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One of the more enjoyable side effects of the resurgence in family-friendly gaming over recent years has been the second chance afforded to "point-and-click" adventure games. A distinctive style of gaming that pushes the player to think laterally and solve puzzles rather than shoot, slash, bludgeon or race their way to victory like in so many other titles, adventure games became popular in the 1980s (when I first started gaming) and reached a state of near perfection under the production of Lucasarts in the 1990s (anyone else remember "Grim Fandango" and the "Monkey Island" games?). When Lucasarts stopped making adventure titles, the genre faded away under a landslide of games that made more effective use of the capabilities of new technology than the simple interface of point-and-clicks could really do justice to. However, I rather suspect that it is one of these new consoles, the Wii, that has actually helped these games make a comeback. The Wii is aimed at family audiences much more than any other console, and the controller's infra-red pointer is just perfect for the sedate pleasures of playing this sort of game (I have tried playing point-and-clicks on a joypad in the past and they just don't adapt as well to that sort of controller). The Wii is, then, the ideal platform to introduce new generations of gamers to point-and-clicks.
As a fan of point-and-click stories, I was therefore excited when the original "Secret Files" game ("Tunguska") was released in late 2006, looking for all the world like a shiny new rival to the classic "Broken Sword" series. While it had an interesting enough plot and some fun puzzles in it, the game was let down by consistently atrocious voice acting and some plotting that lacked all logic, making parts of it feel frustrating rather than challenging to the player. This is significant when you consider how much this genre is carried by scripting and voice acting - more than any other I can think of, certainly. The lead characters, Nina Kalenkov and Max Gruber, were also disappointingly two-dimensional and dull to play, and it amounted to a rather second-rate release. Despite these issues, however, I was still prepared to give the second instalment, released in 2009 and subtitled "Puritas Cordis", a chance - but only after sufficient time had elapsed for me to get it half price, mind.
Not content with resting on their laurels after saving the world in their previous game, Nina and Max are back, and things are as preposterously unrealistic for them as they ever were. "Puritas Cordis" (meaning "pure of heart") clearly takes place some time after the first game, as our protagonists have not only found time to conduct and end a relationship, but they have also made some sweeping personal changes to themselves in the meantime. Nina (who settled for being a beautiful-but-smart, strong-but-vulnerable Russian in tight jeans for "Tunguska") has now morphed into a sort of pneumatic Nancy Drew, while the handsome-but-dim Max Gruber has given up his unlikely research post to become a photographer with designer stubble who insists on dressing like a bargain-basement Indiana Jones. I suppose break-ups affect us all differently.
Clichéd though it may be, the game has an entirely new plot, which means it is not necessary to have played the first game to understand what is going on in this one, as all you will miss are a couple of strained in-jokes (you may well miss them if have played "Tunguska" for that matter). The adventure starts not with Nina or Max, but with the unfortunate Bishop Parry, a Cambridge University theologian who happens to receive a plot device in the post - namely a 300 year old coded letter. From this he can only make out references to a 17th century prophet called Zandona, a man who is now at the centre of a revived cult called Puritas Cordis who foretell the apocalypse (and their part in saving everyone from it, naturally). Like all good cults, this one of course has an evil scheme to take over the world, and it also unsurprisingly has a link to Nina's father, ensuring her rapid involvement in the story. Soon enough, poor Bishop Parry is dispatched by a trio of "Splinter Cell" rejects, mysterious happening start to occur on Nina's Mediterranean cruise ship, and Max's assignment to Indonesia is just in time for him to witness the kidnapping of his new girlfriend Sam (a blonde with all the depth of a puddle in the desert, and possibly also an affectionate nod to earlier adventure games). From this interesting start we have the promise of some enjoyably silly Dan Brown-esque shenanigans to keep us occupied, and the game most delivers plot-wise if you don't mind your thrillers being fairly ludicrous (and if you read Dan Brown, then you clearly don't).
The gameplay was one of the biggest strengths of the original game, and I am pleased to see that it hasn't been altered for the sequel. "Puritas Cordis" has several locations that you access sequentially by progressing through the plot of the game, with dialogue, puzzles and cut-scenes feeding you the information you need to move through the story. Each location is composed of between one and five static screens where your character can interact with other people and "hot spots" in the background, which is basically anything the game will allow you to interact with. One of the hallmarks of an adventure game is the ability for your character to collect anything that isn't nailed down, carry it around with them and then apply these objects both to features and each other to find Macgyver-esque solutions to the obstacles you come across. You usually start each new location with nothing in your inventory, making each one effectively a self-contained level, thus avoiding the endless backtracking between locations that you get in some older games of this genre.
The easy to use interface is built in classic point-and-click style, requiring nothing more than left and right mouse clicking. Left-clicking allows you to interact with an eligible hot spot, while right-clicking lets your character examine an object or skip ahead through dialogue (as the dialogue is subtitled, I found it quicker at many points just to read and skip though what was being said). Moving your cursor to the bottom of the screen brings up your inventory bar, which lists what you are carrying and gives you access to a highly useful hot spot highlighter and your rather less useful diary. The highlighter, as the name suggests, highlights all available hot spots on screen, so you can make sure you don't miss any key points at a location - a huge improvement over older games that used to involve sweeping the screen with your pointer looking for the one pixel that you were able to interact with. The diary keeps notes about the plot and key information as you go along, with assistance for certain puzzles popping up in it from time to time. The notes would really only be useful if you had a long break inbetween plays and needed a "previously on" style recap, but I didn't really use this feature. As for the kindly puzzle help, the hints it gives are very arbitrary and vary between being pointlessly vague and giving the answer outright. I suspect they were put in by the designers to target what they thought would be the hardest puzzles for the players in the game - but I found they tended to ignore what I found to be the hardest puzzles, and instead gave you hints about the more obvious riddles that generally provoked a "well I realised that, but how to I actually go about doing it?" reaction in me.
