James Noir's Hollywood Crimes
3DS | Ubisoft | 1 Player | Out Now
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24th January 2012; By KnucklesSonic8
At the heart of the experience, you are a contestant starring in a television program called The Incredible Puzzle Masters Show. To start you off, the producer of the show (Trudy) will have you fill out an audition form and smile for a picture taken with the 3DS Camera. You'll waste little time in seeing what the gist of the game is about as Trudy gets you to complete a test puzzle to prove you've got what it takes to go far. This initial puzzle will test your observation skills as you try to locate an area in a flower arrangement where a physical number can be seen. Once you pass this test, the progression that follows will largely remain the same.
Taking place around the year 1961, the game adopts both jazzy and tension-building sounds (including heavy breathing) that make the game feel like a black and white movie. During the time that you spend on this show, there are three main characters that you need to be aware of: Glenn, the game show host; Monique, the show's Vanna White; and finally, Marcus White, your main rival who stands in your way of the prize money. There are additional characters you'll meet as well, including the Chief of Police, Captain Dawson, along with a friend from your past, Matt Booker, who has since become involved with the FBI. Each and every one of these characters should be viewed as a potential suspect as you advance the storyline. In detective fashion, I would like to say that there are clues along the way that get you to rule out who the culprit might be, but hardly any of that actually takes place.
During each taping of the show, you'll be given a board of different puzzles you can attempt with the goal of achieving the target score set by your rival, Marcus. Each puzzle will award you with different point values depending on the difficulty, but you'll have fewer puzzles to complete in the long run if you tackle the more challenging ones first. Puzzles are presented interchangeably on the Touch Screen and the 3D Screen depending on the nature of the puzzle itself.
With each puzzle you attempt, you'll get a paragraph of (sometimes unclear) instructions to refer to along with access to a slide-out toolbar. From here, you can tap the purple bulb icon to exchange fan hints for a helping word of advice. You can use up to four hints, with the fourth forcing you to lose five fan hints at once because it practically gives the solution away. Also on this menu is an orange notebook for making rough sketches or notes like in the Professor Layton games, a restart button, and a checkmark icon to confirm your answer. Submitting an incorrect answer won't actually result in a penalty, which naturally has a bearing on the difficulty factor. Not to mention the fact that the game is very generous about giving you hints, so unless you're really bad at managing them, there really shouldn't be a reason why you find yourself stuck on a puzzle for an extended period of time.
James Noir's Hollywood Crimes presents players with an array of different puzzles that will challenge different parts of the brain. Much of these come in the form of 2D puzzles including the Shape Maze puzzle where you need to figure out the correct path required to reach the final square at the end of the board. Then you also have simple tight-space puzzles where you need to move paper worms or shapes around so you can get one item to a specific spot on the board. If you have a knack for word puzzles, there are a few of those here, but if logic is more your style, Chess and Shikaku puzzles have been included as well. Even with the slight variants on some of the above activities, the satisfaction these sorts of puzzles provide is fairly mild. This is partly because the average player will have already been exposed to a considerable portion of them through other games (e.g., Nikoli's Pencil Puzzle), but getting to the root of it, some of them just lack challenge factor or even suspense.
The game show goes on for a total of six rounds with each intermission in between offering you a break from the standard method of play. At this time, you'll get to consult a copy of the day's newspaper, the Hollywood Report, with the game thereafter evaluating how the fan base is shifting in your favor. The more fans you have, the more often you'll receive letters. Following that, you'll take to the city and aid your FBI friend in uncovering clues to learn more about the perpetrator behind the crimes that have been taking place. Players will find themselves scouring admittedly small crime scenes for hidden clues. Level navigation outside of the game show is usually in an on-rails fashion, performed automatically with minimal interaction or input from the player beyond moving the Circle Pad or tapping the screen with the stylus.
While trying to solve the mystery at hand, you'll come across a whole set of other puzzles designed to advance the plot. In these cases, the game will often get you to use your stylus on the Touch Screen to control a small cursor on the 3D Screen, tapping in the center to select or place an item. I can understand they chose to do this to emphasize the 3D visuals, but they've done so at the risk of making controls a bit clunky. I also found the touch recognition on these kinds of puzzles could've been better in the sense of making it clear whether or not you're on the right track.
