Ah, secrets. We all have them. Whether it's the love of a hideously uncool band from yesteryear, or the 'accidental' breaking of a sibling's arm, we've all got some guilty little tidbits stashed away from the condemning eyes of the world.
Of course, not many of us have secrets on the scale of Tunguska, the titular region of Siberia that sustained a devastating meteor strike a century ago. According to Deep Silver, what history shows to have been a 15-megaton natural disaster may have involved something rather more sinister.
Enter Nina Kalenkov, a humble bike mechanic on the trail of her missing scientist dad, who has left behind a series of clues linking his disappearance to his past investigation into the Tunguska incident. It falls to you, as Nina, to follow the breadcrumbs, chase up leads and make use of simple environmental objects to progress the story and solve the mystery.
Using the DS stylus to click on points of interest on each lovingly rendered (if static) screen, Secret Files: Tunguska is a game of steady exploration, lateral thinking and no small amount of trial and error. Those in possession of an itchy trigger finger and an intolerance for text-based exposition need not apply. Those with an A Team-like level of improvisational skill, however, will find themselves right at home.
Touching the magnifying glass symbol at the top right of the lower game screen will display any nearby points of possible interaction, neatly bypassing the problem of missed clues that can often pop up in games of this kind. As long as you're thorough, you should always have the tools at your disposal to solve the next problem. Which is a jolly good thing, it turns out, because some of the solutions to these problems fly in the face of conventional logic.
While a good proportion of the tasks you face in Secret Files: Tunguska will follow a reasonable line of thought – use the bike spoke to hook out a key from a gap in the floor boards, for example – some will have you beating your head in exasperation as you stumble across the solution. Any person who deduces the need to stick a mobile phone to a cat with double sided tape in order to eavesdrop on a suspicious character can consider themselves to be not quite right in the head.
Happily, this bizarre puzzle also serves to illustrate one of the game's key strengths: its sense of humour. It's hard to curse the randomness of some of the puzzles when you're struggling to stifle a grin. This humour manifests itself in the script too, which is often playful in tone and surprisingly close to the knuckle on one or two occasions. It's not averse to a little toilet humour, and one double entendre three hours in had us unwittingly chuckling to ourselves before we remembered how sophisticated and cultured we are. Ahem.
Don't be fooled by the jovial tone, however – Secret Files: Tunguska is a sharply scripted thriller, expertly notching up the tension at key moments. The story itself is fairly unoriginal, involving the sort of government conspiracies, mysterious sects and improbably heroic scientists that you'd find in your average Dan Brown bestseller. But it's all done with a nod and a wink and a fine appreciation of when a 'scene' has outstayed its welcome.
This story-telling flair is aided by some generally accomplished visuals. The pre-rendered scenes are beautifully detailed, highly atmospheric and almost painterly in places. The characters, though a little blurry and basic compared to the backgrounds, are superbly animated and expressive throughout. This all aids with your immersion in Nina's world, and enables you to genuinely relate to the characters and their plights.
As with any cast in a work of fiction there are the odd duds – we never really warmed to the slightly wooden (and occasionally playable) Max, for instance – but this is easy to overlook when Nina herself is so likeable. Sharp, sardonic and worldly, she carries players through the odd misstep and frustrating dead-end.
Which really is the game's key fault, and the main obstacle that we can foresee getting in the way of many people's enjoyment of it. Some of the puzzles are just too reliant on trying out every object with every interactive element in the area. In fact, we're not too proud to admit that we consulted a guide on several instances throughout the game. We'd recommend the sparing use of one for all but the most hardened of point-and-click adventurers.
And Secret Files: Tunguska really does deserve as wide an audience as possible. It's the kind of game that's perfectly suited to the unique attributes of the DS, and it'll comprehensively while away a long journey or a lazy holiday much as a good book would. It's a secret we're glad to share with all DS owners.