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Secret Agent: The Five Keys review - "Visually stunning, but gameplay feels unpolished"

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Secret Agent: The Five Keys review - "Visually stunning, but gameplay feels unpolished"

"Why do so many game developers try to make computer games look like ‘real life’ when you can make ‘real life’ play like a computer game?" With this question in mind, solo dev Colin Greenaway (CG Entertainment) set off on an ambitious journey to create a love letter to point-and-click games, but with the added twist of making it feel like real life. From his passion came Secret Agent: The Five Keys, and the result is indeed a visual masterpiece.

The story of Secret Agent: The Five Keys

A notorious criminal-in-hiding named Draven has instructed his henchmen to acquire some suspicious data from his coastal manor, and as a member of the Secret Service, you must intercept this message before more baddies get their hands on any sensitive information. From there, you embark on an intriguing and atmospheric adventure filled with twists, turns, and red herrings. You'll break codes, solve riddles, and maybe even do a little digging - literally and figuratively.

Secret Agent: The Five Keys is indeed a labour of love, as the developer personally learned Xcode and the Swift language to create this game out of 30,000 - 40,000 lines of code. The visuals were done using drone and gimbal cameras to simulate the effect of being in an actual movie, with an impressive level of realism that combines the best of moviemaking and 3D animation.

Secret Agent: The Five Keys graphics

This brings us to the game's graphics, which, in my opinion, is the title's strongest point. Roaming around the manor and doing some super sleuthing is as immersive as can be because of how everything was shot - it really does feel like you're in an actual movie, with every movement caught on cam from actual human footage.

The realism takes it up a notch with IRL movement speed as well - thankfully, you can toggle this on and off if you want to speed up your movement to get from place to place. Sound effects also add to the overall vibes, along with the very spy-centric background music and the dim lighting around the manor.

The poor lighting does feel a little straining to the eyes if you're playing for a long time, but the protagonist advises you against turning on the lights for fear of alerting anyone to your presence. It's a little contradictory though that you're making such a ruckus inside - everything you do from opening cupboards to even just walking down the hall is not in the least bit stealthy, so keeping the lights off to stay incognito is really a bit of a moot point, to be honest.

At one point, you can even turn on the coffee machine and make yourself a cup of joe, grinding the beans and giving yourself a caffeine boost. The noise you make honestly could've woken up the whole neighbourhood.

Gameplay of Secret Agent: The Five Keys

These seemingly insignificant details, I believe, really take away from the immersive elements of the game because of poor execution. Little things like grammatical errors here and there make the game feel unpolished at times, and the main protagonist's odd personality doesn't help, either. His side comments feel off and aren't exactly in sync with the serious tone of the game.

To give you an example, he reacts to certain clues in a bit of an immature way, like "Why?!", "Ummm!", and "What on earth does that mean???" Multiple question marks and exclamation points are a bit of a pet peeve, and I understand that the developer is doing everything himself, but it's just a shame because something like this can easily be rectified by a copywriter.

As for the puzzles themselves, they do feel logical, and at times even ingenious. You can choose between an Easy and a Hard mode - the former shows you a blinking icon that indicates items you can interact with, and the latter doesn't.

While the presence or absence of blinking indicators can really affect the game's difficulty, what actually makes either mode more challenging is the fact that the UI itself gets in the way of items you can tinker with. For instance, tapping an item in front of you will show you four icons: a wrench icon, a bag, a magnifying glass, and a hand. Typical of the point-and-click genre, these correspond to actions when you interact with a certain item.

What's frustrating here is that sometimes, the icons can pop up off-screen, or can be partly covered by the other UI elements on your screen. Doubly frustrating is the black notch where the front-facing camera of iPhone X series models is positioned - this unfortunate black bar can obstruct items in the far left of your screen when you're playing the game in landscape mode. I can't tell you how many times I couldn't tap on things because that black bar is covering the screen, which only means that the game may not be too optimized for all iPhone models.

What's the appeal?

The difficulty level of the game, as such, doesn't relate to the actual difficulty of the puzzles, but rather to the difficulty of the wonky controls. This sadly takes away any exhilaration from solving an otherwise satisfying conundrum.

I also found the epilepsy check at the beginning of each playthrough a little problematic. There's nothing wrong with the epilepsy warning itself - it's a wonderful feature, actually - but the issue is its repetitiveness each time the game boots up. You can get rid of the epilepsy warning through your device's Face ID, but a handful of times, the biometrics somehow wouldn't work and I'd be forced to go through the epilepsy check even when just trying to continue the game due to a bad glitch that crashed the whole thing.

I love how responsible the dev is being by placing an epilepsy warning there, but if we're talking about accessibility, there's one particular part of the game where you'll need to tune into a certain frequency and find the source of the beeping. There's no way for you to solve this puzzle without actually turning up the volume and listening to the rapid beeping as you get closer to the source, which is a bit of a poor design choice - not everyone is able to turn up the volume, and you might just get stuck in this particular part if your device is on mute.

Overall, Secret Agent: The Five Keys will benefit a lot from more Quality of Life improvements to make the gameplay and the controls smoother. Because of the lack of QOL elements, this honestly feels like a beta build rather than an official launch, and while I am absolutely in awe of how the solo dev poured his heart and soul into this game, I think a little bit of polishing can really make it shine even more.

Secret Agent: The Five Keys review - "Visually stunning, but gameplay feels unpolished"

Secret Agent: The Five Keys is a gorgeous point-and-click adventure that boasts stunning visuals reminiscent of being in an actual movie. Controls are a little wonky and it suffers from some UI issues, but if you can get past all that, it does provide a unique experience and brings something fresh to the table.
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