Adventure games are a strange breed which sometimes make it hard for beginners to overcome obstacles like obscure puzzle design. An additional problem is usually the lacklustre presentation as they can seldom compete with other graphic engines. Animation Arts proves that with their first Secret Files: Tunguska game, it’s possible to satisfy the mainstream audience while maintaining the philosophy of puzzle-to-progress-in-the-story.
Russian Nina is looking for her missing father, and German scientist (also her father’s assistant) Max helps her. Together they find out the mysteries behind the Tunguska incident happened many years ago which was devastating for a whole region.
Storytelling by the book
There’s something quite familiar about the way two characters (one male, one female) from different backgrounds come together to solve a mystery. The formula doesn’t only go back to Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, but of course to Charles Cecil’s Broken Sword which was there first, at least when it comes to more serious subject matters like a strange organization working behind the scenes and travelling across the globe.
Secret Files: Tunguska might not be the most original, but it does a good job making the player feel engaged throughout its playtime. Hints to more mystery are constantly discovered, so do twists and turns in the story give a sense of tension and suspense. Add some action sequences and out comes an entertaining journey across the globe with mostly atmospheric places to visit.
Characters by numbers
One of the major concerns one can have with the game are the characters: Max and Nina may have their own motivations to work together and solve the mysteries surrounding the Tunguska incident, but they lack any interesting qualities to make them stand out from so many other duos in gaming and especially adventure games history. Of course their relationship tightens, and this is handled in a way most people would accuse Hollywood to do, namely without any subtlety which deep conversations achieve an affection resulting in a less than convincing development.
Both protagonists are presented almost flawless, being something like perfect stereotypes who don’t have a lot of interesting things to say. The same holds true for the NPCs who are typically used for puzzles or story progression. This doesn’t sound any different from other examples of the genre, but with a story which takes itself quite serious, it’s a bit disappointing that dialogues are just as forgettable as the characters who speak them.
Puzzling for beginners
Puzzle design doesn’t offer a lot of original ideas (at least mechanical and logic puzzles are in the minority, so inventory ones prevail), even though there’s a part with a cat used as a wiretapping device which is so stupid that it will definitely stick to people’s minds just as the disguise puzzle segment of Gabriel Knight 3 was (cat hair as a moustache, anyone?). What makes it more accessible to a wider (less patient and open for obscure solutions) audience is not only the introduction of the hotspot key (the first one in an adventure game as far as I can remember), but also how inventory objects are disposed of when they’re not needed anymore.
Objects are also marked when they can be combined. This might be against old-school adventure gamers’ philosophy of trying out everything and looking for each pixel on the screen, but it’s a feature I wouldn’t want to miss for the world now. Puzzles are never overcomplicated making story progression quite fluent, so even if it’s not the most sophisticated plot with the most interesting characters, at least one doesn’t get stuck too often (a help system which gives out hints is also present, even if it doesn’t explain everything).
Cinematique avec bombast
The presentation is just as polished as the game design, i.e. it offers well-executed action cutscenes, a bombastic soundtrack and some very nice looking places to visit. Voice acting (at least in the German version) is pretty good, so are the character animations and facial expressions. If only the script would live up to the technology, then it would be a joy to listen to the dialogues. But as it is, they’re mostly quite tame with humor or not very deep and memorable in characterization or originality.
With a slick presentation, intuitive controls and mostly logical puzzles, Secret Files: Tunguska brought adventure games more into the mainstream than any other title of the genre. It’s like watching a popcorn movie which entertains for most of its run/playtime, even if characters lack any personality and the story itself hasn’t any identity. Still it’s an adventure game with high production values which offers beginners a nice entry into the genre without the typical frustrations it brings.