Too short to be perfect
The Nintendo DS Lite was the first game system I ever really owned. It wasn’t a gift, or a hand-me-down from a friend. It was an actual system I saved up for, went to Target, and purchased. My mind was initially blown. Keep in mind this was before the prevalence of the iDevices as the iPhone didn’t launch until 2007 to the Lite’s 2006 launch date. My first game on the system was not a large release, since I had not quite exposed myself to game journalism yet; I just purchased whatever I thought looked good. And one particular game stood out every time I browsed GameStop’s DS rack: Time Hollow.
In retrospect, I probably was only interested because the concept sounded cool. You play as Ethan Kairos, a high school student who has woken up to find himself in a new reality where his parents died when he was a kid. Instead of dressing up in a bat-suit and beating up criminals, he decides to look into the matter. His investigations yield a mysterious device called the Hollow Pen, which allows him to essentially rip holes in time and space to change reality. Cool, right? Luckily, the game doesn’t focus too much on how the Hollow Pen works, which prevents a set of internal rules from tripping up the plot. As a casual gamer, I liked it a lot. It kept my interest and got me thinking.
But now, with my horn-rimmed fake Game Journalist Spectacles™ placed squarely on my upturned nose, I can look back on this game with a fresh perspective. The first thing that comes to mind is the odd mix of culture and genre. See, Time Hollow is a Japanese point-and-click adventure game. When I think adventure games, I think Western studios. Japanese adventure games tend to be more ‘visual novel’ than ‘game’.
But this is totally a point and click adventure game! There are certainly visual novel aspects to it, almost to the point where I expected somebody to call me a ‘baka’, but the usual point-and-click tropes are here for sure. You use things in your inventory on the environment to solve puzzles, sometimes you have to pixel hunt, and talking to characters yields more options in gameplay. But what makes Time Hollow unique is in how the puzzles are presented to you.
As I mentioned before, the Hollow Pen can open small holes in space and time called Holes. Duh doy. The almost greek tragedy-esque twist here is that, with every Hole opened, the Hollow Pen saps your life (here referred to as ‘Time’). Ethan only has so much ‘Time’ before he dies, so each Hole you open brings you closer to death. Your cat Sox occasionally finds glowing green things around town, though, so if you ever need a little boost on a difficult puzzle, track him down to replenish one bar of your ‘Time’ meter. I like this mechanic, as it forced me to think long and hard before I started in on a new puzzle.
I suppose the biggest problem I have with this specific game is that it’s a little short. Sure, there are the usual problems with adventure games, but in total all six chapters take about 4 hours to clear. There’s a new game plus that takes maybe ten minutes to finish and adds an extra wrinkle to the whole Hollow Pen dynamic. Although, if you want to hang around and listen to the great soundtrack (which is recommended), that’ll probably add some time to the game.
Adventure games need at least a decent plot to keep the player’s attention, and Time Hollow’s plot sure is decent…at least initially. Since the mechanics of the reality-altering pen is never really explained, the story has to be primarily character-driven. All the characters connected to the Hollow Pen are interesting to be sure, but the ancillary characters from Ethan’s high school start out either annoying or one-dimensional. Things ramp up in some great ways around the third act, and I’d argue the initial slow pace is to set up context for when things start going to shit, but there definitely are some moments when it’s hard to slog through the somewhat dull feel of the first few chapters.
Time Hollow is definitely short and contains the usual adventure game problems, but it’s still quite fun. I certainly liked the plot and some of the puzzles were simple enough to keep me entertained. It should go without saying that if you’ve never been into adventure games, you shouldn’t buy Time Hollow. But if you’ve ever enjoyed that style of game or enjoy an interesting story, then track this one down. Can’t be that expensive. It is a DS game, after all.