Review: City of Secrets (PC)

City of Secrets
Publisher: Big Fish Games
Developer: Aidem Media
Genre: Adventure
Release Date: 02/09/2012

It’s been awhile since I’ve played an adventure game that actually required you to move a character on screen. I’ve dabbled in a couple of Telltale games, of course, and there was Syberia on the DS, but they weren’t exactly the strongest candidates for the format.

Anyways, City of Secrets looked amusing enough. This was a port of a long ago released game for various Mac products, now available on Big Fish Games. It also seemed to have higher production values, which is always a good thing. Beyond that, I went into the game blind, hoping for the best, but keeping my guard up.

Is this a game adventure fans shouldn’t pass up, or just another middling title in a niche genre?

Story

This is basically the story of two friends. We have Moles the mole and Rex the Dog. After Rex falls through a hole in Moles’ basement, they discover an underground city run by a shadowy mayor. Plenty of injustice and bureaucracy follow, as well as an underground (literally) revolution.

The story is… interesting. For starters, Moles can speak perfectly fine, but Rex resorts to growls and mumbles. However, everyone can understand each other with no problems. Also, since Rex can’t speak English, the game provides a narrator for him. This narrator is extremely invasive and talks incessantly about every move you make. There are a lot of people who couldn’t get out of the first ten minutes because of him, and I can’t blame them.

The game has a few messages, it seems. In particular, it wants to point out the ridiculousness of bureaucracy. However, it does this by having you run around like a chicken with its head cut off in search of stupid trinkets and stupid forms. You’re stuck in a never ending fetch quest and supposed to feel enlightened by the ironic approach. Instead, you’ll likely just get annoyed and bored out of your skull.

Overall, City of Secrets feels like a kid’s cartoon that got a little too preachy. There are some funny jokes and interesting moments, but the story as a whole isn’t particularly interesting. The characters never shut up long enough to actually become interesting. They are simple mouthpieces. There was potential here, but it got lost somewhere along the way.

Graphics

The best aspect of the game’s visuals are the backgrounds. These are like living cartoons, and feature some nifty coloring. Anywhere there is light, it looks great. The glow of radioactive ooze or even the shine of a lantern is surprisingly effective.

Characters, on the other hand, are a huge miss. Moles aren’t that interesting to begin with, but the amorphous gray blobs that you get in this game are downright ugly to look at. One female character, in particular, is up there with the worst character models I’ve seen in any game. You’d have to play through Leisure Suit Larry: Box Office Bust to find worse.

Still, there was a decent attempt to put in animations for everything you do. Most games I’ve gotten from Big Fish didn’t even bother. So, I can forgive the rough motions and awkward lip movement. What I can’t forgive, however, is the inconsistency. Moles can’t interact with a window five feet above his head, yet he can easily turn a valve suspended ten feet above him? I don’t get it.

There are definitely some strong pluses in the game’s favor, but the god awful character design mixed with an inconsistent world do plenty of harm to what the game attempts to do.

Audio

As a game done by a British developer, there are plenty of accents to digest whilst playing this game. Most of them end up all right, and aren’t hard to understand. They also aren’t overdone, which is a damned good thing. There’s nothing worse than a overly thick accent that promotes xenophobic stereotypes.

Anyways, the voice acting is nevertheless pretty disappointing. There is a ton of it to be sure, but apart from Moles himself, I found everything horribly lacking. The narrator and female characters were the worst offenders. With little to no emotion and crappy reading, they were painful to listen to. Another widespread issue is the speed, or lack thereof, in which characters speak. It often takes them awhile to get through a simple sentence. While this is going on, you can’t continue playing the game unless you interrupt the dialogue altogether.

Oddly enough, I found some instances where the subtitles refused to work. This happened during one of Rex’s sections, meaning I have no idea what the hell he was saying for a good ten minutes of the game. Also, very often the words the characters say won’t match the subtitles. At one point, this led me to be incredibly confused about the gender of one of the characters. I could have sworn the princess said she was the king’s son.

The music and sound effects are pretty run of the mill. I barely remember the music, except that it was minimalist and light hearted. It worked. The sound effects were usually pretty hard to hear over the characters that refused to shut up. However, I didn’t notice anything out of place or glaringly bad, which is a plus.

The big story here is the voice acting, as it dominates the aural aspect of the game. Sadly, it doesn’t do this with any sort of quality. I’m kind of upset at myself for not shutting the sound off after ten minutes in. While it’s commendable that a developer actually put this much voice acting in an adventure game, they went overboard.

Gameplay

Unlike most adventure games you’re likely to find on Big Fish, this one actually requires you to move your character around. This means there will be portions of the map locked off until you unlock a door, turn on a light, or solve a little puzzle. It also means that a portion of the game is spent waiting for your character to move from one place to another. Still, it opens up the options for puzzle solving, even allowing a damned maze in one section. Goody!

The crux of this game is talking to people in order to update your objectives. This isn’t a gameplay mechanic, though, but rather a chore you must complete. Then you go out, find the items you need, give them over, and move on. Most of this game is fetch quests and running back and forth between the same locations

Inventory management is pretty standard. You click on an item of interest, and it will go into your stock. You can sometimes combine items in your inventory to create a new one. For example, two short lengths of chain become a long one. To use them on the environment, you merely click on the item and then the area/character. There are some tricky spots where the hit box is awkward or the items smaller than you’d like, but it controls well enough.

