In Depth Review: Trace Memory [NDS]
Trace Memory tells the story of Ashley Robbins, who receives a mysterious letter from her father Richard on the day prior to her fourteenth birthday. Accompanied by her aunt, Ashley takes a boat to Blood Edward Isle - no doubt more mysterious than the letter itself - to find that her father isn't waiting there. Ashley's aunt goes in search of Richard and turns up missing. Meanwhile, Ashley meets a ghost named D who requests that she help him recover his memories. What ensues is a wild goose chase for Ashley's father, exploration of an abandoned mansion, the unraveling of a cryptic scientific experiment called "Trace", lions, tigers, lygers, and bears - oh my.
The story starts off slightly intriguing, but your mileage may vary depending on just what you're expecting to see from an adventure game. The writing is hit-or-miss - while the localization is just fine, you wonder if the English writers would be better served by writing cheesy videogame-to-novel adaptations like the illustrious Perfect Dark Zero novel. The story also avoids some level of convolution being, well, a bit too straightforward. You can probably guess everything that happened to Ashley's family as you meet characters, and there's only one real twist that you'll find.
It's likely that publisher Nintendo's focus was on keeping the player focused on experiencing the DS rather than trying to unravel a complicated story. Typical adventure gaming fare abound, as you'll find yourself pixel hunting for items and using your brain to discover exactly when and where to use said items. The Nintendo DS' two screens are put to decent use, with 2D renderings of your environments populating the top screen and a 3D, birds-eye view polygonal representation of the environment on the bottom. Ashley moves about on the bottom screen, and as she walks by areas of interest, the top screen shifts to show a new view of that area. With every new view that pops into play, you'll want to stop and look by bringing that view onto the bottom screen. It is then that you can touch objects of interest to examine them and pick them up, or manipulate levers, cranks and buttons to solve puzzles.
You remain thankfully unhindered in your ability to observe, as the graphics in the 2D pictures are crisp and detailed such that any objects that look like they should be examined will stick out, but not unnaturally. Also very well-drawn is the 2D character art. Utilizing a sort of paper-doll method, similar to Sprung!, Phoenix Wright and Tony Hawk's American Sk8land, the character art is drawn in a non-super-deformed anime style with clean lines and solid coloring. Characters' mouths animate as they speak to you, and their eyes blink as well. There's not much in the overall movement department though - no dynamic arm-crossing, finger pointing, head shaking or any of that.
Where you'll see a majority of the movement is in the bottom screen as Ashley walks about the polygonal environment. Moving at a brisk 60 frames a second, the environment never skips a beat. Nice effects such as birds flying above while outdoors and the sun shining through windows as you explore the mansion's interior add some character to the inanimate nature of the 2D views up on top. Much of the time you spend indoors, however, tends to give way to a somewhat monotone color pallette. With the exception of some choice rooms that have many objects of varying nature to look at, most of the indoors environments just aren't interesting-looking. On top of that, there's some severe graininess to some of the textures used in the environments that can be a little jarring.
So, too, is some of the music that cues during key events. As D remembers parts of his life, or while Ashley is trying to remember events that just recently occurred, this grating, loud whistling tune pollutes the air. It's mitigated greatly by the fact that this tune doesn't play with great frequency, and by the rest of the music. Gentle, whimsical tunes keep a relaxed mood for the majority of the game. Instrument quality is to be commended as well, with developer Cing not resorting to Gameboy-esque sound samples as is too often seen in many other Nintendo DS games. The myriad violin and piano tunes are accompanied by Ashley's footsteps, which change according to the surface, creaking wooden shelves and floors, the squawking of seagulls outside, and the sea washing up against the shore of the island. In the end, the audio package does a good job of accompanying the visuals to provide for a decent aesthetic presentation.
It's the gameplay that will have you experiencing highs and lows throughout - it's quite inconsistent and wastes a lot of potential. You'll get the normal touch-screen interactivity as you'd expect from an adventure game - grab a lever with the stylus and crank it around to lower or open something. The best moments soar above and beyond typical mundane fare such as this. You'll be using your DS in incredibly clever ways, and not just by blowing into the mic or lining up photos you took of the environment to get more clues. We're talking about physically using the actual portable machine outside of the realm of just pushing buttons and touching the screen. To say anything more specific would spoil things, but let's just say that for a few puzzles, you'll really need to think outside the box - thankfully not to the extent that will have you looking up a FAQ. (O Myst, how scornful are thee - can I get a witness?)
The lows, however, really make you wonder why these highlight moments couldn't have been more prevalent. Key in hole. Medal in slot. Use knife to cut wire and rope. Could things be any more trite? At least, then, Cing spares the player from solving ridiculous puzzles like the ones that are arguably killing the genre - no getting the cat hair to roll into a ball to throw at a candle to make it ignite the wall to burn down the wood after which the fumes will drive a cheetah out of hiding as it runs outside where it'll drop a gold coin which you can use to bribe the security guard to let you in the bank.
But some inherent design flaws bring you back to wondering just what the development team was thinking. Why is it, for instance, that in most cases you can't pick up an item until you've found what you need to use it for? For a fictional example, let's say you're rummaging around someone's room and come across a computer mouse. Ashley won't pick it up - there's no option to pick it up. Then, you come across a computer with no input device, so you can't poke around. Direct Ashley back to the computer mouse, and bam - she'll pick it up. Why not have her pick it up at the outset? Why can't you just pick up any item tnat might be of interest? The spirit of adventure games is looking through a vast list of items and using logic to deduce what you're supposed to use, how, and when. This design flaw, then, makes for some annoying backtracking and - as it limits the variety of items you can pick up - actually takes away from some of the challenge in trying to solve a puzzle. Let's forget about the fact that for some puzzles D will say to you, "Perhaps you should try this, yadda yadda." Gee, thanks buddy. Tell me the answers outright why don't you.
It's really a shame that the balance of puzzle challenge shifts in favor of the more dull, and that the game design is flawed. More intriguing puzzles would have extended the game's life beyond the short five or so hours it takes to blaze through this game. Yep, it's short, and playing through it a second time won't net you any cool unlockables or bonuses. There are very, very minor changes if you replay the game that give some more insight to the game's entire story, mostly revolving around D. But by that point, you'll be wishing for more inventive puzzling instead of finding out an extra little tidbit that you already lost interest in during the first playthrough.
Things aren't as terrible as they seem. Trace Memory is a decently executed title that gives DS owners a solid adventure. The simple fact of the matter is, however, that a good adventure game should have a lot of meat on its bones and brain-busting puzzles that keep the player wanting to solve the next one. Failing that, there's almost always an intriguing story to at least lessen the blow. You won't find yourself challenged on a satisfying level with a game that only throws a handful of these your way. But Trace Memory is a solid effort that shows how creative a developer can get with using the DS to create new, devious puzzles. There just needs to be more. Much more.