Monday, 8 May 2017

KGB - Final Rating

Written by Torch

Well, here we are. My first attempt at applying the PISSED rating to an adventure game. I’m slightly awestruck and hope I won’t skew the scale too much or otherwise make a complete fool out of myself.

Without further ado, the categories:


Puzzles and Solvability

Now this is a bit of a mixed bag.

The game features both inventory and dialogue based puzzles. There are some really nice inventory based ones, like those related to the transmitter and recorder. There are also “puzzles” that rely on you having the right object in your inventory, or NOT having a certain object, like the clipboard in the first chapter. You need to have it on you in order to gain question the two girls, but if you have it when you enter the club, you’ll get beaten up and lose the game. Same with all the memos from Department P. If you bring them with you to Department 7, colonel Kusnetsov will realize your intentions and throw you out.

But I have a por…. eh photographic memory

There’s also a lot of dialogue based puzzles, where you need to find the correct sequence of questions or statements in order to unlock further conversation options, discover new locations and gain information to use in other conversations. The apartment building on Kursk street is a good example of this, where you go from apartment to apartment, gathering info from a resident for use in blackmailing the next.

In addition to this, there are time based puzzles, which means you need to be at a specific location at a specific time. This can mean showing up at a scheduled meeting or following a suspect before he disappears. In-game time doesn’t move as fast as real-time, and you’ll never need lightning reflexes, but sometimes you need to make your move in a timely fashion, or you’ll lose. The game usually gives you a heads-up first, though, like announcing that somebody’s opening the door, or that someone’s pointing their gun at you, after which you’ll have a couple of seconds to react. I didn’t really time it, but it’s usually at least 10-20 seconds.

You CAN apparently be too slow...

Sometimes there are multiple possible solutions available, for instance alternative ways to get money, if you’ve spent your precious dollars.

You WILL die ( or get sent to Siberia ) many times, and there is a LOT of trial and error. Now, this might have been poor game design, if not for the backtrack function, which is essentially an autosave that lets you go back to ( hopefully ) before you screwed up. This is not perfect, however. Usually it will only take you back to when you entered a new room, or sometimes to the room you were in before, if your current location has some sort of inherent danger to it, and this will be enough to undo the damage. There are several situations, however, where you can enter a dead man walking scenario, ie. you have screwed up and made it impossible to win the game in your current state, but you don’t know it yet, and the backtrack function won’t take you back far enough. Then again, this is also to some degree alleviated by the chapter format. You can always restart your current chapter, and the chapters are self-contained, in that you can’t ( to the best of my knowledge ) do something in chapter 1 that screws up things for you in chapter 2 and so on. Then AGAIN again you only have 4 save slots, and chapters 1 and 2 are pretty long. Do note, by the way, that the backtrack function is available even if you haven’t died ( or similar ), so you are free to experiment and pick dialogue options just to see what they do.

In other words, it’s complicated. I can’t imagine the possibility that someone who hasn’t played this before could win the game without dying, so the game design sort of enforces a trial-and-error approach. I got a stuck a couple of times, but not really for very long, though, but that may be in part because I’ve played the game before, albeit a long time ago. I did remember parts of chapter 1, and a little bit of chapter 2, but after that, I was pretty blank. I’ve read comments here and anecdotes from other websites, however, and there are some pretty nasty dead-ends to be found, especially at the end of chapter 2, where you KNOW you’re supposed to go to quay 19, but you can’t go there manually. Rukov will do it automatically after the meeting with Greenberg, but if you miss that meeting, you’re pretty much screwed without knowing it.

But to sum it all up, there are a lot of enjoyable puzzles here, some of which are fairly hard, but not impossible. I know we aren’t too big on dead-ends here, but I’m not sure how much I should punish the game for it.

Score: 4


Interface and Inventory

My adventure game curriculum is by a wide margin dominated by Lucasarts and Sierra games, so I’m quite familiar with their interfaces, but I was very impressed with KGB in this respect. The interface feels very intuitive and never gets in your way. The mouse cursor is set to “Smart pointer” by default, and this will usually pick the most suitable verb for you, based on the object you’re hovering over, and the situation. Take, for instance, a phone. The first time you interact with it, the automatic action will be “LOOK”, but after you’ve looked at it, it changes to “USE”. A door will default to “GO”, unless it’s locked, in which case it will be “KNOCK” ( or sometimes just “LOOK”). I rarely needed to manually select a verb, but when I had to, it was mostly to pick “FIGHT”, “HIDE” or “LISTEN”. You can move the cursor between all hot spots on a screen with the arrow keys, but I don’t think I ever needed to use this, since there was no pixel hunting.

