Think of all the cool stuff you could do with a pen that was capable of opening a portal to the past. Would you write a note telling yourself what the Lotto numbers were this week? Warn yourself away from that disastrous blind date you went on? Send yourself the most hotly anticipated video games years before they hit shelves? Just such a time-ripping device is at the heart of the DS adventure Time Hollow, and it's a great concept around which to build a game for Nintendo's handheld. Unfortunately, that concept isn't enough to sustain this otherwise simplistic story-driven adventure.
You play as Ethan Kairos, a high school student with a seemingly ordinary existence. Like most families, his isn't without its problems; his cheapskate uncle frequently comes around to beg Ethan's dad for money, and what's worse, no matter how many times Ethan yells at his mom about it, she just never seasons her cooking enough! But on his 17th birthday, everything changes. Ethan wakes up to find that he has been transported into a world in which his parents disappeared 12 years ago. Only Ethan remembers living with them until the previous day; as far as everyone else is concerned, Ethan's uncle has taken care of him ever since his parents vanished. As if this wasn't odd enough, Ethan also finds a mysterious device called the hollow pen along with a note explaining that it's been passed down in his family for generations. As Ethan tries to come to grips with this new reality, time keeps shifting. And each time it shifts, it leaves Ethan with a few images in his head of memories from the new reality, which are memories of experiences he never had. Ethan soon realizes that, with the hollow pen, he can open holes in time and set right in the past things that are wrong in the present. All the while, he tries to figure out why things changed in the first place and what he needs to do to bring his parents back.
Unfortunately, the gameplay is not as engaging as the story. You tap on locations on the game's map screen to visit them; once you reach a location, it is displayed from a first-person perspective, and you interact with people or things by tapping on them. There's a very predictable rhythm to the action: You travel around town talking to people to discover the exact time and place of the moments Ethan glimpses in his flashback memories because these moments are the key to setting the present straight. Once Ethan has all the pieces in place, you can go to the location of the most crucial flashback and the hollow pen will start glowing. This means that Ethan can create a hole in the fabric of time between his moment and that moment in the past. This process is called digging, and it's the highlight of the game. With the stylus, you trace a circle on the touch screen; on the other side of the portal, you create the moment glimpsed in Ethan's flashback--frozen in time. Ethan then changes that moment, sometimes by sending something through the hole, such as a note he's written or an important item a character had misplaced, or by pulling something over to his side, such as an object that might be moments away from being used as a murder weapon. Once Ethan closes the hole, the present is immediately altered by the changes Ethan made to the past. Sometimes all is well, but frequently, Ethan finds that his solution solved one problem only to create another.
The problem here is that there's very little for you to figure out for yourself. You just need to make Ethan go around talking to people until he figures things out. There's never any question as to what the solution is once a hole is opened up, so there's very little worthwhile problem-solving in the game; Ethan generally already knows exactly what he's going to do. You just need to tap the right spot on the other side of the portal. In fact, sometimes you might even be a few steps ahead of Ethan. At one point, it's plainly obvious where Ethan needs to go next, but if you go there, nothing happens to advance the story. Instead, you first need to visit a number of places where Ethan can't do anything until it finally sinks into his head where he needs to go. At that point, he'll automatically head to the location you knew he needed to go to all along. Ethan will also often ignore clues that are clearly important until you've fulfilled certain conditions, and there's frequently no logic to where a particular person you need to speak with is hanging out, so you're left to just check everywhere until you stumble upon him or her. It all adds up to make Time Hollow feel restrictively linear and to make you feel like you're not so much playing the game as just going through the necessary motions to advance the story.
At least Time Hollow looks good. The rich, vivid artwork for the locations you visit is displayed across both screens of the DS, enhancing the sense that you can reach into these places and interact with them. However, there's actually very little you can interact with, and no action ever occurs on the top screen. The visuals are made more captivating by the fact that when you pan your view from side to side, objects in the foreground shift realistically with your perspective. This isn't just for show, either; the game has a habit of hiding things in areas that are initially obscured from your view. The areas are very small, though, and you can only pan left or right a little bit, so it's never difficult to find anything. There are also a few high-quality animated scenes, including a rousing title sequence complete with a spirited theme song. Aside from that theme song, though, the sound isn't as impressive as the visuals. There are snippets of voice acting here and there, which are delivered with a heightened intensity that fits well with the anime-styled character designs. But they're rare, and the music throughout--while quite moody--is extremely repetitive.
The game will take most players about seven or eight hours to complete. Its simplicity and extremely linear structure don't offer any replay value, with the exception of an alternate scenario you can play through in a matter of minutes after completing the main story. There really isn't much to Time Hollow aside from its story, so thankfully, it's a good one, and Ethan's struggle to put the shattered pieces of the present back together by changing the past is interesting enough that science fiction fans may want to tag along for the ride. Just don't expect to play a very active role. If the team behind Time Hollow can somehow go back in time and make the gameplay worthy of the story before it releases the game, then we might really have something here.