There are plenty of puzzles in the game, and there is a decent amount of variety in what’s presented. Some stages are full on puzzle labyrinths where you figure out one brain teaser after another to advance. My favorite sections included using assorted items to create a new one. For example, at one point you need to take a bunch of junk and create a “Trojan Elephant”. There are also some more traditional puzzles in there as well. The most clever of these is a combination logic/slide puzzle late in the game. The hints are perhaps a bit too many, but that’s OK.

The only issue I had with the gameplay is that it could get quite boring thanks to the design. It controlled well enough, and the puzzles were amusing enough, but the sheer number of fetch quests were infuriating. Too much of the game was running back and forth. The game makes fun of this fact at a couple of points, but mocking a trope while still using that trope is nothing less than a dick move.

If you’re used to this kind of thing, you’ll no doubt get enjoyment out of playing City of Secrets. Still, the level design flaws hurt this game deeply, which greatly affected my opinion of it.

Replayability

It will likely take you a few hours to play through the game. Subsequent replays will yield the exact same experience. You can choose to turn the hints on or off, which is about all of the real customization you’re going to get.

This lack of replay value is pretty standard for the genre, but it still hurts. If you’re fine with paying ten bucks for a one time play through of a three hour game, then good for you. However, I can easily see people feeling ripped off. The lack of additional features only worsens the blow.

This is a short one and done game at best. I really wish I didn’t have to keep saying that about adventure games, but it’s the sad truth.

Balance

City of Secrets uses a hint system akin to that of Professor Layton, albeit without hint coins. Unless you simply need to go to a new location, the game will start off with a vague hint and give the the option of getting a better one should you need it. There is usually one or two additional clues, with the final one being a direct giveaway.

Even without the hint system, the game is pretty easy. Any item you can interact with is easily distinguishable by an icon that pops up when you move the cursor over it. Most of what the hint system helps avoid is mindless wandering. The puzzles simply aren’t challenging, and you’re only asked to complete simple tasks. A stealth mission at the end is the closest the game gets to challenging, and even then your progress is saved even if you’re caught.

If you’re unfamiliar as to how adventure games work, you might run into some trouble. However, the hint system will gladly bail you out, making this a title that emphasizes accessibility over challenge. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it won’t appeal to everyone.

Originality

This is a classic adventure game. It uses the same kinds of puzzles and tricks that gamers have been dealing with for decades. There is nothing original here.

The story is basically the same as countless action/adventure movies. Outsiders enter a lost world, save the locals from a corrupt government system, and become heroes in the process. I suppose it is rare to see moles as the main race in a game, but that’s hardly a reason to toot the games horn. Unless you’re really into moles. In which case, go nuts.

Addictiveness

There are a lot of factors going against this game being addicting.

For starters, the never ending commentary by the characters is grating in the best of circumstances. I often found myself skipping as much as possible, although I missed a few portions of dialogue this way. It was no big loss, though.

Secondly, the level design is really lame. Fetch quests are amongst the least interesting mechanics a game can utilize. This is especially true for adventure games. Since most of this game is running back and forth to talk to character or find a random object, it gets old.

There are also a few annoying bugs, which I’ll get to later. It all adds up to a game I had trouble pushing myself through. I like adventure games, and this was a chore.

Appeal Factor

Seeing as this is a re-release of an old game (the sequel is currently available), the demand is probably not too high. That being said, being on Big Fish opens the game up to a whole new potential audience. Since the game is of a style not commonly seen there, it might generate some interest.

Adventure fans are probably going to get some enjoyment out of this. There were several great moments spread throughout. For the patient, they might just be worth it. I may not be giving the game a glowing review, but at least there are some fun stories I can tell.

The biggest thing going against the game in this department is the lack of extra features. Players are just used to getting more for their dollar.

Miscellaneous

The bugs I mentioned earlier involve the game crashing on a couple of occasions. This happened during minigames that opened a new screen. I’d make it through the task, only to find I couldn’t get back to the game. None of the buttons and prompts worked, meaning I had to reset the game and try again. Thankfully, resetting did the trick, otherwise I would not have made it very far in this game.

With no extras to speak of, this is a bare bones package. We really do expect a bit more, even if it’s just fluff. The gesture is enough to placate. As is, this game desperately needed the good will.

The Scores
Story: Poor
Graphics: Mediocre
Audio: Poor
Gameplay: Above Average
Replayability: Worthless
Balance: Below Average
Originality: Worthless
Addictiveness: Below Average
Appeal Factor: Below Average
Miscellaneous: Very Poor
Final Score: Poor Game!

Short Attention Span Summary
I wanted to like City of Secrets, but it made it very hard. The terrible voice acting, weak story, and boring fetch quests conspired to kill this game before it could get off the ground. Throw in the lack of replay value, challenge, and extra features, and things only get worse. The game crashing bugs make it something worth avoiding altogether. There are some nifty moments, but there aren’t enough of them to make up for the tedium and annoyance that you’ll get for the vast majority of the game. Here’s hoping that sequel righted the ship.

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