In 2010 there was a Russian film released called Phobos. In the same year a PC game called Phobos 1953 was released to some acclaim. Finally this adventure title has made its way from cyrillic to latin and has an english language release. It is a quite brilliant concept. An adventure game where you get to be part of the KGB. The chance to play a spy in the Russian military intelligence during the cold war is fascinating for pretty much anyone who has ever heard or learnt a single thing about the world post-war and the multi-fronted fight for supremacy between the two great superpowers of that time. The potential is amazing. What kind of adventure will you be involved in? Spying on the US to determine how far away from them you are in the space race? Maybe some intelligence gathering regarding nuclear arms leading up to and perhaps entering into the cuban missile crisis? Maybe it’s going to be all kinds of super-soldier craziness that you got to see from the point of view of a shooter in (admittedly wartime) Wolfenstein? Really it’s hard to find an adventure story relating to the KGB that isn’t super-exciting. So when you load up this aforementioned adventure game, watch a newsreel showing the realities of the Soviet Union in 1953, and then wake up unsure of who or what you are in a darkly lit utility room with a reddened hue it’s a little puzzling. Pretty soon, once you think to check your logbook you find out that you’re an electrician assigned to do some work. Oh.
Adventure games, a more automated version of the choose your own adventure books popular in the 1980s, live and die on three things. The story, the dialogue and the puzzles. Not a good start here with regards to the story and that doesn’t get much better. You find yourself in some drab, very grey and very dark Soviet concrete monstrosity. You start off by fixing the generator and as you progress learn all about mysterious experiments and unsurprisingly secretive scientific research. If you continue through the game you might also make your way out of the underground world of concrete, and possibly learn what you were actually doing there - are you an electrician come oddjob man or is there more to it than that? We’ll leave that to the player to find out.
There is no dialogue as such, which pretty much destroys the second of the triumvirate required to succeed with a title in this most veteran of genres. You don’t meet other characters for the duration. Instead you learn about where you are, what’s going on there and how you can escape by way of documents in filing cabinets, reports detailing scientific experiments and things on walls. So no crazy discussions about big balls of string or the secret intelligence equivalent, nor any thoughts on how to travel back in time and ensure the world isn’t taken over by evil tentacles, or what would be the CIA in this situation one suspects. There is no chance to interact virtually, with people or indeed with the world around you. Your entire adventure is a very static one. Each room you move through, or lab you go past looks pretty enough, if nothing special. It should do though as it after all is just a two-dimensional piece of art in every case. No animations, no crazy number of polygons. In this day and age, on a PC this takes no effort at all to render. As long as the artist(s) are good enough you can make things pretty. What’s here is pretty, but as it’s not some impressive Russian vista, or beautiful and exotic spy world - and in fact just a bunker in the dark - then there’s not really anything to celebrate.
The puzzles themselves are typical logic puzzles that you would expect from such a game, be it an old school LucasArts one or something experienced more recently in the renaissance of such games that’s currently underway. Here what you have to do is find a blowtorch and unfreeze the pipes which look a bit grey but are actually frosted by liquid nitrogen or some such coolant. Do that and next ensure power can get from A to B. What’s depressing is that they’re just not exciting puzzles. It’s all very straitlaced here. Nothing that makes you chuckle and nothing that really comes to you unless you happen to be familiar with 1950s Soviet electronics, for example. As with anything of this ilk what’s logical to the writers and creators who setup the world and defined the logic within it may not be to anyone else. This means solving the quests usually happens after resorting to the tried and trusted method of clicking on everything, in every location and then clicking on everything you have on you in every other location. Pure trial and error, but with no feedback loop to keep you entertained it’s a very dry experience. If you get frustrated with this and would like things to be a bit more successful first time then a bit of help is provided in terms of a walkthrough stuck on the end of the instructions - clearly separated with a great big spoiler warning thankfully - so everyone will be able to get to the end should they desire.
Granted, this feeling around the puzzles may just be my inability in such games having left the genre behind a great many years ago, but it would be a surprise were anyone to comprehensively enjoy, relish and truly understand each thing they’re asked to do. Even if they did, the excitement would soon dissipate given the utter lack of atmosphere and soul present in the story and game’s various machinations. The atmosphere created is done pretty well considering everything - the setting, the lack of other characters, the nature of the tasks but that’s really a backhanded compliment. The atmosphere could have been so much more if any one design choice, or a combination of a few had been different.
1953 - KGB Unleashed is a misnomer. There is no unleashing and no KGB thrills. It is the oldest of old adventure games, likened to text adventures from the dawn of gaming, or even more similarly, the aforementioned choose your own adventure books. There’s a total absence of fun emanating from the title. Others may get more from it although it’s not expected and if it did happen, they would be in the minority. They may take to the story and have more luck with the puzzles as opposed to just groping at anything and everything to find the solution and move things along. It’s unlikely though. There should have been more than the three or four hours of underground artwork exploration that is actually available here. It’s hard to get past that feeling from the very first minute.