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Secret Files: Tunguska

Score: 70%
ESRB: Teen
Publisher: Deep Silver
Developer: 10Tacle Studios
Media: Cartridge/1
Players: 1
Genre: Adventure/ Strategy/ Classic/Retro

Graphics & Sound:

Older gamers like to pretend that adventure gaming is still alive and well, but anyone honest has to acknowledge that this type of game exists in a quasi-real space, somewhat like the coelacanth. As a throwback gamer, I'll be the first to admit that I don't think game-as-art really evolved much after Infocom stopped putting out games. Graphics of any kind turned most adventure games into an awkward clickfest, rather than the thoughtful, contemplative experience that we enjoyed with text-based adventure games in the '80s. Secret Files: Tunguska has been a long time coming for the DS, and it's probably no coincidence that adventure games are experiencing a bit of a renaissance, largely through download. Originally a PC game, Secret Files: Tunguska was promised long ago, but graphical advances on the DS have probably made the wait worthwhile.

To sum up the way Secret Files: Tunguska looks, we'd point you back to some of the early PlayStation titles, where you moved your character against richly designed backdrops, interacting occasionally with items or other characters. The typical use for this was survival horror, and there's a touch of that feeling in Secret Files: Tunguska. Creepy cut-scenes are scattered throughout, and the settings you'll explore always seem to have a foreboding quality. Moody music sets off the atmosphere, and even as the entire thing feels overdone, it stands out against a multitude of kiddie games for this platform. What cheapens the experience is sophomoric writing and dialogue that would have been mocked in the days before adventure games went all shiny on us. If you read the dialogue out of context, you'd jettison Secret Files: Tunguska after just a few scenes, which tells us that this baby is counting on its visual appeal to grab and keep gamers.


Gameplay:

The premise of the game is interesting, to say the least. After all, Tunguska is a real... thing? Okay, nobody really knows what happened out in the remote wilds of fin de siècle Russia, but Secret Files: Tunguska does a nice job of creating a plausible backdrop. The oeuvre that the game is going for is one part Dana Scully and one part Charlie Chan, casting a SWF type out to solve the mystery of her father's disappearance. That's just the beginning of the game, though. The tangled web that Secret Files: Tunguska weaves definitely works in total, but the parts seem less than the whole, somehow. There's a generous cast of characters, a variety of locations, and lots of interesting little puzzles scattered throughout the game. What doesn't pop up anywhere along the way is a reason to really care, be scared, or belly laugh.

The format of Secret Files: Tunguska is standard point-and-click, plus a visual inventory that shows you all the items you've collected along the way. Interaction with objects or characters is all handled through the touch-screen, and that's where the DS really shines, after all. Brief interludes play out in pre-rendered CG, but the majority of Secret Files: Tunguska is just you, the night, and the Photoshopped backgrounds... They're nice to look at, with lots of little objects to explore, collect, and usually combine. The feeling we got after playing for a while was akin to those classic survival-horror games made for first-gen consoles, but without all the dread and shooting. It's a thinking-man's horror game, and not all that horrific in the end. A younger gamer will feel the pull of forbidden pleasures just looking at the cover art, and we won't deny that this is also the same audience that will be able to look past the weak story.


Difficulty:

When we mentioned that exploration business, we neglected to speak of a little magnifying glass. We wish to forget about that little glass, but we just can't. The glass should really be part of a hint system, but it just hangs out there on the screen, waiting to be pressed. What happens when you press it is that all the secrets of the game are revealed. You see all the items that can be explored, plus all the doors and pathways in and out of a room. These items can also be tapped without using the glass, so it's really just there as a shortcut. It ends up taking a lot of the challenge and fun out of Secret Files: Tunguska, and even contributes to some disjointed storytelling as you tend to go on a tap-fest with those icons instead of really paying attention to your surroundings. Perhaps the glass is there because some of the puzzles in Secret Files: Tunguska are damned hard. They are the kind of hard that leans toward unintuitive, when you can't seem to connect any of the objects you've collected to a puzzle-in-progress or combine them to create something useful. In these moments, the magnifying glass comes in handy.

Game Mechanics:

Had touch-screen controls been around for old-school adventure games, we might never have experienced the joys of mistyping commands and reading those funny error messages... Seriously, the DS feels like it was made for games like this. Not having to mess with a lot of buttons pulls you much deeper into the world of Tunguska, if you can resist that little magnifying glass. It almost feels strange not to run across mini-games with lots of scratching, rubbing, and rhythmic tapping. Secret Files: Tunguska isn't poorer without these things, and it makes us think that as incoherent as the game can be, it shows us that pure storytelling is good enough. The touch controls and relatively simple interface help us focus on the events as they play out, and there are several small touches that are nice, such as a pop-up that shows you when you've successfully matched two items.

A mixed bag to be sure, but a game that doesn't have too many comparable titles around it on the DS. Interactive stories are one thing, but a good old-fashioned point-and-click adventure is a rare item outside the PC world. Download offerings have popped up recently from companies like Telltale, which may have played a role in Secret Files: Tunguska finally seeing the light of day so many years after its PC release. Whatever the case, there's a good chance that this game will find a young audience and do well, but it can't hold a candle to the material on whose shoulders it is standing. The adventure game is dead, long live the adventure game...


-Fridtjof, GameVortex Communications
AKA Matt Paddock

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