At first glance, the Nintendo DS seems to be made for visual novel-styled games. The portability, the dual screens, and touch screen all are perfectly suited for a great narrative adventure. While not many games truly took advantage of this fact, Cing saw a perfect opportunity to craft a mystery of their own. It has been 11 years since the release of Hotel Dusk: Room 215, and since then it has become one of the few examples of a great slow-burn, text-heavy adventure game that can be found on the system. Now that it has been over a decade since the game hit the shelves of stores worldwide, it’s time to look back at what makes this hard-boiled detective noir so special in the first place.
Hotel Dusk is a visual novel/adventure game developed by Cing, released for the DS in 2007, a year after the DS Lite had been released. It is a game that is truly made for the DS, with its hardware in mind. The DS is held sideways, like a book, befitting of the visual novel-styled gameplay. It also makes heavy use of the system’s touch screen, never requiring button input at any point, unless the player would prefer to use that control scheme. There are even a few puzzles that involve the closing of the DS itself, utilizing the clamshell open-and-shut design of the system. The design feels comfortable and slick to this day.
The game places the player in control of Kyle Hyde, an ex-cop who has found himself at the titular Hotel Dusk, staying in the titular Room 215, searching for an old friend who also used to serve on the force. Throughout Kyle’s time at the Dusk, he meets a wide assortment of different characters, each seemingly interconnected to each other. Throughout each of the game’s 10 chapters, many new interlinked mysteries arise, with the story revealing itself to be much more than a surface-level mystery of where Kyle’s friend has disappeared to. The characters in Hotel Dusk have actual depth, which serves the game’s story-heavy nature quite well. The game isn’t merely a mystery, but a character drama as well. Each character has a distinct personality that shines through the game’s excellent writing. There’s a lot to digest when it comes to the details of the game’s story, from the interwoven backstories of its characters, to the overarching mystery at hand. The mystery is given to the player in small pieces: a fact here, a tidbit there. It’s up to the player to sort it out for themselves as the story progresses, and as each question is answered, it seems that three more are asked. There’s rarely a dull moment to be found, and every conversation moves the plot-line forward, even if it may be in a minuscule way.
That’s one defining trait of Hotel Dusk: its slow pace. This isn’t necessarily a detractor, as the writing itself is quite strong. Although anyone who is averse to reading will want to steer clear of this one, because not only is the game exceptionally text-heavy, it is also very light in the gameplay department. The game doesn’t have much in the way of true gameplay, aside from walking around the hotel, talking to characters, investigating objects, etc. It’s pretty standard adventure game fare. Compared to other visual novel-styled games on the DS such as Ace Attorney or 999, Hotel Dusk is by far the most slow and methodical in its approach to storytelling. This isn’t really a fault as much as it is a fact, because the main purpose of the title is to tell a compelling story, which is something that it does a swell job of.
Alongside the intricate plot are the stylish visuals of the game. The environments are nothing to write home about, but the character models and cutscenes of Hotel Dusk have an awesome, cinematic style to them. The art style of each character is shown through a sketched visual, as if they were just drawn with a pencil. They are animated with slight movements that make them feel straight out of a noir-comic book, and it works perfectly. Alongside this are the cutscenes, which make excellent use of the DS’ two screens. The few cutscenes that can be found throughout the game are crafted in a way that is spectacular, and it creates a cinematic feeling that is not often found on the system. In a game with such a strong emphasis on the story and world, the visuals do a great job of creating a world for the player to get lost in.
Kyle himself is particularly noteworthy for being an enjoyable player character. Instead of making the protagonist a flat character that is essentially a substitute for the thoughts of the player themselves, Kyle has genuine personality to him. His simultaneously hard-nosed yet kind nature makes for some memorable interactions with the game’s various characters. He’s an enjoyable person to spend the game’s 15-20 hour runtime with. Conversations in Hotel Dusk take place between two people with unique personalities and motivations, which makes each conversation engaging. And in a game with as much dialogue as this one, that’s a real accomplishment.