The inventory is similarly elegant. You have a separate, easily accessible screen where all objects are laid out on a grid on the same screen ( contrast this with Monkey Island, where you will need to scroll up and down to find your required item ), along with an interactable image of Rukov. You can manipulate objects with the cursor in the same way as the main game screen, only there are four verbs here ( “TAKE”, “USE”, “LOOK” and “DESTROY” ) as opposed to 9 on the game screen. Want to put on a hat? “TAKE” the hat and click it on Rukov. If you “LOOK” at him while he’s wearing it, you get a dialogue option to remove it.

If you hover above something on the main game screen that contains an item you can take, the cursor will blink, and if you “LOOK” at it, you get a mini-inventory box right there, so you can pick up the items you want and leave the ones you don’t.

On the main screen you have a mini-image of the inventory, and vice versa

There are a couple of unique and interesting objects, like the recorder. It comes with a pair of headphones, which you can connect and/or disconnect. With the headphones on, you can listen to recordings without alerting others to your presence, and without them, it will play out loud ( allowing you to distract Chapkin when he’s holding you at gunpoint ). The recorder will record the signal from the transmitter, but it seems to only record when there’s something TO record, so even if I let it run while I was away and tailing Obukov, there wasn’t 30 minutes of silence in the middle when I got back. The recordings were sorted by number, and none were empty.

The recorder interface is easy as pie

In the first chapter, you also get a gun at various times ( you can take Verto’s after you knock him out ), and while you can’t run around killing people at random, you can actually shoot the locks of the apartment doors and possibly perform other experimental feats with it.

The conversation interface is similarly easy to grasp, separating the dialogue into categories, like below:

Example conversation tree

In addition to the backtrack function, there’s also a recap button that opens up into a fast backwards/fast forward function, that lets you re-read previous game messages, should you have missed anything. I didn’t really use this, since I screenshot’ed practically everything, though, but it could be quite useful if you’re a fast clicker.

Since the whole game is in first person mode, there is no protagonist movement involved, and hence no pathing issues. You leave the current screen by clicking on a door or an arrow ( or sometimes a window )

All in all, I think the interface is really nice, and I’m surprised that ( to my knowledge ) no other games use it. My only request for improvement would be to add a calendar or something to keep track of all the scheduled appointments.

I see that Monkey Island received a 9 in this category, and I honestly don’t think KGB’s interface takes a back seat to that one.

Score: 9


Story and Setting

The setting is fictional, but based on some real or near-real events. It’s a spy story, that makes you think, trying to piece together what’s really happening. Your sources will give you contradictory information, and you’ll have to figure out who’s lying, and who’s telling the truth. For instance, major Savinkov tells you to focus your investigation on colonel Kusnetsov and ignore major Agabekov, but your mysterious informer, Cut-throat, says the exact opposite. Who do you trust?

The game doesn’t hold your hand and doesn’t spell everything out for you, but rather gives you clues and assumes you are smart enough to handle them. Actually, the plot in this game is so elaborate that it has spawned fan sites to explain it properly. A great summary of the plot can be found here: http://thekgbfile.50webs.com/plot.html

Early in the game, Rukov’s uncle Vanya tells you to trust no one. A common trope, but it’s good advice in this game, since everyone has an agenda, and you can’t really know until the end who’s helping you, and who’s trying to pull one over on you.

More words of wisdom

the game does a brilliant job of keeping you guessing what’s really going on. It doesn’t spell out the answer to every question at the end, but rather leaves a couple of things up for speculation. The plot is intricate and original, and you may actually have to play the game more than once to connect all the dots.

Score: 9


Sound and Graphics

As I mentioned in the introduction post, the only sound in this game is the background music. There are no sound effects, but then again the game doesn’t play in real time, so perhaps sound effects wouldn’t make a lot of sense anyway. The music consists of several electronica tracks, which I find nice and suitably suspenseful ( even though I prefer the Amiga versions ). I can listen to them for a good while without getting tired, though I did turn off the sound at times, but mostly due to there being other people in the room as I was playing. I guess it all comes down to whether or not you like the music.

