I was quite excited about reviewing Unsolved Crimes. Granted, not as excited I might be about covering, say, Call Of Duty: World At War, or Resident Evil 5, but even though I had heard very little about this title until shortly before it dropped through the letterbox, after just a quick scan of the press information explaining what it was all about, it had me interested.
See I'm a bit of a Crime Thriller buff. I read, on average, about a book a week, and I'm a big fan of shows like CSI, Cracker and Wire In The Blood, so the idea of a video game which has you as the detective investigating and solving crimes in 1970s New York sounded like just my cup of tea. Particularly considering that the investigation and crime solving in this game makes up the majority of the gameplay, rather than just being a simple back-story for your usual blend of arcade action.
No, Unsolved Crimes eschews the usual all-action bad-guys-blasting 'rogue cop on a mission' format that you might expect from a video game 'crime thriller', and instead asks gamers to use that organ which - if the critics in the mainstream media are to be believed - most video games don't always require: your brain. Under the guidance of an experienced partner, your rookie detective is tasked with solving a series of cases, each more complicated than the last, by visiting the crime scenes, studying the evidence, interviewing the suspects and figuring out exactly what went down. The pace of the whole thing feels a lot like an episode of Columbo, because there's no rushing around, you're instead required to engage in some slow, measured, insightful investigative work, plodding through the evidence until you come to the answers you need.
Essentially, the format of the game is as follows: you are assigned a case and given an initial case file. This file is usually sketchy at first, containing only the initial reports on the crime that you're dealing with, but it fills up as you uncover or deduce new evidence. And this evidence is found by examining the crime scene, which you can walk around in and study with a combination of the d-pad, the buttons and the stylus. This control method is a tad complex (using the d-pad to move and the stylus to have your character look around while at the same time also holding onto the DS requires a reasonable amount of dexterity), but as the emphasis here is on investigation and not quick reactions, that's not too much of a problem.
As you wander through the scene, you can touch different objects and your partner will then give you reports on them, and hints as to whether they might be evidential. A bloody knife, for instance, is probably a clue to the murder, while the fridge probably isn't (unless it was dropped on them or something).
As you unearth new evidence, and learn things about your suspects, your partner then progresses the investigation through a series of 'Queries'. These are questions about the case which, if you answer them correctly, move the case along and can also boost your colleague's confidence in you, as shown by a star rating on the top screen. Get the question wrong, you lower their confidence in you, you're told to go back and study the evidence again, and, if you need it, ask for a hint. If your colleague's confidence drops to zero, then you're off the case!
All well and good, and for the first 20 or so minutes of playing this game I was actually reasonably impressed. The presentation is fairly smart, with the crime information presented to you by the other detectives in a way that builds the mood and starts to help you to get into the mindset of a would-be 70s Homicide investigator, plus the first couple of clues you uncover leave you feeling quite chuffed with yourself.
However, I have to say that I quickly became annoyed with the game. While at first you feel like you're free to roam the crime scene and investigate as you see fit, in actual fact you're basically wandering around, clicking on different objects until you click on one specific item that triggers a Query from your partner. Answer this correctly, and it either leads to another question, or just sends you back to clicking on more objects until you pick the one that triggers the next Query. I may have been expecting too much from the poor old DS, but there's very little actual 'investigation' involved here, it's just simple observation and very, very basic logic puzzles (eg: the killer has tried to fake a robbery to disguise the crime, so which suspect is it not likely to be, the wife, the friend or the neighbour with a record for robbery? The answer: It's the neighbour that did it, because he wouldn't fake a robbery as that would point attention at him.)
This in itself perhaps wouldn't make the game a total washout, however I came across another problem owing to the game's linear nature: you get stuck. On the case where you need to solve the murder of a man in his lounge, I eliminated all the suspects bar his wife. Surely then, case closed? Apparently not. Instead, I was told to gather more evidence. I had already established that the robbery was faked, the wife owned the murder weapon, she had smashed up the whole room in her faking of the robbery but not her favourite crockery, and she had been home at the time of the murder despite saying she'd been out shopping. For some reason though, the game wanted me to 'study the shopping'.
