Game: Secret Files: Tunguska
Developer: Fusionsphere Systems
Publisher: Deep Silver
Game Version: 1.03
Sometimes it can be hard to explain the seemingly masochistic tendency to keep playing modern point and click adventure games when almost every one of them is terrible. The patience is rewarded however when the occasional gem turns up, so I keep playing in the hopes of unearthing another Longest Journey or Gray Matter. Far more often, I end up playing games like this; games that are well intentioned but for various reasons just don’t have the quality needed to revitalise the flagging genre.
Secret Files: Tunguska follows Nina Kalenkov, supposedly a Russian but portrayed in the game with a thoroughly American accent, as she turns up at a museum to visit her father and finds (or rather fails to find) him missing. She meets up with Max Gruber, an equally American sounding German scientist and colleague of Nina’s father who disappointingly doesn’t seem to own a little tank. Together (since in stories of this sort any man and woman who randomly meet are inevitably going to end up in love despite only knowing each other for a couple of hours) they set off to investigate and in the process uncover information about the Tunguska incident. Hence the title of the game. For anyone who doesn’t know, the Tunguska event was an explosion about a thousand times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb that occurred in 1908, knocking down trees across an area of over 800 square miles. Its cause is mysterious. (Or at least it is to all the conspiracy nuts, since for everyone else it’s pretty much accepted that it was the explosion of a meteor, but I guess that’s less interesting for a game with a pulp conspiracy plot.) The game can’t really decide what tone it wants to take with its story though, and ends up being cluttered with too many characters but too few memorable ones.
The gameplay features some of the worst excesses of the adventure genre. The developers apparently couldn’t find a good way to integrate the puzzles into the story and have instead created rather arbitrary challenges to block your progress. The ideas they have come up with for this are some of the most ridiculous I’ve encountered. In a more cartoonish game these sorts of situations could work (though they’d have to be done better than they are here) but here they’re at odds with the style of the story. For example, at one point you need to speak to a scientist before you’re allowed to look around the room. Do you have to pretend to be a scientist? Bluff your way through as an authority figure? Arrange some clever way of distracting him? No, far more sensibly, it turns out he’s in a bad mood and his assistant reveals it is because there’s no jam on the train so he can’t have his bread and jam. As Bruce Banner might say: “You wouldn’t like him when he’s hungry!” Queue running around making “jam” out of a bunch of random ingredients, which he of course enjoys as if it was the real thing. They genuinely couldn’t think of a better puzzle than getting the player to make a jam sandwich. Thanks to this discordance, most of the actual story ends up being revealed in big info dumps at the end of scenes, with a character telling you everything that’s going on rather than you ever getting to learn it through your actions.
It’s not just the bizarre nature of the situations but also the poor quality of the puzzles themselves. The game contains the sort of nonsensical adventure game logic that leads to combining seemingly random items that inexplicably lead to a solution that you could never have thought of. Some of the puzzles are logical and make perfect sense, but far more often you’re left using the old tricks of trying every item on everything else until something works. Usually when this happens you end up wondering how you were ever supposed to think of that rather than feeling foolish for not coming up with the solution yourself. It can also take a while, since Nina has the same sort of bottomless pockets that most adventure games protagonists have, able to easily fit a couple of bricks, a length of hose, a sandwich and a lit cigarette without any visible signs. Another time she walks around with a soup ladle, two fire logs and an onion amongst other things. Like you would. Thankfully the game does utilise some of the features that are becoming standard for the genre these days. Nina’s walking pace is rather slow, but double clicking on an exit will instantly move you to the next screen. More importantly, there’s a magnifying glass button that you can click on to reveal all the hotspots in the scene, removing the irritation of working out which items in the sometimes cluttered environments you can actually interact with.
It also has the sort of puzzles that lead to your character doing unpleasant things just to achieve their goals, no matter how insignificant the task might be and with no regard to characterisation. This reaches its most jarring during one of the occasional scenes where you get to play as Max Gruber, the 19th century scientist who… oh sorry, wrong person. At one point he covers up a road sign on a dangerous road to cause a truck to have an accident. The reason for causing this potentially fatal crash: he needs to get a lemon for someone to squeeze onto their fish. That’s worth risking a stranger’s life for. Gruber hasn’t heard of greengrocers due to too much time fighting with Bruce Willis at Nakatomi Plaza.
Thanks in part to puzzles like this but mostly to the quality of either the writing or the translation from the original German, the main characters aren’t very well developed, most of them being bland and lacking any distinct personality. The supporting characters are occasionally amusing but generally one dimensional. As is far too often the case in adventure games these days, the voice acting is mediocre at best. It’s not the worst I’ve ever heard but it’s still not good. To be fair, the main actors probably try their best with the material given, but it seems to lack any sort of direction. The lines were probably recorded separately with nobody telling the actors the context of the lines, leading to the wrong words being stressed. The acoustics are also all over the place, changing from one line to the next within the same conversation. You’ll be speaking to a character outside and suddenly one of the lines will have echo making it sound like it’s been recorded in a huge empty hall.
Want to see how bad the script in this game is? Well here are some examples, in full motion video! I’m so high-tech.
Graphically the game is a bit of a mixed bag. The rendered backgrounds often look quite good, occasionally verging on beautiful, and there’s plenty of animation included in the scenes to bring them to life. The characters themselves don’t look quite so good though, and the pre-rendered cutscenes in particular are of significantly lower quality than the rest of the game. The latter is quite strange, since usually it’s the other way round. The game is also permanently stuck at a resolution of 1024 X 768. Fixed resolutions shouldn’t be happening in games these days. The only resolution option you get is a checkbox to use the desktop resolution, but while this initially sounded promising, loading the game reveals that you simply get a smaller 1024 X 768 picture in the middle of the screen with a black border around it.
It needs to be noted that the ending of the game does change depending on which version you’re using. If you patch the game the ending has been slightly changed and expanded. There’s no huge plot difference, simply a bit more continuity. Perhaps more significantly it adds a narrated set of synopses explaining what happened to all of the characters in the game. This bit is actually very well done and is funnier than any of the attempts at humour in the original game. It’s a shame that quality wasn’t in evidence earlier. In a more bizarre moment, we get a series of faux-outtakes over the closing credits, made as if the game was actually being filmed with people making mistakes.
This does point out one of the main problems with the game though. It’s as if it was being created by a group of people with different aims, some wanting to make a serious sci-fi conspiracy story and some wanting to make a cartoon comedy adventure. The flaw is that it’s too silly to take seriously and not funny enough for a comedy. It fails to achieve that fine balance between the two that games like the Broken Sword series managed. Much of this could well be down to a poor translation and lack of direction, but whatever the cause, it’s a significant issue. It’s hard to completely dislike Secret Files: Tunguska, but there’s really very little here to recommend it to anyone other than the diehard adventure game fanatic.
Save System Review: Save anywhere via menu.
Graphics: As mentioned, a mixed bag. Most of the scenes look ok, some look very good, the characters are passable and the cutscenes weak.
Sound: Poor voice acting, average soundtrack.
Bugs: No actual bugs encountered.
Gameplay: The mechanics are handled well but the puzzles are so bad that it cancels that out.
Storyline: Forgettable muddled plot. It must have been a real effort to take a plot involving a mysterious explosion in 1908, a mysterious cult, a kidnapped scientist and potential aliens and come out with something so dull.
Arbitrary Final Score:
If you like this, you might also like: The Longest Journey, Broken Sword series.
Should this game have remained a secret? Comment on our forum!