I’m a sucker for a unique art style, but it’s rare to see something completely new these days. Cel-shaded games that look like something from a comic used to be pretty rare, but lately they’re ten a penny. And don’t get me started on 16 bit sprites: they used to be charming, but now most of them blend together.
Hotel Sowls, in the other hand, is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. With the hotel itself having an art style comprised purely of lo-fi dots, and the denizens being varying types of amorphous black and white blobs, the game just reeked of fresh creativity.
Obviously, I just had to play it.
Complementing the minimalistic art style, the game has also has a relatively straightforward storyline. A pharmacologist – you – has spent his life savings on a special stone that will allow him to create a groundbreaking formula that will earn him both fame and fortune. After a night in the titular short-stay hotel, he wakes up to find his stone gone. With only four more nights in the hotel, he needs to find out who took it and why. It’s not long into his investigation that things take a bit of a dark turn, hinting at a mystery that surrounds the whole hotel and its strange staff.
As a mostly traditional point and click adventure, Hotel Sowls focuses primarily on its plot but keeps you engaged with additional exploration and puzzling. As per more modern titles in the genre, you have direct control of your character as he wanders around the hotel, but you can also move the mouse pointer around using the right stick in order to select objects that you want to examine or pick up. It seems simple enough in practice, but in reality it’s a little bit faffy. Objects can only be successfully interacted with when they’re in close proximity, the pointer only really serves to make things more of a hassle than it ought to. Removing the pointer and having direct interactions would have not only made the game easier to control, but it would have also removed the need to include a huge pointer on the screen. Thankfully, interactions themselves are rather simple – objects can be clicked on, which will either result in them being picked up / used, or simple commented on. Interacting with people will start a conversation with them. This simplicity stops the pointer from getting in the way of your enjoyment too much, but you will be sick of it by the end of the game.
With such simple controls, you can expect the adventuring itself to be relatively straightforward too. With only five nights allowed in the hotel, you may be expecting a mad dash to get everything done in time. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. As a relatively linear adventure, days will only end when you’ve finished the story related event for that day. Each event is essentially one main thing to accomplish, but there are other distractions available while you go about your business. Whilst these are not exactly side quests, these events serve as nice little easter eggs that can net you an achievement when found.
As for your main investigation, you have access to a journal that will keep a record of everything going on and the people you have spoken to, which can help guide you towards the next thing you will need to do. Scattered notes will also help you progress, although a few of the later ones can be slightly cryptic. Nothing too taxing, but some of them are a far cry from the majority of puzzles you will find in the game, which tend to be rather obvious: For example, the security guard who likes the smell of matches requires you to give him one before he will give you something that you need. Later puzzles will also utilise your inventory more, as you mix items together or use them with things in the environment. Not every obtainable object is useful though, with many being seemingly useless (although perhaps there is a hidden use for some that I haven’t yet found out…).
The simplicity of everything comes at a cost: the overall length of the game. A leisurely stroll through the game with plenty of exploration will still have you seeing the credits in around an hour hand a half. Sure, it’s a great hour and a half with a really compelling story, but it still feels like it comes and goes far too quickly. There’s some padding included in the form of achievements and multiple endings, but the game’s linearity doesn’t exactly compel you to jump straight back in. I’m sure I’ll revisit the title down the line and attempt to do things differently for another ending, but I’m in no rush to do so. It’s a shame that the game wasn’t a little bit more open-ended with multiple ways to finish each day, but considering it’s a two-man team’s first project, I can’t be too critical.
At the end of the day (or five), if you are looking for a short and sweet story with a uniquely beautiful aesthetic, Hotel Sowls is the game for you. Its linearity and clunky controls certainly take some of the shine off, but it still offers a compelling experience. I look forward to seeing what Studio Sott have in store for us next.