Review: Secret Files: Tunguska

By Sean Clancy 08 Aug 2014 0
"Red light! Green light!" [USE explosive chewing gum ON ...] "Red light! Green light!" [USE explosive chewing gum ON ...]
Have you ever felt like the whole world was out to get you? Like maybe there really is a realm of plots beyond your comprehension, and of plotters tugging at and weaving the invisible threads which guide your seemingly mundane life. And have you ever imagined that these sinister forces wear, like, black trench coats, or even those armless Morpheus shades from The Matrix? Chilling stuff.

Secret Files: Tunguska totally sympathizes with that last, most superficial flight of fancy. Despite the quick introduction of kidnappings, murders, and government cover-ups, the characters of this serviceable iOS port of the 2006 point-and-click are a perpetually monotone and charmless lot—so much so that it's hard to imagine any of these dull knives either setting up or solving the often clever traps and puzzles which populate the game.

You will *stop* leering like that, circa 2004 Alfred Molina! You will *stop* leering like that, circa 2004 Alfred Molina!

Nina Kalenkov's father has been kidnapped. Nina Kalenkov's father was involved in secret (SECRET FILES!) research into the 1909 “Tunguska event,” an actual unexplained explosion in a remote part of Russia estimated to have been as destructive as the detonation of anywhere between five to eight shittons (st^~) of TNT. Now, Nina Kalenkov's father has gone missing, and it's up to her to find and, presumably, rescue him. She's aided in this endeavor by her own complete inability to feel emotions beyond slight disgust, slight annoyance, and slight confusion. Oh, and Max helps some too. He's just this guy you know, who worked next to (or maybe with?) Nina's pop. One gathers that he and Nina are meant to have chemistry.

Maybe it's not sporting to knock Secret Files for the quality of its writing. Everything's clearly been translated from the initial German (original title: Geheimakte Tunguska). But it's a damn poor translation. Never flat-out incomprehensible, but there's real clunkers (“...could we change the subject please my graphic imagination is very well developed and my stomach is remembering what it had for lunch”) turned out consistently enough that it's distracting. The poor writing is only made worse by lackluster, tired-sounding voice work and frequent ill-timed attempts at humor. Nina prattles on about every detail of this missing person case with the cheerful nonchalance of a home appliance museum tour guide, and Sergei—one of my favorite of the many bit characters who float in and out of this production—vacillates between an old-timey British chimney sweep and a Brooklyn street hood, despite actually being a Russian underworld fixer.

And, even if the dialogue was passable, Secret Files would still be a silly, silly story which still somehow manages to take itself too seriously. Sections of the game are bookended by scenes of A Mysterious Businessman smoking in the ominous penthouse of an Evil Corporation Headquarters. This man speaks secretly to his secret underlings engaged in secret doings. Occasionally someone mentions that Nina has escaped again, or that she's “getting closer.” "That is unacceptable," grumbles the Mysterious Businessman mysteriously. Meanwhile, the game has all but revealed the main secret of its title to Nina and the player (in a file, no less), and yet still has you chugging along, combining this item with that, trying hard to seem like it still has some surprising narrative tricks in its bag.

This doesn't pan out quite as horribly as you might assume. This doesn't pan out quite as horribly as you might assume.

It doesn't have those beats, really, but it does have some admirable puzzles. Secret Files is traditional point-and-click to the core, which means Nina (and, in the few levels you can control him, Max, for no good reason at all) will hop from Russia to Germany to Ireland and back again collecting every knick-knack and sundry which isn't bolted down or downright dangerous to touch, fusing seemingly random items together to make tire patches, projector lenses, last-minute political flyers and countless other hunks of goofy DIY junk. The drag and drop inventory works reasonable well for touchscreens, though it can be a pain to combine items which reside on opposite ends of your gadget belt, requiring a leisurely auto-scroll as you hold a component over one side of the screen or the other. (And, on the subject of technical issues, I encountered a few odd crashes as the game failed to load a cutscene or animation after completing a puzzle, with the damage mitigated some by the game's frequent automatic saves.)

Secret Files: Tunguska is at its strongest when it asks you to take in your surroundings and figure out how a space works, and how the handful of screens in any one stage interact with each other. For example: an odd-looking shadow coming from a hanging light reveals a key hidden in the fixture's cover. The game's good at highlighting—sometimes literally—areas of interest without completely spelling a puzzle out, though you ought to tap on anything it's possible to interact with, always, just to be safe.

That picture of Lenin is looking towards the window—that's a clue. There's a man afraid of earthquakes inside the Cuban asylum, and there's a construction worker repaving the courtyard—that's a clue. The security guard at the military hospital is watching the football match over satellite dish—QUICKTIME KILL. No, wait, that's a clue.

None of this is to say that Secret Files doesn't suffer from the frustrating non-logic and “combine everything” panic that plagues so many average point-and-click games—it does, because it is a basically average point-and-click. The problem is that the world the game presents—which is the world, ostensibly—is simultaneously obsessed with and totally divorced from reality, and doesn't ever lean far enough towards one pole or the other to feel “real” on its own, in the way that coherent yet unreal or illogical fictional worlds can.

While not universally "pretty," environments in Secret Files do tend to have nice composition, and are rarely confusing to navigate.  While not universally "pretty," environments in Secret Files do tend to have nice composition, and are rarely confusing to navigate.

The Tunguska event, a real backdrop for this globetrotting adventure—okay. Nina and Max, two hazily sketched characters who slide from mechanic work and academia, respectively, into international espionage without so much as a blink and a cough—a bit bullshit. A nice collection of real world locations, sure, but ones which exist largely for our heroes to waste time in running through contrived bargains with random bystanders; we're talking stuff like “help receptionist with her political career so she'll 'owe you one'” and “steal whiskey for a fisherman so he'll let you borrow his rowboat.” I'd be fine with either end of the spectrum, as long as Secret Files: Tunguska actually presented a spectrum, and not an erratic skipping back and forth between saccharine gee-shucks playfulness and over-earnest investment in a half-baked plot.

Secret Files: Tunguska was played on a 3rd-gen iPad for this review.

Review: Secret Files: Tunguska

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