Secret Files of Tunguska Nintendo DS review

The graphic adventure makes a welcome return, but as Ian Osborne discovers, it took years of absence to make the heart grow fond of this one...

Graphic adventure? Good. This one? Not good.

What a turn-up for the books. Not necessarily my good books, but a turn-up for the books nonetheless. You see, I’ve often played games I wished I’d enjoyed more than I actually did. Games that just ooze character and panache, but at the end of the day, just don’t cut it in the playability stakes. Remember Rick Dangerous? Classy, but the gameplay wasn’t there.

Secret Files: Tunguska is not such a game. Here I enjoyed it more than it deserved, and far more than the two star score would suggest – I played it to completion despite its gaming qualities rather than because of them. Maybe I’m just missing the graphic adventure, a genre I love to bits but has which been in hibernation this past decade or so. Tunguska is far from a classic and suffers from some serious gameplay flaws, but with no classic titles to blow it out of the water, it sails on regardless.

Secret Files: Tunguska explores one of the many conspiracy theories regarding the Tunguska event of 1908. A massive explosion over a remote part of Siberia devastated forests for miles around, smashing windows and knocking people off their feet hundreds of miles away. It also lit up the night sky for several weeks, with a surreal glow powerful enough to read by. Its causes have never been conclusively explained, and due to its remoteness, the First World War and the Russian revolution, it wasn’t even fully investigated until 1921, over a decade after the event. So what caused it? When Nina Kalenkov’s scientist father is mysteriously kidnapped while working on the problem, it’s up to her – and companion Max Gruber – to find out…

The fatal flaw running through Secret Files: Tunguska is crystal clear. It’s not the graphics. They’re beautifully drawn, delightfully atmospheric and animate perfectly well for a graphic adventure. Nope, no problem there. It’s not the storyline either. The game’s based on a fascinating concept, the sub-plots built around each location are amusing and the areas you visit are varied and interesting. It could’ve been developed better. As things stand, you learn too little as the game progresses and too much at the end. Feeding the story out a little at a time would’ve improved things, but this is entirely forgivable.

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It’s the same story with the characters. There’s room for improvement here too. Nina and Max are somewhat one-dimensional, with no back-story to speak of, and achieve little more than providing an avatar for the player. The game rarely uses both characters in tandem, switching between them as they co-operate to solve puzzles, which is a missed opportunity. I’d also like to know how ordinary, everyday girl Nina turns into Lara Croft in a couple of scenes, performing outstanding acts of agility which seemed wholly inappropriate for the character, but we could let that pass as forgivable too. No, what’s completely unforgivable – in Tunguska or any adventure game – is the lack of logic in the puzzles.

Adventure games should be about working out what to do next, and then exploring ways of actually doing it. For example (and I’m making this up to avoid spoilers), you might need a weather vane. There’s one on the roof, but how do you get up there? Got a ladder? No. Is there a drainpipe? No. Can you make something? Perhaps – that pickaxe head without a handle could be combined with the rope to make a handy grappling hook. Get the picture? The puzzle is entirely logical, and can be worked out with a little thought.

Unfortunately, with some very agreeable exceptions, the puzzles in Tunguska are nothing like this. Here you frequently resort to that old chestnut of combining everything with everything just to see what happens, ‘solving’ puzzles with brute force rather than logical thought. I won’t give any in-game examples for fear of spoiling the game for those planning to play it, but believe me, they’re annoying.

On the positive side, clicking on an on-screen magnifying glass highlights nearby items of interest, neatly avoiding all that hunt-the-pixel pap which would’ve destroyed the game completely. But even this is a back-handed compliment. The reason the game has to tell you what you can and can’t investigate is because the puzzles are so illogical, you wouldn’t know where to begin without assistance. Worse still, on a couple of occasions I spotted something in the background graphics that would’ve made more sense as useful object than whatever was used to solve the puzzle in hand. Frustrating!

Having decried the game so harshly, I must again point out that I enjoyed it. It’s much better than the NDS’s tedious, gimmicky Another Code: Two Memories, for example. But if it hit the shelves at the same time as a DS re-release of an all-time great such as Monkey Island, Beneath a Steel Sky, Broken Sword (which has already appeared on the GBA), Grim Fandango or Leisure Suit Larry, it would sink without a trace. And when a brand-new game can’t touch franchises at least a decade old for quality, something’s gone very wrong indeed.

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2 out of 5

FOOTNOTE: This review is of the Nintendo DS game, but the PC and Nintendo Wii versions play exactly the same.

Rating:

2 out of 5