Before they declared bankruptcy in March of 2010, the Japanese development house CING built a cult following for their games that they referred to as “interactive mystery novels.” Some call them “visual novel-style adventures,” which accurately reflects how the games combine dialogue-heavy plots with the trappings of a graphic adventure. Unlike your standard “visual novels,” however, there is an emphasis here on exploring environments, solving puzzles, and using the right item at the right time. Hence the “adventure” part of the label. CING has produced six of these types of games as of 2010 – The Glass Rose, Trace Memory, Hotel Dusk: Room 215, Another Code: R, Again and Last Window: The Secret of Cape West. Four of these are DS games, but more notable is the fact that four of them – all except Again and The Glass Rose – were published by Nintendo.
The “novel” element of these games is most clearly seen in the extensive use of well-written dialogue. Much of CING’s following revolves around their ability to create fully-realized, three-dimensional characters. Though their games almost exclusively favor text-based dialogue over actual audio, it’s a testament to the quality of their storytelling that reading the exchanges between the characters remains consistently engrossing… for the fans who can handle them. There are plenty of gamers, however, who are bored to tears when reading lengthy segments of text-based dialogue. As if CING’s titles weren’t already made esoteric enough just by being modern adventure games, they’re made even more unique – for good or ill – by the inclusion of text exchanges that can last as long as 10-15 minutes in some cases. In comparison to something like the Phoenix Wright series, the Another Code games are definitely less heavy on text and more focused on adventuring, but the amount of reading is still significant.
CING’s first experiment in “interactive mystery novels” came in 2005 with the release of Another Code: Two Memories. It was renamed Trace Memory for its eventual American release, but in all versions the story deals with Ashley Mizuki Robbins, a half-Japanese teenager living in Seattle with her aunt. She is about to celebrate her 14th birthday when she receives a message from her father, who invites her to come see him on Blood Edward Island. The only problem is that Ashley has believed her father to be dead for the past 11 years. Her aunt quickly confirms that Ashley’s dad has been living on the island in secret for the previous decade, however, which leaves only the questions of what he’s been doing there and why.
Both the first game and its Wii sequel involve Ashley teaming up with a male sidekick to investigate the secrets of their respective pasts. In both stories, the investigation winds up revolving around a machine known as “Another” (“Trace” in the American version), which can manipulate human memory. Although the twists of both tales can occasionally feel predictable, there are more than enough surprises, engaging characters and clever puzzles to make both of Ashley’s adventures worth experiencing. Unfortunately, only the first made it to North America; the beautifully refined sequel received an English translation in Europe, but traveled no farther.
The story focuses on Ashley Mizuki Robbins (“Robins” in the European version), who lives in an apartment in Seattle with her aunt, Jessica. As far as she knows, both of her parents died when she was only three years old, and her aunt has raised her ever since. But then, just before her 14th birthday, she receives a package. The package contains a machine called a “Dual Trace System” or DTS (it’s the “Dual Another System” – DAS – in the Japanese and European versions), which looks extremely similar to the Nintendo DS. It responds to Ashley’s fingerprint, takes photos, reads messages left on memory cards that look exactly like DS game cards, and a whole lot more. The DTS contains a message, which reads:
I’ll be waiting for you here on Blood Edward Island. I want to spend your fourteenth birthday with you.
Your father, Richard”
Ashley is understandably taken aback. Jessica, however, is not surprised. She always knew that Richard was alive, and that one day he would come back for Ashley. Jessica doesn’t know why Richard gave up Ashley and went into hiding, though. She knows only that Richard asked her to take care of Ashley, and made her promise never to tell Ashley that he was alive. Ashley feels equal parts happy to get her father back, confused by his extended absence and betrayed by her aunt’s long-held secret. Her confusion is further exacerbated by a recurring nightmare she’s been having… a nightmare in which she sees her mother telling her to hide before a mysterious individual comes in with a gun and fires. Given that Ashley was three years old when she last saw her mother, Jessica assures Ashley that the nightmare is nothing more than a dream – after all, Jessica assures her, no one remembers things from when they were so young. Even so, Ashley can’t seem to shake this possible memory.
What does it all mean? Does she really remember seeing her mother attacked? If so, by whom? Why was her father hiding on an isolated island for 11 years? What is the “Dual Trace System” for, and why did he send it to her? If her father has been alive this whole time, does that mean that her mother might still live as well?
And so the stage is set for Ashley and Jessica to travel via boat to this island in the Pacific Northwest. Upon their arrival, both are dismayed to find no one waiting at the dock. Where is Richard? Jessica heads off to find him, but fails to return. That leaves it up to our heroine to head out in search of both Jessica and her absentee father.
