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Review #443

James Noir’s Hollywood Crimes
Developer: Ubisoft
Publisher: Ubisoft
Genre: Puzzle
Release Date: 11/1/2011

The 3DS has had a lackluster first year. Out of the eighteen games we’re reviewed for the system here at Diehard GameFAN, we’ve only been able to solidly recommend a few titles. Even then they are quasi-sequels or remakes. In fact out of those eighteen titles only two have been new IPs that originated on the 3DS. The first is the terrible Cartoon Network: Punch Time Explosion and the other is a very niche game named Dream Trigger 3D. That’s kind of sad. I personally have owned ten games for the system and I’ve only kept three of them: Pokemon Rumble Blast , Bust a Move Universe and Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars. Because I’m such a proponent of companies taking risking and trying new franchises or even, god forbid, a one-off game, I’ve been disappointed that the 3DS’ library has primarily consisted of games that more or less “played it safe” instead of really trying something new.

Well enter James Noir’s Hollywood Crimes. This game, which promised to mix puzzles and old school adventure gaming, was originally scheduled to be released around the 3DS’ launch. Well, it was pushed back to April, then May, then June, and so on. Finally on October 1st, it came out and I couldn’t be happier. Not only was Hollywood Crimes a completely new IP, but it was definitely taking a big risk in both presentation and genre choices. It was basically what I had hoped someone would do with the 3DS – push the boundary past the sequel-it is and remake fever that had plagued the system since March. The only question was if the thing was any good or not…

Let’s Review

1. Story

It’s June 1961 and the most popular game show on TV is “The Incredible Puzzle Masters.” Your silent protagonist (who bears your face and whatever name you give them) is a contestant on the show competing for the grand prize of a trip around the world with all expenses paid for a year. Pretty good for 1961. Unfortunately things aren’t as cut and dry as having to win a game show. There’s also a serial killer on the loose who is knocking off previous winners of “The Incredible Puzzle Masters” and leaving puzzles behind at the scene. Your old childhood friend, Matt Booker, is the FBI agent on the scene and since you’re in town (and a potential suspect), he enlists you and your skill with puzzles to help him solve the case.

The game contains five chapters which are divided between rounds of “The Incredible Puzzle Masters” and solving puzzles related to the case. In the IPM bits, you have to achieve a certain score in order to pass a round, but you’ll also want to beat your opponent’s score as well. You get points based on which of the twelve puzzles you solve (there are three scoring tiers) and how many hints you had left over once the puzzle was solved. With the mystery related puzzles, you’re just trying to progress through the story. There will be six rounds of “The Incredible Puzzle Masters,” although there is technically a seventh, but saying any more would be a spoiler.

I really enjoyed the story here. The puzzles made sense and helped the story flow. Compare that to games like the Professor Layton series where the puzzles just come up abruptly and it’s basically “Oh, to get to point A, use item B. By the way, solve this puzzle.” Ubisoft did a great job of making the puzzles part of the suspension of disbelief instead of some games where they outright ruin it. As well, the story keeps you guessing as to who the murderer is. There are several prime candidates including yourself and although I figured it out about halfway through the game, a lot of gamers won’t realize who it is until Chapter Five. I was pretty happy with the story, although it will unfold the same way each time.

Story Rating: 6.5/10

2. Graphics

One of the things that I was really excited for with Hollywood Crimes was the use of Full Motion Video, or FMV for short, throughout much of the game. This use of actual video footage interlaced with video game graphics is probably best remembered in games like The 7th Guest or Sega-CD titles like Night Trap, but it’s come back in force in recent years on the PC with titles like Darkstar, Casebook and Mystery Trackers: Raincliff, so it’s nice to see it show up on a console again too. Unfortunately the FMV is nowhere near the quality we’ve seen in PC titles as of late, which is a shame as all the PC games using it are budget games with a price tag between $6.99 and $19.99 while this is a forty dollar game. Here the FMV is rather pixilated and jaggy with haze around where the video meets graphics. As well, aside from Matt Booker’s scenes, the other characters get the same reused clip of video with new lines. The fact that this was done by a pretty larger publisher coupled with the $39.99 price tag means the FMV should have looked a lot better than what we have here.

