Bunker: The Underground Game review
Just when you thought the Soviet Union was dead, and the worst that could come of hooking up with a Russian girl online was a bad date, along comes Bunker: The Underground Game to suggest otherwise. According to the first game from indie developer Nightly Studios, the last of the true Soviets are alive and well (more or less) in a secret bunker established just before the fall of the USSR. And they've taken to putting up fake dating profiles to lure in and kidnap innocent Americans. Zany hijinks ensue, or at least they're supposed to; the jokes come thick and fast, but the results are distinctly mixed. Set that aside, though, and you're still left with a decent adventure that packs in some good old-fashioned puzzling.
You play Otto Thompson, a stereotypical geek working in tech support by day and so desperate to spice up his social life that he trawls dating websites by night. One particularly slow Friday night, it looks like his luck has turned when he gets an email from a cute Russian girl, all pretty face and broken English. Naturally, he jumps at it. The only slight problem is that, when the doorbell rings, the cute girl turns out to be not so much a dazzling brunette as a big hairy bloke with a penchant for kidnapping (and, for some reason, liver). On the upside, he is Russian, and could even be described as hot if you count all the radiation he's been exposed to.
One jaunty cutscene later, Otto wakes up in the titular bunker, manacled to the wall and worried he's going to get cut up to satisfy his captor's liverlust. Clearly, the first order of business is to escape; in fact, escape is the theme of the whole rest of the game, but rest assured that you'll encounter plenty of twists and turns along the way. The bunker's clearly been around in one form or another for quite some time: one room holds the remnants of a 1984 New Year's party, while in another you run across the logs of a kidnapped scientist who looks like a refugee from a ‘70s blaxploitation flick. It appears, though, that one of the last acts of a dying USSR was to bring communism's best and brightest to the bunker to wait out the presumed aberration that was the new democratic Russia and plot a new revolution. Or something like that. In any case, it looks like after that the rest of Russia got too busy embracing glasnost and copious quantities of vodka and just kind of forgot about them. Left to their own devices ever since, out in the middle of nowhere and stuck in their late-‘80s time warp, the bunker's denizens have become rather... strange. And that's even before you get to the big mid-game reveal about who's really in charge.
As you've probably guessed, Bunker is squarely targeting zany, LucasArts-style humour, with a side of gaming jokes spread across a variety of genres. (At one point it even includes a JRPG minigame that mainly exists to poke fun at their worst aspects.) The constant scattergun of jokes, parodies and references is rarely laugh-out-loud funny, and occasionally misfires badly, but on the whole it manages to maintain a cheerful mood in contrast to the supposedly grim surroundings. Sometimes it just tries too hard to be funny, like in the intro where Otto says that despite being "one of 13 identical twins" he always felt he was "the most individual of them all", and then one day (the day he got his glasses and came out as a geek) he really was. At other times, despite the generally good English, the fact that the (Finnish) author isn't a native speaker shows through and flattens an otherwise good joke. For example, at one point you have to shut down the bunker's mainframe and it tells you, "If you think I'm going to start singing Daisy Bell, you're mistaken." That's a reference to the scene in 2001 where HAL starts singing, "Daisy, Daisy," and it really should be funny, but it took me a moment to realise that "Daisy Bell" was the proper name of that song and it was just enough to kill the joke. Humour's a tricky thing to do well, depending as it does on just the right timing and turn of phrase, and unfortunately the game is full of moments like that, jokes that are funny in principle but just don't come off in practice. Still, it's so relentless that it's hard not to smile anyway.
The cartoon graphics are an interesting mix of authentically retro pixel art (for some of the cutscenes) and a somewhat more modern 800x600 for the body of the game. To my eyes, the pixel art scenes have more character and style than the regular graphics, but I can also appreciate the author's desire to call out his Golden Era roots without pigeonholing this as a wholly retro game. There's also a moment at the beginning of the game where a cutscene that had been using pixel art to depict Otto's boring day job switches up to the higher-res style when it gets to Friday night and freedom; this really serves to emphasise Otto's joy at being released from the shackles of work (even if that joy turned out to be short-lived). This isn’t to say that the main graphics are bad at all; in fact they're crisp, decently executed and smoothly animated. It's just that they don't stand out the way the pixel art does, but then I'm a fan of low-res art so your mileage may vary.
The game also suffers a bit from being almost entirely set in a bunker: this really limits how varied the locations can be. It's all corridors and offices for the most part, with the odd canteen and tank-filled garage thrown in for good measure, all drawn with the funky angles typical of LucasArts games. That said, you do run into the Soviets' secret weapon at one point. Like a rocket, it's several stories tall and accessed via gantries on different levels. In every other respect, though, it's a far, far stranger beast and it was the highlight of the game for me.