As for the graphics, I think they’re quite good. The game has quite a cartoony look, that is instantly recognizable. Some characters have close-up images, while others don’t. When viewing in close-up, the background changes to a scaled-up, pixelated-looking version of the main game screen location. I think that particular aesthetic gives the game a unique look ( although Dune does use the same effect ), but may still be an acquired taste. There isn’t a lot of animation. The close-ups have some facial animation, but on the main screen characters morph into and out of the screen, and between stills.

Loading screen. Yes, really

When it comes to the intro…. Well, I would have preferred just some introductory text.

All in all, I think the game looks good for its time and has a unique style, along with some good, albeit repetitive music, but I feel that I have to dock some points in this category for practically no animation or sound effects

Score: 5


Environment and Atmosphere

This is another category in which KGB delivers. The game does a great job of making me feel like I’m an undercover agent in a hostile environment. I’m almost afraid to say it, but the frequent deaths sort of make sense when you consider the situation. You’re an undercover agent, investigating some seriously dangerous people, and one little mistake can be fatal. I can attest to the fact that having the game kill you for tiny screw-ups can be frustrating, and I’ve taken this into consideration under the “Puzzles and Solvability” category, but I can’t deny that it does kind of add to the suspense. Also, often if you do something you’re not supposed to, you might learn something before you die, that you wouldn’t normally do by taking the high road, thus adding to the richness of the story and increasing the illusion of freedom of choice.

To be honest, I’d rather die and backtrack after trying something adventurous than getting a generic “That doesn’t seem to work” message. When on the boat, Viktor Matsnev, I can go down into the sleeping quarters before Savinkov comes aboard. If I wait there, at some point, Obukov will enter, and I can beat him up and put his unconscious body in the drawer under the bed. Sure, sooner or later Savinkov will discover me, and it’s game over, but hey! I had some fun anyway.

I’ve never been to Russia, but most of the locations you visit feel to me like like they very well could be real places there. They are, of course, drawn in a slightly cartoonish style, but they look authentic, and there is often additional stuff to see and do. If you hang around outside the apartment building in Kursk street, random people will walk by, and you can talk to them, ask for a cigarette, discuss politics or, in the case of a prostitute walking her dog, purchase their services. Likewise, in the hotel Syevyernaya Zvyezda you can visit all the floors to try to talk your way into the rooms, hang around and talk to additional guests that aren’t really vital to the plot, but add to the atmosphere.

Classy bar

Less classy bar

Many of the places feel dirty and dangerous, and sometimes it’s clear that you’re NOT welcome. I would often be hesitant to enter a door to a new place, because of what might be waiting for me, like the warehouse building in Leningrad, where you know you’re heading into dangerous territory. Also, the bit in Verto’s apartment in Moscow, when you enter the studio and check out the snuff tapes. I got really nervous when exploring the apartment, and I literally jumped in my chair when the thugs surprised me in there.

Score: 8


Dialogue and Acting

There’s a lot of dialogue in KGB. Some of it is vital, and some is not. You’re not always certain which is which, but the non-vital dialog helps create a believable game world. Sometimes the dialog will change if you present yourself as a KGB officer. I think the dialog is pretty clever. As mentioned before, everyone has their own agenda here, and as Cut-throat says, sometimes noticing what they AREN’T saying is the clue to figuring out what they’re up to.

The game also does a great job of unveiling the plot gradually, sometimes via conversations. When you talk to a contact, they might ask you about a new concept, with which you’re not familiar, like “New birth”, or “Protopopov”. Then you’ll have to ponder what that may be about for a while, and it’s not like the next contact will just tell you what it is. Sometimes you talk to several informers, and they will give you contradictory answers, or maybe just present some of their own speculations, which may or may not be accurate.

Many of the characters are quite memorable. The mini-bromance with Greenberg comes to mind, and Vovlov and Savinkov are also great characters. Vovlov is constantly critical of everything you do, while Savinkov is a sneaky manipulator. Professor Tsibulenko is also fun to spar with. While in the green room, you can try to turn the tables on him by answering his questions with another question, but he won’t have any of it. Several of the residents at Kursk street are interesting characters in their own right, with their own backstory that you can uncover if you’re sufficiently silver-tongued.

