Secret Files 3 review
Veterans of classic adventure games are likely on a first-name basis with Nina and Max already; for the uninitiated, feisty do-gooder Nina Kalenkov and her fiancé, archaeologist Max Gruber, have graciously saved us from apocalyptical doom twice already. But just when they think it's safe to take a breather from genocidal megalomaniacs and start planning a quiet wedding, a team of commandos bursts into their bedroom and hauls Max off on charges of terrorism, leaving Nina to scramble for scraps of cryptic information which eventually expose another (literally) earth-shattering bout of villainy. The simply-titled Secret Files 3 follows popular predecessors Tunguska (2006) and Puritas Cordis (2009) in theme, attitude and styling: it stays focused on the sweetly sassy, good-versus-evil track while making a concerted effort to keep gameplay entertaining and more sensible than before. Unfortunately, the third time doesn't prove a charm, as the latest installment underwhelms in most other comparisons.
Although much of the game's pre-release hype centered around the professional writing team brought on board this time around, the plot is steadfastly restricted to crazies chasing world domination. The previous two games did so as well, but those titles banked more on the attractive lead couple, exotic locations, mysterious cloaked figures, deranged villains, and occasionally bizarre but consistently amusing quests to keep the action chugging along even as their pseudo-scientific tales unfolded. By contrast, Secret Files 3 leans heavily on the technical aspect of its story, building a rather intricate scientific theory that hijacks the actual plot but fails to ramp up either gameplay or characterisation accordingly, yielding several solemn science lectures but little else of consequence.
Another misstep is the attempt to tie the Secret Files trilogy together, especially since there is no recap of past events. It is mentioned in passing that Nina's nightmares of hooded figures and blazing fires have recurred since the Tunguska days, and familiar ancient symbols are strewn about, but neither induces much curiosity because the game treats both as incidental. Nina refuses to discuss her visions even with Max, so you don't get a window into her thoughts, which makes it tough to care about her problem. To make matters worse, one of the series' main draws is lost right off the bat as the game splits up the charismatic duo and shuts Max largely out of the gameplay, making Nina the sole protagonist most of the time. Besides losing a core character, this leaves cagey Nina without a partner to share her distress with, and removes any means for delving into her mental state. Meanwhile, the stereotypical supporting cast gets only a few minutes of screen-time each – just enough to blurt out essential facts and figures.
The gameplay has also been revamped, but largely to the game's detriment. Inventory quests – criticized for being too outlandish in the previous games – have been reduced in both quantity and complexity. This is ostensibly to improve the flow of the story, but obstacles now suffer from diminished charm and challenge, being limited largely to open-door-with-crowbar type tasks. Standalone puzzles are similarly watered down, and there is little dialogue other than Nina's snarky comments (mostly to herself) and the scientific chatter, while production quality fluctuates between classy and jarring. The super-streamlined gameplay mechanics, however, are a delight, and the linear, no-risk progression allows breezy advancement. That doesn't do this truncated game any favours though – its brevity (five hours for me) and haphazard resolutions of key issues will probably disappoint gamers who have waited three years to play it.
If this heap of criticism makes it sound like Secret Files 3 is a bad game, it's not. It is just very ordinary, which feels like a letdown given its potential to be more. While Animation Arts has, as usual, blended historic events and people into the story to give it greater plausibility than simple fiction, they haven't fleshed out the characters enough to bring it to life, nor have they capitalised on the long-term relationship of Nina and Max to give the game an emotional depth beyond executing mechanical tasks. The story delves deep into the why and how of its chosen method of global destruction: the explanation spans eras and civilisations, and links topics as diverse as antimatter and Archimedes, the quadrillionth value of pi and Fermi's paradox, the CERN particle accelerator and Leonardo da Vinci. Impressive? Definitely. But essential to the game itself? Questionable, since the details don't directly affect either core objective of saving Max from his captors or the world from a weapon of mass destruction. It's also evident that such extreme detailing of one aspect led to cutting corners on most others.
