Veterans of classic adventure games are likely on a first-name basis with Nina and Max already; for the uninitiated, feisty do-gooder Nina Kalenkov and her fiancé, archaeologist Max Gruber, have graciously saved us from apocalyptical doom twice already. But just when they think it's safe to take a breather from genocidal megalomaniacs and start planning a quiet wedding, a team of commandos bursts into their bedroom and hauls Max off on charges of terrorism, leaving Nina to scramble for scraps of cryptic information which eventually expose another (literally) earth-shattering bout of villainy. The simply-titled Secret Files 3 follows popular predecessors Tunguska (2006) and Puritas Cordis (2009) in theme, attitude and styling: it stays focused on the sweetly sassy, good-versus-evil track while making a concerted effort to keep gameplay entertaining and more sensible than before. Unfortunately, the third time doesn't prove a charm, as the latest installment underwhelms in most other comparisons.
Although much of the game's pre-release hype centered around the professional writing team brought on board this time around, the plot is steadfastly restricted to crazies chasing world domination. The previous two games did so as well, but those titles banked more on the attractive lead couple, exotic locations, mysterious cloaked figures, deranged villains, and occasionally bizarre but consistently amusing quests to keep the action chugging along even as their pseudo-scientific tales unfolded. By contrast, Secret Files 3 leans heavily on the technical aspect of its story, building a rather intricate scientific theory that hijacks the actual plot but fails to ramp up either gameplay or characterisation accordingly, yielding several solemn science lectures but little else of consequence.
Another misstep is the attempt to tie the Secret Files trilogy together, especially since there is no recap of past events. It is mentioned in passing that Nina's nightmares of hooded figures and blazing fires have recurred since the Tunguska days, and familiar ancient symbols are strewn about, but neither induces much curiosity because the game treats both as incidental. Nina refuses to discuss her visions even with Max, so you don't get a window into her thoughts, which makes it tough to care about her problem. To make matters worse, one of the series' main draws is lost right off the bat as the game splits up the charismatic duo and shuts Max largely out of the gameplay, making Nina the sole protagonist most of the time. Besides losing a core character, this leaves cagey Nina without a partner to share her distress with, and removes any means for delving into her mental state. Meanwhile, the stereotypical supporting cast gets only a few minutes of screen-time each – just enough to blurt out essential facts and figures.
The gameplay has also been revamped, but largely to the game's detriment. Inventory quests – criticized for being too outlandish in the previous games – have been reduced in both quantity and complexity. This is ostensibly to improve the flow of the story, but obstacles now suffer from diminished charm and challenge, being limited largely to open-door-with-crowbar type tasks. Standalone puzzles are similarly watered down, and there is little dialogue other than Nina's snarky comments (mostly to herself) and the scientific chatter, while production quality fluctuates between classy and jarring. The super-streamlined gameplay mechanics, however, are a delight, and the linear, no-risk progression allows breezy advancement. That doesn't do this truncated game any favours though – its brevity (five hours for me) and haphazard resolutions of key issues will probably disappoint gamers who have waited three years to play it.
If this heap of criticism makes it sound like Secret Files 3 is a bad game, it's not. It is just very ordinary, which feels like a letdown given its potential to be more. While Animation Arts has, as usual, blended historic events and people into the story to give it greater plausibility than simple fiction, they haven't fleshed out the characters enough to bring it to life, nor have they capitalised on the long-term relationship of Nina and Max to give the game an emotional depth beyond executing mechanical tasks. The story delves deep into the why and how of its chosen method of global destruction: the explanation spans eras and civilisations, and links topics as diverse as antimatter and Archimedes, the quadrillionth value of pi and Fermi's paradox, the CERN particle accelerator and Leonardo da Vinci. Impressive? Definitely. But essential to the game itself? Questionable, since the details don't directly affect either core objective of saving Max from his captors or the world from a weapon of mass destruction. It's also evident that such extreme detailing of one aspect led to cutting corners on most others.
The prologue is set in strife-torn Alexandria in 48 BC, where master thief Menis Ra is paid a princely sum to torch some scrolls in the royal library. This brief segment is rich in visual texture and combines inventory puzzles with offbeat activities like scaling a wall and stealthily avoiding guards to start off the game with aplomb. The action then shifts to present day France for Max and Nina's wedding, but Nina's worst nightmare soon comes to life when Max is abducted. Desperate to save him and haunted by her visions, Nina swings into action, first tracing clues scattered around Max's home and office, then rushing to the archaeological site in Turkey where he had been researching the disappearance of an ancient civilisation.
There she meets Max's dig partner, Emre Dardogan, who introduces the scientific theory of the plot. Nina then flies to San Francisco and returns to Europe aboard a US military ship; gatecrashes the CERN facility in Switzerland where obsessive scientist Jane Cunningham is on the brink of a major discovery, and takes a submarine to the sunken ruins below the Greek island Santorini. In between, a dream sequence allows her to time-hop to 15th century Florence and affect ongoing events while being invisible to the locals. Taking things further, she later travels into the future to meet a multi-millennia old alien in a post-apocalyptic city.
All this jet-setting may sound hectic, and indeed the segments in each location are quite short, averaging three or four screens, half a dozen activities and a similar count of inventory items. Emre and Jane have one playable task each, Max has three; Nina handles the rest. Objectives are quite reasonable – mundane, even – and backtracking is negligible. Segments are linked by quick explanations and cutscenes, but even then, it's not always clear what is going on, such as why the US army is involved (or even if it is), or why a hacker is based in a public building like the Alcatraz. Most of the cast have only momentary roles and exist solely to give Nina items or information, then vanish afterwards until being accounted for at the end of the game with a photo and a one-liner notifying their eventual fates.
There's a big contradiction between the high-tech story and the nature of the tasks to be done, which are roughly divided between opening secret chambers via simple puzzles, and escaping captivity using a variety of utility items. While admittedly sort of realistic, there is little exciting about repeatedly unscrewing panels with plastic cards. Whenever greater aptitude is warranted, such as operating an escape pod, a nuclear device, or even a toy robot, the game takes over, and the screen fades to black while the job is auto-completed. This is supposed to maintain the flow of the story, but it basically comes across as a cop-out, and the frequent hands-off resolutions deeply frustrates. In fact, only two quests – rescuing Emre in Turkey and an Arab merchant in Florence – truly demand cohesive thought. While neither is tough, and some may crib about the repetitive process of the Italian job, they at least integrate multiple steps, screens, items and lateral thinking to achieve their objectives, which gives you the satisfaction of puzzles well solved.Continued on the next page...