Adventure games may have died in North America around the turn of the century, but they continued to have a healthy life in Europe. In fact, adventures may nowadays be the third pillar of PC gaming right behind MMORPGs and strategy simulations over there, and every year a number of big name releases from Germany, France and the Czech Republic guarantee that adventure game fans never run short of puzzles to solve. It is often argued that titles who even come close to the greatness of a Monkey Island or Gabriel Knight are few and far between. Actually, the same was true in the '90s for games not made by LucasArts or Sierra, and both just happened to stop investing in the business around the same time. Imagine Marvel and DC Comics abandoning the superhero comic market all of a sudden.
One of the games that stood out as exceptionally good and became a true classic praised next to the genre giants was Broken Sword by the British company Revolution Software. The mystery thriller won the hearts of adventure game fans and casual gamers alike, not only through its many solid gold puzzles, but also an enthralling plot that took the best of both Gabriel Knight and Indiana Jones.
It only seems fitting that one of the series that come closest to the good old times - other than Telltale Games' decent episodic LucasArts sequels - is so deeply in love with Broken Sword. It seems almost as if the guys at Animation Arts and Fusionsphere Systems wondered what it would be like if Broken Sword didn't jump the shark with the third game and become a 3D Sokoban clone with stealth elements. Secret Files relies on the same proven ingredients as its big role model: Wise cracking protagonists that constantly stumble into big mysteries and conspiracies and travel between interesting locations all around the world. But can it manage to hold up to its great ancestor?
The sassy main protagonist of the series. She moved from Russia to Germany with her father at a very young age. Not much is known about what she does when she isn't out to save her father and/or the world, but apparently she works as a mechanic for motorcycles and seems to have played almost every adventure game from the '90s.
An assistant in the museum where Nina's father works. He helps her on the search for her father and the two become a couple.
Nina's father. He used to be a scientist for the government in the Soviet Union. More recently he's working as a curator in the local museum, but now his past is coming back at him.
A dubious detective that shows up at the museum shortly after Wladimir Kalenkow's disappearance. Despite being killed off in Tunguska, he makes a... strange reappearance in the second game. He is modeled after the likeness of the late Klaus Kinski and in the original German version voiced by the famous voice actor Ekkehart Belle, known as the German voice of Kevin Sorbo in the Hercules series, among many other roles.
A former colleague of Wladimir. When Nina contacts him in search for her father he first is reluctant to even speak to her, but soon changes his mind and comes back to aid her.
A theologist with an identity crisis, who travels with the same cruise ship as Nina in Secret Files 2. Both escape a terrorist attack together and he becomes a valuable ally for the theological nature of the mystery.
An old college friend of Max' who is researching ruins In indonesia. If I was evil spirited I'd claim she's in the game mainly for a cheap Sam & Max joke at the end.
While the villain in the first Secret Files makes himself scarce until the very end, the lunatic leader of the Puritas Cordis sect acts much less subtle and even broadcasts advertisements with a pirate TV station.
A colleague of Max who digs around at the... digging site in Turkey in Secret Files 3. Is killed off after one minute of screen time, although the ending suggests that he actually survived that bullet to the head.
A Mary Sue super hacker girl and math genius in Secret Files 3. Is done away with after one minute of screen time but may save the day by launching a hacking attack at the villains.
Jane is supposed to be the big bad in Secret Files 3, although the game forgets to properly introduce her. She still gets more of a spotlight than her buddy Nis van Rijn, as she stays on screen for more than a minute and actually even is playable - for less than a minute.
Secret Files: Tunguska betrays its plot already in the title, at least to The X-Files veterans and suckers for unsolved phenomena. On June 30th, 1908, a region near the Podkamennaya Tunguska River was shattered by a huge and devastating explosion, said to make the Hiroshima bomb seem like a firecracker in comparison. Reportedly, the sky was illuminated in all of Europe for an entire night. Fast forward a little less than a century later. Nina Kalenkov comes to visit her father at his workplace at a museum, but all she finds in his office is a huge mess. The authorities show little concern about the assumed disappearence of Vladimir Kalenkov, but Nina finds help in form of a young assistant curator named Max. Together they soon discover that all hints point to Nina's father's former research on the Tunguska event in service of the Soviet Union. Soon they find themselves in the firing line of Russian intelligence agencies while they travel - of course - all around the world in search for clues to Vladimir's whereabouts and his past research project. But how does this involve the mysterious group of people in black robes that seem to show up everywhere?
