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Trace Memory (DS)

Point-and-Click Adventure games have been quite popular on computers, and for good reason. With an input device like a mouse, track ball, or other similar tool, pointing and clicking was a seamless action, one done quite naturally given the environment of what is done on a computer in general. On consoles and handheld systems, however, these games haven't always worked as well. The change over from using one of the afore-mentioned devices to manipulate an arrow or cursor on the screen never really translated as well over to a D-pad-based control system. While consoles and handhelds did see a couple of these games make their way over, and they were certainly plenty of fun, the controls often would get in the way, and was probably the main reason why these sort of games didn't often make that computer-to-console transition.

Then, along comes the Nintendo DS. If a system could have been created specifically to be perfect for Point-and-Click Adventures, this was it. Even more seamless and natural than on a computer, the DS makes pointing and clicking as simple as just taking the stylus and pressing it right against the screen where you want it, removing even the need to direct an arrow at all. For Point-and-Click games, it was a perfect match. While Point-and-Click Adventure games aren't as popular and as common as they once were even on computers, a perfect match like this was hard to ignore, practically begging to be inundated with these games. Trace Memory is one of the first of what are hopefully numerous games to take advantage of this combination, and it plays like a dream. More than that, it's a very engaging game, drawing one in and creating a beautiful adventure.

Trace Memory is a story of intrigue and murder. You are Ashley Robbins, a young girl whose mother was murdered and whose father disappeared when she was a child. She had been raised by her aunt, haunted by dreams of her mother's murder which she had witnessed, and unaware of what had happened to her father. One day she receives a letter from her father asking her to come meet him on an island, and also sending her a strange device (which looks peculiarly like a Nintendo DS) which will be useful in her journey. So, she and her aunt set out by boat to the island where her father is, in search of him. After arriving there, her aunt heads out to look for him, and shortly after, goes missing herself. So, it's up to Ashley to explore the island, find where her aunt went, find where her father is, uncover the mysteries of the island, and find out what her father has been up to all this time. What she will discover, is more than she could imagine.

As is the case with most games of this sort, progression is a matter of exploring an area, finding items, finding puzzles, and figuring out how the items can be used to solve these puzzles, which will then allow one to move on to the next area and do the same thing there. It's a very slow, deliberate and methodical gameplay, and one that isn't going to appeal to everyone. For anyone who does like this sort of game though, it has all the aspects with which one is familiar, a few new things of its own (thanks in large part to the system it is on), and a very interesting story to unravel. With the Nintendo DS, making use of items isn't always just limited to clicking on something and choosing "Use." Without giving away any puzzles specifically, aspects of the system such as blowing into the microphone, opening and closing the system, holding the system so that the screens reflect onto each other, and many other unfamiliar but quite natural approaches to some of the puzzles that will be encountered. Even more than just the touch and stylus making the control of the game much easier, the system itself opens up new possibilities for how a game can be approached.

One criticism of games like this is that often puzzles come down to "Pick up everything which isn't tied to the ground, figuring some of it will eventually have a use, and when you come to a puzzle try everything you have." Trace Memory makes an attempt to fix this, which is a logical step since it doesn't necessarily make sense for a small girl to be picking up a dozen large rocks, a bunch of rusty tools, a pile of coal, and other things like that unless she knows she's actually going to have a use for them. So, quite often an item won't even show that it can be picked up unless you've encountered a place in the game where the item would be usable. The downside of this is, if one finds an item which one thinks is probably going to be useful, the game might not have decided that yet, and so not let you pick it up. Then, when you encounter a place where you think "Oh, obviously this is the place where I need to use that thing I saw half an hour back," you're stuck trying to remember where you saw it and finding your way back to it just to pick it up now that it'll let you and bring it back there. Granted, most items are usable fairly close to where you encounter them, but, in some situations this arrangement can result in some confusing and annoying backtracking which wouldn't normally have to be made. So, while this does work to remedy the "pick everything up" logical issue, it also introduces some annoyances of its own, and perhaps might have been better leaving it alone.

