Secret Files: Tunguska Review

One of the things that makes Secret Files: Tunguska so intriguing is that it is based, in large part, on an historical event -- one that remains unexplained to this day. On June 30th, 1908, an explosion with the equivalent force of 2,000 atomic bombs rocked the region of Tunguska, Russia, destroying over 2,300 square miles of trees, and throwing shepherds located 400 miles from the blast 20 feet into the air. Eye-witnesses said that they saw a large object, emanating an unbelievably brilliant light, fall from the sky immediately prior to the blast. While there are many theories regarding what might have caused this unusual event, it still remains a mystery today. Secret Files: Tunguska is set in the present day, and -- using the catastrophic event of 1908 as a foundation -- builds an incredible tale of adventure, intrigue, and global conspiracy. You play as Nina, the daughter of an eminent archeologist who has been studying this event for years -- and who has suddenly, and mysteriously, disappeared. Your job is to attempt to uncover that conspiracy, and rescue your father.

Tunguska is the work of Fusionsphere Systems, a rather new and little-known German software development company. But don't be misled by their lack of experience; this is one awesome game! It is a game that requires a fairly robust investment in hard disk space (2.5GB), and the content of the game itself (the artwork, the animations, the sound track, the dialogues, the puzzles, etc.) makes it obvious why the game requires 4 CD-ROMs. Yet the system requirements are fairly modest, and I had no technical issues with either the installation, or the game play.

The artwork in Tunguska is nothing short of astounding. Background scenes are photo-realistic -- with most including just enough movement (leaves rustling, branches moving, birds flying overhead, water running, flags waving) so as to draw the player into the context of the scene. Character animation is superlative -- obviously a result of professional motion-capture techniques. There are many characters to interact with throughout the game, and their movement is fluid and realistic. And the cinematography of the numerous cut-scenes -- some as long as 10 minutes or more -- is of the highest quality. The screen shots in the sidebar are an attempt to illustrate some of the quality of that artwork.

Reinforcing the incredible "eye candy" presented by the game's artwork is the complex story line. Very few adventure games take the time to develop a story as completely as Tunguska. (One other that comes to mind is Syberia, and there are striking similarities between the two, including incredible graphics, great character animations, a complex story line, and even a Russian theme.) Of course, being based on an actual event not only provides an excellent starting point for Tunguska's story line, but also lends an air of credibility to it, as well. (I found that my own interaction with the game was aided by doing personal research into the actual Tunguska story.) In the game, most of the few Tunguska locals have disappeared. However, their journals, diaries and letters remain, along with various minor notes, articles, clippings, etc. As these are discovered and read, they begin to unfold a tale that permeates through the rest of the game.

The adventure style of Tunguska is centered primarily around exploration and inventory-type puzzles. Although the game progresses through fixed "phases" (typically segregated by traveling to new geographic locations), within each location it is possible to do quite a bit of fairly non-linear exploration and -- most importantly -- object gathering. It is the objects that are gathered into the game's inventory that become critical to solving the variety of puzzles presented by the game. It may be to locate (or decipher) a password to a computer, a code for a door locked with a keypad, or the formula (and individual objects) required for making a health potion. There are numerous puzzles of this type throughout the game, and most are reasonably intuitive. In addition to the array of inventory puzzles, there are also 2 or 3 logic puzzles scattered throughout the game, and some of those require either inventory items or previous exploration to complete. Thus, even the "in-your-face" logic puzzles are integrated into the game, and into the story.

The game is played through a very easy-to-use third-person point-and-click interface, with scenes transitioning from one to another (as opposed to showing full motion and panning from scene to scene). While this is a fairly common interface, what I thought provided added uniqueness in Tunguska was the ability to play not one, but two different characters. Admittedly, the majority of the game is spent playing Nina, our heroine. However, at several different points, play shifts (usually under player control) to playing her close companion, Max. Sometimes the two are working collaboratively on the same puzzle; other times, they are in completely different locations performing two separate tasks, but game play allows switching back and forth between them.

There is plenty of opportunity to dialogue with other characters in the game. And the format used by Tunguska is a fairly standard one: present the player with a list of possible things to say, and let them click on the one they desire. Yet in most cases, the only sensible approach I could determine (and sometimes the only approach) was to click on each one of the dialogue options presented.

Despite the ability to explore areas fairly randomly, the game does develop a certain linearity the further the story progresses. As might be expected in any game that moves from location to location (based on progress within the game, and not on the player's choice), there are times when things must be done in a very specific, predetermined order. In the worst cases, this can sometimes result in extensive pixel-hunting to find just that one right object to pick up, or that one active spot to interact with, before anything else can be done. However, in the case of Tunguska, I never felt that it was a significant detriment to game play, but it did contribute to the cohesiveness of the overall story line.

One particularly nice feature of the game is the ability, with a single click, to see all active "hot spots" on the current screen. Since utilizing this feature is at the user's discretion, it presents no unwanted "spoilers." However, it provides just enough of a push in the right direction, when all other progress seems at a standstill.

Tungusta's sound track is highly professional. Ambient sounds never overpower the rest of the game; but they are always there. Seldom is the game "silent." And at times of increased tension, not only does the music reflect (and enhance) that mood, but voices are added, as if a choir were singing in the background.

If there was any shortcoming in the game at all, it would be the character voicing. The voices are clearly American -- many with strong New York/New Jersey accents -- and quite easy to understand. (Subtitles may optionally be displayed, if the accent becomes a problem.) However, much of the game takes place in locations such as Berlin, Cuba, and Russia. At times, it was almost comical to listen to native Germans (or Cubans, or Russians), speaking English with a Jersey "twang." Even a caricaturized "foreign accent" would have been an improvement.

The game is reasonably long, and should provide over 25 hours of game play. The "T" (Teen) rating results, in part, from the somewhat sinister nature of the story's conspiracy, as well as occasional language. However, I would rate this as a very "mild T."

What I found most exciting about the ending is that there is the definite implication that the two main characters -- Nina and Max -- will be back in another episode of Secret Files. (In fact, a patch to the game, downloadable from The Adventure Company's Web site, fleshes out the game ending even further, and specifically makes that statement.) When a game is this enjoyable, and the quality is of this high caliber, that can only be good news.

Secret Files: Tunguska is an adventure game that will appeal to a wide range of gamers. The superlative graphics and complex story -- with plenty of well-integrated puzzles and activities -- developed to a satisfying ending.

-- Frank D. Nicodem, Jr.