On a more positive note, these Story Mode Puzzles can be seen as the second heart of the game, popping up at key points in the storyline. These were by far much more interesting than the standard TV Show Puzzles. One of these has you picking a lock by rotating a wheel with an L shape, making sure to match the L shape in the background using three rotations. You've also got a few science-focused ones where you may have to create a circuit around an entire puzzle cube using wires from green energy cylinder. Fans of these kinds of games shouldn't be surprised to learn that Hollywood Crimes also has a couple puzzles that focus on cog placement and sliding tiles. Not my idea of a fun time.
Once you hit Chapter 4, not only does the game takes an interesting turn but you have this feeling of anxiety with some of the later puzzles you're expected to complete in anticipation of story progression. Sadly, this doesn't continue for very long as you quickly meet up with more straight-forward puzzles moving into the final Chapter 5.
Besides these small twists in gameplay, the murder mystery aspect isn't nearly as compelling as you might expect. Everything that transpires after (and even before) what could be considered the best portion of the game is relatively predictable and fails to grab you for the rest of the adventure. In all honesty, the thought of always having to go back to the studio feels repetitive. It's not so much the puzzles themselves, but because of the way everything is setup; it's annoying to constantly have loading screens of indistinct audience members, but the uninspired nature of the setting is another reason why the game fails to grab you. In considering the advancement of the plot, I thought the whole idea of the player once being considered a threat to society was a bit much. And while I did appreciate the decent voice acting, interactions with the various characters are usually pretty flat. But again, the twist that occurs about mid-way through serves a nice way of countering any lack of interest that may have been building up until this point.
Along with all of this, the rough exterior starts to weigh on you pretty fast. Characters are represented as actual people, but the animations are on a continual loop and the overall resolution doesn't make them look remotely good. Additionally, the framerate is a bit jumpy in the adventure areas and I was quick to pick up on at least four different cases of spelling errors -- the worst offender probably being "holly smoke!" [sic]. Finally, with the exception of maybe the observation puzzles and some of the crime scenes, 3D incorporation doesn't do a whole lot for the game as a whole which is a bit of a let-down considering the number of 3D puzzles present.
Despite how both the ESRB and Ubisoft have positioned this game, I have a hard time figuring out if this game is really for the intended audience. If you were to ignore the occasional use of very mild language and if a parent would be okay with a child exploring the premise of murder, I honestly think this game is better suited to younger audiences. Teens -- who this game is actually geared for -- will see right through the game's sometimes sloppy execution when it comes to presentation, as well as the lack of attraction to the game's main puzzle element. By the time the fifth and final chapter reaches its conclusion, there won't be much reason to continue playing the game.
The game took me roughly six or seven hours to complete, which isn't bad at all. I did find the game held my interest for the most part, not because I wanted to find out what was going to happen next, but because the puzzle selection here does its job of appealing to different types of puzzle fans. And as discussed, some of the Story Mode puzzles were actually enjoyable to mull over.
For a puzzle game, there's not a lot of replay value to be had. There is a mode that allows you to complete TV Show and Story Puzzles again, but there's no motivation to do so. There are also 100 different messages you can unlock in the Fan Mail area over time -- some containing bonus puzzles. But when the so-called "rewards" are hints that no longer have value, there's no reason to play these either.
James Noir's Hollywood Crimes is hard to make heads or tails of because of how much it shoots for the middle. Even when the game starts to stray off path and aim for higher territory, players are often re-directed back to this feeling of routine present in practically the entire game. Just the thought of a puzzle-focused murder mystery presented in the contexts of a new IP led me to believe that Ubisoft had a real chance at a positive outcome. And it's such a shame that this new title is incapable of providing a satisfying fix for fans of puzzles or story-driven games. I still hope this isn't the end of James Noir as I would love to see this IP return in the future, but if it does, Ubisoft would do well to reconsider their approach to just about every aspect of the game before this can take off the way it should have.
15/30 - Below Average
Gameplay 6/10 - Predictable setup, standard puzzles are decent albeit familiar, investigation phase could've been stronger, controls don't always work well
Presentation 5/10 - Good 60's motif, minimal 3D, weak animations, sometimes sloppy execution, spelling errors, more care should've been exercised
Enjoyment 2/5 - Lacks suspense and satisfaction, some Story Puzzles are enjoyable, difficulty is more for younger audiences, studio show can get annoying
Extra Content 2/5 - No reason to replay puzzles, fan mail doesn't serve the purpose it should, minimal replay value, gimmicky 3DS Camera usage
Equivalent to a score of 50% (percentage score is approximate and based solely on the previously stated rating) - Our Rating System