The prologue is set in strife-torn Alexandria in 48 BC, where master thief Menis Ra is paid a princely sum to torch some scrolls in the royal library. This brief segment is rich in visual texture and combines inventory puzzles with offbeat activities like scaling a wall and stealthily avoiding guards to start off the game with aplomb. The action then shifts to present day France for Max and Nina's wedding, but Nina's worst nightmare soon comes to life when Max is abducted. Desperate to save him and haunted by her visions, Nina swings into action, first tracing clues scattered around Max's home and office, then rushing to the archaeological site in Turkey where he had been researching the disappearance of an ancient civilisation.
There she meets Max's dig partner, Emre Dardogan, who introduces the scientific theory of the plot. Nina then flies to San Francisco and returns to Europe aboard a US military ship; gatecrashes the CERN facility in Switzerland where obsessive scientist Jane Cunningham is on the brink of a major discovery, and takes a submarine to the sunken ruins below the Greek island Santorini. In between, a dream sequence allows her to time-hop to 15th century Florence and affect ongoing events while being invisible to the locals. Taking things further, she later travels into the future to meet a multi-millennia old alien in a post-apocalyptic city.
All this jet-setting may sound hectic, and indeed the segments in each location are quite short, averaging three or four screens, half a dozen activities and a similar count of inventory items. Emre and Jane have one playable task each, Max has three; Nina handles the rest. Objectives are quite reasonable – mundane, even – and backtracking is negligible. Segments are linked by quick explanations and cutscenes, but even then, it's not always clear what is going on, such as why the US army is involved (or even if it is), or why a hacker is based in a public building like the Alcatraz. Most of the cast have only momentary roles and exist solely to give Nina items or information, then vanish afterwards until being accounted for at the end of the game with a photo and a one-liner notifying their eventual fates.
There's a big contradiction between the high-tech story and the nature of the tasks to be done, which are roughly divided between opening secret chambers via simple puzzles, and escaping captivity using a variety of utility items. While admittedly sort of realistic, there is little exciting about repeatedly unscrewing panels with plastic cards. Whenever greater aptitude is warranted, such as operating an escape pod, a nuclear device, or even a toy robot, the game takes over, and the screen fades to black while the job is auto-completed. This is supposed to maintain the flow of the story, but it basically comes across as a cop-out, and the frequent hands-off resolutions deeply frustrates. In fact, only two quests – rescuing Emre in Turkey and an Arab merchant in Florence – truly demand cohesive thought. While neither is tough, and some may crib about the repetitive process of the Italian job, they at least integrate multiple steps, screens, items and lateral thinking to achieve their objectives, which gives you the satisfaction of puzzles well solved.
The game also skimps on interactive dialogue, preferring its characters to volunteer information instead of investing in player conversation. In exchange, it offers two decision points – one at Alcatraz and another at Santorini – that yield four ultimate outcomes. The first changes a bit of gameplay during a visit to CERN, while the second affects Max and Nina's relationship. The latter is obviously of great consequence to the series, but instead of resulting in at least a new cinematic, the conclusion is merely documented with a single slide as part of the 'where are they now' montage, which reduces the incentive to replay the last chunk of the game essentially to nil.
There is a silver lining to all this streamlining, however: the clean, clever mechanics. Interactive items and areas are named on rolling the cursor over them, and investigating further by right-clicking gets you a succinct, spoken description which hints at their utility. Right-clicking also fast-forwards cutscenes and dialogues, while left-clicking selects objects and people, and double-clicking exits immediately fades to the next area. Rolling over the lower edge of the screen brings up the inventory and utilities panel, which includes the hotspot highlighter (spacebar also works) and help icon. Other facilities include one-click saves, and the choice to customise the main menu by answering four multiple choice questions about your favourite movie, game, pastime and season. There is no diary to note down salient points of the story or conversations, but the help function reminds you of your current situation and objective in case you need a nudge. Really, though, the game is too linear for anyone to get confused about what to do next.
Inventory objects can be used with each other or onscreen hotspots by simply clicking one on the other. The game minimises guesswork while combining items by disabling left-clicks for incorrect matches. This enhancement speeds up the experimentation process, though the sparse inventory and simplistic tasks usually don't even warrant the necessity. The inventory is cleared when locations change; in the meantime, sometimes used objects go away, sometimes they persist. There are also some red herrings that are never used. Objects are all generic and there are no unexpected solutions, but ironically, Nina's astounding prowess at getting herself out of scrapes using everyday items often requires just as much suspension of disbelief as zanier puzzles would.