The rest of the graphics are quite impressive. The game looks and feels like California in the 1960s, from the set of “The Incredible Puzzle Masters” to various locations you travel to, the game really felt like a trip back in time. Even some of the segueways were right out of TV shows from the time period. The puzzles had a lot of detail to them and these too very really nice to look at. Most importantly though is that this is the first game for the 3DS that really makes use of the 3D slider. What I mean by this is that every other game I’ve played on the 3DS just has the 3D for window dressing. It’s been a gimmick that does nothing to enhance, improve or really change the experience. Not so with Hollywood Crimes where the 3D affect is coupled with a constant first person view point, making things feel more like an interactive 3D movie than a video game. As well, some puzzles (two story ones to be specific) are MUCH easier to use with the 3D option activated whereas with 2D visuals it’s hard to really “feel” what the solution is. This made me pretty happy and honestly, it’s the only 3DS game so far that I’ve played primarily in 3D instead of 2D.

Overall, I’m happy with the visuals. The FMV could have really used some work as it looked like something ported from the Sega CD, but the rest of the game looked fantastic. Hollywood Crimes makes great use of the 3D slider, the camera and the other bells and whistles you’ll find on the 3DS.

Graphics Rating: 6.5/10

3. Sound

Every line of Hollywood Crimes is voiced acted. Unfortunately the acting isn’t very good. It’s something straight out of the 32-bit era of gaming where lines were delivered awkwardly or woodenly – sometimes both. Matt Booker and Glenn Darnby have their moments, but the entire thing should have been cast better. An older gamer like myself who has seen worse will let this slide but a younger gamer who is only used to games with higher budgets for voice acting will be appalled.

The music is Hollywood Crimes is quite nice. The game show bits really do feel like what you would hear during that era and the rest of the music fits really well with the rest of the game. Even when the music is bad, it is purposely so and it’s to convey that something has gone horribly wrong or is just plain warped. The music helps to set the mood of the game wonderfully and helps to make up where the voice acting falters.

Sound effects are great. From your footsteps down into a creaky old cellar to the sound of a jack-in-the-box turning, everything sounds much like how they would in real life. I was very happy with how much detail appeared to go into the sounds, which makes me wonder why that level of quality wasn’t in the voice acting.

So the music and sound effects were top notch while the voice acting left something to be desired. Two out of three isn’t bad though and I found the aural aspects of Hollywood Crimes to be enjoyable, albeit it with room for improvement.

Sound Rating: 6.5/10

4. Control and Gameplay

Although Hollywood Crimes looks like a point and click adventure game from trailers and screenshots, it’s really not. The whole game is just puzzles and cut scenes. That’s not bad – just potentially misleading for those of you looking for something that plays like Secret of Monkey Island. The only real time you have control of the game is when you pick what puzzles you want to play (during the game show bits) or when you are doing the puzzles themselves. The rest of the time you’re basically watching cut scenes. As the game took me six and a half hours to beat, I estimate two third of that was solving puzzles so you’ll simply be watching for a total of two hours. It goes by smoothly though so it’s not like some RPGs where you find yourself saying, “GET ON WITH IT” as talking heads babble.

Puzzles are very easy to manipulate, if not solve. The rules for each puzzle are laid out before you start and you can always call them up by choosing to view the instructions from a list of options. The puzzles generally involve using the stylus and the touch screen to move pieced around, while the circle pad or d pad can rotate an object for a better view. Again, some puzzles work better in 3D, but these tend to be story puzzles rather than the game show ones. Puzzles are varied in design but although there are over 140 different puzzles in the game, several repeat themselves – albeit it with harder requirements or new variations. Puzzles include everything from Lament Configurations (Yes, there are several Barker-esque homages. No Cenobites though.) to number puzzles, titling the 3DS to get a ball into a whole, getting marbles into the right container and more. I should also point out that the repetition is somewhat of a good thing as, in the game show rounds, you have to choose from twelve different puzzles and get your score to a passing level. You’ll quickly find out a style or set of puzzles that you are good at and will do those every round for some easy points.