Matters are soon complicated even more when Ashley happens upon a graveyard where she meets the ghost of a young boy. Her initial shock gives way to irritation when the ghost begins to laugh joyously. He explains that he’s been dead for dead for 57 years, wandering the island endlessly, yet no one has been able to see him… until Ashley came along. As she is the first person to be capable of seeing him, he hopes that she will also help him recover his memories so that he can move on from this world. The ghost can only remember that someone called him “D” and that the last thing he saw was an outstretched hand – an image that is burned into the chest of his spectral form because of its significance. Once Ashley brings herself to terms with her new ghostly companion, the two start off on the mission of exploring their pasts. D needs to unravel the secret of the mansion on the island – the old Edward mansion. Ashley, in turn, finds a series of messages left by her father, asking her to journey progressively further into the very same mansion.
Trace Memory‘s gameplay is divided into “chapters”. Aside from the first chapter, which takes place outdoors, you spend the entire game delving deeper into the Edward Mansion, entering a new chapter whenever you open up new areas of the mansion to explore. Most of the game takes place from a top-down perspective. The visuals look pretty good for the DS hardware throughout these segments, with the mansion’s numerous rooms each getting a distinct look to it. There are a few bonus touches such as streaming beams of light and fluttering birds that show some extra care was taken with the visuals. Even so, the completely top-down perspective is kind of an unusual choice for something that’s fully rendered with polygons. This isn’t the 3/4-view of the classic Zelda games; you’re staring at Ashley’s scalp pretty much the whole time. You only really get to see all of the polygons that make up the characters when you complete a puzzle that unlocks a new area, after which the camera will zoom in closer and go into a 3/4 perspective to show you that a new door is opening or whatever. Other than that, the polygonal style seems to be used mostly just to zoom the perspective in and out whenever Ashley climbs up or down some stairs.
You move Ashley around with either the D-pad or the stylus, and starting with the second chapter, D follows you everywhere you go. Don’t worry about falling off a cliff or anything; there is no way to die in this game. That’s something that remains consistent across both of the Another Code titles. You can’t really “lose” in a traditional sense. Other than potentially getting the bad ending on the DS game, the only danger is getting stuck on one of the puzzles.
As you wander around in the top-down view, you’re treated to ambient music that can sometimes be pleasantly atmospheric, while at other times – during chapters two and three in particular – just grating. The incessant loop of these annoying tunes serve as the weakest part of Trace Memory. Luckily, they don’t diminish from the story and gameplay, and there aren’t too many times when you’ll need to hear the sound in the game anyway. Feel free to turn the volume down.
Once you come across something that can be examined in more detail during your top-down excursions, the magnifying-glass icon in the top-right corner of the touchscreen will light up, and the area you can examine appears as a CG render on the top screen. These look great, but naturally very static. You can tap on the magnifying glass (or just press the “A” button) to move the render on the top screen down to the lower screen, at which point you move the cursor (either with the stylus or the D-pad) to point at whatever you want to search, tapping with the stylus (or, again, pressing A) to have Ashley take a look at it.
Depending on the thing you’re looking at, examining something by tapping on it could have a number of different results. Most often you’ll be given a description of the item in question. Since the game has such a focus on dialogue, this will often cause Ashley to offer her personal thoughts on the object in question, with D occasionally chiming in. It’s a charming touch that keeps the descriptions from becoming too rote or boring. Ashley will also pick up any useful items when you do this, frequently commenting on possible uses as she does so. If you examine something that deals with the history of the house, like a painting or a diary, D will get a flashback and tell you what he remembers about his life. Finding these memory-jarring items is critical if you want to get the good ending of the game.
Lastly, there’s the dialogue mechanic. If you try to click on and examine an actual person, you’ll notice that the magnifying glass in the top right-hand corner of the touchscreen changes to a blue “talking” icon. At this point, Ashley will engage in a conversation with the individual in question. As the person talks to Ashley, statements of interest will be highlighted in red. When that individual finishes talking, you can select one of the “statements of interest” from the touchscreen, and Ashley will inquire further into that issue. These conversations aren’t as interactive as they first appear – in truth, Ashley will almost always have no choice but to discuss every single “statement of interest” to the fullest with every individual she meets. The only thing you can change is the order in which you discuss the points in question. These are the parts where the game becomes more of a reading experience than anything else. Some conversations are over and done in less than a couple of minutes, while others can drag on far longer. Luckily, the dialogue is so well-written and offers so much insight into the characters that it’s hard to mind it too much. In addition, the manga-style portraits that accompany the dialogue give all of the characters a lot of personality and expression as they speak. They change throughout each conversation so as to convey the characters’ flow of emotions. During particularly important parts of the story, you’ll get cinematic artwork on either one or both screens that show the actions and reactions of the various characters. They’re nicely drawn and contribute significantly to the game’s emotional impact.