The game dialogue is also actually quite funny at times. I caught myself laughing out loud at the american salesman at the hotel in Leningrad, and if you manage to gain entrance to the apartment or Pavel Belussov in Kursk street, you get to meet his family, who’s a right strange bunch, competing against each other to interrupt every attempt at questioning, and serving Rukov vodka like it’s going out of style. Also, if you look in a mirror, you can trigger several amusing responses.

Is your name by any chance “Stan”?

All in all, the dialogue is clever and fits in very well with the setting. Oh, and it doesn’t hurt to read it with a movie-bad-guy-fake russian accent.

Score: 8


Final Rating

Combined, this gives a score of (4 + 9 + 9 + 5 + 8 + 8) / 0.6 = 72


I’m not sure if it seems a little high, but I checked reviews from the time of release, and they’re mostly around the high 80’s to low 90’s. It’s possible that others would prefer to punish the game more for its trial-and-error approach, but in my opinion it fits the setting, and if they were to take out the insta-deaths, the atmosphere would suffer. The worst part of the game is the dead-man-walking scenarios, but I feel that I’ve adjusted the Puzzles score to account for that. Scoring 72 puts KGB at number 4 on the current list, and , thinking about it, it feels right to me. I really enjoyed playing it again after all these years, and after seeing the praise other people have for this game, I think it deserves a place in the spotlight.

Nobody guessed the exact score, but despite seemingly making a random roll and not believing in it, the one who got closest is… Niklas! Congrats!


CAP Distribution

100 points to Torch
  • Blogger award - 100 CAPs - for blogging through this game for our enjoyment 
100 points to Joe Pranevich
  • Classic Blogger award - 50 CAPs - for blogging through Starcross 
  • Classic Blogger award - 50 CAPs - for blogging through Suspended 
20 points to Adamant
  • Undercover Informer award - 20 CAPs for continually providing additional information about the game. 
10 points to Niklas
  • Psychic Prediction Award - 10 CAPs - for guessing the score for KGB 
10 Points to Andy Panthro
  • Psychic Prediction Award - 10 CAPs - for guessing the score for Starcross 
5 points to Ilmari
  • Entertainment Industry Historian award - 5 CAPs for providing information about the origins of Cryo 
5 points to Rowan Lipkovits
  • Entertainment Industry Historian award - 5 CAPs for providing information about the origins of Cryo 
5 points to TBD
  • Unintentional Trivia award - 3 CAPs for noticing the Maniac Mansion reference 
  • Uninteresting Trivia award - 2 CAPs for being the only one to attempt the “Ve have vays of making you tock” reference

25 comments:

  1. That score seems too high for a game where you're constantly getting gameovers and dead-man-walking situations. The numeric scores for the various categories seem reasonable given what you've written about them, though, so the penalty would entirely have to be in the "discretionary modifier" section. Even if you were to assess a hefty -5 discretionary penalty, the resulting score would still put this firmly in "recommended" territory.

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    1. I see your point, and I considered removing a point at the end, ( though I think we're supposed to be limited to +/-1 point ), but I felt that I punished the game enough for that in the puzzles category. The game really has some good puzzles, and lowering this category to 1 or 2 wouldn't seem right either

      As I said, however, the gameovers don't really bother me, as long as I don't have to keep saving and reloading manually. In 9 out of 10 times, you just click "Backtrack to ", and you're right back in it, before you screwed up. Of course, others may still find this annoying...

      If the categories were weighted, it's entirely possible that the puzzles score should have a greater impact on the overall score, but since it isn't... well, I can't in good conscience punish the game in several categories for an issue that really only affects one..

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    2. I'd just like to add that I found dying here much less annoying than the Sierra approach of "Oops, you fell down the cliff for the 20th time! Restart - Restore - Quit"

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    3. +/-3 has been the absolute limit, and even that has been reserved for extreme cases. Considering the individual category scores, we could say that KGB is near to perfection, except for having dead ends and no animation. Then 72 seems quite reasonable.

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    4. Sierra was the Dark Souls of adventure games :)

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    5. Quite :)

      Though they sometimes went out of their way to make dying an event in itself

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  2. Looks like I need to play this game! It's another one I assumed was just average because I'd not heard of it much.

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  3. Yay, points!

    "I think the interface is really nice, and I’m surprised that ( to my knowledge ) no other games use it."
    It's relatively similar to the MacVenture games, but considerably more user friendly.

