City of Secrets: Reviving the Adventure Genre

Besides ushering in a new era of interface design and raising the bar for smartphone functionality, the iPhone’s tactile interaction has helped spark a revival of one of the oldest and most respected gaming genres in history: the point & click adventure game. One of the happy consequences of this revival has been a game called City of Secrets, from Aidem Media.

Right from the unusual opening, the game’s polished presentation and engaging story draw you deeper (literally) into a hidden city beneath the ground where the plot unfolds. The game’s popularity has prompted the release of iPad and Mac versions, but today we take a look at the iPhone version to see what makes this a city you’ll want to visit.

Enter the City

What is it about point & click adventures that makes them predisposed to humour? Some of the most famous titles in the history of the genre (Monkey Island, I’m looking at you) have expertly used the formula to make us laugh. In similar spirit, City of Secrets offers a fairly uncomplicated plot that nevertheless draws you in with its cute and voice-acted characters, its outstanding graphical presentation, and its subversive and uniquely self-aware sense of humour.

In Search of Rex

In Search of Rex

Following the exploits of Mr. Moles and his friend Rex, the dog. What starts out as an innocent search for a fishing hook quickly evolves into a political tangle in the secret underground city of the moles as Rex is imprisoned for espionage. The game spans five different “episodes” and will take you all through the underground city, and further to another locale beneath it…though it will take you less time than you might think to complete. All the while, you’ll find yourself greeted by voice-acted characters and expertly hand-drawn artwork that, combined, makes for an extremely refined presentation.

Gameplay

As is common for the genre, you’ll spend most of your time in City of Secrets tapping at your screen to search for objects, read signs, talk to people, combine collected items into unlikely and unusual hybrids, and construct things that help you progress. That being the standard, City of Secrets does a good job of exceeding expectations by including a number of occasional mini-games that help break up the gameplay and add variety to the experience. Some of them, like the magnifying glass clue finding, feel a little obvious and aren’t terribly fun, especially on a small screen where pixel hunting becomes a chore. There are others, however, that are much more innovative and make good use of the iPhone’s accelerometer.

Look Closely

Look Closely

One thing that Aidem Media has made sure to do, thankfully, is learn from the mistakes of past point & click adventure games. This is evident in their robust but unobtrusive hint system. Fans of these games will know that you’re often called upon to combine items and perform leaps of reasoning that often defy conventional logic. The simplistic core gameplay system means that it’s often outside the box thinking that provides the challenge. This is certainly true of City of Secrets and its quirky plot progression, but the aforementioned hint system offers some respite for those who don’t have time to puzzle over the occasionally obscure solutions. To pull it up, just tap the lightbulb in the lower left of the screen. This will highlight all items on the screen that you can interact with, which gives you a leg up when it comes to figuring out what you need to do next.

Hint Hint

Hint Hint

Something you’ll notice while playing is that the game has a narrator (a rarity nowadays) and that this narrator actually interacts with the characters and with you. This breaking of the fourth wall (to use a theatrical term) is a large part of what makes City of Secrets’ humour work: it’s gently self-deprecating and pokes fun at some of the common tropes of point & click adventures, all the while providing you with an experience that refines those idiosyncrasies.

Presentation

While the game’s oddball humour and relatively short story may draw some criticism, its presentation is almost flawlessly executed and deserves the praise it’s been receiving. The visuals are detailed and colourful, with diverse environments and thoughtfully designed paths and interaction prompts. The game’s full year of development shows. There’s also an interesting blend of 3D perspectives and 2D graphics combined, all the more impressive because the two do not clash.

Places to Go, People to See

Places to Go, People to See

Furthermore, the game features an excellent audio treatment, with some catchy tunes in the musical score and organic sound effects. What sets it apart is of course the fact that it’s fully voice acted. This is one area where there is room for improvement, as not all the actors have managed to put out the same quality of performance. That being said, they’re still better than most other iPhone voice acting you’re likely to encounter, and the most important consideration — how annoying they get — is one you won’t find yourself encountering very often at all.

Conclusion

Though it might seem easy to dismiss City of Secrets as a game that will only appeal to fans of its genre, the truth is that it brings so much fresh spirit to the table that it’s impossible not to appreciate it even if you’ve never played a point & click adventure before in your life. The developers have really done an admirable job of adapting the best aspects of the genre to the modern gaming world, and their consciousness of cross-platform gaming shines through in their slick interface design that works just as well on the iPhone as on a bigger screen.

Coupled with great graphics and sound, a solid (if short) story, and a strangely endearing sense of humour, City of Secrets packs a lot of material into its modest asking price. In a world of puzzle game clones, it’s always refreshing to see something a bit different, especially when it’s executed with as much love and attention as this.


Summary

This throwback to the point & click adventures of old offers humour, brilliant presentation, and a solid story. Its brevity and some inconsistencies in the quality of the voice acting hold it back from a perfect score, but it remains a welcome revival of a favourite genre.

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