AGAIN is the latest DS graphic adventure by Cing, who were responsible for Trace Memory and Hotel Dusk: Room 215, two of the finest graphic adventures for the DS. Due to this pedigree, I was quite excited to try out AGAIN. Then I played it. Suffice to say, that excitement turned into disappointment. As far as murder mystery DS adventures go, AGAIN is not that bad, but compared to Cing’s other efforts, AGAIN is weak.
The main character is secretive FBI agent Jonathan “J” Weaver who, along with his partner agent Kate Hathaway, has been tasked to reopen a series of unsolved grisly murder cases from 19 years ago. A series of present day murders are showing eerie similarity to the murders of the past, and the connections between them are far from tenuous. Allowing the agents to shed light on these unsolved murders is J’s “past vision” ability. Whenever he is in places where violence has occurred, J has these pounding headaches that allow him to witness what happened in the past as if it were an old sepia-toned movie while simultaneously viewing the present. Players will follow J as he discovers the connection between the past and present murder streaks, coaxes answers out of reluctant citizens, figures out his role at the heart of this entire mess (he’s been marked for death by the killer), and continually perplexes and worries Kate, who feels as if she doesn’t know her partner as well as she should.
The story is one that has been done before, and done more effectively, in games such as Still Life, Heavy Rain, even Time Hollow to an extent, and as such, the story in AGAIN felt too familiar and was surprisingly shallow and predictable throughout its course. I’m usually terrible at predicting who-done-its, but I predicted every twist here fairly easily. The lengthy and melodramatic tell-all speech at the very end by the villain was hokey, laughable, and completely overdone. Those are words I have never used to describe the storytelling in previous Cing titles since that’s one of their strong points, and here I am using them here, regrettably.
The dialogue was decently written, if a bit dry and with a few technical errors, so it was the facial expressions of the characters that actually gave them life. When early screenshots were posted, fans bemoaned the photorealistic character art based off of live actors. They longed for the hand-drawn art so loved in Trace Memory and Hotel Dusk. But the use of photorealistic art in AGAIN is probably the best aspect of the game, because the facial expressions of the characters really give them life and character. Without the expressive faces, the dialogue would be flat. With the expressive faces, the dialogue feels genuine. The stop-motion animation of characters is artfully done during dialogue and the FMV scenes look great. The backgrounds, on the other hand, look grainy and murky. This works well for the dark and tense atmosphere of the game, but when the time comes for pixel hunting when searching the environments, the atmospherics become a hinderance.
The gameplay is very familiar to genre aficionados: talk to people (who can often be uncooperative), go to places, and search those places with a fine toothed comb for answers. Because “past vision” takes a toll on J’s body, there is a life bar during those crime scene search sequences where J has to find what’s different between the present and the past, often solving perplexing, sometimes arbitrary, puzzles to do so. If he concentrates deeply on an area where nothing happened, his life bar goes down. Because pixel hunting for pertinent places can sometimes be a crapshoot, it’s surprisingly easy to get a Game Over. In addition, players cannot save any time they want to. Save opportunities occur at decent intervals, but keep a nice chunk of time when on the 11th (final) day of the investigation. This is a game that would have benefited from a quick save feature.
The interface is intuitive enough, but does have some flaws. Everything is stylus based and driven more by different types of touch by than icon clicking. Holding down brings up a camera mode so J can look around the room. Of course, holding down the stylus on an object also controls J’s concentration, which can potentially drain a player’s life bar when all s/he wants to do is look around the room. A quick tap allows J to comment on an object. During many puzzle sequences, stylus response is noticeably sluggish. The sliding puzzle involving a bunch of desks in a storage room immediately comes to mind. Cing’s games usually have solid, smooth control during puzzles, so it’s disappointing to see them degrade here.
One area where Cing did not downgrade, but did not upgrade either, is the music. The music in AGAIN is on par with prior efforts, which is not saying too much. It’s not that the music presented here (and their other games) is bad, but it’s nothing special either. AGAIN’s music is atmospheric and lends itself well to the appropriate scenes, but is generally pretty forgettable. This game also absolutely cried out for voice acting. I expected to hear at least a little bit of voice acting, especially given the artistic direction followed, but sadly there was none. That left me disappointed.
The dominant feeling I’m left with after spending 12 hours finishing AGAIN is disappointment. Cing produced two of the DS’s finest adventure games with Trace Memory and Hotel Dusk: Room 215, but AGAIN was just “meh.” It’s not a bad game, but it’s not great either. Although the photorealistic character art was initially off-putting in early screenshots, it’s the best part of the game. It works. Unfortunately, a predictable plot, clumsy gameplay elements, and so-so music really bring it down. I certainly hope Last Window–the sequel to Hotel Dusk and the last game from now-bankrupt developer Cing–is a return to form, because Cing deserves a better last hurrah than this.