The reason for this was the absurdity of some of the puzzles. The best examples of this genre balance the need for lateral thinking with the internal logic of the real world - you can see what you need to do to achieve your objective, and follow a series of logical steps to get there. The writers of the "Secret Files" games have once again produced a game that in places has an absurd realism all of its own - time and again I could see the desired conclusion, but the game prevented me from doing the most logical thing to get there. Some puzzles worked; take, for example, the puzzle that required me to build a disguise so I could acquire another character's room key by deception. I had to make my white robe look like her pink one, and the solution is a logical case of putting it in a washing machine with a red sock - we all know what that result will be and it is straightforward to figure out. Likewise, the developed use of dual character puzzles to add further thought and complexity to otherwise simple tasks was a nice touch. But then you have other puzzles such as the place where (for reasons I won't go into) you need to provide a small child with a ball. At the point you have ball-like objects in your inventory - surely I can just give him one of these? No, apparently I have to wrap the ball-like objects I already have with foil, and then combine them with other objects I am randomly carting around with me to make a scale model of the atomium in Belgium to enter into a modelling competition, and then get another ball back as confirmation of my entry - all on the basis that you had walked past a picture of the atomium earlier in the game and this would therefore occur to you as the sensible thing to do.
Then there is the matter that you can combine objects before it is logical to do so, so you can create highly specific, obscure and unfathomable creations before the plot requires them - just why would Nina behave like that? With a bit more thought, the designers should have made the player be unable to carry out some actions until you have received the information that tells you that you actually need to do them. All too often this means that you end up solving puzzles not by logic and lateral thinking, but by arbitrarily trying every random object with every hot spot until something works - which is frustrating and takes the fun out of parts of the game. Don't get me wrong - I did find many parts of "Puritas Cordis" fun to play, but these inconsistencies should really have been ironed out after the first game, and the hints system is no compensation for those challenges that prove unsatisfying. Still, at least we managed to get through an entire adventure game without the damn Templars making an appearance.
**Graphics and Sound**
The graphics are of slightly better quality than the original, and while the backgrounds are well rendered and a pleasure to explore, the characters look far more "blocky" and unrealistic in close-ups than you might expect from a game produced in 2009 - although this is not a huge problem, a more polished final appearance would have been pleasing. The designers have gone for a realistic graphic style, with plenty of detail, good lighting effects and some nice environmental animations in place. The 3D characters blend in reasonably well with the scenery, although they do move slowly through it and the interaction with the objects can be a bit ropey in places, with collision detection errors being far too common for my liking. The facial expressions are supposed to be adapted to the speech when the characters talk, but this has limited success, probably because these facial expressions were designed for the original German dialogue (but I am not ruling out that all the characters were given Botox injections before delivering their lines). It is not very noticeable and doesn't really detract from the game, though, especially as I chose to follow the subtitles rather than listen to the speech for the most part. The cut-scenes are impressive and enjoyable to watch, with many having a very cinematic feel to them - unfortunately the high quality of the cut-scenes does nothing to flatter the stiff movements of the characters that players encounter during gameplay. The music is fairly unmemorable, but the designers have gone to the trouble of putting in good, appropriate background sounds in each of the scenes to provide atmosphere, but I found I only really noticed this if I played with a good pair of headphones on.
The voice acting has improved immeasurably since the first game, when it was highly amateurish, and I was pleased to note that the translation from the original German in both the dialogue and the subtitles was done to a good standard this time. The characters haven't been given their appropriate national accents (with the exception of a minor Chinese character which I think was supposed to be a funny stereotype, but which actually came across as something potentially quite offensive). I could live with the drawling American accents, though, as the voice acting was done well, if delivered a bit too slowly in places - something that is very important in this genre, when scripting carries so much of the game. The writers have even gone so far as to inject some humour into the proceedings. Later in the game, the self-aware remarks by Nina about what would happen if she was in a video game are actually quite funny. This doesn't quite make up for other deficiencies, but it does make them a less bitter pill to swallow.
A few grumbles aside, "Secret Files 2" proved to be a quite enjoyable game to play for the most part, and it was certainly a big improvement on the original title in this series. It looked pretty good and was well enough scripted in the dialogue, if not in all the puzzles, and while a more polished final appearance would have been nice, I will concede that it is not the worst looking point-and-click I have tried by a long stretch. The plot was intriguing, if a bit clichéd, and the main characters seemed more developed and interesting than they did on their last outing. Some of the puzzles were really fun to work through and gave a sense of satisfaction from completing them, but there were still too many that needed to be overcome by the "trying everything" approach because the internal logic was too barmy for even the most seasoned adventurer to figure out for themselves. The game also delivers a respectable amount of gameplay - my stats at the end showed I had completed it in 616 minutes, which is just over 10 hours of entertainment in return for my money. This I feel is pretty good value at Amazon's current price of £19.99, but I wouldn't recommend paying the full £35 for what you get in this package. All in all, a definite improvement on the original, and if this trend continues into the almost inevitable third instalment, then the next "Secret Files" game could well be something to rival "Broken Sword".
Recommended to: adventure game fans, puzzle fans who want an easy-to-play thinking game, parents who want challenging non-violent games for older children
Not recommended to: people who get easily annoyed by poor logic
Developer: Deep Silver/Fusionsphere
System Requirements: Windows 2000/XP/Vista, Pentium III 800MHz, 256 MB RAM, DirectX 9 compatible AGP or PCI Express video card, 2GB hard drive space
Other platforms: Wii, DS
PEGI: Suitable for ages 12+ (non-graphic violence and mild swearing)
Price: RRP £35, currently £19.99 on Amazon.co.uk at time of writing