Since its debut, the DS console's (then) unique capabilities have presented developers with more than ample scope to push boundaries and explore new ways for us to interact and perceive handheld games. The touch screen has been hugely beneficial for Level 5’s Professor Layton series, which has proved to be so incredibly popular with DS owners that Professor Layton and the Curious Village has spawned no less than three follow-ups, with a 3DS instalment — Professor Layton and the Mask of Miracle — already out in Japan. We in the Western world won't get to play Professor Layton’s premiere 3D outing until next year, but until that time comes, you can be sure that other publishers will be endeavouring to fill in that puzzle-adventure void while they have the chance.
Set in the 1960’s, James Noir’s Hollywood Crimes' plot begins with your audition for a hit TV show, The Incredible Puzzle Masters, which sees two opponents appearing on the show on alternate weeks as they battle it out to reach specified target scores by solving a myriad of puzzles. After filling out the forms — selecting your name, gender and city before taking a picture that will crop up occasionally in newspaper clippings — and being accepted for the show, you’re contacted by an old friend who just so happens to be an FBI agent in dire need of your particular puzzle-solving skills. Why, you ask? Well it would seem that there’s a killer on the loose in Hollywood and he/she has been leaving cryptic clues to his/her whereabouts and identity in the form of puzzles. What’s even more frightening is that every victim has been a past contestant on The Incredible Puzzle Masters, so if you don’t assist the FBI in its apprehension of the killer — and no, it’s not the Riddler — you could very well be the next contestant to perish.
As the story unfolds, you alternate between completing rounds of the TV show and investigating the killer’s puzzles at various crime scenes. While you have no choice as to which puzzles you come across while tracking the murderer, the TV show is another matter entirely. During these segments of the game, you’re presented with 12 different puzzles split into three tiers of points value and difficulty and you’re allowed to pick and choose puzzles as you see fit; obviously, the more taxing the puzzle, the more points it’s worth. To proceed you need to reach a specified score, which increases with each subsequent round. If a puzzle proves too difficult, you can either quit out of it and choose another one — you’re never penalised for doing so, plus there are no time constraints in effect either — or you can opt to use up to three hints per puzzle.
The first hint generally does a good job of nudging you in the right direction without giving you the actual solution, although by the time you use the third hint you may as well have just pushed a “solve” button for all the brainpower it takes to find the puzzle’s solution from that point on. There is, however, an incentive for not using the hints system in the form of bonus points, which are awarded upon a puzzle’s completion — the fewer hints you use, the more bonus points you'll rack up. After completing each round, you’ll be shown how the TV show’s fanbase is split between you and your opponent and you’ll receive fan letters, the number of which depends on your score and how many hints you took advantage of. Fan letters act as hints outside of the game show, assisting you in your investigation. Here, one fan letter equals one hint, unless you opt to use the fourth hint, which outright tells you the solution to the puzzle and costs five fan letters to unlock.
Outside of the main story, you’re able to access your Hollywood hotel room and are free to replay segments of the story or try out either the puzzles you’ve unlocked by earning fan letters or the ones you didn’t choose and/or complete during the rounds of The Incredible Puzzle Masters. This adds a fair amount of replay value to the game, which is a good job really as the story can be completed in around six hours and with no branching story paths or alternate endings there’s no incentive at all to go back and repeat the hunt for the puzzle-loving murderer.
The puzzles themselves are certainly varied if nothing else. There are 140 of them included — although this number refers to individual puzzles, not puzzle types; many of them are merely more difficult or visually altered versions of ones you’ve already encountered — and they test everything from mathematics skills and spatial awareness to general logic and your abilities at Chinese checkers. They’re satisfying to solve for the most part, even if they do lean too heavily on the touch screen and don’t take full enough advantage of the 3DS’ other capabilities. When, for example, the gyroscope is utilised, the player’s movements aren’t translated into the game with enough responsiveness, plus the 3D effects on show are negligible and add nothing to the puzzles themselves, which is a shame as Ubisoft Montreal could have concocted some truly imaginative and tricky conundrums centered around the use of 3D. Nevertheless, these brain teasers will certainly get players using their grey matter every bit as much as any of Professor Layton’s puzzle-solving adventures.
However, while Professor Layton’s tales generally consist of interesting characters and plots, Hollywood Crimes can lay claim to neither of these two things, and despite all of its noir stylings and attempts at dragging you into an engaging and exciting murder mystery, Hollywood Crimes does nothing of the sort, mainly due to delivery that’s bewildering, shabby and unintentionally hilarious in equal measure. The script is terrible, and is delivered at such wildly erratic levels of enthusiasm that the desired feelings of tension are often buried underneath the blatant absence of a director worth his salt, while certain phrases during the TV show are repeated so often and are so over-enthusiastically delivered that they’ll grate on you faster than nails on a blackboard. Furthermore, the plot itself is largely uninteresting, with nothing noteworthy occurring until the end of the fourth chapter — of which there are five — and everything prior to that consisting of the player being told to solve some puzzles before playing the next round of the quiz show and repeating the process.
The developers’ choice to use real actors as opposed to animating their own characters is something of a sticking point as well, as they were clearly asked to act out specific actions and lip movements, both of which are looped whether they sync up to the words being spoken or not. The end result is partly creepy but mostly embarrassing to watch, as it can be most easily be likened to watching people who aren’t good at impressions trying to impersonate South Park’s Terrance and Phillip. We’ve all witnessed this, and none of us enjoyed it there either.
The quality of its story and presentation might be questionable, but at the very least it offers players who like to rack their brains and test their puzzle-solving prowess plenty of tricky teasers to sink their teeth into. If you thoroughly enjoyed the puzzles in the Professor Layton games and the inclusion of decent plotlines and likable characters held no sway in your decision to purchase them, then you could do a lot worse than taking a look at James Noir’s Hollywood Crimes.