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Crime Lab: Body of Evidence (DS) artwork

Crime Lab: Body of Evidence (DS) review

"Crime Lab tries to present an interesting run through puzzles and crime scene investigation, but it's underwhelming in all respects."

When it comes to point-and-click adventures, they're fairly samey as far as mechanics go. Their value often is derived from sheer personality. My first reflex upon hearing about a DS point-and-click adventure based around crime is generally to ask myself “Is it as good as Phoenix Wright?” Games in that series offer mechanics that have little to do with the real world--this is the series where Franziska Von Karma whips people who annoy her in a courtroom and nobody seems to mind--but a colorful and loveable cast of characters overcomes any flaws and the result is typically quite enjoyable. Crime Lab: Body of Evidence for the DS seems to be someone’s attempt to replicate that dynamic, only with more flaws and less personality.

The setup is that you are Nicole Bonnet, an FBI agent recently returned from your brief sabbatical and now investigating an accidental death that you're convinced was really murder. It doesn’t hurt that as you investigate, a puzzle-obsessed jerk who is most likely the murderer keeps distracting you by sending along evidence hidden in puzzle boxes. That’s the type of setup that could lead to either a ho-hum cop story or an absolutely mind-blowingly fantastic Darren Aronofsky psychological thriller. The result, unfortunately, is the former.

Crime Lab reads like fan fiction written about “CSI” after the writer only watched one episode. You personally collect all of the forensics that matter, which immediately removes any possibility that this game could ever be realistic. As in the Phoenix Wright games, a lawyer is the last person who should be interrogating criminals or investigating the crime scene. Worse, as Bonnet you’re just plain boring; you’re an empty slate, dryly commenting on the objects you touch with nothing but the obvious facts.

None of the characters with whom you interact were given more than the most basic characterization and visual design, either. They include a dark-skinned woman working in the crime lab and a handsome partner that never is around when you need him, for instance, and neither of them amount to more than that. Every character you meet along the way is just a role-filling NPC with no personality. There’s no witty dialog, no banter, no character quirk… nothing. At this point I'd even take Phoenix Wright's aggressively unnecessary pop culture references. Even an incredibly outdated 300 joke (“Super-protection what? That's madness!” “No, Maya, this is S.P.A.R.D.A.”) would liven up the banter.

So Crime Lab is a gameplay-based game, one that focuses on the puzzles and investigation to keep you engaged instead of providing a compelling story and drama. Unfortunately, as far as point-and-click adventure puzzlers go, it also leaves much to be desired on that front.

The self-contained puzzles, which ask you to perform familiar tasks such as rotate dials, find similarities between two pictures and match DNA chains, all work fairly well even if they're a touch easy. Adventuring also goes nicely. You’re even given a little list of all the items that you'll need to collect in order to speed along the process. Your PDA (seriously, a PDA in the 21st century?) whisks you from location to location competently enough. When the two mechanics merge, though, problems arise.

Early on, you'll be tasked with investigating an abandoned movie theater. That goes just fine up until the moment where traditional point-and-click logic comes back into play and forces you to follow the single avenue of thought that occurred to the developer. At one point the scenario requires you to use a quarter to buy a Coke that you then must pour into a popcorn bucket so that you can remove the rust from a handle in order to open an industrial popcorn machine, all the while ignoring the fact that (since this is abandoned area) you could just as easily pry it open to take whatever you need and bypass the whole fiasco. Yes, Coke does remove rust, but no, it doesn’t do so nearly that quickly.

The game features a hint meter that refills slowly as you play, but it's the most stubbornly useless hint system that I've ever seen. All it does most of the time is highlight what you're supposed to do next and sometimes what you might use to do so. But if you're working to solve some puzzle types where you must turn on a certain number of lights? You’d better get to work on a Google search, cowboy, because the only recommendation you’ll get from the hint system is that you need to make a light start glowing, with no hint as to why or how. That’s the only hint you’ll get, too, unless you’re prepared to wait for another minute to pass.

You might think that something as crucial to the genre as a hint system would get a lot of attention, but that aspect of the game seems to have received less refinement than any other (except for maybe the general writing). Frequently, I'd ask for a hint only to be pointed to my PDA, where the only location available was my present one. As an example, I once was stuck enough to ask for a hint and the system instructed me to return to the previous room. When I did so, the next hint suggested that I go back to the room that it just had me leave. I tried again and the pattern repeated.

The game also has the Professor Layton tendency to send you on fetch quests where you encounter multiple people along the way who ask you to do their math homework before they’ll help you. Guy A has information but wants you to get his watch from Guy B. Guy B has a puzzle for you, and when you solve it he’ll hand over the watch, but--oh no, wait, it's broken! Then, of course, Guy A wants you to fix the watch!

After a certain point, the puzzles become frustratingly obtuse. The sequence of events that surround the investigation of the second victim was where it started to get especially bad for me. The game refused to let me progress until I moved a dresser, and the solution (instead of just using my hands) was to use an umbrella. No, I don't know how that works. I was willing to see the adventure through to its conclusion because I hoped for a compelling story, but all I ever did was idly wonder who the killer was while trying to assemble the projector in the movie theater. That’s not compelling.

The most befuddling aspect of Crime Lab is its strange, retro compulsion to include a points system. Solving the puzzles quickly nets you extra points that are then added to a running total. However, there’s no reason to worry about points. You can occasionally skip puzzles and doing so results in a penalty to your score, but the loss of a few hundred points is hardly significant when you’re four chapters into the game and your score is by that point over 100,000. I don't see why the developers bothered implementing a score-keeping system at all, except maybe out of some vain hope that a tangible number would be enough to drive you to finish their game.

As with so many other point-and-click puzzlers, there are better options available than this one. At least with the Professor Layton you get to enjoy the quirky aesthetic and the unpredictable story, as well as a wider variety of puzzles that you can solve with genuinely useful Hint Coins. Crime Scene tries to present an interesting run through puzzles and crime scene investigation, but it's underwhelming in all respects. The story isn’t compelling, the puzzles are either too easy or they feel like cracking the computer network at the Pentagon, and whenever you consult the hint system for help it’s like flipping a coin as to whether or not you’ll learn anything at all. I really can’t recommend the game to anyone, even point-and-click enthusiasts, because in this case it doesn’t even seem like the developers thought that they were producing something that would be fun to play. Why would you feel any differently?


TheMirai's avatar
Freelance review by Julian Williams (April 23, 2011)

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