I have made no secret about the fact that I want another Snatcher sequel. I loved the original Sega CD version and even stumbled through the Japan-only sequel, Policenauts. I've devoted a big chunk of my life to trying to convince somebody (ANYBODY!) that a third Snatcher game was a fantastic idea. But maybe I've been wrong all this time. In a lot of ways Miami Law, Hudson's newest adventure game for the Nintendo DS, plays like a modern day version of Hideo Kojima's 1988 cyberpunk masterpiece. And while that may sound like a compliment, I assure you it is not.
The game revolves around two Miami detectives, Law Martin (yes, Law is his FIRST name) and Sara Starling. In the first of many cop show clichés, Miami Law pairs these two unlikely partners against their will. He is a Jack Bauer-style, take-no-prisoners, act-first, loose cannon kind of guy, while she thinks things out and is as straight-laced as you can get. It's clear from the get-go that these two have a lot to learn from each other, so it's unsurprising that as the game unfolds Sara becomes a little more open and Law thinks before he acts.
The story is broken up into five different cases, each of which offers a good sized adventure. The game's flow is definitely slow, often halting the action completely to make you read line after line of woefully dull dialogue. Then, when you know where you're supposed to go and what your mission is, you get to choose between playing either Law or Sara.
In most games the player you choose has very little impact, often just featuring a different character on the screen (possibly with a different special move or attributes). That is certainly not the case in Miami Law. Since both characters represent different investigation styles, you'll quickly discover that they both have completely different things to do. Law, for example, is in the front lines doing whatever it takes to get the bad guy, even if that means pulling out your gun and getting into high-speed car chases. Sara, on the other hand, is more about solving puzzles and giving Law back-up when needed. The good news is that you will constantly be prompted to choose between the characters, so you're not locked to one play style throughout the whole game.
Like all crime dramas, it all starts with a mysterious murder. Before long the team is off looking for clues, talking to witnesses, interrogating suspects and so on so forth. What you uncover is that there's much more going on than just a simple homicide, you're dealing with a domestic terrorists organization that is threatening Miami's way of life. All this has the makings for a super exciting 24-style storyline. Unfortunately the game's narrative gets bogged down by needless conversations and trial and error gameplay. The story's twists aren't as exciting or unexpected as they should have been, and some of the game is so outlandish that it took me completely out of the experience.
On the surface Miami Law acts like any one of those generic cop dramas CBS is so fond of filling their prime with. Early on I was impressed with what the game was trying to do; it felt like it was slowly offering up clues, giving observant armchair sleuths a chance to solve the case before anybody else. The problem is that once you start getting down to uncovering evidence, the game quickly becomes laughably simplistic. It's not that the game doesn't offer some challenge, but I have a hard time believing that these two detectives could put together a jigsaw puzzle, let alone solve such an important case.
I have a major problem with the way the narrative plays out. There are elements of the story telling that should take a lot of time and research to resolve, but are explained away in short order. For example, early in the game you are tasked with confiscating a large quantity of Columbian cocaine. According to one of the supporting characters, this is a case that he's been trying to crack for years. Yet Law and his partner are miraculously able to solve the case in mere minutes. All they needed to do was go to the beach, use a gun, get a small piece of paper and then match it with a special computer. That's all there is to it? If that's the case, then either the rest of the police force is brain dead morons or they were purposely not solving the case. Either way, the idea that this years-old investigation could be solved so easily took me right out of the experience.
What makes all this worse is that these detectives are wildly inconsistent when it comes to how savvy they are at their job. At one point Law meets up with a woman who claims to be undercover for the DEA. Instead of quizzing her and making sure she is who she says she is, Law simply accepts her claims and goes on with his business. Really? The guy with enough police know-how to take down one of the biggest drug cartels in Miami is willing to just accept who she says she is, even announcing his real name and where he works. With instincts like that, I have no idea how Law Martin has lived this long.
After spending so much time complaining about the game's ludicrous story, I'm sure there are Nintendo DS owners shouting at their computer monitors that this is just a game. Usually I would agree, but I can't when it comes to Miami Law. So much of this game plays out like an interactive novel, which means that in order for it to work the storyline has to be good. While it definitely starts with a bang, I couldn't help but feel cheated by the story's inconsistent characters and plot holes you can drive a semi truck through. Instead of feeling like a one of those long-running CBS dramas, Miami Law ends up feeling more like a low-budget direct-to-DVD buddy cop movie starring Lorenzo Lamas.
I would also like to add that the "gameplay over story" argument doesn't hold up when most of your actions involve you pushing the "A" button to advance the dialogue. When you're not in the middle of a conversation, you're using a row of icons to talk to people, look around the room, move to a new location, call your partner and so on. Fans of games like Shadowgate and Myst will likely feel at home with this type of interaction, since all you're really doing is looking at a still image and trying to get to the next lengthy conversation.
The good news is that from time to time the story is broken up with a few mini-games. The good news is that some of the mini-games are a lot of fun and make sense in the context of the police universe. The game will have you cracking codes, matching items, testing your memorization skills, watching over security cameras and the like. All of these mini-games (like everything else here) are controlled by the system's touch screen. For example, at one point you may need to upload a fake criminal record for Law, so what you will have to do is select the right information using your stylus before the time runs out. In another game you'll have to count security guards, which is about as exciting as it sounds.
When you're not doing mindless busy work with Sara, you're getting into all sorts of trouble with Law. As you would expect, Law's mini-games are more action oriented. One game type that Miami Law comes back to repeatedly is the annoying first-person sections. Like Time Crisis or any other classic light gun game, you will find yourself forced to take down a bunch of bad guys by tapping the screen. If you need to reload or duck for cover, you can do that by pushing the buttons on the bottom of the screen. Outside of that you're just looking to avoid their fire and get as many headshots as you can. This mode is definitely a nice change of pace at first, but I lost interest quickly.
The truth is it didn't take long before I completely lost interest in the whole experience. While I appreciated that the characters end up changing over the course of the game, I didn't find either of them especially likable. Most of the bad guys are nothing more than lame stereotypes and try as I might I couldn't get past the glaring problems with the narrative. This interactive novel sub-genre (if you can even call it that) has proven that it can make for a great game, just look at Snatcher and the criminally ignored Hotel Dusk. But those games have incredible storylines and puzzles that pulled me in; both of which are missing from Miami Law. What you're left with is a game full of potential, weighed down by terrible pacing and half-assed mini-games. Not even Martial Law can talk his way out of this average adventure game.