The game plays exceptionally well and it’s almost instinctive as you fiddle with them all. Some puzzles take a little more time to understand due to poorly worded clues (French to English translation). There are also a few bugs – most of which just involve slowdown between resetting or solving a puzzle and the action being noticed. There were two puzzles though where I put in the right answer and the game didn’t take them the first time. Then I tried them later after a period of frustration and they took. One of these puzzles is late in the game where you have to create a two digit number out of true/false questions written on a lamp while the other was early on in a movie theatre. Annoying but thankfully, this was an uncommon occurrence.

There’s also a little more to the game and it’s based on your points. See, you’ll have a target goal that you need to hit in order to advance. There’s also the score of your opponent which will be slightly higher than the goal. You want to beat both as you not only move on, but for every twenty points you score, you’ll get a “popularity point” and a fan letter. Each fan letter gives you a clue that can be used towards a puzzle, but some fan letters also include a bonus puzzle that you can solve as an optional experience. I ended the game with 99 Popularity Points (out of a possible 100) and I beat my opponents total score by over 150 points, so I think I did okay.

You also have a sketch pad to tinker around with (great on mazes or line drawing puzzles), the ability to reset puzzles or go to your hotel room (read fan mail and do optional puzzles) at any time. Overall, Hollywood Crimes is a very easy game to figure out control-wise, but it’s up to your wits and intelligence to actually help you progress through the game. This was not only the most tactile puzzle game I’ve played on a handheld, but it was also my favorite puzzlewise.

Control and Gameplay Rating: 8/10

5. Replayability

Although Hollywood Crimes is exceptionally linear in terms of the story, there are actually a lot of reasons to come back to the game. After all you have all those optional puzzles in your fan mail that you can solve. You can also replay the game and choose to do different puzzles from the ones you solved the first time through. Remember too that if you replay the story from the beginning and get a higher score, you’ll get more fan mail and thus more puzzles and weird letters. For me personally, I don’t have a desire to replay the game as I’m at 99% and I don’t care enough to get that last little letter, but I did like the story and puzzles enough to know that this will be a game I come back to someday – just not right away,

I was really happy that you could pick and choose through a lot of the puzzles and that your score actually mattered. I was also impressed by the number of unlockable optional puzzles which will keep a game busy for some time.

So with a lot of puzzles, the ability to beat your old high score and some options regarding what to do (and when), there’s definitely a lot of reasons to come back to Hollywood Crimes if you’re a puzzle fan. If you just care about getting through the story though, this is one of those “one and done” games. It all just depends on what you look for, but at least the options are there.

Replayability: 6/10

6. Balance

Hollywood Crimes is wonderfully balanced. The puzzles get noticeably harder as the game progresses, but in game show rounds, if things get too tough, you can always back out and choose a different puzzle without any penalty. I actually got through the first four chapters with only using six of the hints I earned. Three were on an interlocking circle puzzle that I simply couldn’t get my head around visually or from the clues (but I was able to solve it) and the other three were based on the two digit puzzle I mentioned earlier where I had the right answer but it simply didn’t take it the first time. So three hints wasted on things I already knew. Grrr.

Things really changed with Chapter Five as I used about a dozen hints throughout it. Chapter Five will really test your mental mettle and was really pleased with both my overall score and “Popularity Point” level when all was said and done. I found the game to be delightfully challenging, yet rarely frustrating. You just have to relax and think your way through things. I found the scratch pad option or even an actual piece of paper to scribble on handy for several puzzles and I’m sure you will too.

The great thing about Hollywood Crimes is that the story puzzles may not be optional, but you can spend a total of eight clue points to bypass a puzzle. This means most gamers should be able to see the story through to the end. The fact you can do any combination of the twelve puzzles in the game show round to get to your point total will also help a lot of gamers out while simultaneously adding some replay value to the game. You’ll only get/have to do three to five of the puzzles in a given round, meaning more than half are left undone or unseen unless you play through the game. Everything here is wonderfully done and puzzle fans will have a field day with the variety of puzzles and the challenge they all provide.

Balance Rating: 8/10

7. Originality

Hollywood Crimes is not just a brand new IP, but it offers a lot of other first too. It’s the first puzzle game to offer a variety of puzzles. It’s the closest thing to a point and click adventure game for the 3DS. It makes better use of the 3D visuals than any other 3DS game I’ve played and it’s the only game show/murder mystery hybrid I’ve ever encountered. Sure there have been a lot of puzzle games for the regular DS and some that even have a similar flow, but they all have a very different story and lack the number of puzzles in Hollywood Crimes along with the variety and replay value.

