Trace Memory
By Zach Patterson Friday, 14 Sep 2007

So earlier this year, I reviewed Cing’s first American game, Hotel Dusk. After walking away from that with a very favorable opinion, I decided I wanted to give Trace Memory a shot and see if it was any good as well. As it turns out, this game shares a lot in common with Hotel Dusk, albeit in a more primitive form (understandable, as this game is older than Dusk).

While Trace Memory takes a different perspective than Hotel Dusk (overhead top down view as opposed to first person), the conversations all take place very similarly. You find a character, then engage in conversation, with a portrait of the characters and key words that pop up in which you can inquire about. Trace Memory has quite a different way to engage the environment however. When you come to a new area, you will see a new static graphic on the top screen, which you can choose to investigate. From there, you can inspect the prerendered picture and click on “hot spots” to find items, solve puzzles, and get descriptions. I have to say, I’m not crazy about this, because it really makes the game linear. When you see a new image pop up when you walk towards a part of the screen, you know you have to investigate that area, and you will definitely need to find some scrap of information to move the game along. Additionally, these pictures usually only have a few hot spots to click on, which makes it very easy to get what you need and move on. So while Hotel Dusk has a large amount of things to click on (many of them pointless, but still fascinating since there were so many places to inspect things), it’s relatively few here. Another similarity is the end of chapter review, where the character kinda goes into an isolated state of deep thought and the game forces the player to take a quiz based on what is learned during the chapter. There’s no real penalty for messing them up, and it’s really just there for a refresher, since you get a lot of names and info in each chapter.

One of the good things in Trace Memory is the decent amount of puzzles, and most of them are fairly fun to go through. They usually require you to find an item, or use the stylus to solve a puzzle, but in general this is one of the more rewarding parts of the game. Not that the exploration isn’t fun as well, but there just isn’t a whole lot of interaction in the environment. Most rooms are empty shells that just have a couple areas you can stand and inspect 3D rendered images.

But this stuff doesn’t mean a whole lot if the story is good. Unfortunately, that’s a bit of a mixed bag too. I think the main character Ashley and most of the other characters are pretty well written, but there’s very little depth to many of the characters that are introduced. They have one goal in the game, and show little emotion otherwise. The bad guy is deceptive and mean, your ghostly friend is confused and blank most of the time. Again, their roles are well defined and the writing isn’t bad, but you don’t get to really “know” the characters too well. As for the overarching story, it’s a little bit confusing since so many of the secrets in the game are lodged in the past. There’s a lot of talk about Edwards family and their mansion where you spend most of the game, and you try to uncover information about these people, but its hard to keep track of everyone since you never directly meet any of them. Just lots of conjecture about them. Additionally, Ashley’s family story runs parallel to the events you uncover in the mansion, and most of that takes place in the past as well. So those storylines, in addition to figuring out where Ashley’s dad is and who her ghost friend D is and figuring out what Trace is, all intertwine to form the story. It’s a pretty big amount of stories, and they all get addressed, but none of them really feel like they are wrapped up succinctly, aside from Ashley’s father drama (and even that has some issues if you look past the surface of it).

And this, in part, is because the game is so incredibly short. I took my time, explored every environment, replayed a couple areas to get a better grasp on the story, and I still finished the game in a little over 5 hours. While I have no problem with short games (I can barely finish anything over 15 hours gameplay nowadays), this game is simply too short. 5 hours for a brand new game that costs $30 when it’s new? Not really worth it. Luckily this game populates bargain bins everywhere and can be had for less than $10. At that price, I would say it is close to justifying its worth-as-a-game versus its-price-to-the-consumer. 5 hours wouldn’t be so bad if it was very replayable, but its a straight up adventure game that you will likely have little urge to want to play again. Once the secrets are revealed and the twists are discovered, the cat is out of the bag. There’s nothing much else to do. They do give you a few reasons to replay it and find some new stuff, but it doesn’t contribute to the story in much of a meaningful way.

Additionally, the game is pretty easy and rarely presents a challenge with its puzzles. I got a little stumped on one or two, but for the most part it was very obvious what you had to do. You can’t move to new areas without solving the puzzles, and the answers to the puzzles are rarely further than a room or two away. It’s also fairly easy to find the important items when inspecting one of the rendered images. Ashley will almost always say something very simple and boring about an item if it has no importance. The writing for these parts is canned and robotic, with stuff like “The couch is brown”, “The wallpaper is faded”, or “The fireplace is dusty”. It’s competent, but there’s zero life to it, which Hotel Dusk managed to fix by having a great writer inject sarcasm and humor into even the most pointless items. Then you get the things you click on that have an immediate reaction followed by a conversation with the characters, and it is pretty likely what you click on plays an important role in the current puzzle of plot point. When you realize the pattern, the game feels very linear, which is disappointing.

The art of the game is well done, however, and pretty nice for anime styled art. That’s probably my least favorite type of art, but it’s well done here. The 3D graphics as you roam around are serviceable, though not particularly detailed. They benefit from being zoomed out. In the rare instance the game zooms in on a character model, you can see how poor the graphics are. But for the most part, it is not an issue. Meanwhile, the music overall is decent but forgettable. Oddly enough, some of the Hotel Dusk themes and sound effects seemed to be borrowed from this, but here it doesn’t really stick out as good or bad.

Trace Memory did prove to keep me captivated for the time I played it. It spins a good little mystery, and it has some good puzzles. The problem is just that there’s not enough game here. I couldn’t believe I was at the end when the credits started rolling. The game builds and builds and you keep expecting more and more from the plot (including the possibility of a pretty not happy ending), and in the end it just abruptly resolves itself, all your initial suspicions being right for the most part, and everyone going home laughing. That’s all right I guess, but they really needed to add a little more story to each subplot and some more puzzles. It’s a good game, but it is way too short. If you like adventure games on the go like I do though, it’s worth picking up for cheap.

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