Drugs, snuff videos and a political hardliner conspiracy against the government – the latter having quite a topicality at the time of release. The newcomers from Cryo could hardly have aimed much higher in their first release. Though behind this new company name, there were a couple of well-known heads at work (previously known as Exxos) who had already become known for highly unusual subjects and game designs in the 1980s. Just that then, they had been moving inside the fantasy and science fiction genres.
, on the other hand, initially sets itself in the reality of the day. Inside the notorious secret service of the Sowjet Union, Gorbachev has established a department for internal investigations, with the mission to fight corruptions and power abuse. As an agent of that department, the player finds himself in the middle of a conflict between a population intimidated since decades and wary colleagues, when he is tasked to look into the murder of a private detective. This case, of course, quickly leads down into the seediest corners of society.
The noir-y political thriller, spiced up by several elements of dime novels and eventually even somewhat fantastic elements most certainly is the game's biggest strength. The remarks and descriptions given by the protagonist, written with dry humor, lead to a certain distance between him and the player, putting the latter into the role of an outside observer rather than a real participant. At least outside some nail-bitingly tense scenes, such as the boat ride or the removal of a body from the hotel room.
It is nevertheless not easy to be the spectator here. The plot complexity would even make Raymond Chandler blush. Groups and characters are manifold and somehow, nobody likes anyone else, meaning everybody is backstabbing everyone else. Even within the same organisation. The nicely drawn portraits help immensely in making associations with characters. The largest chunk of plot is carried through dialogue by third parties, however, and each sentence is stacked with names. Even up to the point where the game commits the cardinal sin of storytelling by giving two actors the same first name. It is hardly imaginable how one is supposed to keep an overview of all of that without handwritten notes, or even with.
The CD re-release (re-titled) attempts to mitigate this a bit with the support of Donald Sutherland. The coarsely digitized actor, portraying the protagonist's dead father, occasionally whispers some hints into the camera. Usually, it doesn't help a whole lot, though, and in the big picture, it turns out rather irritating, inf act. The opportunity to ask for a hint is permanently available, but it is almost always answered with non-helpful standard responses, turning it into a waste of time.
This, in spite of help really being necessary.makes no compromise on its storytelling. The player's tasks are well embedded within the sleuth genre. Interrogations and other dialogue aside, it is a lot about observing, eavesdropping and keeping out of sight. Snippets of information have to be combined into a big picture in the player's mind. There is no supporting game mechanic. The game regularly quizzes the player on his understanding in multiple choice style. Blind brute-forcing without actually understanding is virtually impossible.
Though even to just reach such intermediate quizzes, the player has to tread carefully. Exactly according to the script. Any meandering or too long delay compared to the intended solution will not be tolerated and ends either in death or transfer to Siberia. Some scenes narrow the corridor so much that a single wrong step immediately ends the game.
Meaning the game is about optimising. Once, concerning the actions to be taken, twice about time management. This is well established within the detective genre and previous genre entries showed how it could work. For sure, several attempts are needed to try things, learn from previous mistakes etc. The built-in rewind function, repeating the last couple of actions, proves invaluable.
Thoughtakes all this to new heights and in places too far. Particularly when player knowledge which the protagonist simply would have no chance of acquiring is actually necessary. How would the protagonist know to strategically place the cassette recorder before going to sleep, unless the player already knows that he will be ambushed in the night? Why would you want to open the window of a bar next to a warehouse you're going to infiltrate?
At least, the game has the decency to limit the player's search space drastically. The game being split in small chunks is actually the only thing enabling a solution at all. If it let the player travel freely between cities and to various locations in each, there would be no way to find the tiny traces of plot progress. Although dead ends are rather common, they at least reveal themselves rather quickly. Though then, this limitation of player freedom is actually just a workaround for the underlying fundamental problems in game design.
Whether you would like to fight your way through this really depends on your own priorities. On some occasions, the game even manages to amaze with respect to what it gets out of its core puzzle mechanics. But then, what really stays is its pickiness, the endless ways to fail. Rising frustration may lead to diminishing attention to plot details, which, however, the game expects.
It could be said that just like in a Chandler novel, the actual detailed plot resolution is not the point. It is all about showing this bleak, decaying society, isn't it? That must be the way to understand it, and in this way,storytelling approach works. As an experiment to cram a statically written story into an interactive game format, it is defective in many respects.