Hollywood Crimes might not be the most original game of the year, but it does stand out from the pack other puzzle compilations that we’ve seen on Nintendo handhelds over the past few years.

Originality Rating: 6/10

8. Addictiveness

I beat Hollywood Crimes in two marathon sessions – each consisting of three and a quarter hours. Now I know some of you play games for a lot longer than that, but to get me to play a game for more than an hour at a time is almost unheard of these days. Hell, thanks to the way the 3DS tracks every minute thing you do with it, I can look back and see that before this game, my 3DS has never been on for longer than an hour at a time. Yet I couldn’t put Hollywood Crimes down. This is probably due to my love of puzzles and/or point and click adventure games for the PC, but I really enjoyed everything about Hollywood Crimes, even the unintentional cheese. The puzzles are really well made and the story was kitschy and interesting enough to keep me going long past my usual endurance level for a game. I just didn’t want to put it down. There was always “just one more puzzle” or “I’ll finish this cut scene.”

Addictiveness Rating: 8/10

9. Appeal Factor

People like puzzle games. The Professor Layton series has shown that. It’s also why hidden object, Match 3 and adventure games are still popular with gamers. The problem is that while the 3DS has struggled to find an audience, the regular DS is practically everywhere. Hollywood Crimes would have been a lot better off there as it could have easily found a user base. With the 3DS, we have a new IP that Ubisoft hasn’t really promoted, a genre that is somewhat niche amongst mainstream gamers, and a system that hasn’t sold very well. That sucks for Hollywood Crimes. The good news is that anyone that DOES pick this happy will be pretty happy with what is here. The FMV is hokey even for a style that is known for being hokey to begin with, but the puzzles are great and the game makes good use of the 3D slider. I honestly think if you have a 3DS and you’re willing to shell out $39.99 for a six and a half hour puzzle game (not counting playing the puzzles you missed in the story and the unlockable optional puzzles), you’ll be extremely happy with Hollywood Crimes. Is it a niche game? Sure, but nearly everything for the 3DS has been so far. Here at least we have a brand new franchise with a lot of potential.

Appeal Factor: 6/10

10. Miscellaneous

Hollywood Crimes is a game that could have benefited from three big things: better production values on the FMV, a lower MSRP and being on the DS instead of the 3DS. Of course, part of the charm is the cheesy quality of the FMV, a lower price might move more copies but it almost might have made gamers wonder why it was priced lower than other 3DS games and had Hollywood Crimes been on the DS, it might have stood out more, but it would have lost the use of the 3D visuals, which really enhance the game at certain points. All in all I applaud Ubisoft for taking a risk not only with a new IP but putting it on the 3DS as well. Hollywood Crimes is not only one of the best games for the 3DS but is up there with Ghost Recon: Shadow War as the best 3DS exclusive for the year. If you’ve got a 3DS and you haven’t had much of a reason to use it as of late –here’s your chance.

Miscellaneous Rating: 6.5/10

The Scores:
Story: 6.5
Graphics: 6.5
Sound: 6.5
Control and Gameplay: 8
Replayability: 6
Balance: 8
Originality: 6
Addictiveness: 8
Appeal Factor: 6
Miscellaneous: 6.5
Total Score: 68
FINAL SCORE: 7.0 (Good Game!)

Short Attention Span Summary
James Noir’s Hollywood Crimes is not only a good game, but it’s one of the best exclusives for the Nintendo 3DS this year. With over 140 puzzles to encounter, the ability to pick and choose what puzzles you do in story mode and the chance to unlock extra optional puzzles for fun make this game a lot of fun. Throw in some very stylized visuals, some sub-par FMV that adds to the 60s-esque charm and a fun little story involves a game show AND a serial killer and you have something that is sure to delight fans of everything from Gabriel Knight style adventure games to people who want a better (and more mature) version of Level 5’s Professor Layton games. Hollywood Crimes deserves to be a sleeper hit, but it’s up to the people with 3DS to make it happen.

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