The standalone puzzles are equally straightforward in logic and execution. Besides typical fare like a jigsaw, a slider, a shape arranger, and some rotators, there are a couple of creative minigames such as plying a submarine underwater using a bird's eye view, and a war-game between two combat robots. An Indiana Jones-style stone floor image grid, which has Nina and Emre work alternately, is hindered by poor lighting, which makes it hard to decipher the symbols. Sometimes you have to select the difficulty level of a minigame, which decides its complexity; for example, the easier level of the shape arranger marks the places of some pieces with shadows, while the tougher submarine ride adds the challenge of managing water currents. None of them require any sort of dexterity. Merit badges are awarded at the end for certain frivolous achievements and your puzzle solving expertise, as well as for encountering each of the four final outcomes.
Production quality varies across the board. The artwork is realistic, crisp and detailed, kept stylish without deviating from the clean, classic look using edgy camera angles and smart lighting. The character models are lifelike and move quickly and credibly, though they struggle a bit with turning around and negotiating curves. Lip sync does not match the spoken dialogue at all, which makes the few close-up conversations rather awkward. In-game animation ranges from subtle (quietly scrolling computer screens) to sensible (an x-ray machine at work) to outright spectacular, like when a tapestry burns up. Cutscenes are also edited nicely to create a high degree of visual tension, but for some reason they are much hazier than the game screens, which leads to harsh transitions from one to the other. A routine shortcut is to substitute cinematics with plain black screens denoting the passage of time, especially towards the latter half of the game. On the other hand, there are some special touches too, like the cheekily-named Bingle search engine and the uncredited rock ballad "Queen for a Day" that plays on the radio in Max's office, which itself has been subtly upgraded since its early days.
The script is localised efficiently into English with only sporadic typos, but barring some of Nina's comments, it is rather dreary and functional, with a high nerd quotient thanks to the convoluted concept. There is negligible chit-chat, and the near-constant technobabble makes it a task to stay attentive unless you're interested in this sort of metaphysics. Without Max to bounce them off, Nina's playful jibes about him sound like bitching instead of bickering. Some much needed comic relief comes from Jane's geeky assistant, and unlikely as it may sound, from Leonardo da Vinci and his nosy young aide. Despite its serious approach, the game is amiably self-deprecating and chips away at the fourth wall: Nina jokes about only 'experts' finding fantastically useful objects in trashcans, and even Max, in his cameo, finds time to ask if anyone ever really undoes screws using keycards in real life.
As in the previous games, Russian native Nina and the German Max have American accents, but this inconsistency aside, their voiceovers are pleasant and competent. Jane sounds unduly hysterical, and while it is difficult to comment on the authenticity of exotic accents like those of Emre, Archimedes, the Arab merchant or the Italian cast, focus on voice quality and tone rather than accent, as in the case of Menis Ra, would probably have made them less caricaturish. The background score changes orchestration with new locations to reflect local ethnic flavour and does an adequate job, as do the sound effects.
Overall, Secret Files 3 delivers an acceptable performance as a one-off game, but its insipid effort to tie up a trilogy generates a sense of regret at what it could have been. It's difficult to understand the decision to use Nina as the predominant protagonist this time, as her solo adventure waters down both the script and gameplay to a painfully generic consistency. It's a waste of a valuable resource to ignore Max instead of utilising both his expertise as an archaeologist and his relationship with Nina to give the story a more emotional – or even humorous – aspect. The game also spends an undue amount of its already skimpy playing time on uncovering scientific nitty-gritty, and rushes through critical segments while glossing over crucial explanations like why Nina is chosen to save the world and how everything spirals back into the previous two games. The easy and commonplace puzzles are paradoxical to the complex premise, which translates into too much exposition, too little action. And so at the end of the day, Secret Files 3 will remain just a lazy afternoon's dalliance, and not an affair to remember.
Secret Files 3 replaces romance with rocket science, but its convoluted premise, simplistic puzzles, and slapdash resolutions make it the weakest link of the trilogy.