It’s a sad task to be reviewing a Cing game in the wake of their recent bankruptcy. The developer responsible for superb cult favourites like Hotel Dusk, and the sublime Another Code: R has nurtured a reputation for truly unique games overflowing with gorgeous design, wealth of character and which used the technology of their respective platforms in ingenious and innovative ways. In a perfect world, Cing would have the financial security to continue making games for as long as they damn well pleased. Unfortunately, ours is a world where Noel Edmonds blights television screens and terrifies children on a daily basis, so it shouldn’t have come as much surprise that Cing have been forced to file for bankruptcy due to debts of 256 million yen. It’s even sadder that what will likely be their final game released is also their weakest by far.
Again, like Hotel Dusk, is designed as an interactive crime novel. Following FBI Agents Jonathan ‘J.’ Weaver and Kate Hathaway, the player is pulled alongside them as they endeavour to catch a serial killer. A wave of killings has begun – murders which precisely mirror those of the unsolved Providence killings 19 years previously – and the FBI pals must race against time to catch the culprit before the new cycle of offings wraps up. Handily, J. has the ability to see visions of the past, which naturally come in handy as you try to find links between the two timelines and figure out if Providence is back, or if a copycat’s continuing what the original nutjob started.
Divided into two sections of gameplay, Again has you chasing down leads and interrogating witnesses and suspects, before visiting a crime scene with ties to the past to do some investigation. The investigation section is comprised of matching 1st person views on both screens – one shows the present while the second screen displays J.’s murky psychic vision of the past. Walking is controlled by the D-Pad, while dragging the stylus across the screen turns and tilts J.’s view and tapping on items interacts with them. It’s a slow and unwieldy system, and not nearly as smooth, quick and effortless as the overhead map navigation system of Hotel Dusk and Another Code/Trace Memory.
The gameplay itself is essentially a glorified game of spot the difference; the present will have a few things clearly and obviously out of place in comparison to the past, and the aim is to tap and hold the stylus on the differences to have J. focus his psychic mojo, triggering a puzzle or interaction in which you’ll alter the object and make it match the old one. Get it right and it’ll give a flashback to the original crime scene and offer up vital clues. Sometimes it’s as simple as dragging a curtain open, other times it’s a more elaborate abstract puzzle. Again borrows Phoenix Wright’s psyche meter too, as focusing in on the wrong out-of-place object reduces the meter level until it’s game over. It’s this system that provides half the game’s frustration, as it often plays fast and loose with what it wants you to focus on, leaving potted plants and random debris all over the place with little hint as to what you’re supposed to zero out. Add in the punishing reduction of the meter, which drains by a third with each mistake, and these sections can often be tedious trial-and-error affairs.
But the puzzles sections only constitute a small portion of the game, and for the rest, you’ll be jumping from location to location (Again also adopts a Phoenix Wright-esque navigation system, as all locations are accessed through a menu list) interviewing suspects ad nauseum. Which wouldn’t be a bad thing, but so much of it is unnecessarily lengthy, repetitive and unenlightening – a mandatory visit to J.’s psychologist pal literally amounts to him offering the sage advice: “If you can discover the meaning of this photo you found in the dead woman’s apartment, you’ll find out if it relates to the case.” Keep up the good work, Professor Obvious, you’re a credit to your species.
It’s a problem only exacerbated when the game forces needless backtracking on you at every available opportunity. For example, at one point you’ll be on the hunt for the missing cigar case of a murder victim that’s been stored away somewhere in the years following his death. Logic and common sense would tell you to visit the dead man’s wife first. She’d be the person most likely to have been given his possessions after he was killed, right? Only our less-than-helpful Fed duo quickly inform you that there’s no reason to visit her if you should try. So you’ll have no choice but to click through and visit other locations until you eventually find who the game wants to you see – an encounter that serves no purpose but to tell you, “You should talk to his wife about that. She’s the one who has his things.” Sigh. It’s unfortunate that the game doesn’t reward forward thinking by allowing you skip these tedious encounters and jump straight to where you clearly need to go. Instead we’re tied to the waning intelligence of Agents Weaver and Hathaway as they meander around to pad out the already hefty amounts of unnecessary wandering and interviewing irrelevant people.
It’s not made much easier by how dull and largely useless they are as investigators. If you’re going to create a piece of mystery fiction, it stands to reason that you should offer intelligent protagonists to serve as player/reader surrogates as we attempt to crack the case, so we’re not 27 steps ahead at every turn or burdened by their ineptitude. But unfortunately, despite having the awesome might of FBI jurisdiction at their fingertips, J. and Kate are content to be doormats to everyone, allowing major suspects to simply shoo them away without argument. They also apparently haven’t been brought up to speed on the technological advances of the 20th Century and waste days of their life uncovering through questioning what a simple background check would find in 5 minutes. When they come into possession of a major newspaper article from the ’70s, they and every other police official look astonished that someone could find such a thing, gazing in awestruck wonder like cavemen trying to understand fire. Apparently they forgot about the existence of periodicals archives while they were neglecting to do any research whatsoever. Crack law enforcer J. also neglects to even bother drawing his gun when walking into an abandoned warehouse to knowingly confront the killer for The Big Climactic Showdown™. It’s lucky for them that they’re blessed with good looks because they’re both dumb as a bag of rocks.
The tendency toward reams of verbose dialogue is a Cing trademark at this point, but while in their previous games it was hard not to forgive, embrace or relish reading through it all due to skilled writing, well-developed characters and a unique, gorgeous aesthetic, Again never manages to quite grasp either quality. Hotel Dusk excelled not just at offering up interesting, well-written characters, but at imbuing character designs and artwork with just as much personality as their dialogue. Players could practically hear hotel owner Dunning’s gruff, gravel-voiced tone just by looking at his lovingly-animated craggy old catcher’s mitt of a face, but Again’s characters, though rendered from photos of real actors, ironically feel fake and lifeless in comparison to Cing’s previous cartoon cast. Animated with FMV-style photos to form a handful of over-dramatic reaction shots filled with needlessly exaggerated hand gestures, Again’s cast unfortunately look like a mash-up of sprites from Police Quest 3 and jittery recordings of the little sign language translator guy that shows up in the bottom of the screen during early morning TV. It’s a strange choice, and one which is unfortunately ignorant of the particular charm of Cing’s usual presentation.
In fairness, the core story is vaguely engaging if you can wade through the awkward, endless dialogue, but it’s hard to turn a blind eye to the lack of character and patience-trying design. The puzzles – which crop up more frequently in the last few hours to mercifully offset the stilted wordiness – are occasionally fun and challenging (a piano puzzle provides the game’s highlight), but there’s nothing that channels the innovation or clever use of technology that’s the hallmark of Cing’s games, and the majority of the hands-on segments are content to use re-hashed sliding tile and jigsaw puzzles. It’s sad to think that this dull and tedious game is probably the unfortunate epitaph to Cing’s otherwise wonderful career, and one can only hope that some kind publisher snatches up Last Window – the Japanese sequel to Hotel Dusk – for English localisation, to give the developer the send-off they deserve. As it stands, most will be better off skipping Again and just re-playing Hotel Dusk.
Again is out now in the US for Nintendo DS. A European release has yet to be announced.