It's sometimes easy to forget that one of the Nintendo DS' big innovations was the inclusion of a touch-screen. Many of the games made for the system barely use the screen, and it's only the occasional game, such as Trauma Center: Under the Knife, that reminds you that the touch-screen has advantages over the usual button controls. As a genre, adventure games seemed to have died out for a while, but they were revitalized on the NDS by games like Phoenix Wright and Hotel Dusk. The touch-screen makes the Nintendo DS an ideal system for the adventure genre, but that doesn't mean that every adventure game on the system is good. Crime Lab: Body of Evidence is a prime example that being an adventure game isn't the same as being a good adventure game.
Crime Lab puts you in the shoes of ace FBI agent Nicole Bonnet. Already famous for solving crimes abroad, Bonnet returns to the U.S. just in time to get embroiled in a new mystery. An FBI profiler was found murdered in his apartment, the victim of a bizarre trap that caused his refrigerator to electrocute him. Before long, other victims turn up, each one killed with a bizarre mechanical trap. The FBI's only clues are that each victim is a high-profile celebrity, and the killer left a playing card at each crime scene. Agent Bonnet must catch the killer before he strikes again. Her own status as a famous FBI agent means that the killer is hunting her, even as she's trying to track him down. Bonnet begins receiving mysterious packages, each hinting at the next murder. If Bonnet can't figure out the clues, she'll find herself next on the victim list.
All of that sounds like the premise for an interesting plot, but unfortunately, Crime Lab has one of the most bland stories. The characters barely have personalities. Aside from Bennett, the only person who stands out is an Internal Affairs agent who cartoonishly hounds Bonnet at every turn for no reason. The murder mystery is boring and incoherent. When you catch up to the killer, the reveal is unsatisfying and predictable. He or she gives no reason given for why he or she is committing the crimes, and the game's ending is over in about 20 seconds. For a game that depends so heavily on its writing, Crime Lab doesn't seem to have put any effort into it. A dull plot could have been saved by interesting or likeable characters, but Crime Lab has neither.
In every way, Crime Lab is an old-school adventure game. The bulk of the gameplay involves clicking on various objects in your environment to analyze or pick up. Each item you pick up can then be used to solve a puzzle in the area. If you find a heavy wooden board, you can be sure that you'll need it to cover up a hole in the floor. A screwdriver will unscrew something, and a heavy bar will break down a door.
The problem with Crime Lab's gameplay is that it comes in two forms: simple and convoluted. The simple puzzles are straightforward and rarely get in your way. They involve doing easy tasks, such as using a hammer to pry off some boards. The complex puzzles rarely feel intuitive, and the challenge comes from a lack of information or being unable to anticipate the developers' logic. This isn't an uncommon problem in adventure games, but Crime Lab's writing isn't strong enough to make up for this flaw. To the game's credit, it features a hint system that tells you what to do next. You have to wait a while between using the hints, and it can sometimes solve your problem. The hint system is rather glitchy, so when I tried to use it, it bugged out and didn't give an accurate hint. Sometimes it didn't point out where I had to go, and other times, it pointed at the wrong object. Since you're using the hint because you're stuck, it's frustrating to have it fail to tell you where to go.
Occasionally, instead of having to solve a puzzle, you're thrown into a minigame. Each minigame is a puzzle based around one of the DSi's features. Some are simple touch-screen games that involve solving a basic logic question or simple Bejeweled clones. These minigames are fun and usually the most enjoyable part of the game. They're fairly simplistic, but that's a welcome relief from figuring out which random combination of items you must use. However, some of the minigames have very poor instructions, which make it difficult to figure out what they're asking you to do. Sometimes you have to randomly guess until you figure out what needs to be done. Fortunately, there is a way past these annoying puzzles. If you fail three times in a row, you're offered the chance to skip the minigame and move on with the story.
Another frustrating element of the minigames is that some are designed to use the DSi camera. These camera minigames are awkward and poorly implemented, and they don't work very well. One late-game puzzle involves holding your face up to the camera, but since the DSi's camera isn't the best, it wouldn't register my face no matter what I did, so I had to skip the minigame to proceed. I tried this on two separate DSis, including a DSi XL, and neither could make the minigame work, for me or for anyone else I asked to try it. Since you can skip the minigames, this is a minor roadblock, but that doesn't make it any less annoying.
The main story line in Crime Lab is relatively short. You can probably finish the entire experience in a couple of hours, give or take a little for solving convoluted puzzles. To the game's credit, there are a ton of extras included to make up for the short length. Almost all of the aforementioned minigames can be played from the main menu, including new and more challenging versions. You can also play a hidden object game in each of the game's crime scenes, where you are scored for how quickly you find the hidden items. There's also a series of achievements that you can unlock by completing certain objectives. While these extras don't add a ton of value to the game, they give it slightly more replay value than a Phoenix Wright game, if just for the fun of the additional minigames.
Crime Lab isn't the best-looking game on the DS. The environments are detailed, but awkwardly so. Even on the large screen of a DSi XL, it was hard to see some of the objects with which you could interact. Squinting at the screen to figure out which indistinct blob of gray is a wrench can quickly give you a headache. Putting a little more emphasis on the objects so that they would stand out more would have done wonders to make the game more enjoyable. The character artwork is rather ugly, and the in-game cut scenes feel like a poor reward for solving a puzzle. The music is bland and unmemorable, and the only real positive thing one can say about it is that it doesn't get in the way.
Crime Lab: Body of Evidence is a perfectly mediocre point-and-click adventure game that's hindered by a dull plot and a few design flaws. The best part of the game is the wide variety of minigames, enough of which are enjoyable that you won't mind wasting some time with them. Unfortunately, it's hard to see what benefit this has over a dedicated minigame collection, especially since you have to go through the bland plot to unlock most of them. If you're really hankering for an adventure game, Crime Lab is adequate. With so many better adventure games available on the DS, though, it's hard to recommend Crime Lab over Phoenix Wright or Hotel Dusk.
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