I like the cold war. I’ve read about two books on the subject. I wouldn’t say I’m well read but that doesn’t disqualify me from finding it a very fascinating time in history. There are a lot of interesting events and people throughout the cold war. In a list of interesting things from the cold war the following would not be included; a man with amnesia wandering around an abandoned bunker reading old news articles and moving around cigarette cases. 1953: KGB Unleashed takes one of the most sinister forces from the cold war, the KGB, and makes it into the basis for an adventure game. The result is a game is so soul crushingly boring only a communist would enjoy it.
Now my annoyance with 1953: KGB Unleashed could all just boil down to a matter of taste. Technically there is nothing wrong with the game. In fact I was initially impressed by the way the game uses a flat 2D image to give the impression of experiencing a 3D world in first person. The first time I loaded the game up I actually thought it was being rendered in 3D and I was just in a fixed position. Unfortunately the world is rather static and the illusion quickly passed. Nonetheless it’s a great use of 2D images and I think this presentation really works well for an adventure game. The bunker looks realistic in all its Soviet Union drabness and everything in the game has an authenticness to the time period.
The game starts with a movie of glorious Soviet Moscow which ends with the camera panning down to below the ground. This is where the game takes place, below Moscow in a seemingly abandoned bunker in which terrible experiments have happened. A lot of care and detail has gone into the construction of the game’s bunker. I’ve never been to a soviet bunker but I imagine this is an incredibly realistic portrayal of one. Menacing machinery and industrial fittings are loving recreated as well as period desks, chairs and busts of Stalin.
Unfortunately no matter how realistic and loving recreated these things are; desks, chairs and industrial fittings are all inherently boring things. They can be used to set a scene in which an interesting story is told but by and of themselves they are drab uninteresting things. The story of 1953: KGB Unleashed is about inhumane experiments undertaken on unwilling human subjects. That’s an interesting story right? It is but when you tell a story through old typewritten documents, work schedules and bulletin boards the inherent dullness of these items makes the story a chore. Most people play games as a form of escapism and I’m quite sure most people would not want to escape to being trapped in a bunker-come-office where you have to sort though people’s filling cabinets to proceed.
The matter of taste comes to play when we look at the way in which the player proceeds in 1953: KGB Unleashed.
Arcane, esoteric and obtuse are definitely the words that come to mind. These are words that are symptomatic of the adventure game genre. But in other games, though the logic may be similarly misunderstood by the gamer, the props and objects you use are exciting. You might use the rope to escape a burning building, or combine the banana with the dynamite to make a monkey eat it and explode, there are probably better examples but both have a sense of action and excitement. In 1953: KGB Unleashed everything you use is dusty and boring, with the added downside of being almost completely incomprehensible to any one other than the developers. There is nothing fun or logical about looking at work schedules to work out which radio station I need to tune in to open the secret door in the cupboard (Oh yeah spoilers but trust me I just did you a favor). The scenario I just described happens in the game and it’s not only yawn inspiring but also insidiously frustrating to work out.
The game does a pretty good job of giving the player the experience of living under communist rule. Bleak, trapped, no way to move forward and everything governed by an arcane system of rules you have no chance of ever comprehending. When I heard the title of 1953: KGB Unleashed, I thought I was going to play some badass agent wandering around Moscow ruining people’s lives and executing dissidents. Not to say that this would be a very appropriate or sensitive game but the developers missed a big opportunity by setting the game in the bunker, instead of above ground where everything actually happens. We have already experienced communist Russia through the opposite side of the iron curtain wouldn’t it be better to actually let us in there to see how that world operated? The story of freaky experiments on human test subjects could be set in any time period of our blood thirsty race, why not tell a story that could only happen in communist Russia?
There is some lead heavy puzzles to work out here in 1953: KGB Unleashed but unless you, like the game’s protagonist, are stuck in a bunker with absolutely nothing else to play you are going to be quickly searching for greener and much more entertaining pastures. If you would really like something to sink your overgrown and masochistic teeth into, 1953: KGB Unleashed could suck up hour upon frustrating hour from your life as you lobotomize your self to comprehend what to do next. With a more interesting story and better use of the setting I would have given the puzzles more of a chance, but without a motivation to do so 1953: KGB Unleashed only gets 2/5 stars.