, and a fourth game that keeps the "Ace Attorney" subtitle but introduces a new protagonist, Apollo Justice. The first game came out in September 2006, the most recent in February of 2008, so none are exactly ancient but it's still a fairly respectable span of time for a handheld series.
The various games all revolve around a defense attorney who must investigate his various cases in a semi-typical point-and-click adventure style, then defend his clients in the courtroom itself, which is more text-based adventure, and can be more complicated. The point-and-click investigative portions are fairly straightforward, involving going from point A to point B and finding things and interviewing people, but the courtroom segments can be pretty tricky, and can lead to a game over if you try to present the wrong evidence or do the wrong thing too many times.
Most games also involve some slightly different gameplay elements to keep things fresh, as well. For instance in the second game, an item called a "megatama" was introduced, which unlocked a mini-game style of questioning for certain witnesses with something to hide, having you present specific evidence to break down the barriers around their secrets and have them spill their guts. The fourth and latest game introduces a bracelet that focuses a hyper-perceptive ability, seeming to slow down time and catch the smallest nervous habits, showing that a witness is nervous and hiding something. These and a few other small changes from time to time keep things a bit fresher than they otherwise might be, in a series of adventure games with otherwise straightforward gameplay.
Now, the premise sounds a bit odd: a game based around defending cases in court. It's hurt a bit more when you realize that the procedures are in some ways way out from what we actually use in real life, part of which is explained in the games, and part of which is just hand-waving. Some of the "proofs" are tenuous at best, there's only procedure to follow when it suits the storyline, etc etc. It's more guilty-until-proven-innocent, and many things are taken with a large grain of salt.
That said, it's the characters and general drama that sell these games. The people are quirky as hell, to put it kindly, from their often play-on-words-based names to their personalities and appearances. The stories are odd, and as I said often require a large dose of salt, but are still engaging and make you want to learn what happens next. It helps that the characters are ongoing, in the first trilogy especially, combining to create a long overall story that lets you find out more and more about what happens to these characters that you've come to know and, often, love.
The games, I suppose, aren't for everyone. As I said they have their flaws in believability at times, and not everyone might enjoy the general light-heartedness of the approach. The courtroom portions are also uneven, with some of the cross-examination driving you mad trying to figure out what evidence to present where, either because you're jumping ahead of yourself and figuring things out too soon, or because the game is going for something very very subtle and non-obvious... and it's often hard to tell which, offhand.
That said though, I adore these games for the fun characters and engaging stories, and the time it lets me sink into a game that's not too demanding, and yet quite absorbing. The gameplay value is very limited in the sense that the games are extremely linear with very little (or nothing) in the way of branching storylines or alternate endings, but at the same time, maybe *because* they're so simplistic and yet have fun characters and stories, they're easy and fun (for me at least) to pick up and play again much for the same reasons you'd re-read a novel you're already well-acquainted with. It's fun to just revisit the characters, and spend some more time in this particular world, with these peculiar events.
So... there we go. A little wordy perhaps, but since I've expanded my format, I figured I'd better give a little more bang for the buck, at least once in a while. Anyhow, I've already talked more than enough, so enjoy!