The game sports a killer soundtrack, too. The music perfectly captures the detective, film-noir vibe that the game’s visuals give off. It always accompanies the story in a perfect way, capturing any emotion that the player might be feeling at any particular moment. Both catchy and atmospheric, it never fails to bring the right mood to the twisting story. It’s certainly one of the best gaming soundtracks that can be found on the DS. The game’s composer, Satoshi Okubo, really did a stellar job. It’s unfortunate that his other soundtrack works don’t seem to be very extensive, but he still created his own legacy with the soundtrack of Hotel Dusk.
Of course, the game isn’t without its problems, just about all of which stem from one area: puzzles. Unfortunately, Cing found it necessary to include puzzles throughout the story in order to break up the slow-paced gameplay, but many are obtuse to the point of ridiculousness. Your inventory will soon become full of items that you may or may not ever use, and when they are used, it’s during a seemingly random time. One puzzle requires the player to touch two places on the DS’ screen at the same time, and needless to say, it doesn’t work well. One particular minigame isn’t great, either: a required side-activity involves playing a very buggy game of bowling. It gets frustrating fast. Perhaps the most painful part about the puzzle issue within Hotel Dusk is the fact that it is so immediately fixable; they could have just not been included. The game would have functioned perfectly well as an interactive novel without the addition of puzzles. They are never really necessary, and only serve as a slowdown for the game’s story. A guide will almost certainly be a must for anyone who wants to play this game. (Just make sure it’s spoiler-free.) If nothing else, the puzzles deserve attention for occasionally trying something new, but more often than not they fall flat on their face.
The game also features many scenarios that suffer from “What-Do-I-Do” syndrome, where the player will find themselves wandering the hotel for the next story sequence with only a vague piece of dialogue to guide them. This doesn’t happen too frequently, but it does occur more than once. Puzzles aside, the text speed is also perpetually slow, and can only be sped up by holding the A button or touch screen down (Something one might find themselves doing frequently). Ultimately, the problems in Hotel Dusk are far from game-breaking, but certainly noticeable.
Here is one very important note for players who might want to try this game out on their 3DS: there is a puzzle late in the game that involves finding a number hidden on a blank piece of paper. The game wants you to find a blacklight item earlier in the game, but unfortunately this object is easily missable. If you don’t have the blacklight at this point in the game, the alternative option of solving the puzzle is by physically tilting the screen of the DS in order to view it from a different angle and see a slight outline of the number you are given. Here’s the thing, though: The number on the sheet is random each playthrough, and the screen-tilting workaround doesn’t work on the 3DS, as its screen is fundamentally different than the original DS’ screen. This particular writer faced this issue head-on while revisiting this game for this retrospective. So, for all 3DS users: Be sure to either find the blacklight before Chapter 10, or have an online cipher decoder on hand.
Unfortunately, Cing went bankrupt after releasing their final game, which just so happened to be a sequel to Hotel Dusk, titled Last Window: The Secret of Cape West. Needless to say, once you’re finished playing Hotel Dusk, you will want to give its sequel a look. Though Cing is no longer creating games, many members of its development team went on to create Chase: Cold Case Investigations – Distant Memories in 2016, which featured many Hotel Dusk-esque qualities. Cold Case Investigations definitely felt like the first episode in a series, and we have yet to see an episode 2 at the time of this writing; in the meantime, we can only hope for a sequel. Regardless, Hotel Dusk: Room 215 is an experience that has plenty to offer in the way of quality storytelling. The puzzles that weren’t very fun in 2007 still aren’t very fun today, but the story remains as engaging as ever, and the world just as vivid. This game tells a distinctly mature, human story that isn’t often found within Nintendo’s games. There is a strong heart that can be found within its words. Anyone who enjoys a good mystery, or is looking for one of the best stories to be found on the DS should definitely give this game a go. Hotel Dusk: Room 215 offers a unique mystery that should not go unsolved.