Secret Files: Tunguska
Intrigue, drama, deep conspiracy... or tat?
Travel back in time about 15 years and point-and-click adventures were all the rage. In those halcyon days LucasArts ruled the roost with titles like Maniac Mansion, Zak McKracken, the sublime Secret of Monkey Island as well as their last big adventure and first foray into 3D, Grim Fandango. Since then though the boom in graphical horsepower of PCs and consoles combined with the rising development costs involved in producing rich 3D environments, coupled with consumers demanding a more interactive and fast-paced gaming experience rather than the sedentary nature of graphical adventures has contributed to a wane somewhat in the popularity for this type of gameplay.
Now, with gaming seemingly moving towards the more casual player (thanks in part to Nintendo's DS - a handheld console made for point-and-clicks if ever there was one), developers Fusionsphere Systems and Animation Arts are hoping the wheel is turning and have been busily working away on Secret Files: Tunguska, a point-and-click adventure with its roots based on the never-satisfactorily-explained events which took place in the frozen Siberian wastes in the early 20th century. For those who don't know, the Tunguska event refers to an unexplained explosion which took place in the frozen Siberian wastes in 1908 with a force equivalent to between 10 and 15 megatons of TNT (about the same as that used in the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945), the effect of which was to light up the sky over Europe and cause a vast area of devastation. Several theories exist for what caused this explosion ranging from falling meteorites to some form of nuclear explosion or an antimatter reaction and the most sci-fi friendly explanation of all, a UFO self-destructing in the upper atmosphere.
It is this age-old enigma that our lead female protagonist Nina Kalenkow becomes entangled in upon her X-Files-meets-Da-Vinci-Code quest to find her scientist father, Vladimir Kalenkow, who has disappeared without a trace from his museum office. Along the way, Nina will travel around the globe with sometimes-playable-character Max, to locations as diverse as Cuba, Ireland, Russia and the Antarctic. As is typical for the genre, uncovering clues and solving puzzles to progress to the next location is the order of the day.
Visually there are no complaints - all locations are impressively realized and rendered in a combination of 2D and 3D and are complemented at certain key points by equally impressive cut-scenes. Aurally the voice acting is at least reasonable and of itself never detracts from the game however the actors are seriously let-down by some terrible script lines. Being told 'the radiator burbles' or that your cell-phone is 'stuck in the crotch of a tree' often raises an unintended wry smile which is unfortunate for a game that tries to take itself seriously for the most part. Even more unfortunate when one considers that what little humour there is in the game is often also painful and cringe-worthy. For a story-driven and plot heavy game these tacked-on witticisms feel like an after-thought with the intention presumably being to help the player connect with the characters, although often the reverse is true.
The interface - in keeping with the overall level of visual spit and polish applied to the title - is minimalist, neat and slick. Voice-overs can be skipped, locations can be double-clicked on to take you immediately there and a journal exists to record any important clues or plot points so that they can be referred to later. So far, so good. The developers have also implemented a search scene function, whereby a quick click on the magnifying glass icon will indicate all the interactive items on screen. Initially this may feel like a form of legalized cheating, however it soon becomes apparent that it is in fact an essential game function by allowing the player to uncover all elements without performing the tedious and repetitive task of mouse-sweeping across the screen.
One potential pitfall with point-and-clicks is in their dogged linearity, with games basically amounting to putting all the square pegs in the square holes and then moving on to the next puzzle. Tunguska does not just teeter on the edge of this particular precipice but dives in, head first. Despite being played across many disperse locations, in reality each site comprises of only a handful of screens, with one not being able to move on to the next location until all the current puzzles and plot points have been resolved. The game not so much holds you by the hand but holds you back until it decides you are ready to progress. This often means determining exactly what the game designers intend for you to do and can quickly become an exasperating exercise in trial and error. If at first it is not apparent that what is needed is to place double-sided sticky tape on your mobile phone, attach it to a cat and then salt his pizza to make him thirsty, then this will eventually be accomplished not by some 'A-ha!' moment but via repetition whilst attempting to combine all objects and on-screen elements.
Character interaction with NPCs is also fairly static. Dialogue is achieved by simply clicking icons relating to the topic you wish to talk about and once all topics have been exhausted, no more interaction is possible. There is also little sense of urgency throughout. Despite certain dialogue alluding to having to complete tasks quickly, whether you do or not bears no consequence. Whether this is a blessing or a hindrance though is dependent upon the player with perhaps the more mainstream or casual gamers thankful for the meandering pace.
Overall then and unlike the actual event, this is a game that will not set the world alight. Enjoyable in parts it will keep the X-Files crowd happy as well as those looking for a more grey-matter challenge as opposed to trigger-finger reactions. Despite commendably aiming sky-high it just doesn't reach the lofty goals it sets itself.