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Point-and-click style adventure games and visual novels for the Nintendo DS come many different flavors. You've got something for your film noir fans (Hotel Dusk), you've got something closely resembling Law and Order except with a comedic twist (Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney), and you've even got a ghost story that even will appeal to teens and tweens (Trace Memory). Sadly, though, there had been nothing to fill the void for fans of sci-fi, time traveling programs like Doctor Who, Sliders or Quantum Leap. Nothing, that is, until the September 2008 release of Konami's Time Hollow, an absolutely brilliant DS adventure game that might just outshine all the others.
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This game's marvelously intricate plot line follows Ethan Kairos, a fairly typical high school student save for his peculiar interest in collecting clocks. On the eve of his seventeenth birthday, Ethan's parents tell him they have something they want to discuss with him the next day. Only, they never have the chance, because when Ethan goes to sleep that night, he has what seems to be a bad dream, and when he wakes up, he finds that there's now a strange portal in his room and his pet cat is carrying a mysterious pen. Not only that, but he has a strange image flash into his mind. Ethan discovers that his mom and dad had disappeared more than a decade ago, and that he now lives with his Uncle Derek. Yet he has memories of living with his parents. Which life is reality?
To uncover the truth, Ethan learns he needs to use the pen he found on his cat. It turns out it is called the Hollow Pen and it has the ability to open holes in time. As Ethan investigates his own situation, he also finds that he must use the Hollow Pen in order to manipulate the past and prevent present tragedies for others as well. But is he the only one with the ability to alter the past? And what role will the mysterious Kori Twelves, a girl he does not remember yet seems to be the only person aware of the pen and Ethan's newfound power, play? It is an absolutely riveting story that had me so hooked I couldn't put it down, and wound up playing through the game, start to finish, in a single day. Not that it's incredibly long, but it is incredibly good. My only issue is that sometimes you can figure out exactly what you need to do to proceed, but because Ethan himself hasn't figured it out, you need to follow him as he takes baby steps towards the correct conclusion. It is bothersome, but not nearly bad enough to prevent me from awarding five stars to Time Hollow for its exceptional writing.
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Graphics and Sound
Like Phoenix Wright, Time Hollow features anime-style character artwork, but unlike Capcom's popular lawyer sim, they're far more palatable here because there's no over-the-top emotional behavior. Everyone behaves and reacts like normal people would. Also, the game features a handful of high quality, fully voice-acted cut scenes, complete with subtitles on the bottom screen, which is a nice touch. The game has its own English language theme song, which isn't half bad, and the rest of the score is well done, always fitting the game's tone. I never once felt compelled to turn down the sound on my DS, and considering that's my personal preference when gaming on the go, that speaks quite well for the game's sound quality. The production values and localization are both spot on, and you can definitely tell Konami went the extra mile making this game something special.
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Time Hollow plays very similarly to other Nintendo DS visual novels in that you need to figure out riddles and puzzles, speak with people to find clues, and ultimately put all the clues together to solve the overarching mystery in each of eight different chapters (six numbered ones, a prologue and an epilogue). You use primarily the stylus and the touch screen here. It is your tool for examining people and objects, speaking with characters, move to a new area and drawing holes with the Hollow Pen. Pushing left or right with the control pad causes you to look around and survey your surroundings, while the B button can be used to quickly exit your current location and A confirms a selection and advances conversations. Different icons appear for different activities, and from the system menu you can review the flashback images Ethan has received, look at the items he's currently carrying, check out character profiles, and save and load the game. The game provides detailed instructions on how to do everything, and after a short while, the controls feel like second nature. Some folks might not enjoy the slow, contemplative pace and the lack of sustained action, but if you're a fan of point-and-click adventures, the gameplay in Time Hollow will be right up your ally.
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If it hasn't become clear already, I absolutely adored this game. It kept me completely enthralled from beginning to end, but then, I've always been a sucker for a good story about time manipulation and parallel worlds. Even though I enjoyed the Phoenix Wright games and thought Hotel Dusk: Room 215 was fantastic, neither quite measures up to the sheer brilliance that is Time Hollow. Granted, I realize that not everyone will share my unbridled enthusiasm, but there's no doubt in my mind that, if you're a fan of this genre of game, then you definitely need to give this adventure a chance. Rent it if you're uncertain, buy it if you're fairly confident it will appeal to you, but by all means, find a way to experience this game. It is without a doubt one of the best video games I've played this year.