Tunguska's basic controls are exactly that: basic. A left click triggers interaction with any object or person, while a right click is for observation. Nina's walking speed is rather slow, but thankfully the next room can be usually accessed instantly by double clicking on an exit. Items can be used and combined like in any other point-and-click adventure, so there are no surprises here. The novelty of the control system lies with its options to aid the player in times of cluelessness. One of Secret Files' big advertisement points was the "Snoop Key" feature. Pressing the space key will mark every hotspot on screen with a magnifier icon, sparing the player an elongated pixel hunt. Purists may dismiss the feature, after all searching for the right objects to interact with can be part of the fun in an adventure game. Detailed high resolution background nowadays tend to make that search a major pain, though, and Secret Files would annoy as well with some nearly invisible items if it weren't for the Snoop Key.
Matters are further simplified by the fact that those items that can be combined with each other are recognizable as such from the beginning. So after selecting one of the items in the inventory one just needs to hover over the bar to see immediately which combinations are possible. On one hand, that saves the player a lot of tedious experimenting when stuck, but also seems a bit lazy on the writer's part. In truly great adventure classics, making the characters comment on stupid actions can be almost as satisfying as progressing, after all. Equally streamlined are the dialogues. There are hardly ever more than three or four topics to choose from during the course of an entire conversation, with very few "useless" lines. In case one misses or forgets any details, important findings are recorded in a journal, which oddly is written in the third person, despite being designed like an actual personal journal. The journal has also an additional hint system built in, but it doesn't work as well as the other features.
But now to the essence of any adventure game. Its puzzles are where the game really takes one back to the good old days. The vast majority are based around item combination, with only very rare logic puzzles thrown in for a change. Nina and Max cannot die, and while some scenes are staged to mediate a sense of urgency, there's never any time limit to your actions. Most challenges are designed better-than-average, and especially later in the game some will get a lot of heads smoking. There are no nonsensical puzzles, but make sure to take along a good portion of ye good olde adventure logic, or you'll never get ideas like taping your cell phone onto a cat to abuse her as a mobile wiretap.
If the puzzles are the meat, the writing serves as the flavoring in the art of adventure game cuisine. And this is sadly the point where most recent attempts fall short. Secret Files: Tunguska has its issues in that department, too, but it's not a total failure. The two heroes, especially Nina, are written as a pair of loudmouths and smartasses, and the writers felt obligated to make them comment on everything with a clever, funny observation. The humor in these lines is pretty hit-and-miss, and loaded with pop culture references. Max and Nina are noticeably genre-savvy, not only for adventure games, but also mystery and spy thrillers. This makes for some rather nerdy comedy, which could have used a little more subtlety regarding its references. The main plot itself, however, is written consistently well and the mystery case is genuinely intriguing until right before the end, when it pulls an Indiana Jones and an X-Files at the same time and becomes almost stupefyingly insane. A patch for the game (which was included in the English retail version) vastly extends the ending, but did little to make it make sense. The low point of the writing is definitely the "romance" between Max and Nina, though. It just comes out of nowhere after ten lines of dialogue between the two and feels wildly misplaced. Here the writers definitely should have taken more time to actually develop their relationship.
Even the best writing (which Secret Files doesn't have) can only do so much when the voice acting is bad. The German dub is pretty solid with its main characters, with only the minor roles being a bit of a letdown. The English voiceover is an entirely different beast, though. The voice of an annoying Yankee brat just doesn't cut it for the educated daughter of a Russian-German immigrant, nor does the apathetic voice of Max help anyone get excited over the plot. Despite the many, mostly European locations visited, there's a total lack of accent variations, and everyone just sounds neutrally American, even the Irish (given, a similar problem exists with the German version as well).
If anything, Secret Files sure looks good for an adventure game. The 2D backgrounds are full of little details, and the character models fit in quite well, as long as they don't get too close to the camera and reveal their low polygon count. More care has been taken for the protagonists to make them look attractive at any angle. Some key events are shown in short prerendered clips in which the characters look slightly better than the main game, but not to an extend where it disturbs a consistent overall impression.
So while Animation Arts and Fusionsphere System didn't create a new paragon of adventure games, Secret Files is still better than most of its kind in its age. It was vastly successful in Germany and at least reasonably so in the rest of Europe, enough to secure a sequel and a porting to the two "adventure game consoles," the Wii and DS. Both are identical in terms of content, but of course compromises were made on the technical side.
