Pocket Power: Trace Memory

Though today you can stuff stereoscopic 3D and console-quality graphics into your backpack, that once seemed inconceivable. Handhelds have evolved quickly, but we shouldn’t forget the games that made them great in the first place. Though these games lack raw processing muscle, they have a power all their own.

TMlivingBack in the day, the DS was something of a haven for point and click adventures. Titles like Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney and Professor Layton and the Curious Village are in large part responsible for the genre’s resurgence and many classic franchises like Broken Sword and Myst made their way to Nintendo’s pioneering handheld over the years. But before all of those games found success, a little Japanese developer called Cing released one of the most inventive and surreal point-and-clicks ever conceived. Trace Memory (called Another Code: Two Memories in other territories) isn’t the first adventure game on the DS, but it is the first good one (we don’t talk about Sprung), and it takes better advantage of the hardware than just about any other game to follow.

Ashley Robbins has spent her whole life believing she’s an orphan, but on her fourteenth birthday she receives a package from her missing father, Richard, and a message telling her to meet him on Blood Edward Island, off the coast of Washington State. When she gets there, he’s nowhere to be found, but she does run into an amnesiac ghost named D, and together they set out to explore the island’s ruins and find Richard. Along the way they learn of the research on human memory that Ashley’s parents had been conducting before their disappearance, and they begin to uncover the mysteries of D’s past. All of this builds up to a sharp and emotionally resonant conclusion that touches on a number of interesting themes, but that’s par for the course for the team behind Hotel Dusk.

Their exploration is facilitated by the DAS, a device shaped conveniently like a Nintendo DS that Ashley’s father created for her. The DAS can store memories, which include your save files, as well as pictures that you’ll need to solve puzzles. All of the DS’ standard features come into play for Trace Memory’s brainteasers – you’ll find yourself sliding things across the touch screen and blowing into the microphone frequently – but the game also uses the handheld in positively mind-blowing ways. At one point you need to line up two images in order to see a code, but you can’t drag them on top of each other in the game. Instead, you need to physically fold the DS at a 90 degree angle and look at the reflection of one screen in the other. Similar tricks show up in Hotel Dusk, but no other developer ever really thought to use the system in this fashion.

4549468aaaIt’s not just the hardware gimmicks that make Trace Memory stand out though. The game’s aesthetics are stark and arresting. Characters are rendered in an appealing anime style with washed-out colors and harsh, black shading – it almost looks like a subtler version of No More Heroes’ iconic style. The world around these characters is actually rendered in two different styles – we see it in full 3D from a top-down perspective on the touch screen, while the top screen displays pre-rendered first-person images of key spots in a manner similar to Myst. The realistic pre-rendered visuals mesh surprisingly well with the anime characters, and the pacific northwest is an inspired choice of setting – this visual style has an inherently cold feel to it that’s not unlike the area’s natural climate.

The mix of 3D and pre-rendered visuals is also a great choice from a game design perspective, as it allows a greater sense of exploration than you typically get from on-rails games while still maintaining a tight sense of pacing and direction. You never feel lost in Trace Memory, which is more than can be said for most games in the genre, but it still manages to present a series of challenging puzzles. Whether you come to adventure games for story, atmosphere, or puzzle solving, Trace Memory has you covered.

There’s nothing else quite like this game on the DS – or any other system, for that matter. Cing’s other games for the console present a more “hard-boiled” atmosphere, and take a slightly more traditional first-person approach to their design. There is a sequel – Another Code: R­ – that was released for the Wii in Europe and Japan only, but its gameplay is a bit of a departure from Trace Memory, and its storyline is seriously underwhelming in comparison. Trace Memory is a very singular title that a lot of DS owners missed. If you want to take full advantage of your console’s hardware in a less traditional way, then it’s well worth checking out.