Adventure Gamers Awards
Not content to rest on the laurels of solving the great Tunguska mystery, Nina Kalenkov and Max Gruber are back in a new adventure that sees them once again up to their old tricks of saving the world, this time by preventing an evil sect from fulfilling their apocalyptic plans. Secret Files 2: Puritas Cordis takes place well after the original, and the two protagonists have split up (apparently they had a relationship in between the two games) all the way to opposite sides of the globe, but of course it’s only a matter of time before their paths cross again. Corny conspiracy plot and the inevitable reconciliation aside, however, the familiar mix of twists and turns, user-friendly interface, inventory puzzles, and an explorer’s hat full of mysteries to be solved means Secret Files 2 delivers once again in the adventure department. Better yet, the sequel represents a step forward for the series, offering some better results on the gameplay and voice acting fronts.
Clichéd though it may be, Puritas Cordis features an entirely new plot, which means that it isn’t necessary to have played the first game to understand what’s going on, although it would help. The adventure starts not with Nina or Max, but with the ill-fated Bishop Parrey, who receives a coded letter at his Cambridge university. Parrey is unable to decipher it completely but is able to make out repeated references to a man named Zandona, a name at the centre of a revived cult that foretells the coming apocalypse. Like all good cults, it turns out there is an evil scheme behind this one which has some link to Nina’s father, ensuring her involvement in the story. Soon enough, mysterious happenings aboard Nina’s cruise ship and the capture of one of Max’s friends all turn out to be part of some intrinsically-linked plot the cult plans to carry out.
The central characters already have a game’s worth of history behind them this time around, which makes them more interesting than two strangers who merely stumbled into a world-saving adventure. At times it can be a bit tiring to hear Nina moan about how much she misses Max, but her feelings for him end up being an integral element of the game. Max is now working as a photographer and is covering an archaeological dig in Indonesia when his part in the adventure begins. He still comes across as a bit shallow, but it’s clear he loves Nina since no matter how hard you make him try, he just won’t part with the photo of her he carries around.
Two new playable characters are also introduced, though you don’t really get a chance to know them that well. Bishop Parrey’s short segment involves protecting the coded document and trying to elude some thugs from the cult. The other playable character is a young archaeologist named Sam (an adventure gaming homage perhaps, having her paired up with Max?), and while she may have no more depth than a puddle of rain in the Sahara and her voice can be annoying, her comments are generally amusing. Apart from Sam, the voice work in this game is a lot better than the original, although as before, most characters that should have a foreign accent seem to sound English or American. This didn’t bother me too much, as I prefer that to the weak attempt at an accent by a Chinese man in the laundry room, which seems to serve no purpose other than a poor attempt at a stereotype joke.
Fortunately, the best bits of Secret Files: Tunguska have been left unchanged, and in some cases improved. The easy-to-use interface of the PC version (the game has also been released for the Nintendo Wii and DS) is employed again, requiring only left and right mouse clicks, which are shown in the onscreen cursor. Left-clicking interacts with eligible hotspots while right-clicking allows you to examine an object (or skip ahead to the next movie segment or line of dialogue). Mousing down to the bottom of the screen makes the inventory bar appear, where you will also find access to a diary and hotspot revealer. The only problem with this setup is that the inventory bar can sometimes obscure objects at the very bottom of the screen, making them a less obvious option when solving puzzles. The diary and hotspot finder work just the same as before, so if you get stuck a simple button click might give you a gentle hint on how to solve the current puzzle or help you to find that elusive item, though the latter should rarely be needed.
The graphics of Puritas Cordis are of the same high quality as the original, with the backgrounds being particularly beautiful and well-designed. Throughout the game, Nina and Max visit several interesting and exotic locations. The two major set pieces occur with Nina on a cruise ship and Max at an Indonesian jungle temple, but you’ll also visit some ruins in France and eventually the cult’s headquarters. Not only are the locations artistically appealing, they are quite immersive with lots of hotspots and background details, making them enjoyable to explore. The many cutscenes have an excellent accompanying soundtrack and look even better graphically here than they did in the already-impressive Tunguska, with the same highly cinematic feel to them. One downside to that is the noticeable difference between the lifelike character models in the videos and those in the game, which are a bit robotic.
Another area where the game has improved somewhat is the comedy. In the first game, odd references and jokes that didn’t translate well from the original German meant that attempts at humour often fell flat. This time I often found myself letting a laugh slip, and I admit to finding Nina’s portrayal of the Monty Python ‘Parrot Sketch’ amusing. Secret Files 2 has a kind of self-awareness thing going on, usually conveyed by Nina speaking to herself, which can be amusing at times while pathos-killing at others. But overall this game made me chuckle a lot more than the original, as the comedy is both better placed and better written. Thankfully, there’s no jokey cutscene at the end up the game as there was in the last game. There is, however, a recap of what happened to all the characters (really, all the characters). For a few of the main characters this would have been fine, but for each and every one it becomes tedious and not that funny. It’s right at the end, though, so you can skip through it until you reach the achievements certificate, with fake stats replicating what it would have been like if Secret Files 2 was an action game.
One of the complaints of Tunguska was the uneven puzzle quality, and while this inconsistency is still present, overall the quality level is higher. There are some really great and interesting puzzles, some good but pointless puzzles, and some which could have been great, but due to the obscure nature of the required object, can quickly become an annoyance. In general, the challenges involving Nina are the great ones, which helps because you spend at least half the time controlling her. Her puzzles are frequently enjoyable and there’s logic in the way they’re executed, if not always the reason why they’re required. Max’s puzzles, on the other hand, can be a little taxing. Usually it is clear what needs to be done and how to do it, but about 10% will leave you scratching your head and thinking the puzzle isn’t working. What often happens is that you actually have the required object, but you’ll have no reason to think you can use it the way the game demands. This is also true during Sam’s part, and I would like to meet the girl who can keep a 6-foot bamboo pole in her jeans.
Most of the puzzles consist of the ‘use this item with that one’ variety and combining objects to create new ones, but there are also some interesting code-cracking puzzles, which are a welcome addition to the mix and follow a logical path to their conclusion. The strongest gameplay point from Tunguska is further refined here, as there are two major puzzles where characters have to work together. This cooperative element adds another dimension to the problem solving, like the need to swap items with Max in order to release Sam from imprisonment. Towards the end of the game, Nina and Max get the chance to work together once again, and while the puzzle itself is enjoyable, it ends with the most ridiculous outcome I have ever seen in a game. The solution is not too obscure or hard to figure out, but the result is so bizarre that it’s highly amusing. The game’s self-awareness makes light of the ridiculousness of certain situations, and though I’m not sure this necessarily excuses an excursion into pure absurdity, it does make it an easier pill to swallow.
A few grumbles aside, there are many more reasons to enjoy Secret Files 2: Puritas Cordis. The game is well designed in most respects, looks and sounds great, and is far more polished than many adventures. The plot is intriguing and complicated enough to overcome its clichéd nature, playing well with the Secret Files trademark cinematic style. There’s fun to be had, jokes to be laughed at, and evil villains to vanquish, and the hint system will get you out of some jams with gentle clues when necessary. Most importantly, there is a rewarding feeling with most of the puzzles, when all the pieces click into place and you know you’ve done a good day's adventuring rather than simply trying every item with every hotspot. The game also delivers a respectable amount of gameplay, taking around 12-15 hours to complete. All together, it’s safe to say that Secret Files 2: Puritas Cordis is a definite improvement on the original, addressing some of its faults and enhancing the best parts, and although there’s no teaser of a further sequel down the line, I know I won’t be alone in hoping there will be.