The Wii version runs in a lower resolution, but still looks mostly similar to the original. It offers 4:3 and widescreen modes, the former resulting in cropped backgrounds that require scrolling even when they fit on one screen on the PC. Additionally, Nina can be controlled directly with the Nunchuk. Backgrounds on the DS look surprisingly good, but the characters are hardly recognizable. Instead, their faces are displayed as still images on the upper screen during dialogues. As there's no right clicking with the stylus, the desired action has to be selected with an extra click. The biggest difference in the portable version, though, is the lack of voiceover. At least with the English version, this isn't too big a loss.
It's two years after Secret Files: Tunguska. Nina's relationship with Max has ended as apruptly as it started, and now the poor girl goes on a cruise to deal with it. But we're getting ahead of ourselves. The prologue is played in the role of bishop Parrey, who finds himself in possession of an illegible parchment that seems important enough to kill for, as the priest who sent it to him is found dead. Now the Sam Fisher-look-a-like killers are going for the Bishop's life. Parrey just manages to hide the document and make sure it gets to his friend and translator William Patterson before sharing the fate of his dead colleague. Patterson doesn't live long enough to decipher the document either, but he manages to secretly swap bags with Nina before she boards the cruise ship, setting the terrorist organization on her trail. From the inevitable attack, she only barely escapes from the sinking ship, together with the theologist David Korell. Meanwhile in the Indonesian jungle, Max fashions himself as a photojournalist to document an expedition of his old friend Sam Peters, during which - you've guessed it - they run into the same terrorist organization. Soon, all threads run together into a plot about a religious sect called Puritas Cordis and their suspiciously accurate predictions of a series of devastating natural disasters.
One could say that that first paragraph gives away a bit much of the plot, but it's all so obvious and much less mysterious than the first game, there are hardly any surprises to be spoiled. Mystery isn't any concern with the sequel, as this time suspense is created through an atmosphere of threat, and it is even possible to die at a few points (which lead to a restart immediately before the wrong decision). Sadly, the story ends only after a few hours, and the final parts feel decidedly rushed. Globetrotters are also in for a disappointment: after the described opening scenarios, there are only three main areas in France visited.
At least the few available areas are filled with interesting characters. The supporting cast sports more personality than before, with consistently high quality voice acting in the German version, and at least a significantly improved dub in English (with a completely new cast, while Nina and Max keep their voices in German). The English version still suffers from too few actors - only 12 having to share over 30 roles, less than half as much as in the German one. The number of playable characters has increased to five, but the new ones are still clearly minor roles, with Nina and Max once again in the spotlight.
The overall puzzle quality is almost as good as in the first game, but once in a while non-interactive items in the backgrounds suggest easy solutions, but are strangely unavailable. Some puzzles also put suspension of disbelief under some serious stress. Finding random marked stones that have been used to restore buildings "somewhere in Paris" after the war? Really?
Hardly anything has changed about the way the game is played. The protagonists now run to more distant targets, but everything else is just the same. The Snoop Key makes its return, together with all other convenient conventions. The presentation has been beefed up for a more "cinematic" feel, the camera now zooms in for conversations, which works surprisingly well despite the 2D backgrounds, and there is a bunch of new visual effects, like the transparent face of the late priest talking while Parrey reads his letter. The models for recurring characters (read: Nina and Max) have been reworked, and Nina's derrière lost at least a pound or two.
Tunguska wasn't much about acoustic accompaniment - aside from a title and end music and scarce ambient sound, there never was much to hear. Puritas Cordis rectifies this with a full cinematic score played in key scenes and certain areas, which was also sold as a standalone soundtrack. The title theme is very catchy and especially memorable, and has potential to become an identifying cue for the series if used properly.
The second game in the Secret Files series doesn't quite hold up to the standards set by its predecessor. Even though it improved on some of its weaknesses, the new problems weigh heavier in the end. One cannot help but think that the team was lacking budget or time to make the story arc more complete, or maybe they grew tired of the series sometime in between. That could be the reason why they chose a different road for their next game, titled Lost Horizon, featuring hand drawn backgrounds and a more classic scenario. Though still in the "traveling adventurer" genre, it draws all its inspiration from Indiana Jones and similar movies, thus taking place in 1936. Nonetheless, a third Secret Files, subtitled The Archimedes Code, was announced eventually.
After Puritas Cordis, Animation Arts took a break from the series to concentrate on the Indiana Jones homage Lost Horizon, but four years later, Nina Kalenkov returned in Secret Files 3. Just 3. No subtitle. This should have been a first sign for how creatively bankrupt the series has become. It's bad. Very bad.