Where the gameplay shines the most is in its puzzles. Since Trace Memory was released early in the DS’ lifespan, it’s one of those games that wants to make use of everything that the DS has to offer. As a result, you can expect to be touching, spinning and blowing all over the place. Unlike most games of this type, however, Trace Memory is content to give you no direction whatsoever on how to interact with the majority of these puzzles. You will, at least, be told how to take photos with your DTS and how to overlay them in order to uncover hidden messages, but that’s as far as the help goes. You’ll know you’re in a special “puzzle screen ” whenever you hear a certain musical tone and watch the top screen spin around, but after that, you’re on your own. It’s up to the player to figure out what to do next.
Sometimes this is blatantly intuitive. When you wind up on a “puzzle screen” with a keypad, you’re going to be tapping the buttons with your stylus in order to key in the correct code. And it’s not hard to figure out that when you’re shown a sign with rust obscuring it, you need to drag your stylus over the sign in order scrape the rust off. However, other puzzles get a bit less intuitive. You see a keypad on the bottom, and a murky-looking window on the top screen; what next? With a little experimentation – the DS only has so many ways to communicate input – you should soon suss out that you need to blow into the mic to show the code hidden on the fogged-up top window, then key in the code on the bottom screen. You’ll even encounter a puzzle where you have to touch a wall at specific points that don’t appear to have any buttons whatsoever. Again, not totally obvious, but not too far from what you’d expect. One particularly clever example involves some ink-covered stamps that appears on the top screen, and some blank paper visible on the bottom screen. How do you unite the two and make the stamped images appear? You close the DS, of course.
For most of these, the only difficulty will be understanding what item you need to use on the object in question in order to trigger the interactive puzzle. There are points when Ashley won’t pick up something’s that blatantly useful – like, say, a hammer – until she’s encountered the puzzle she needs to solve with it, which means you’ll be backtracking in a couple of spots to reach something you couldn’t pick up before. This is kind of irritating, but not unheard of for the genre. It’s hardly a dealbreaker.
And then there’s the “reflection” puzzle.
This is the one that separates the men from the boys in Trace Memory. You encounter the above image, which is sitting in a folding frame on a coffee table, in the middle of Chapter Three. Nine times out of ten, this one seems to send players screaming on their way to GameFAQs. Yet, to the creators’ credit, it’s also one of those puzzles that seems pretty logical once you understand how to solve it. It’s just so far outside of the realm of what you usually do with your DS that few gamers seem to figure it out even after Ashley ponders the meaning of “the reflection.” Suffice to say, it will force you to think of some clever ways to look at your DS screens to discover the solution.
Another interesting mechanic the game has going for it is the chapter-ending quizzes. Early in the game, a character tells Ashley that she’ll remember things more easily if she repeats them to herself. She takes this to heart at the end of each chapter, quizzing herself (and more importantly, the player) on what she saw and did over the course of the preceding chapter. To many first-time players, these multiple-choice quizzes seem pointless; after all, if you choose the wrong answer, Ashley immediately corrects you on your mistake. However, they’re more relevant than they initially seem. Getting the correct answers on the first try is necessary if you want to obtain the good ending.
Ashley’s story may be predictable at times, but it’s more emotionally satisfying than D’s. Even after you figure out what’s really going on, it’s still interesting to find out the individual character motivations and uncover the WHY of everything. D’s story, on the other hand, is a more interesting mystery with more unexpected turns to it. There are many points at which all the details SEEM clear, but it ultimately turns out to be more complicated than it appears.
Regardless of what ending you get or which of the parallel storylines you prefer, the adventure is a fairly brief one. Provided that you don’t get stuck for too long on any of the puzzles, first-time players will likely make it through in about five or six hours. That’s a pretty quick run, which might disappoint some players. The better you are at these sorts of games, the faster that can go. Once you know exactly what you’re doing, you can wrap the whole thing up in around three hours or less. There’s some incentive to come back for a second playthrough, at least; return visits to the Edward Mansion will replace the various memory cards that contain Richard’s journals with new information on the backstory of the Edward Family. You’ll only unlock the ability to play this version of the game if you reach the good ending, though.
The European and American translations differ beyond just the references to “Another” as compared to “Trace.” A concerted effort seems to have been made to give even more dialogue to Ashley. She’s a little more skeptical, a little more opinionated, and in short, a bit more of a teenager in the American translation. By comparison, the European edit is largely more accurate to the Japanese source, as is evident in using the original title and the original name for the memory machine. However, the European translation spells Ashley’s surname differently than the other versions – it’s “Robins” instead of “Robbins” – and it also gives her a lot of British terminology despite the fact that she’s supposed to be an American teenager. She refers to her mother as “mum” and talks about living in a “flat,” which isn’t exactly how a Seattle-based 14-year-old would talk. At least it’s still a fairly understandable change. Regardless, both versions tell essentially the same story and cover the same character beats, so English-only gamers can feel comfortable playing either one.