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    1. And well deserved

      I never played the MacVenture games on a Mac. I played Deja vu on Amiga, but the interface there was seemingly built on top of the Amiga Workbench window manager, and looked a lot like that.

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    2. Fairly sure the interface is the same there. You have a first person view with a smart pointer, static rooms with minimal/zero animation, close-ups on important characters when you talk to them or they attack, a separate menu for all your items, which are represented by icons and can all be viewed at once, separate sub-item menus for opened folders/trash cans/cabinets/etc, an icon representing yourself you can use items on... KGB really feels like it takes this idea and builds on it, improving its flaws and adding new things like dialogue trees etc.

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    3. Perhaps. It's been too far since I played Deja vu, but I remember in the Amiga version that you could move the inventory items around and put them all on top of each other in a big pile, making it quite difficult to see what you were carrying. Those were the days.

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    4. While you CAN do that, the games have a button that arranges your inventory in neat rows (though I do admit I got terribly annoyed at that pile until I found that button, they didn't put it in the most accessible spot).

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  4. Thanks for the consolation points, but now I need to know.

    What is the 've have veys of making you tock' reference?

    I'm fully expecting a game I know well so I can full-Picard-facepalm when you tell us.

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    1. Hrm... yes.... there's a good chance that I messed this up...

      The joke goes roughly something like this:

      A man goes to the doctor ( who's got a funny accent for some reason ) and says:
      "Doctor, I think I'm a clock. My head keeps going tick tick tick"
      and the doctor replies:
      "Ah, ve have vays of making you tock"

      Now, thought I'd heard this joke being told by Dr. Cranium in Quest for Glory 4, but I'm ( as of yet ) unable to find out when he would have said it, despite looking through "Let's play" videos on Youtube, so perhaps I'm confusing it with something else...

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    2. Well, it's certainly a joke I know, but I don't remember whether I used it in a game. I like multi-lingual or accent-based humor. In this case, you get to imagine the doctor as really being a German SS agent interrogating the patient.

      Spider Robinson had a joke that ended in the clock-related punchline, "I'll have a hickory daiquiri, Doc." I think I used a variation of that with the Grandfather Clock in the Hero-U demo.

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    3. Hmm... I might have to play through the CD-rom version of QfG4 now, just to get to the bottom of this. In my head, I can hear "vays" line with Dr. Cranium's voice, so if I didn't get it from the game, then where, I wonder...? The QfG's are so crammed full of puns and jokes, so it felt right when I first thought of it.

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  5. Wow, I did not expect a game I'd never even heard of to get so high in the charts!! I don't think I'll be playing this one because the dead ends (even with the rewind feature) would stress me out too much, but I really enjoyed reading more about it. Hope to see more posts from you in the future!

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    1. Thanks! I'm glad you liked it. I don't have any more games lined up, but maybe they'll let me try another when 1993 comes knocking

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    2. There's still plenty of games in 1992, with no official player:

      Lure of the Temptress
      Rex Nebular and the Cosmic Gender Bender
      Gobliiins
      Curse of Enchantia
      Nippon Safes, Inc.
      Ringworld: Revenge of the Patriarch

      Just pick what you want!

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    3. Tempting, but I need a break first. This was more time consuming than I anticipated, and other things were pushed back, so it would have to be in a couple of months at the earliest

      I've been wondering about Nippon safes inc., though. The graphics look fun, so perhaps..

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    4. There's still over 20 games to Nippon Safes, so it will probably take more than few months before we'll get there. Perhaps we can put you tentatively as playing it?

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    5. Yeah, that sounds like a long enough break. Put me up for Nippon :-)

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  6. Bastien MARCHINA10 May 2017 at 04:40

    've have veys of making you tock', or "Nous affons les moyens de fous faire barler", like we'd say in French, has been popularized in France by "Babette s'en va-t-en guerre", a french comedy from 1959. This is something of a pre-internet spoken meme in French, where a nazi, or Soviet spy , (or French secret police for that matters) intimidates someone into talking. It is often played for laughs, with a really over the top accent.

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    1. Très intéressant
      I can easily picture the phrase predating the internet, but I didn't know it had a french equivalent. It would be interesting to hear what the accent would sound like, compared to the "germanglish" version

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  7. And I thought I was way high on the score guessing, lucky dice indeed.

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