For UFO conspiracy buffs, the great Tunguska explosion of 1908 is the Russian Roswell. Although the devastation of the Siberian blast meant that nobody got the chance to pick up any E.T. corpses and store them away for later autopsy on Fox, tinfoil hatters still think it was caused by a UFO crash. So it's not much of a surprise to see that somebody has finally decided to base an adventure game around what has to be one of the most mysterious events of the past century. But, unfortunately, Secret Files: Tunguska doesn't hit adventure gaming with anything like the impact that the big ka-boom had on about 2,300 square miles of Russian countryside. Pick-everything-up mechanics dating back to the Bronze Age and set-piece puzzles that were old back when Roberta Williams walked the earth make this effort from Animation Arts and Fusionsphere Systems more of a museum piece than a living and breathing game.
That said, it's pretty good if you're looking for a Sierra-style mystery with a spunky female protagonist. Here you play Nina Kalenkov, an attractive young woman who finds a wrecked office and a missing father one night when she pops into the old man's museum for a relaxing game of chess. As usual in these sorts of things, she gets railroaded by the cops and immediately heads off to find out what happened to dear old dad on her lonesome. She soon gains the assistance of a newfound pal named Max Gruber (whom you get to play later in the game), and before you can say "James Bond" you're on a globe-trotting expedition in a search that leads you to the Tunguska blast.
Yet the game itself isn't as exciting as that encapsulation would have you believe. The plot is certainly interesting, even if the missing-person shtick is so old that you'll want to blow dust off of it. But the structure is creaky and tedious. Your whole race to find papa and save the world takes place in the form of set-piece inventory puzzles where you must get past some sort of obstacle, like a locked door or a grumpy scientist or a sick guy who has to be healed in order to provide you with crucial information. All of these barriers are, of course, bypassed by picking up everything that isn't nailed down and slapping them together into rudimentary tools, poisons, weapons, medicines, and so forth.
It all makes more sense and is easier than expected, thanks to a straightforward design, a hint system, and a magnifying glass icon that lets you spotlight every item in a room that can be examined or picked up (say goodbye to pixel hunts). In the end, though, you're still doing amazingly goofy things. Nina fixes a bike for a little girl to get a magnet to retrieve a key from a fish tank. She feeds a stray cat salted pizza and then tapes her cell phone to it in a roundabout way of eavesdropping on a conversation. She whips up one of many concoctions with the help of reindeer hair, a nutcracker, vodka, and ketchup. And MacGyver would be proud of how she and Max slap together a blowgun. There are odd bits of interest, such as a couple of puzzles later on in the game, but Tunguska is really about picking up and combining objects in ever-more bizarre ways.
The sheer strangeness of the puzzle solutions isn't the most annoying aspect of the game, though, as you expect this kind of ridiculousness in an old-time adventure. What really grates is how the developers flaunt their defiance of reality by constantly forcing you to solve puzzles in absurd ways when there are far more sensible methods at hand. To get the attention of a colleague of your father holed up in his office with music blaring so loudly that your knocking can't be heard, you have to pull the fuse powering his ungodly Euro techno. That makes some sense, but not as much as just pounding really loudly on the door or even hoofing the damn thing a few times. Hey, daddy's missing and you're hot; the guy inside will understand. Also, you can't just yank all the fuses; you have to scrounge around the building for a map listing room numbers, as for some reason you don't want to turn the lights out in the whole place. You're freaked about your dad being kidnapped, but hey, no point in inconveniencing the janitors for a minute or two.
At least you solve these crazy conundrums in atmospheric and spooky settings. This is one of the prettiest adventures released in recent memory. Nina and Max visit a gated estate in the moonlight, kvetch in front of a misty museum, travel on the Trans-Siberian Railway, and visit many other locales that always look either pretty or creepy. Nina herself is the usual impossibly breasted and tightly jeaned game heroine, which doesn't hurt the eye appeal. Still, the game is just loaded with cinematic clichés in cutscenes, like the reflection of a villain suddenly appearing in a window being closed, or the camera lingering behind Nina on her motorcycle to reveal a sinister black car tailing her. After a few of these you start paying close attention to every clip just to see which suspense-film chestnut the developers are going to rip off next.
Tension is also bolstered by the audio. Music is sparse and eerie enough to make you fear for Nina's safety, which is probably the sole point of having tunes in these damsel-in-distress capers. Atmospheric effects are barely noticeable, though, and the dialogue is atrociously written and voiced. Nina sounds like a half-witted Valley girl, not a Russian émigré starring in an adventure noir. And the dialogue is liberally sprinkled with howlers like "Listen, girlie. I've been in the business for almost 40 years--I know when something stinks--and this thing really stinks!" and "Not to worry, Sergej would never leave such a sweet ass hanging." Where are Tom Servo and Crow when you need them?
As smooth and professional as it looks and plays, Secret Files: Tunguska feels a lot like a stale tribute to a long-gone genre. The game does what it sets out to do pretty well, but at the same time is so derivative of the past that you can't help but think that you've played it many times before.