Version tested: DS
Last Window offers views onto several forgotten vistas. Immediately, it paints a vivid picture of an American city at the dawn of the 1980s. Gleaming skyscrapers stretch at the clouds, each a pointed testament to the unshakeable wisdom of modern capitalism. Keeping their distance, on the outskirts of the city centre, tower blocks stand, heads down, providing temporary accommodation to the workers who turn the cogs of the sun-baked metropolis and the deadbeats who clog them. Rendered in stylish watercolor and black ink, the city scenes that run throughout the game are drawn in an anachronistic style, a manga-ish take on late seventies Americana that reinforces the historical context through its aesthetic.
It's in one of these tower blocks that your character resides and, at this close distance, CiNG's meticulous attention to period detail is revealed. Every prop is in keeping: the flares of the preceding year have shrunk to skinny-fit jeans, just as the telephones have ballooned to the size of shoeboxes thanks to their new-fangled answering machine additions. Every aside about solar-powered pocket calculators that cost the earth, or pagers that shrink it, speaks of technology's acceleration from a stroll to a jog, and the bulky gadgets are as key to the ambiance as the Miami Vice-style soundtrack and film noir direction.
The story that fills this scenery is a throwback, too. You play as a 34-year-old ex-cop, a stubbly private detective slouching in cars that are three feet wider than they need to be, working jobs several tiers of crime beneath him. Kyle Hyde, familiar to players of CiNG's Hotel Dusk - with which Last Window shares a universe - is an amalgam of many pulp fiction private detectives, from Blade Runner's Rick Deckard to Policenauts' Jonathan Ingram.
The narrative structure is simple, divided into 10 chapters spread over the course of a week. You start by investigating your landlord's reasons for evicting you and the other tenants of Cape West, and end by disturbing the murky waters surrounding your father's death. It's the kind of story rarely presented by videogames in 2010, and in this context the cliché turns into something fresh and unexpected.
In its systems too, Last Window presents a style of game long slipped out of fashion, a point-and-click adventure game that limits innovation to its stylish presentation, leaving the mechanics of clue hunting and puzzle solving largely unchanged. For developer CiNG, whose modern adventure games have been well received but sold poorly, Last Window represents perhaps the last opportunity to find an audience wide enough to sustain their passion. While the slow-paced storytelling and ponderous puzzle-solving are an acquired taste, the confident execution ensures that the game and its developer deserve just that.
The DS is held like a book. When exploring a new location, architectural floor plans of your environment are shown on the touchscreen to the right. As you drag the stylus around this area, so the 3D view in the left-hand screen moves around. As well as providing a smart, stylish way to navigate the world, the system offers two views on the objects around your character, with objects in the schematics making clear the objects seen in the 3D viewpoint.
There are four basic interactions when exploring a location, each accessed via an icon at the bottom of the right-hand screen. The door icon allows you to move from room to room, while 'talk' will instigate a conversation with any willing third party. The magnifying glass will, at appropriate locations in the environment, switch to a close up of the object, with a slider that allows you to rotate the view to pick out details that might not have been immediately obvious from the wide-angle shot. Herein some of the game's puzzles lie, as you seek to discover key objects in a gentle modern rendering of the hunt-the-pixel style puzzles of classic adventure games.
Selecting the briefcase option allows you to access your inventory which contains keys to locked rooms, your work pager and any useful items you collect in the course of the adventure. More complexity is added here with the option to combine items in the LucasArts style, as well as compare specific items with one another as per Phoenix Wright. Finally, in keeping with the eighties aesthetic, your ring-bound Filofax contains character profiles of people you've met, useful notes (such as safe lock and key combinations and other important names and numbers) and a useful summary of chapters you have completed thus far.
Additionally, as you complete sections of the game, you unlock new chapters of a digital novel, rather confusingly titled Last Window: The Secret of Cape West. Presented in the style of an iBook, this concurrent story offers its own narrative, and clues uncovered here can be useful in the game itself. It's an awkward, peculiarly Japanese way of nesting stories together, but approached with an open mind, it adds to the package.
The art style of the game is so closely entwined with its systems that it's difficult to describe one without the other. Conversations are where CiNG's directorial flair is best shown off. As Hyde quizzes people, a scratchy, hand-drawn pencil image of his actions and reactions plays out on the left hand screen, while those of his interviewee play out on the right. Colour seeps into the images when a new character is introduced, or when a crucial piece of information is imparted, while the animations behind each drawing are fluid and natural. Conversation options are limited, with just a few different threads to pursue in any particular line of questioning, but this economy allows the developer to ramp up the visual flourishes, and the result is one of the most arresting presentations of a story seen in the medium.
The translation is solid, but fails to match the style of the visuals. Hyde's internal monologue plays out constantly, something useful during conversations, to clarify what he is thinking at any given point, but superfluous elsewhere. The storyteller's maxim 'show, don't tell' is struck through; Last Window instead shows and tells at every point, bloating every scene.
Stretched over a week, rather than the single day of Hotel Dusk, Last Window's pacing can often feel off-kilter. There are long stretches of downtime, during which Hyde will, for example, visit the movies instead of pursuing his goals just to fill the game's timeframe. As a result there are long stretches without plot development, usually followed by a cascade of information and leads; realistic, perhaps, but disconcerting and uneven in this context.
Last Window's unique marriage of art, story and game feels at once contemporary and anachronistic. Pitched to the Professor Layton crowd, its ponderous pacing and obscure puzzles will seem laborious, too much work for too little payoff. For those hankering after a modern take on Broken Sword, the emphasis on dialogue and ambiance will feel as though substance has been traded for style. As such, the game is best viewed as a curio quite unlike anything else, an experience that deserves its niche off gaming's highway, and whose mild shortcomings are made up for by a combination of uniqueness and general competence.
7 / 10
Last Window: The Secret of Cape West is released 17th September exclusively for DS.