That aside, it really doesn't detract that much from the core focus of the game, which is to explore every nook and cranny of the island and the large mansion you soon find yourself in. On the bottom screen you have a view of your character and the surrounding area you're exploring in an overhead view, on which you're able to move either by directing Ashley with the stylus or the D-pad. Indeed, control by the D-pad and buttons is still available as an option, and in some places is slightly easier, but by far the stylus is the preferred method of interaction. As she moves around, on the top screen is displayed either a detailed version of the surrounding area, or at times when approaching an area of particular interest, a zoomed-in view of that specific area. As well, in certain areas one will be able to examine particular features in detail, bringing a zoomed-in view to the bottom screen. This is when the advantage of the system really comes to the front. It is up to you to examine the screen, literally poking around investigating anything on it that appears suspicious. Either a double-tap with the stylus, or a tap and selecting a context-box choice (such as a magnifying glass or an icon of people talking) will interact with what you have selected, giving you helpful information, a useful item, or just some interesting descriptions. The game is alive with areas to explore, and with such a natural interface, it really draws you into the game.

Soon after starting on your journey, you'll encounter a friend of sorts who will join you on your quest, and provide you with some interesting dialog as well. So, as opposed to just exploring the environment in solitude, you'll have a companion who will offer up some thoughts or discussion at appropriate times. When talking with him or other people who you might encounter, during the dialog certain pieces of text may appear in red. These key discussion points will then become available as topics which you can bring up in the discussion, leading to new dialog and information. While the text being notated like this is automatic, it really does give a more interactive feel to the discussions, as you read what the character has to say, and then select points of interest to find out more about them. As well, in addition to just being someone to talk with, your newfound friend has an engrossing story of his own, much of which will come up in the course of your journey, but some of which requires some optional discovering, which isn't required to progress through the game, but can provide some extra challenge when going through, or a reason to come back to see what you may have missed.

Between the two screens, the game makes a nice balance of making it easy to control and do what needs to be done, and at the same time offer close, detailed views of important areas. While the overhead moving view doesn't look too impressive and the moving of the character is rather awkward, considering the focus of one's view is often on the top screen or trying to get to important areas, or on the bottom screen when zoomed in examining things there, this view isn't as much of something that is being looked at constantly. When the view zooms in to examine a specific area, however, the design of the areas are all extremely well done, with great attention to detail which looks very nice. Since one will spend a good amount of time examining these finer details, it's good that these are what they chose to pay the most attention to. While exploring, there are many interesting areas one will pass through, and which are very enjoyable to explore. While doing this, the music serves as a nice background for the feeling that one has within this setting. The view and the sound also contribute to some intense moments when the character stumbles across something which catches her off-guard or surprises her, and can make for some very suspenseful moments.

Making it through the game the first time is a decently long process, and one will spend a good deal of time trying to figure out some of the puzzles. As is the case with most any game of this sort, with the focus being strongly on solving puzzles, once one has gone through the game the first time and done the puzzles, if one has a good memory, in further playthroughs one can simply rely on memory from the previous time and know what to do in order to get through the game, and go through things fairly quickly. As noted there is a side story of sorts which one doesn't have to have done in order to beat the game, which can give one a very good reason to play through again if one hadn't finished it the first time through, to find out what happens in that part of the story. The game does offer an option to save a "clear file" which allows one to start a new game with a star on the file, which might lead one to think there would be some additional changes because of this on a following playthrough. There are indeed some changes, but only a few, and nothing significant, which is a bit disappointing. Aside from that, playing through again can still be very enjoyable just to be able to pay closer attention to the finer details the game has to offer, and enjoy some things which one might not have paid as close attention to on the first time through.

Again, simply the fact that the DS is an absolutely perfect interface for this sort of game is likely reason enough for anyone who is a fan of these sorts of games to pick this game up. To go along with just that it's on this system, it's also a very enjoyable game, and one which will provide plenty of entertainment. To anyone who hasn't played these sorts of games but thinks it sounds interesting and enjoys games which require thought and attention to detail, it's definitely a great way to get introduced to the genre. Again, this system is perfect for these sorts of games, and fortunately a few have made their way out so far. It's certainly a great time for a revival of the genre, given the perfect system and interface that have been provided for them. Trace Memory does a wonderful job of showing just how the abilities of the system can be put to use to create a wonderful experience. This is a spectacular game, and one that shouldn't be missed.