Step Back into the Past...
June 30, 1908: A large ball of fire streaks through the Siberian sky destined for impact near the Stony Tunguska River. The ensuing explosion has the force of roughly 10 million tons of dynamite and could be felt for hundreds of miles. The cause of the explosion is unknown. Was it a meteor or comet? Or perhaps even a UFO? Years later, a Russian mineralogist discovers a fragment of unknown material. Supernatural plant growth is noted as well.
1958: Vladimir Kalenkov conducts a secret expedition to the Tunguska explosion site. One of the fragments is analyzed and seems to have no earthly origin. The site is still exuding radiation left over from the blast. He details his findings in what is called the "Kalenkov Report". But, his research is ultimately shut down by the government.
1977: Vladimir Kalenkov returns to the region with Manuel Perez to delve deeper into the discoveries he made 20 years earlier.
March 27, 2006: Vladimir is putting in quite the late night at the Museum. The door to his office mysteriously opens. Vladimir doesn't see anyone right away so he decides to investigate. Footprints in the hallway denote the trail of a secret visitor. A shadowy figure cloaked in black appears behind Vladimir. Vladimir is brought down to the ground as though his mind is being controlled. End cut scene.
Later that evening: Nina Kalenkov arrives at the museum to visit with her father. What a shock to find the office has been ransacked and her father is missing. An urgent call to the local police proves fruitless. Someone must have seen something. A search of the museum turns up the janitor Eddie who is paralyzed with fear. He apparently saw two of the mysterious entities. But seeing how scared he is, he won't be a lot of help at this point. Nina does manage to find another person at the museum: Max Gruber.
Max is one of Vladimir's co-workers. Unfortunately, Max is unaware that Vladimir has gone missing and didn't hear anything because his music was cranked up. He is, however, willing to help Nina find her father. In game terms, that means you will get to alternate between playing as Nina and Nick.
Secret Files: Tunguska is a 3rd person point and click adventure. The game comes with a whopping 4 CDs and a game manual. Although it takes a while to load up 4 CDs, there were no technical difficulties encountered during installation or game play. There have been reports of a bug in which a specific item cannot be picked up and has resulted in being a game stopper. For those who have encountered this problem, a patch has been released to correct it. Music is used sparingly in the game, but they've got a great opening number that blends a touch of whimsy into a dramatic score.
Right off the bat, you'll notice that Secret Files Tunguska is a really great looking game. The backgrounds are truly impressive and there are quite a lot of them. Each is significantly different and highly detailed. The colors are vibrant and alive. And, the use of shadow and light brings depth to each location. One of the best parts of the game is getting to visit all the different locations. It adds excitement to the game as you anticipate where the heck you'll get to go next. You'll start out at the museum in Berlin. From there, you'll check out Vladimir's house and one of his former colleagues. The trail will then lead Nina through Russia, Cuba, Ireland, and China with a final destination in Antarctica. Each country has ample environments to explore.
Secret Files Tunguska also features interesting tension-building action cut scenes which work wonders to connect the storyline as you jump to a new location. A few of them were a little blurry, but I'm going to chalk that up to my graphics card since I haven't seen any complaints anywhere else. Always welcome is the chance to replay the cut scenes. This option is offered on the main menu. If you have no desire to watch the cut scenes, you can just right click them away.
One of my favorite scenes is actually part of the game and not a cut scene. Nina has to escape from a locked room on the train. She manages to get out a hatch and is on top of the train. The landscape whips by and train shakes causing Nina to constantly grapple for balance. Your task is to figure out what to do next. To be honest, I left her up there for quite a while. It was just too cool to watch. Alright, let's be honest...I also was a little stumped on what to do.
The interface has never been simpler. The folks over at Fusionsphere seem to have this down to a science. The cursor begins as a small blue arrow. When hovered over an item of interest, the cursor will turn into a replica of a mouse. If you can just examine an item, the right mouse button will be green and a small eye will appear near that button. If you can interact further with the item, the left mouse button will be green as well and a small hand will appear near that button.
They also took the nightmare out of pixel hunting. At the bottom of the screen is a small magnifying glass which provides help (when chosen in the options menu). Clicking on the magnifying glass will highlight all the hotspots available with magnifying glasses. The exits will also be visible with large red arrows. The highlighted hotspots will remain active for about 10 seconds and then they disappear. However, you can use this feature over and over again. Nina doesn't run in this game, but you can double click on an exit to immediately access another location without having to walk the whole way. This is a bonus when you have to move back and forth multiple times to complete tasks.
