James Noir’s Hollywood Crimes 3D
Release Date: 25th November
Professor Layton’s mainstream appeal wasn’t planned or expected, but was something that was welcomed with open arms by Nintendo. It proved that these bite-sized brain teasers were something that everyone could enjoy, and its profitability has since been accepted by many other publishers who have tried to emulate the Professor Layton series’ success. Given the scholar’s absence on the Nintendo 3DS, have Ubisoft sussed the enigma standing in their way of large profits by beating Layton to the punch?
As you can tell from the play-on-words title, James Noir’s Hollywood Crime attempts to capture the qualities of film noir for its narrative, but what the title doesn’t tell you is how good or bad a job it does of it. Set in the sixties, this crime fiction revolves around a series of murders made against contestants of television game show called ‘Incredible Puzzle Masters’, a show you are currently competing in. An old acquaintance now working for the FBI approaches you and using your puzzling skills you attempt to get to bottom of these killings. While it features the slow unravelling of mysteries you’d expect from film noir, it lacks the overall finesse to do the category justice.
There seems to have been some attempt at being stylised, but it walks a fine line between being stylised and being limited by a small budget. In fact, it can sometimes be difficult to tell between the two. For instance, characters are animated with some sort of stop-motion technique, so although they are real people and not computer-generated figures, they are running on a small number of frames, meaning their lips don’t match the dialogue and their movements always looks unnatural and their gestures grow repetitive. The jerkiness of their movement combined with some of the delivery of the dialogue actually makes them slightly unsettling, but it is only after you’ve completed the game – and it turns out these people aren’t meant to come across this strange – that you realise this wasn’t actually intentional, but more a defect of the storytelling.
Funnily enough, what this does is create an environment where nobody seems trustworthy. Everyone seems to be hiding something or have a hidden agenda when talking to you, and given there’s only about 5 characters in the game other than yourself, it means that everyone seems like they could be the murderer. In this sense the story was always going to be predictable, as whoever was deemed to be the culprit, you tell yourself you’d known it was them all along. Also, in much the same way as the off-kilter animation and dialogue can be unnerving, the small cast can feel bland and ruin any sense of engagement with the plot, but it can create a strange mood of something being not quite right. Like when the audience members are totally static and lifeless, you can see it in one of two ways: either the animation is in such a sorry state that they haven’t bothered to pretend the audience are living; or that in the fake world of Hollywood there’s simply a selection of cardboard cut-outs and a recording of applause to supplement to production of this game show.
Nevertheless, the lifelessness and the surreal atmosphere can lend to the storytelling – if most likely by accident. Some attempts at stylising it, however, don’t go so well, such as a (thankfully skippable) ‘Previously…’ narration played every time you return to the game from switching your system off, or initiated by you progressing to a new chapter in order to recap recent events just in case your memory lapsed in the few seconds the screen went blank to load the next chapter.
One of the major down points of the game is its length, as there are a total of five chapters, giving it a playtime to completion of around 5 hours. The 3DS’s appalling battery life means its hardly something you play on the go, so sitting in and playing this in solid sessions result in it being over after a few goes. Although it is a handheld game, you would still expect more of it than this.
What it does allow you to do, though, is go back to puzzles you didn’t do in the story as you please, or indeed replay those enigmas you did do. The gameplay slots into an oddly uniform pattern thanks to the game show setting; you’ll do a bit of adventuring (if you can call it that, as there’s no actual exploring to be done) before being guided back for the next round of the show. Twist and turns in the story have an effect on this structure, but ultimately it sticks to this formula, even for the dramatic finale. Naturally, you miss out many puzzles playing the game show, so there’s more extra puzzles to play once you’ve finished the game than you played throughout the entirety of the story.
Just like Layton, the puzzles have a number of hints, which you can obtain by exchanging your hints counters, for when you’re struggling, and you can even skip a puzzle outright in exchange for a hint point penalty. You also have tools to annotate on the screen to help work it out, although sometimes the control scheme can make unnecessary use of the top screen for 3D, leaving your control of the puzzle to an time-consuming and clumsy wheel-type affair to point and click – a shame given said puzzles could have been much simpler if they’d been put directly on the touch screen. Sadly, many of the puzzles are just variants of other puzzles, so given the grand total of puzzles isn’t all that huge, it does leave you feeling like you haven’t necessarily got your money’s worth.
Visuals & Audio:
The 3D effect is lost on most of the puzzles, and most of the time it seems pointless to make whatever shape you’re working with stick out a bit. Cutscene-type scenes make better use of the 3D, such as when you enter a photograph like entering a memory, and when combined with some atmosphere-building audio, walking around corners in 3D can actually have you on edge. James Noir’s Hollywood Crimes 3D actually leads me to believe that a horror/thriller game, with things jumping out on occasion from around corners, could be a worthwhile endeavour.
The weird atmosphere created by the basic animation techniques and each character’s speech somehow works, almost by accident creating a crime mystery that you’ll want to see to its conclusion. Everything about it gets repetitive – even the puzzles, which start to seems awfully similar towards the end – but it’s compelling while it lasts. This is precisely the problem though: ‘while it lasts’. At more or less 5 hours to completion, it’s shorter than it should be given it’s a full-priced retail release. It’s less the elaborate murder mystery envisioned that the police would have trouble solving, more a run-of-the-mill case where most of the time is taken up by excess paperwork.