The music is one of other high points of the game. While it inevitably includes its share of Russian-inspired tunes, it runs the gamut from classical to blues and rock, instrumental to chiptune, and from quiet and plodding to frantic depending on what the moment calls for. The JRPG parody gets its own mellow fantasy-inspired suite, too. Overall, the soundtrack manages to be consistently interesting and to set the mood without being busy enough to be distracting. The sound effects are serviceable if unremarkable, but unfortunately there's no voice acting. While that's understandable (given that Bunker is essentially a solo project by designer Tony Sundell), it's also a real shame: the cast of characters is small but diverse, and each (in my head) had quite a distinct accent and delivery. Good voice work could really have added to the atmosphere. Also, the occasional use of sound effects to substitute for voices can be annoying: at one point there's a TV newsflash that has the anchors repeatedly clacking their teeth together. While I can see the intent there, it was more distracting than anything.
The interface is very much standard point-and-click: left-click to interact, right-click to examine, with objects being used/combined by left-clicking on the object and then the target. The only minor oddity is that the inventory is called up and dismissed using the spacebar. Otto – like all self-respecting tech geeks – also has his smartphone with him, and this serves as a home for options to save/load the game, adjust the settings or see how many secrets you've found so far. (There are 33 Easter eggs to find, though I didn't find more than a handful on my two playthroughs.) In principle, you can also use it as a phone, for email or to browse the web but since you spend the whole game in a Soviet bunker with no signal, none of these options ever work. (Sadly, they don't even work at the start of the game, while you're still at home with a perfect signal. In a game with so many Easter eggs, this is a bit of a missed opportunity!) You only get four save slots, but since the game is pretty linear and doesn't let you get stuck, these should be ample for most players.
The LucasArts inspiration is clearly evident in the puzzles, which vary from reasonably logical to completely nonsensical. For example, at one point you acquire a glowing, radioactive carrot. Do you use it to make radioactive carrot soup, or feed to a genetically engineered rabbit? Nope. Instead, you're told that it looks a bit like a fuse. Given that carrots (even radioactive ones) aren't exactly known for their ability to conduct electricity, I have no idea where that idea came from, unless it's an in-joke that just flew over my head. Fortunately, though, the game drops pretty heavy hints about the more outré things you have to do, so in the end the puzzles are actually pretty straightforward. A few of the solutions are quite long and convoluted, though, and I found myself getting through these more by trying anything that seemed like it should have an interesting result than by working through them logically. Whether you see this as bad clueing or just exploration-based gameplay is up to you.
Clues are actually in pretty short supply in Bunker. Aside from hints that you pretty much need to solve some of the stranger puzzles, the game gives very little away. A lot of hotspots can't be examined, and most actions that aren't part of the intended solution go entirely unremarked. As frustrating as it can be in other games to hear, "You can't do that!" or, "Don't be silly!" over and over again when you're thrashing around unsure of what to do, at least you know you tried and failed. When nothing happens at all, you're left wondering if maybe you clicked outside the hotspot by mistake, or whether the game just glitched. In one puzzle, for example, nothing happened in response to an action I was pretty sure was correct and it was only after frustratedly trying it half a dozen times more that I eventually realised I'd forgotten to do something else first. Some kind of, "Nice try, but you're not quite there yet," response would really have been helpful just then. Also, for such a humour-based game, all these empty responses are missed opportunities to inject quips and additional life.
Aside from the inventory-based puzzles that make up the bulk of the action, the game also serves up a handful of minigames. The JRPG parody is by far the most substantial of these, giving you a surprisingly well-realised faux RPG to play through for a few minutes, but it may be rendered less fun for some by the ending, which has you dodging round the screen using controls that feel distinctly sluggish. It hardly requires you to be a twitch-gaming master, but between the treacly controls and generally trying to work out what was going on, I died a few times before I made it through. (Dying just restarts the final screen, at least, so that was no great hardship.) Other, smaller games have you sneaking past a sleeping dog, distracting cats and playing with guy-ropes in a small photography studio. They all provide welcome variation, even if I wound up getting through the last more by random clicking than actually working out what was going on.
One unusual feature of the game is the way it presents you with seemingly-meaningful choices that in fact don't change anything. This happens three times, with the last one being quite explicit about the fact that the choice is meaningless and poking fun at the practice in other games. This made me wonder if the other two were part of the same theme, or places where the original game design got trimmed back, or what. Surely Bunker can't be guilty of the same sin it pokes fun at by the end, can it?
Overall, Bunker: The Underground Game is a solid effort. It may not hit the highest notes of satire or goofball comedy, but it's well-intentioned and leaves you smiling more often than not. The puzzles likewise keep you thinking, if not usually that hard, and at 4-5 hours of playtime, the experience feels substantial enough without overstaying its welcome. If you're in the mood for a lighthearted puzzlefest and don't need your earth shattered or your foundations rocked, Bunker could just be what you're looking for.
Appropriately, Bunker feels like a time capsule from the ‘90s. Even if the humour doesn’t always hit home, the puzzles may entice you back in(to) the USSR.