By Laura . April 25, 2010 . 7:30pm
Diving into Again, I have to admit, I didn’t have high expectations of it. This is a game by Tecmo and Cing, the latter especially being of note to me since I’d recently finished The Last Window. Yet, I also knew that this game would not be, in any way, similar to either of Kyle’s adventures. One look at the back cover and the art style already told me that much.
Like Cing’s other game, this one is also about a mystery case. However, instead of focusing on a large series of incidents that connect together, Again concentrates on a single serial-killer case that spans over a long period of time. The protagonist, J, who is an FBI Special Agent, along with his partner Kate Hathaway, starts out at the first crime scene. Nothing unusual. Except that the murder J is investigating was pre-empted by a letter addressed to him, postmarked 19 years ago. Furthermore, the sender was “Providence,” a serial killer who still runs free, and the perpetrator in crimes of which J is the sole survivor.
Since this obviously warrants some attention, J and his partner investigate the scene, and at first glance, nothing seems off…until suddenly, J’s power activates – the power to see into the past and the present at the same time. How he acquired this ability is unknown at the time, but either way, the visions he gets when he finds the differences between the past and present eventually lead him to find an ominous message.
And when the message says “AGAIN,” it really means again, because everything about the series of murders that follows is eerily similar to the previous set of serial killings. As the agents in charge of this case — what choice does J have? The letter is directly addressed to him — it’s up to the two partners to solve not only the current case, but also the one 19 years ago.
To go about doing this, J makes full use of his newly-discovered powers. As mentioned above, he can see the present and the past at the same time – one on each DS screen. Each time you start at a new scene, you see an image split into a certain number of sections. If there are, say, three sections, then that means there are three visions to be obtained in that area. Your task as the player is to examine everything you can in the vicinity and search for every little difference that you think could be related to the crime. When the two time periods match, you get a vision of the past that helps clear up what happened. If you search the wrong spot too many times…Game Over.
Sometimes, what constitutes as a difference is vague, and you have to keep in mind the context of what has happened and the amount of time that has passed. It’s natural for potted plants to die in 19 years in an abandoned house, but it’s not natural for wine bottles to be rearranged. Sometimes, it’s difficult to tell what counts as “natural” and what doesn’t, but other than this annoying distinction, finding what you want is fairly simple. However, matching up the visions is where the puzzles come in.
Sometimes the puzzles are just a case of finding the right items for the job. For example, if you see broken glass on the floor under a ceiling lamp in the past but an unbroken one in the present, you have to first examine the lamp above. And then you find a ladder to reach the lamp, plus a hammer to break the lamp with. Finally, you use the items you found in the proper order (ladder first, then hammer) to make the present match the past.
These are usually the simplest puzzles, although there is a specific order in which things need to be examined and used. See that highly suspicious looking handle on the otherwise completely empty bookshelf? Nope, can’t take it — even though it’s obviously used for something — until you find the crank that is missing a handle. Only after you find that crank can you pick up the handle. It’s times like these that the ordering seems a little pointless and like it could have been handled better. And luckily, the scenes of the crime aren’t excessively huge, so walking back and forth to figure out the correct order doesn’t take too long.
The other kind of puzzle is the more traditional kind that takes you into another screen and has you try to manually do something. In the bottle example above, you have to do a swapping puzzle to make the bottles match their arrangement in the past. Another time, you have to observe the room for clues to find a hidden code, and then input the code to find a secret vision spot. These puzzles aren’t too hard to solve and are fun sometimes, but they don’t really hold a candle to the puzzles in Last Window.
Once you’ve found all the visions possible, you then order them the correct way, and then, if you’re lucky, J can discern the culprit’s face.
The investigation part is just half the game, though. The other half is interrogating the witnesses and gleaning information from the Police Department or the forensics department. Generally, you’re taken to a screen with all your locations listed out along with a little picture of who’s there, and you get to choose where you want to go. This method is simple, although, sometimes, you’ll find yourself visiting that menu way too much for comfort, as you visit house after house, trying to find the right person to talk to.
Something that annoys me, too, is that when you visit someone, you have to ask every single question available to you, even if that person obviously knows nothing about it. Asking a witness from the first case in the serial killings about something that happened in the third one is hardly going to get you an answer. But you have to do it or else you can’t leave the area. It’s a good thing that you can’t lose points, so to speak, for asking the wrong questions, though.
The people that you interact with are all interesting and unique. There’s the grumpy police detective, Lane, who dislikes the FBI division because he feels like they’re intruding on his case (and because they botched the case 19 years ago); the Japanese forensics department Maureen who’s a friend of Kate’s; Hugo, an independent reporter who always finds the information you want; etc. The witnesses, too, are fun to talk to, even if some of them are very wary of you at first. Sometimes I was afraid to interrogate them too much, feeling like I would be kicked out or lose points a la Phoenix Wright when you’re interrogating someone in court.
To add to the atmosphere in the game, the art of the game is styled realistically. In fact, sometimes I felt like I was watching a detective television program on my DS, and the chapter intermissions add to this. They look like the eye-catchers that come right before and after a commercial. The character animations, like in Cing’s previous games, are extremely photo-realistic too, such that I feel like I know people in real life who use those gestures themselves. Sometimes the actions were extremely similar to something a character from Last Window would do and this similarity would throw me off for a bit.
Interestingly, the realism subtracts from the fluidity of the overall animation because the characters would seem to be on “pause” whenever they weren’t actively moving, unlike in Cing’s other games.
I was happy with the case, overall. I really was amazed with the rationalizations behind the ultimate criminal and had to put the game down for a few minutes just to process what the guy was saying when he finally confessed. However, I can’t say I was particularly satisfied with the ending of the game itself. The epilogue portion, while nice, seemed to be there to answer a specific question, but that question seemed to have been avoided or ignored towards the end. Also, there is a blatant lead-in for something more – quite possibly, a sequel.
I liked Again, I really did. The case was good, and looking into the past and present at the same time was an interesting experience. However, I feel like, in light of the fact that I played this game after recently finishing Last Window, some of the similarities didn’t quite tickle my fancy. Also, there were many instances in which Kyle’s game overshadowed J’s.
One was the writing. Again seemed to have a penchant for the melodramatic that was rather off-putting. This showed in both the script and the images used, such as the sequence of J cringing whenever his powers are activated. Even the trailer had an overly dramatic voice read the bloody message found in the first case that made everything seem ridiculous. There was also the conspicuously open ending and the fact that some questions were just never answered.
The second was the puzzles, which were much simpler than the ones in Last Window or Hotel Dusk. They felt more shallow (with the exception of the piano puzzle) and were there simply for the sake of being there. I suppose this is so that people who only want the story can rush through them to continue on with the case, which, admittedly, is great, but I feel like this crossed over into the realm of being too easy.
Also, unlike Cing’s other games (last time I mention them, I promise), the characters didn’t endear themselves to me, overall. You never really see most of them talk outside of a quick interrogation and short replies. Granted, the ones whom J does interact with outside of investigations I like, but those are the minority.
Taking these factors into account, I’ll have to say that while Again is a good game, it’s certainly not great. It’s different enough from Last Window that it’ll be a new experience, and while the case is certainly worth playing through, almost all other aspects of the game feel like they’ve already been outdone by Cing’s previous efforts.
Food for thought:
The Pokemon Xatu can see the future in one eye and the past in another. I wonder if Again depicts how that works…?