Developed by South Korean student duo Studio SOTT, Hotel Sowls brings a new adventure of the point and click variety to the Nintendo Switch. Previously available on Steam, Hotel Sowls is the first retail release for the duo, and despite some flaws that could be buffed out through experience, it manages to impress.
It’s hard not to find your eye caught by Hotel Sowls. Visually unique with its use of heavy shading and subdued colours, the game presents an oppressive atmosphere within its titular hotel. Various touches continuously build upon the atmosphere; I never stopped feeling uncomfortable walking by an ink spill shaped like a terrifying face. Every screen features a background of a starry sky, made extra eerie in well-lit spaces where the stars and sky are inverted. The open skies serve as a reminder you are confined to the hotel.
Hotel Sowls’ superb atmosphere is not limited to its art. The soundtrack, albeit small and not containing any ‘bops’, is appropriately off, causing the most innocuous rooms to feel strange, or even potentially dangerous. The feel of the game even extends to its writing and dialogue, where many words are purposefully misspelled (even in the title: Sowls instead of Souls), adding to the feeling of wrongness without being too overt.
To offset all the heaviness found in the rest of the game, character designs err on the side of adorable. The staff and guests of Hotel Sowls are essentially blobs, but each one has touches to make them unique. Staff include a masseur with a massive upper body and abs, a baker with a corresponding hat, and a security guard who is always hunched over sadly, smoking a cigarette. Each member of the staff has a personal history and dialogue which updates based on the current events of the story. Unfortunately, the guests of the hotel lack the personality of the staff, and stay in their rooms repeating the same lines of dialogue over and over.
In Hotel Sowls, the player takes control of a Pharmacologist who wants to become famous and win the “Nobal Prize.” Having procured an ancient stone which they are convinced will allow them to create a miracle cure (very much reminiscent of the Philosopher’s Stone), the Pharmacologist decides to stop for a rest at a local hotel before returning home. Upon gaining control of the game, your expectations for Hotel Sowls are quickly set. In the lobby of the hotel you can read strange and cryptic books, find an angry octopus in a drawer, and meet two talking tomatoes, one who predicts their future is to become sauce and the other juice.
Within the lobby you also meet the Receptionist, who declares, “We don’t accept long-term guests… You can’t stay after 5 days… Would you like to check in?” This seems to make it clear these five days comprise the time you have to solve the mysteries of the hotel. From here on out you can generally explore the hotel at your leisure (with a few exceptions like the basement and the 4th floor), but triggering certain events results in time passing. Despite the freedom to explore, things generally proceed in a linear fashion until the 4th day, when your decisions begin to result in a variety of endings.
At its heart, Hotel Sowls is a mystery. Where did the hotel and its inhabitants come from? Why is everything within it so strange? What is in the spooky basement or the blocked off fourth floor? Can this stone really be used to create a miracle cure? What is this ever present IT everyone keeps mentioning? I can say that in playing the game you find your answers, but they may leave you disappointed in a way you didn’t expect. My biggest criticism for the game would be how obviously it explains itself to the player. I don’t feel the urge to go discuss theories on message boards or social media, because there aren’t really any theories left to be had. Leaving a few unanswered questions can go a long way.
No one could accuse Hotel Sowls of being too long. It took me a few hours to obtain all eight of the game’s endings and a good chunk of its achievements. Because of this short length, the lack of chapter select is not a huge issue, but it does still feel like an omission in a game with multiple endings. This is emphasized by the first finale I would expect most players to experience, resulting in a save well past the decision points key to reaching other endings. It is not just length where Hotel Sowls feels crafted with newcomers in mind. The puzzles are straightforward, the number of items few, and the path forward is usually quite clear. That said, veterans of the genre may still find something to love, whether in the game’s perfectly realized atmosphere, surrealist story, or adorable cast of characters.
Interaction in Hotel Sowls is handled via a cursor controlled by the right analog stick. The cursor changes to an exclamation point when hovering over interactable areas, but you still must move yourself near an object to interact with it. I found this functioned fine, but an updated control scheme for consoles may have resulted in a more enjoyable experience. Even on later playthroughs I found myself attempting to talk to someone, read a book, or use a vending machine without hovering the cursor over the object of interest. You can also use, eat (you can cook in the kitchen!), or view the small variety of items you collect during your explorations. One last minor nitpick with the controls is that ascending and descending stairs is not smooth at all, and reminded me of early Castlevania games.
My time with the game was not without bugs, but luckily nothing was game-breaking. During my first playthrough of Hotel Sowls, the cursor became stuck as the interaction icon, even after reloading the game. This made it difficult to determine what I could interact with and what I couldn’t. Considering some important items are blended into the environment, this was a pain, though I was able to overcome it. During my second playthrough, I found the cursor drifting. At first I thought I may finally be experiencing the dreaded “Joy-Con drift,” but it continued to happen with other controllers. Neither of these bugs stopped me from enjoying my time with the game, but their existence is something to keep in mind before buying.
Hotel Sowls is undeniably charming. The cast is easily lovable and the world as quirky as one could hope. Still, it’s also undeniably simple. I would suggest Hotel Sowls as a sleepy afternoon game to relax with if you are at all drawn to its art and atmosphere, but I would keep in mind the limitations of a two person team making their first game. If you aren’t bothered by a small soundtrack, occasional bugs, and a hotel with many rooms where there isn’t any room for questions, then you may just spend more than one span of five days in Hotel Sowls.
Note: I played Hotel Sowls version 1.0.0 for this review. Since then, version 1.0.1 has been released. I could not find patch notes, so it is possible this patch fixes some of the bugs I experienced during my time with the game.