Game type: Time-themed Adventure/mystery game
Time demand: Short overall (too short really), and you can pretty much pace it as you like. You can save at any point.
Platform: Nintendo DS
Released: September 23, 2008 (US) / March 18, 2008 (JP)
What it is: The broadest description I'd give to this game is an adventure game, but like Phoenix Wright, Professor Layton, and others, it brings enough of a spin to the genre that it's tough to just nail it down like that.
Anyhow, in this game you play a 17-year-old (I know I know) named Ethen Kairos, who through a series of events inherits the "Hollow Pen," which is a magical device that allows him to open portals from his present time into the past, allowing him to affect history which then changes his own present - although he and a few choice others remember events as they originally were, as well.
Yeah, it's a bit twee, with the whole "mystic pen" and all, and fairly obviously due to the gameplay with the DS and its stylus. That said, if you can get past some of the silly concepts like that of a magical pen and a bunch of names that all coincidentally have something to do with time, then there's some deeper and more interesting (not to mention a bit bloody and depressing) stuff going on as well - mysteries, sudden deaths, violence... and a bunch of psychological and chronological mind-twistiness that gets pretty... twisted. In more ways than one.
The main conceit is this: your character can open these portals to the past, but only by using certain "flashbacks" in conjunction with his pen. These flashbacks pop into his head whenever the past is altered - by himself, or by someone else. They are often, in a way, a few faint memories that he gains of events as they "actually happened" in the new timestream, despite he himself not having consciously lived through them. Some of these flashbacks he knows the details of, and some he must nose around and discover info for in order to make actual use of them (which is where the main gameplay comes from - walking around, talking to people, trying to figure out what's going on and what you can do to affect the past).
The problem is that there is someone working against Ethan behind the scenes, altering his past in sometimes minor, usually serious or even horrific ways. And Ethan must try to figure out how to fix these changes in the best way possible, sometimes causing unintended changes in other aspects of the present. At the same time, he must try to figure out who's behind this, and eventually stop them somehow for good, since otherwise he'll constantly be two steps behind, just trying to fix things, and probably eventually screwing up.
On the bad side of things:
-This game is short. Too short. As in, I finished this over the course of about two days, when I wasn't even mainly focused on playing this game, but doing other stuff. I'd say it takes maybe about 5 hours overall, although I didn't time it. At any rate just as soon as you really start getting into the story and figuring out the system, it starts wrapping up. Boo!
-Too linear. For a game based on timelines, and how your choices affect the past and so on, I'd REALLY expect to see at least a few different possible endings depending on the choices you make, more or less or even different aspects of the story revealed as you take different paths, and so on. Instead, there are like one or two things that you can miss doing that affect the overall outcome, but that's pretty much it. The game instead waits for you to do the (one) right thing in almost every case, so that overall it's more like an interactive novel - albeit one with a cool premise, neat twists, and nice gameplay to back it up.
-Way too easy. This goes hand-in-hand with the above - while sometimes the next step isn't obvious and you have to figure it out, you can figure out must stuff by basically butting your head against it (ie going to every location and trying everything). There's not a lot of missable stuff, or ways to screw things up.
-The characters... aren't bad in and of themselves, and in fact are fairly interesting but they could have used fleshing out a bit more. A lot more, in fact. I wanted to know more than I did about most of the characters, really. So I guess this goes under negatives. And I'd say it's linked to the first complaint - if the game had been longer, and more complex, I think we would have gotten to know the characters better as a matter of course.
-The story. I don't tend to like a lot of time-travel situations because they just... I don't even know how to describe it. They don't handle it well enough for me. This game though uses it in interesting ways, and with cool cause-and-effect situations. And the different twists as to just what's going on in the background are also a lot of fun.
-The gameplay. It's a cool concept overall, I just wish they'd DONE MORE with it.
-The main character's voice is done by Johnny Yong Bosch. 'Nuff said. (And in a similar vein, the main theme song is pretty cool too.)
So all in all.. the positives and negatives kinda balance out. (Yeah, the negatives have more numerically, but then the positives are some pretty hefty things.)
Overall, it's tough to just say whether I flat-out liked this game or not. Or rather... I did, but at the same time, it just wasn't *enough*. It was more like an appetizer being sold as a main course - it can be a damn good appetizer, created by a master chef, but in the end you still walk away feeling hungry and a bit let down.
Recommendation: Rent if you can, and find adventure/time-based games at all interesting. Otherwise, probably wait to see if you can pick it up cheaply. It's a good game while it lasts, but I can't conscientiously recommend buying it for full-price when it's so short and the challenge is so low.
As a secondary recommendation... if you like time-twisty semi-adventure games, and have a PS2, you might want to pick up Shadow of Destiny instead. It's an old game, so not sure how easy it'll be to find - but it's also the first game that came out for the PS2 that made me really sit back and say "wow, now that's a cool game!" and be glad I bought the console early. It's by the same general people (or at least the same creative mind, I think), but it's a lot more fleshed out and challenging. (Hell, maybe I should go back and replay it, and then review it for one of these Monday posts...)