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Monday, 24 August 2015

Time Hollow.

Time Hollow.

A spiritual successor to Junko Kawano’s previous time travel adventure story, Shadow of Memories, Time Hollow follows Ethan Kairos, a teenage boy who effortlessly thwarts the plan of an evil old man by calmly persuading him not to follow through on his evil deeds, before quickly solving all of his problems with the help of several other people with whom he has a reasonable discussion.

While the gameplay - almost exclusively using the touchpad - is very awkward, the game’s biggest problem is probably its length. A full playthrough will take you five minutes at the most, making it even shorter than the game it takes its inspiration from. I did like how the ending left several questions open for a (hopefully longer) sequel. Who is Irving? What is the Hollow Pen? How does Sox the cat factor into all of this? Why does Ethan go to a suspiciously time-themed cafe?

As yet, no sequel has been announced, and it seems like one probably isn’t coming.

Great, that's that review done.


Okay, fine, I'll do it properly.

Time Hollow.

That first review came to you courtesy of the alternate ending to Time Hollow, which you can achieve within about thirty seconds of starting (and will, if you behave in a remotely sensible fashion), gives away several major plot details, and generally put me in an ill mood to play any more of the game, having given me just enough taste of the awkward gameplay to put me right off, and given me just enough taste of the plot to surgically excise most of the mystery from it.

But, after a week of sulking, I did eventually play through the entire story, to the proper, canonical ending.

A spiritual successor to Junko Kawano's previous time travel adventure story, Shadow of Memories, Time Hollow follows Ethan Kairos, a teenage boy who, on the day of his seventeenth birthday, wakes up to find that his parents have apparently been missing for twelve years. Receiving the Hollow Pen, a pen-like device that allows him to open holes in time, from his cat, Sox, Ethan sets out to rescue his parents - but finds himself continually distracted as a mysterious other Pen user alters time so that people close to him start meeting with terrible fates.

Naturally, having watched somebody play Shadow of Memories earlier this month, I was comparing the two to each other, and it's not a comparison that Time Hollow comes out of well. They're both a similar length - short enough that you can easily complete them in a night - but Time Hollow's pacing is horrendously slow, somehow managing to spread half the story and gameplay into the same amount of time. 

Most of the remaining time is taken up with busywork: While the puzzles aren't difficult, being as you solve all of them by just moving from place to place on the map and talking to everyone you see, and very occasionally examining an obvious clue, it seems almost designed to be a time sink - quite frequently Ethan will refuse to continue with the plot until you've had every unrelated conversation you can, and even more frequently certain conversations won't become available until you've had entirely unrelated discussions with other people.

The 'time travel' sections - Ethan never actually travels through time, he just opens a portal and lobs things through, or sometimes reaches through to take things - aren't any more strenuous, but are just as awkward - your options are 'Look', 'Examine', 'Talk', and 'Item', but very often, which option you're meant to pick has no relation to the action you're meant to take. Several times when you're meant to use an item, you actually have to select 'Examine', and on several instances where you're meant to physically interact with something (which would usually be 'Examine') or even one or two times when you're meant to use items, you have to select 'Look'. Again, it's not difficult, but it is awkward and badly made.

When you combine that with a horrendously awkward control scheme that requires you to exclusively use the touchscreen, you have some truly terrible gameplay that drags the game down to where no amount of good storytelling can save it.

Not that the storytelling is very good. Ethan is a frustrating character to play, because despite characters telling us that he's intelligent and perceptive, he acts like a complete idiot, often having to be told things several times before he understands - which has a knock on effect on gameplay, since you can only perform actions that Ethan knows to perform (for example, there is an option - one of the few options in this otherwise very rigidly linear game - to stop one of your friends becoming injured in an accident with a ladder, but you'll only be able to do this if Ethan, who has apparently never asked about his friend was injured, has been told that the ladder was involved). 

That might be forgiven if the supporting cast was interesting and engaging, but for the most part, they're just not: Vin, Morris, and Ashley, all minor characters, do the best jobs of actually having layers, character development, and engaging personalities, and everyone else occupies a spectrum from actually quite boring (Ethan's entire family, Kori) to repulsive (Ben) to just kind of silly (our main villain, who at one point in an otherwise seemingly-intended-to-be-dramatic scene declares 'It's time for Revenge, Part Deux: Revenge - The Return!' which might be the silliest line I've heard all year).

The plot, meanwhile, is simplistic, linear, and obvious - but still manages to forget itself at points. Plot threads - like a shadowy council seen earlier on, or the murder of a teacher - are entirely dropped, time travel rules are broken towards the final episodes, characters have their entire character development undone and redone and undone again. Somehow, the writers managed to make a mess of what would otherwise be a very simple and very dull plot, and nothing about that is good. 

In conclusion, Time Hollow is a game. I guess. One that, despite its short length, I was all too ready to be done with by the time I finished it. If you are so inclined, it's short enough that I won't discourage you from checking it out, but I'm not going to encourage it, either. If you want time travel fun in a small but lovely package, try Shadow of Memories instead.

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