Along with the help feature at the bottom of the screen, a diary is available as well. The diary keeps track of the information you have learned so far. Small hints are available as well for the mechanical and logic puzzles. Inventory is maintained across the bottom of the screen. You will soon learn that Nina is a packrat and will take anything that isn't nailed down. Size doesn't seem to matter. If it's there, she'll take it. The main menu is located here as well. Access is granted by clicking on the picture of a computer. You will be able to load, save or quit the game. Each time you quit, the game will automatically prompt you to allow an autosave game. The Options menu allows you to adjust the volume of the music and sound effect. Character shadows, subtitles and game help may be turned on or off. Video quality may also be adjusted to improve performance.
Inventory scrolls across the bottom of the screen. And, you will be using it a lot as the majority of the puzzles are inventory-based. You will be required to combine items with each other. This is done by simply clicking on one item and dragging it over another. What can be said is that Secret Files Tunguska has some of the strangest inventory solutions this reviewer has seen in a long time. For example, there are small burned fragments of paper in a fire pit. Nina needs to remove them. Instead of just picking them out, she will have to instead skin a tree of bark, then scrape some resin off it, take that resin and melt it down after finding a source of heat other than fire. Finally, she'll be able to take that melted resin and brush it on the pieces of paper with a handmade brush which of course she'll need to make from scratch. Geez...Why can't we just pick out the pieces of paper? Thinking outside the box is a prerequisite for this game. You may find yourself using every single item on every hotspot in an attempt to figure out what the hell works. Part of me hated this and the other part of me loved the challenge and sense of satisfaction when I figured it out. And, I think I've gotten so used to games filled with logical inventory puzzles that I've forgotten how much I really used to enjoy figuring out these kinds of problems. It takes a while to get your brain back into the groove. There were some logical and riddle type puzzles. These ranged from very easy to a medium level of difficulty. There will be help in the diary for certain riddle puzzles.
So, what about the characters? Fusionsphere did a great job in ensuring the characters were drawn with care and this shows in their outward appearance. With the exception of Nina's slightly odd walking gait, character movements were wonderfully life like. Head turn and hand gestures are portrayed naturally which is rarely accomplished. Along with Max, Nina will meet up with plenty of characters to interact with in each location. One of the most unusual is a train engineer who is experiencing "stomach" problems and has quarantined himself in the bathroom. Nina's whole conversion is to a pair of feet through a gap under the door. It's amusingly surprising. Lip synching is decent. No real complaints here.
So far, everything seems great, right? Not so fast. A story is only as good as its telling. Secret Files has a good and interesting story. It is in the telling where the game goes wrong. I'm talking about the voice acting. To me, this aspect was a real downer. The dialog itself was awkward and stiff at times. I believe this is due to the "way too formal" translation from German to English. Not enough attention was paid to natural phrasing. It's hit or miss throughout the game. This would not have been so bad if the voice acting was better. Nina has a high semi-little girl voice. This voice could have been quite tolerable had there been any emotion or natural flow in what came out of her mouth. It was very difficult to make a mental or emotional connection with the protagonist or any other character for that matter. Max's voice was the best of the bunch. Not outstanding... Not really great... Simply the best of the bunch.
So, we are looking at pretty much a whole game full of not so great voices. This definitely detracted from the enjoyment of the game. There also seemed to be a problem in the microphone levels. During one conversation, Nina's voice would sound normal on one sentence and then sound as if she were in an empty bathroom the next. This would flip back and forth multiple times. It seems as though two recordings were done of each scene and they used pieces of both without accounting for the different sound.
The original game ending is abrupt and does not provide a feeling of finality. It almost feels as if it wasn't quite finished. However, a patch was released to fix a bug. This patch also incorporates an improved ending to the game. This new ending was much more appropriate, more exciting, and had a more completed feeling. Included in both endings were mock blooper scenes. While they are a cute addition, again the voice acting ruins the effect. In the new ending, however, they have added the "Where are they now?" explanations for each of the characters. Cracked me up, they did!
So, the bottom line is that Secret Files Tunguska should have been a great game. The concept, story, and graphics all worked towards the end. And, in this way, the game has a lot to offer. But, I had trouble getting past the stilted dialog and the poor acting. Hence, it becomes just an alright game. Since there are plans for a Secret Files 2, it is recommended that translation and casting play a higher role of importance. If they do, the sequel could turn out to be outstanding.
But, keep in mind that this is a matter of taste and everyone's tolerance level is different. I would suggest giving the demo a try. If you don't care about voice acting and just want to play a really pretty game that will have you scratching your head, then get yourself a copy.
Final Grade: 78/100