KGB starts with a bang.
In a blood-red full motion video, an unknown assailant breaks into an office and guns down ex-KGB officer and alleged private eye Pyotr Golitsin as he works at his desk. The attack isn’t unexpected: Golitsin kept his own gun close at hand, but the precaution yields naught at the fatal moment. Soon after, Captain Maksim Rukov is summoned by his boss, Major Vovlov of KGB Moscow, and assigned to investigate the murder – specifically, to ascertain whether it’s linked in any way to Golitsin’s past employment with the KGB.
Cryo's KGB is a slideshow-style point-and-click adventure game that unfolds from Rukov’s perspective as his investigation sets him on the trail of an international crime ring exporting snuff video tapes – films of young women abused and murdered for real on screen – in exchange for cocaine smuggled in from Europe. But each clue he unravels draws him deeper into a conspiracy of powerful vested interests who crave not just illegitimate money, but the ultimate weapon – absolute political control – in a rapidly destabilizing nation.
It’s an interesting premise that is quickly lost in information overload. Set in 1991, the game entwines real events of the period into the story at an alarming pace that will leave gamers unfamiliar with the history of the Soviet Union (particularly the factors that led to its eventual collapse) in way over their heads. In a situation akin to being lost at sea – water everywhere, yet not a drop to drink – numerous characters and plot points vie for attention and explanation that isn’t forthcoming either from rookie Rukov or his contacts, who are always too busy to clearly state their agendas or answer his questions. Players thus have no choice but to plod along with Rukov through his mundane journey of inventory puzzles and tedious conversations amidst double- and triple-crosses to a contrived, haphazard end.
The eventual destination of the tapes is the USA, a lucrative market that represents the glittering ‘West’ to a sizeable chunk of the Soviet population chafing under the shackles of communism and desperately hungry for American dollars, Cuban cigars, and perestroika, then-President Mikhail Gorbachev’s promise of political and economic reforms intended to liberalize the government’s policies, end the Cold War, and improve the quality of life for the average Russian. But not everyone is excited about free trade and free speech. The opposition considers these revolutionary ideas a threat to the very essence of the Soviet Union, meticulously nurtured to reflect the supremacy of the state over individual rights and needs. These people – powerful leaders in the bureaucracy and the omnipotent KGB, as well as ordinary citizens – are alarmed by the growing influence of the West, spiraling costs of commodities, and rapidly-spreading anarchy across the nation.
After discovering a coded message indicating the time and place for the latest exchange of contraband, Rukov is dispatched to Leningrad to spy on the meeting, along with the warning to be wary of the local KGB, many officers of which are suspected to be pro-liberalization and corrupt. As expected, Rukov immediately faces quiet yet persistent resistance from the local operatives, who appear to be involved in crimes ranging from running prostitution rings to anti-government activities, leading one character to blandly remark that if all corruption was rooted out of the KGB, hardly any staff would be left. His advice? To focus on ‘relevant corruption’, that which poses a threat to the nation, rather than petty crime.
Rukov is aided in his investigation by his controller, the sadistic Savinkov; a mysterious entity called Cut-Throat; and a CIA operative who represents the American investigation into the case. The trail of the tapes leads Rukov from one dangerous situation to another – from seedy bars to dusty warehouses and swanky hotels, plus a trip out to the open sea in a rickety fishing boat to witness the actual ‘drop’. Originally released in 1992, the game earns its alternate title Conspiracy – the name it was re-released under in 1994 – as the case then twists again, veering wildly from straightforward crime to a more heinous political conspiracy to overthrow the liberal government and restore the Soviet Union to its conservative, communist glory.
Playing this game in 2010, nearly two decades after its creation and the fall of the Soviet Union, is like watching an eerie documentary of those turbulent years. Many issues are touched upon: the inherent distrust between the KGB and the Soviet militia; the derision between the various departments of the KGB; assassinations of people deemed to have ‘learnt too much’ and torture of civilians by the secret police; the scarring, decade-long war with Afghanistan; the emergence of aggressive ultra-national organizations such as the anti-Semitist Pamyat; the failed attempt by the KGB to overthrow Gorbachev; and the all-pervasive distress and misfortune of the common people. Unfortunately, the historical facts, though morbidly fascinating, prove to be the undoing of this game. They infringe on the story, needlessly complicate the plot, burden a protagonist too naïve to grasp their importance, disorient the gamer, and derail the premise of the smuggling ring which could have held its own if properly fleshed out.
The story is divided into four chapters, one set in Moscow and three in Leningrad. Rukov has to follow and talk to other characters to extract information about the case and current affairs. He can look at and use various objects in each scene and add some to his inventory, either to combine or apply later to external items. There is no pixel-hunting, the inventory is manageable despite harboring some useless junk, and the object use is limited and obvious. The default smart cursor decides the most obvious activity for each item, but players can choose additional actions like Hide, Fight, Listen and Knock by right-clicking on a hotspot. There is a map to help with orientation, though given the straightforward arrangement of locations, it’s never a real requirement.Continued on the next page...