Adventure Gamers Awards
A lot of ambitious games tend to suffer from lack of focus, whether through story or gameplay, sometimes trying to cram so much in that it just ends up cluttered and rushed. Thankfully, Artifex Mundi’s satirical Irony Curtain: From Matryoshka with Love is an exception, as it’s stuffed with content and ideas but never loses its way, resulting in a fun, hilarious, and even at times surprisingly thrilling point-and-click romp about communism, espionage and vodka.
The story follows a man named Evan Kovolsky, an American journalist advocating for socialism during the Cold War era. After trying (and failing) to give a presentation about the communist country of Matryoshka (which is assuredly not Russia) on live television, he is invited to said country by a mysterious woman named Anna, who tells him that “The Leader” wants to meet him. This being Evan’s lifelong dream, he gladly accepts, and after narrowly escaping being arrested by the FIA (the “Fringe Intelligence Agency”) for calling Matryoshka, he is soon on his way overseas to unravel a political conspiracy bigger than he could have ever imagined.
Irony Curtain touts itself as being inspired by classic adventure games, and it certainly is in its sense of humor. Some the comedy comes from the absurd situations Evan finds himself in, like having to fill out a form to use a hotel bathroom or trying to win a crate of vodka in a street gambling game – the buy-in being a bottle of the same brand of vodka.
Another source of hilarity comes from the unique characters you meet during your stay in Matryoshka. Evan himself is a likeable protagonist, especially compared to snarkier adventure game heroes. He’s goofy, well-meaning, and while initially blinded by fake propaganda (even going so far as to say his luggage being ripped apart and haphazardly sewn together is a tremendous honour), the more he experiences the real Matryoshka, the more he begins sympathizing with its citizens, ultimately to the point of helping them rise up against the government. It’s a satisfying and believable character arc that allows Evan to remain a bit flaky, while also letting him grow past his naivety and making him more relatable by mirroring the player’s reactions. The more you learn and are saddened by the rampant poverty of Matryoshka, the more Evan becomes so as well.
Evan isn’t the only kooky person throughout this journey, as there are plenty of recurring characters that populate this glorious fictional setting, including the femme fatale Anna Eaglove, who acts as the proverbial straight man to Evan and his antics; the initially imposing but eventually endearing tower of a human being Sergeant Miedviediev (who even admits he grows to like Evan over time), and the ever-mysterious Leader. He’s a short Stalin-esque dictator that basically every citizen hates yet Evan initially adores until he comes to see through the lies that have been falsely spun as the truth.
Even one-off NPCs manage to be distinctive thanks to the game’s witty dialogue. Some of my favourites were the butcher that has no meat but tons of vodka to offer, the ex-university professor who lives in a pipe, and a welding woman who just wants to be appreciated for her hard work. No matter how small the role, Irony Curtain does its best to make every interaction funny and memorable, and it usually succeeds.
The interface is extremely easy to learn, with simple controls used to move Evan around faux-3D environments. Clicking the left mouse button on objects or people brings up contextual icons like talk to, pick up, and look at. Evan can observe almost anything or anyone with something to say about it (sometimes even cluing you in on what you need). Double-clicking will make him run, but even his running speed can be a bit on the slow sider. Rolling the cursor to the top of the screen brings up your inventory, as does scrolling down on the mouse wheel. Right-clicking items in inventory allows you to examine them. This is a key part of puzzle solving, as you’ll often need to modify items before they can be used properly. Along with the ability to combine two objects together, inspecting something in close-up mode might show that it can be taken apart, adding both pieces to your inventory separately. So when you pick up a new item, always give it a once-over to see what might be done with it.
A hotspot highlighter is available via the space bar, which is helpful because every interactive object blends seamlessly into the backgrounds and some aren’t particularly obvious. Really the only things missing from this game’s user-friendly features are a fast travel map and a journal to keep track of your progress. Given how large some of the traversable areas are, the lack of map makes backtracking more tedious, and you’re on your own to remember your current objectives if you save and quit in the middle of a chapter. The latter isn’t too big a hardship, however, as while the areas are pretty open, the puzzles themselves are fairly linear, so you’re usually working on a string of minor goals to achieve the active major objective.
Your overall purpose in Matryoshka starts out being to warn the Leader of the rising rebellion, which leads to hairbrained schemes like sneaking into the palace unnoticed after incapacitating an official, and later trying to smuggle yourself in with a hillbilly who makes mushroom moonshine (or shroomcohol). Accomplishing such tasks involves standard genre fare like collecting useful items (a lot of them have more than one use), talking to people in the right order, and even navigating the occasional dialogue tree. But Irony Curtain also throws a few curveballs as well: with espionage being one of the main themes of the Cold War, there are couple times when deciphering riddles is needed. There’s no real way to die or fail overall, so don’t be afraid to take the trial and error approach, even though solutions rarely require any giant leaps in logic. The creativity of certain puzzles might stump you on occasion, but solving them can lead to triumphant “a-ha!” moments, which is the best kind of result.
Some take it a bit too far, though, and I had a tough time at two key points. The first was during an extended fetch quest spent getting things for people just so I could get more things for other people. I needed a guide for this section because it relies on a very specific sequence of events to succeed, and one environmental object is easy to miss entirely if you’re not willing to literally just stand around and do nothing for about 30 seconds. The second time was near the very end of the game at the hardest of the aforementioned riddles, which presents a whole different type of challenge than those encountered to that point. The catch is that you can only listen to the song it’s based on, not read the written lyrics, making it extra difficult. There aren’t that many riddles in the game and the earlier ones are very manageable; it’s just that one in the home stretch that ended up being a pain. The rest of the puzzles are more forgiving, so for the most part even genre newcomers should be able to pick up and enjoy this game without too many moments of exasperation.Continued on the next page...
What our readers think of Irony Curtain: From Matryoshka with Love
Posted by Doom on May 27, 2019
A 70-year-old joke
I read in some promotional material that the game satirizing communism was made by people "who lived there". The devs are Poles who indeed lived under communism for 40 years. And yet their game feels little more than a collection of all cold war cliches...