Review: Corto Maltese Secrets of Venice14 Jan 2015 0
Corto Maltese Secrets of Venice (a title which appears to have undergone a colectomy) brings legendary comic book character Corto Maltese to iDevices everywhere! At least, they tell me he's legendary--I'd never heard of him before, but he seems to visit exotic locations and delve into ancient secrets while being at least moderately competent, so I'm basically thinking of him as a sort of Mediterranean Tintin or Indiana Jones. The game seems to aim at the familiar adventure genre, with lovely hidden object scenes and a variety of basic puzzles interspersed with some largely linear plot, but comes at it from a perspective which leaves the whole affair feeling not entirely comfortably foreign.
You start the game off poorly; a tourist in Venice who gets coerced into playing fetch for an armed restauranteur in order to get the antidote to the poison he slipped you (it was billed as a hangover cure, so presumably you weren't at your best when deciding whether to drink it). He needs you to collect a set of fabled emeralds by deciphering clues from an old newspaper and a box he calls a compass, but which is just a magic puzzle device combined with a Bag of Holding stocked with plot-relevant mathoms. If you're familiar with Phil Dick's Paycheck, you'll recognize the value of having just the right humble object, but Dick has an explanation for how that could come to be. Corto Maltese tends to skimp on coherent explanation, opting instead for a pervasive sense of mystery.
For example, wouldn't it be easier for a Venetian native just to run his own errands than try to get some tourist to do it while drugged on a poison which keeps giving him disconnected and seemingly irrelevant visions of Corto Maltese? It would almost make sense to send someone else to do the dangerous stuff if he didn't follow you around chivvying you along with a gun. And what's the point of threatening to kill someone you've already fatally poisoned? Why is Jack London running a bookshop in Venice, and what strange Forrest Gumpian power do you have that you run into major literary figures multiple times a day?
The real problem with the various obscure elements of the story is that it's very difficult to tell which of them are intended and which are simply the result of imperfect translation. There are some clear enough errors of grammar and idiom to make the quality of the translation as a whole fairly suspect, so when a passage makes no sense on a superficial reading, is it poetic speech, intended to convey something through metaphor or emotion rather than literal meaning, or is it just botched? If it is deliberately non-literal speech, how can you tell whether the vague impression you got from it was related to the author's intent? It's like listening to a five-year-old describe the plot of their favorite show. Is there some reference to existing Corto Maltese lore of which you're simply ignorant which might explain this, or do ponies really get their wings by singing when they're in high school and aren't ponies?
The cruelty of this uncertainty is that the lovingly-crafted scenes and photos of Venice which tie it all together have enough charm to make me want to indulge a fanciful mystery. I can handle a clockwork stone lion TARDIS. I can appreciate callbacks to even a rather adolescent literary figure--it's a pleasure to see nostalgia employed by someone other than Michael Bay. But the translations make some of the puzzle instructions a puzzle in themselves, and they are generally shallow enough that it hardly seems worth the effort. A wrinkle which is very neat in concept is that each puzzle can be solved by attempting the in-game puzzle (generally of a familiar type or simple cypher) or solving a riddle which requires some internet sleuthing but which unlocks more background information. Sadly, most of the more rewarding kind require little more than typing the given term into Google and reading the first hit.
Corto Maltese is a visually diverse, moderately well-designed adventure which simply fails in a few key areas. My experience with it ended when I encountered a game-stopping bug--I completed a scene, left the room, and was interrupted. When I returned to my iPad, I could no longer leave the room. There my saved game sits still, in a room with a corpse and no clear understanding of the machinations which brought the two of us together, the effects of the poison now so advanced that I am nearly blind. And yet, the idea of travel to the other side of the velvet rope set up for the tourists lingers. If I should have a mid-life crisis, I'll remember Corto Maltese, the spices of strange markets, and the sands of deserts and beaches which glow in the light of stars I've yet to see.
Corto Maltese Secrets of Venice was played on an iPad Air for this review.