Like Puritas Cordis, Secret Files 3 doesn't jump directly into Nina's next adenture: The story opens in ancient Egypt, where the player takes the role of a thief who is hired to burn some ancient scrolls, but the documents in question end up being preserved and survive throughout history. Fast forward to the present, where Nina races her motorbike to a remote country church to get married to Max. But no guests are there, her groom seems to have gotten mad, and the priest burns down the church. Surprise, surprise, it was all a dream, and Nina wakes up in the real present. But the most ludicrous fact carries over: After two games of some awkward, unfounded declarations of love and no chemistry whatsoever, Nina and Max are actually going to get married.
But then Max is getting abducted by some masked commandos with the charge of "terrorist activities". As he is taken away, he shouts some vague hints at Nina, who of course uses them to get on his trail. Turns out the man was researching into an ancient conspiracy about the number pi, who apparently has the blueprint for an infernal machine hidden in binary codes after a couple billion decimal places. That story doesn't just sound extraordinarily stupid, it's also told terribly. Animation Arts has made a lot of fuss about hiring TV writers for the script, which either proves the point that those were utterly unequipped for game storytelling or just didn't care.
Throughout the game, Nina is conveniently getting visionary dreams to visit the past, where she meets historical persons like Leonardo DaVinci and Archimedes of Syracuse, and finds new clues about the mystery. Only these sequences are nothing like dreams, and she applies the same analytical problem solving used for the rest of the game. The rules of this world also make no sense at all: People of the past cannot see or hear Nina, but she can interact with all inanimate objects, but never in a way that someone would become aware of her presence. Ultimately these sequences are really just there so the writers can pull whatever plot contrivance they want out of their asses, and to chase the player through the highest amount of different locations with the least creative effort.
It also looks like the designers were quite impressed with Ghost Trick, as at one point during a "dream" Nina becomes able to turn back time - once again with no explanation whatsoever - to gain multiple chances to chase a person through city streets. All this really does, though, is pad out the sequence and forcing the player to keep walking back and forth over up to six screens. That's also one of the only two times that many screens can even be visited at once. Usually, Nina is limited to no more than two or three rooms. The inventory nonetheless gets surprisingly full sometimes, but the range of possible interactions is always so narrow that the puzzles remain laughably easy. There are one or two interesting bits at the beginning, like Nina having to find the right spot at a digging site based through hints reported by a character trapped inside, but most of the rest just boils down to mindless busywork.
The logic puzzles are especially bad. Not only is their presence questionably motivated, but they consist of jigsaw puzzles, rebuses and simple character series to complete, all at elementary school level. And then there are the mini games, which are even more embarrassing. They range from such classic tasks as rhythmically swinging back and forth on a statue to make it fall over to a miserable turn-based robot battle with no strategy and a superior opponent, with the only chance of beating it coming from luck and the fact that it doesn't regenerate in between attempts. And there is a maze - a maze of the kind that was only tolerable in the '80s Sierra games because the designers were still testing the waters and figuring out this whole adventure game thing, yet here is a new one, in 2012.
It's really funny to see how the budget of this game churned out such garbage, as there are dozens of places where it could have been applied much better. There are hardly any animations at all - almost every time there is a movement other than the characters doing their standard things, the game fades to black and simply pretends something just happened. This is a huge disappointment, after Animation Arts' previous games kept getting better and better with their cinematic presentation. FMV cutscenes are rare, but somehow someone deemed it wise to waste time and effort on a "customizable" start screen, where the menu points are obfuscated as random objects around one of several rooms.
With few exceptions, the backgrounds also look very dull and dead. Most are lifeless, indeed - there is only a handful of supporting characters, and none of them stay around for more than a few lines, before Nina rushes to the next location. More and more, motivation continues its grind to an absolute low point, as the player just stumbles from location to location, often with only the barest of reason for the next stop, hardly any storytelling at all, but increasingly big plot holes in its place. The game doesn't just feel incomplete - it very literally is. Especially towards the end it often becomes impossible to tell what caused a scene transition, and what actually is supposed to have happened in between. Suddenly Nina and Max refer to new characters by names that have never been introduced before. At one point, the player gets control of yet another character for just exactly one action, while both Nina and Max are standing around fully capable of doing the task themselves. Max also only has a few extremely short sequences at the very end. The game does have multiple endings, though, determined by two choices (the only choices there are in the game) at more or less remote points, but it only affects the ending sequence and none of the game before it. So whether Nina and Max get married or not, who even cares at this rate?
Secret Files 3 is an utter failure totally out of left field, and was the major adventure game disappointment of 2012. One wonders how many things must have gone wrong for a competent studio like Animation Arts to produce such utter garbage. It really feels like halfway through everyone involved simply lost interest. Wii and NDS users miss out this time, but really, there is nothing to be missed here.