So I clicked on the Query for the Shopping bag. This time however, unlike the previous Queries, instead of being given a question with four answers, I was given the items from the shopping bag on the table and told to search them for clues. I picked them up with the stylus, I turned them round, I zoomed in and zoomed out, I established that there were several items of fruit and two bottles of milk. I looked at the labels in the milk, I noted that the apples were damaged, that the bananas were 'made in Florida', I did everything it seemed I possibly could do with these objects, but nothing happened.
I don't mean that I couldn't work out what to do, I mean simply that nothing happened. I wasn't given the option to answer the Query - there was no question. 'Maybe I've missed something', I thought, and put the shopping back and checked the entire crime scene over again. Still no question to answer. Maybe there's something new in the files I wondered? So I went through and read everything again. Still nothing. To add to the frustration, I couldn't leave the level - the game just kept telling me to examine the shopping... I started to feel like I was stuck in a really bad version of Groundhog Day. Figuring that something was wrong - maybe the game had got stuck in a loop, and the question I needed hadn't been triggered - I actually restarted the case from scratch, unearthing the clues and eliminating the suspects all over again, looking at the evidence and answering all the Queries correctly, until I came to Query 9... where once again I was told to study the shopping. Which I had done, about 17 times, all to no avail! Hang on, I thought, maybe the 'Hint' option will help me, and so I selected that. My hint? 'Look closely at the shopping'. Great, thanks, that's SO helpful guys!
Eventually, it took the insight of Mr Orry, and the knowledge of the chaps at GameFaqs.com. They had me examine the shopping again, this time focussing on a specific apple. Ignore the bruise ('this fruit appears damaged'!) and look really, really hard for the tiny dark red mark, on the slightly less dark red skin of the apple, and you see a minute blood spot. This brought up the four questions I needed, and finally (FINALLY) I could solve the crime.
Undaunted - well, okay, so slightly daunted, seeing as I'd just taken about four hours to complete what was essentially the first level - I plowed on with the game. Each level really is basically a case of simply pointing at and clicking on different items until a question pops up, then answering the questions to move on. You need to read up on the information files and study the evidence in order to get the answers to those questions, but this just ends up feeling like one long exam. And exams, generally, are NOT fun! Things are made worse by the fact that the logic in the game is often a little suspect. You may have figured out, for instance, by reading two witness statements, studying the bloody knife and the fingerprint, and by looking at the various disturbed items of furniture in a crime scene, exactly who did it. However, instead of simply being able to state who did it, and then list your reasoning, the game instead says something like 'so you think it was person A, eh? Tell me why...' and then asks you to pick ONE piece of evidence from the statements, the exhibits and the crime scene. Trouble is, often there are three or four key facts that have led you to your suspect, but the game wants you to highlight them in a preset order, and if you don't select the evidence in exactly the required order, you lose a life. Granted, if you lose all your lives you can start off from the last Query, but this means that eventually you simply get frustrated and start clicking on random things just to get to the end of the level.
Ultimately, this was an ambitious game for the DS, and it's reaching just slightly too far. If it had been delivered on one of the more powerful consoles, where you might have the option to genuinely 'investigate' crime scenes as you see fit, in the order that makes sense to you, then I'm sure it would be a hit. As it is though, the limitations of the DS means the gameplay is too linear, and some of the clues far too obscure, for the overall experience to really be enjoyable. Oh, and the '5 exciting action games' which are plugged on the press blurb and on the back of the packaging are just lame - the car chase in particular (where you must 'guide' a car down a completely straight street, simply moving left and right to avoid trash cans) would have been disappointing back when simplistic games like Paperboy and Pac-Man were seen as revolutionary... to offer gamers something this dull nowadays, even as a mini-game, is just insulting!