It’s sometimes a pain in the ass to know a game like Undertale exists.. Basically, it’s a game that is a bit polarizing for some, but, mostly, it’s loved and accepted the world over as a fantastic JRPG with a unique aesthetic and take on the world as a whole. Hell, Toby Fox got to put some of his stuff into Smash Bros, and he was tapped to add a comic to the Mother anthology, Pollyanna. You can’t talk about Undertale like it’s no good, because it’s objectively a pretty solid game front to back. But a lot of people then try to compare other games to Undertale, and it sets the wrong expectation. Your game isn’t Undertale because the characters are quirky, or the combat is non-lethal, or because something is a bit strange, but everyone acts like it’s alright. People need to not compare the works of others or their own to Undertale and, instead, be more affirmed in their own work as their own work.
When Studio Sott first crafted Hotel Sowls, they probably had some inspiration in mind for some parts of the design or the temperature of the game, but they had the good thought to not mention certain other games in their descriptors. Which is great: Hotel Sowls is, from the drop, an individual game, something quite unlike anything I’ve played before. You play a ghostly dude who is a pharmacologist, and you get wind of a very strange but potentially invaluable stone that’s been unearthed, so you need to go get it. Having retrieved this special stone, you want to crash for the night, and the nearest establishment is the only slightly foreboding looking Hotel Sowls. The front desk clerk insists that you can only check in for a maximum of five days, which is weird because I just need one night of rest. Why give me the long-term limits? However, after a good night’s rest, you awaken to find that the super special stone has been stolen! It’s up to you, ghostly pharmacologist, to interview, investigate and deduce what really happened here and get back your stone, and you only have five days to do it! Damn that clerk and their strict stay policies!
With Hotel Sowls, the game is a 2D adventure, exploration that has different segments of night and day. Much like the first instalment of Baobab’s Mausoleum, there are certain events and encounters that can only be experienced at different points of time, so be sure to be aware of whom you’ve talked to and what you see depending on the time of day. After five days, no matter what, the game is over, so you need to be thorough and fast on your search for your beloved stone. As you move forward, some characters may ask you to perform certain tasks or retrieve things for you, like eggs and missing objects, and it’s somewhat in your prerogative to assist or ignore them, but any good adventurer will know that completing tasks usually lead to good things. Also, there are several endings for Hotel Sowls, so it’s worthwhile to try different approaches to conversational branches and limited time opportunities: you never know which ending will be the “true” ending that players are yearning for!
Right at the top, it was a little difficult for me to get into Hotel Sowls due to the control layout. Coming from the PC, it was relatively easy to have a double conditional of walking around with WASD and clicking on objects using the mouse, thus giving plenty of freedom to explore and interact with things in tandem with how you’re interacting. On the Switch, though, it gets a little janky needing to constantly remember to move the mouse cursor via the right joystick while walking with the left, and a constant problem early on was walking up to something and trying to interact with it, only to find that the mouse was on the other side of the hotel. I wish they had condensed the interaction to be purely line-of-sight for the protagonist, and thus you could walk and interact, but I understand that didn’t work with some actions and activities. Having the mouse cursor free allows for actions like choosing a Tarot card or throwing a dart to be more natural than having a randomly appearing cursor after not using one for so long.
However, getting over that little hump, I really enjoyed my dive into Hotel Sowls. Visually, it’s a delightful little mashup of rather simple character forms and designed intertwined with some surreal and truly bizarre landscapes. Taking a lot of chances, the six floors of the hotel are utterly peppered with all kinds of characters and landscapes, including a talking donut who I fell in love with immediately. Though the game should feel creepy because of the vibe of the hotel from the outside and the tenor of some reveals (there may be a murder!), I never got the scary sensation from it. It was utterly delightful, like finding a cute older couple who inexplicably enjoyed classic Gothic designs and wanted their whole cottage decorated as such. Don’t get me wrong, there were moments when the surrealism threatened to overwhelm the otherwise harmless tone, but it never crossed that line, thankfully.
Additionally, the soundtrack is incredible. Seriously, there was a lot of thought that went into crafting the soundscape of Hotel Sowls, and the result is something ethereal, an otherworldly characteristic that made the whole Hotel come to life in the process. You can feel the shift of the spirits and the ideas as you make your way between rooms and floors, and the music itself has different notes and ideas as day becomes night and back again. Given that there is no real hurry for the entire game (yes, there’s a time limit, but it’s not exactly rushing you along), the music matches you, pace for pace, on how you move and approach your investigation. It’s even something that can be enjoyed separately, in your own free time, as the music carries itself without the need of a framework of a game to be understood.
The story and the script of Hotel Sowls is what ultimately makes it memorable, and, in that regard, Studio Sott delivers in spades. As I said earlier, the game isn’t scary, per se, but it’s got this wonderfully creepy vibe that is persistent throughout, and it magnifies more in some places than others. Baking bread that seems to have a face to it: a bit strange, but nothing too menacing. Realizing that the misshapen, soft pile that you’ve discovered is actually a giant’s foot: surprising, but not upsetting. Finding log after log in the basement from someone who clearly believes that an unknown “IT” is driving people insane, causing murders to happen and generally sapping the humanistic soul out of everything: alright, now it’s weird. Being able to reflect on the notes that you take as well as the passive journal entries gives you better insight into the thought process of the protagonist and also adds more to the elemental haunting that comes with the territory of this game. By and large, I wouldn’t discourage anyone who is a teenager from playing this, but I would actively dissuade children who enjoy “creepy” things to avoid this game because it feels, at times, a tad mature both in content and presentation. Neither of these points, though, should limit it from its target audience: if you’re mature and literate, this is a hell of a time, and you can honestly get through your first play in less than three hours even with some serious depth digging.
Hotel Sowls is a bit convoluted in gameplay, but I think that’s by design and not by accidental miscommunication. You find items, you make notes in your journal, you have oddball conversations with even stranger characters, and you draw your own conclusions. While there are certainly some helpful nods and moments between you and the other denizens’ of Sowls, there’s no clean cut “this way to victory” that occurs until near the endgame, and even that can be misinterpreted. Instead, you’re free to find your way in the world, to move as far as you’re allowed and then to find ways to bribe, bargain and butter up the others to get you to places you can’t get to normally. It’s got the charm and the class to be a great game, and it’s short enough that it’s not a chore to dive back in and try again from a different angle. More importantly, you WANT to dive back in. By having so many ways to go through the story and find out the truth, you are more apt to say “but what about THIS?” and load up a new game.
The Nintendo Switch feels like the perfect home for a little game like Hotel Sowls. The low demand in graphics and install size makes it a perfect portable companion, and there’s so much whimsy in the replayable game that you can think about it and fire it up whenever you’d like. It’s got plenty of offbeat entertainment by itself, and it stands proud as something that draws the eye, piques the interest and keeps a player engaged until the final stone has been upturned. It’s certainly worth the price of admission and supporting a small team like Studio Sott could lead to even more ambitious indie art projects in the future. Don’t take my word for it: come check in at your earliest convenience.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Nintendo Switch code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Hotel Sowls Review
Gameplay - 8/10
Graphics - 8/10
Sound - 8/10
Replay Value - 8/10
A game that really captures some wild imaginations and concepts, all enjoyable as long as you can avoid “IT.”