Ever since the launch of the Nintendo DS console, the format has been heralded as a great way to bring out adventure games to make use of the stylus as a mouse substitute. In many ways this has borne fruit, with releases like Another Code, Hotel Dusk and the Phoenix Wright series all proving to be excellent games that can only be purchased on Nintendo's handheld. The most recent addition to the exclusive club of DS adventures is Time Hollow (by the developers of Shadow of Memories on PS2),
and while there are missed gameplay opportunities, it proved to be a game that was difficult to put down.
The game focuses around the world of Ethan Kairos, a normal teenager who attends high school and lives with his parents. With his Dad telling him he has something important to discuss with him on his birthday the preceding day, Nathan goes to bed and experiences a disturbing dream. Upon awakening on his 17th birthday, Ethan comes into the possession of the hollow pen, capable of opening up holes in time where the past can be altered to affect the present and stumbles upon the discovery that his parents have been missing for twelve years. No you haven't missed a trick, time has mysteriously been altered and Ethan must use the abilities of the Hollow pen to discover what has happened and which reality is the correct one.
The graphics have an anime style that works well for its setting and periodically, there are animated cut scenes fully voiced that add to the overall experience. Music is appropriately tense and dramatic, changing at a moment's notice and really setting the scene, with a rather catchy J-pop number showcasing the game's introduction. The opening cutscene is especially impressive and showcases the DS's abilities well. The rest of the game's dialogue is expressed by text, which can then be advanced through by using the touch screen.
The stylus is used to examine important items, talk to characters and travel from place to place. As you play, flashbacks will take place of a 'memory' that Ethan hasn't experienced as a result of the past being altered in some way. These images will then be stored in a flashback menu which will need to be confirmed by talking to different characters and researching events to reveal the whole memory. Once enough clues have been gathered, you'll be able to open up a hole in time (called 'digging') with the stylus and then carry out the action which you think will fix the past. A successful correction will create a set of new flashbacks while failure will deplete part of your energy bar and will require you to try again.
What can't be stressed is just how enjoyable the storyline is. What started as a slightly confusing time travel adventure, soon develops into an intriguing mystery with a bunch of characters that you really learn to care about. Ethan's friends Vin, Ben and Morris provide much comic relief, with Ben's temper frequently getting him into trouble and the serious studious Morris offers moments of insight.
Uncle Derek is a source of help and frustration while Ashley and Emily both try to get Ethan's attention.
The mysterious Kori is a classmate of Ethan's that proves to know far more about the Hollow Pen than she initially lets on. We also couldn't forget Sox, Ethan's cat who proves to be quite helpful as the adventure progresses.
As the game progresses and other users of the Hollow Pen materialize, it becomes a battle of wits as you alter the past to affect the present, only for someone else to interfere and force you to think through a different path. It's one of the few games where the storyline is so involving, I had finished the game in a matter of days due to not being able to put my DS down.
Yet the actual process of altering time is where the game shows its shortcomings. The idea is a terrific one, and the concept of causing mayhem by altering the past is very alluring, yet you are actually limited in how and when you can do this. Time can only be manipulated when the hollow pen glows and this is then just a question of using the stylus to draw a circle in the right place and then placing an item back in time. As a result, gameplay is solely down to talking to the different characters to progress the storyline and then opening up holes in the background to change the past. It's heavily scripted and as a a result, it means that the game is incredibly linear, almost showing you what you need to do next. It's a shame that more scope for changing the past hadn't been put into place, even if it was just a question of having multiple endings from making a misguided decision.
Those who place a value of gameplay over storyline above all else will find Time Hollow a shallow and sometimes empty experience, yet in some ways they would be missing the point. This is a game that focuses tightly on character development and a gripping storyline exploring time travel that is hard to stop experiencing until the end sequence. There is little in the way of replay value asides from a short episode following a load of a previously completed game, but while it lasts, the tale of Time Hollow is compelling from start to finish.