If you take a look at Artifex Mundi’s catalogue of games you’ll notice an abundance of hidden object puzzle adventures, which are almost always a pleasure to get stuck into and spend a few hours in. Sometimes it’s good to change it up a bit though and Artifex have made a conscious effort to diversify their latest projects, with the lovely My Brother Rabbit signalling the beginning of this new era.
Now Artifex have decided to take on the classic point and click genre in the form of the newest release, Irony Curtain; a game that looks to provide a satirical view of a communist country during the Cold War era. But does this Eastern Bloc inspired tale have enough humour and ingenious puzzles to ensure there’s enjoyment to be had in a world that’s rather gloomy by its very nature? We’ll have to venture to the glorious land of Matryoshka to find out!
Irony Curtain: From Matryoshka with Love, to give it its full title, is a point and click adventure with the hapless Evan Kovolsky under your control. Evan is merely an ordinary journalist in the West, albeit one who has an unhealthy obsession with the communist regime in Matryoshka. He’s always promoted the ideology to those around him, but now a government official of the aforementioned country has taken notice of his latest speech, which has been broadcast around the globe. Evan’s life is about to get rather exciting after receiving a top secret invite to go behind the ‘Iron Curtain’ and meet the Leader; little does he know that the totalitarian ruled Matryoshka isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
The fear when tackling such a subject is that the general aura surrounding communism is quite obviously negative, with oppression and overall grimness at the very forefront of it. That said, the writers have done a terrific job of managing to convey the reality of the situation whilst still providing a shed load of humour and outright wackiness to ensure that enjoyment is a priority – after all, it is a game. It doesn’t even matter if political satire is what tickles your funny bone because there are other hilarious moments to cater for the wider audience. Throw in the numerous crafty references to major blockbusting films, TV and other video games, and there’s bound to be something here to keep your attention.
Even the core of the story itself is quite captivating as much like a Russian doll, it has a number of layers within. What begins as a relatively straightforward tale, eventually unfolds into a narrative fuelled by conspiracy and everything adds up in regards to why Evan has been chosen. Given that Evan is pro-communism, it’s also interesting to see him being enlightened to the truth of the matter, much like it will no doubt enlighten many players.
A good story isn’t everything though and the gameplay has to hold up as well, which for the most part it really does. You’ll roam around a selection of 2.5D environments using Evan, interacting with objects and chatting to anyone in earshot to overcome a raft of cleverly conjured up problems. Inventory based puzzles are the bread and butter of these point and click adventures, and there’s a ton of them throughout this experience.
A fair few of the solutions make logical sense at least, seeing you use scissors to procure a balloon that’s tied up for example; however there are some weird ideas that if you catch onto them without the in-game help system, it feels bloody good to figure them out. The thing is, forming a makeshift moustache from the remnants of a paintbrush or constructing an object that can be used for stamping purposes as well as plugging a hole, might be a tad strange, but this is the kind of resourceful nature regularly found during the Cold War times. It works incredibly well and is in keeping with the setting, so it’s a win/win on the inventory aspect. Well actually, there is a minor loss as it can be a slight annoyance having to hold the inventory open with a button pressed whilst having a gander, examining items and merging them, instead of a ‘press once to toggle’ type action – you’ll get over it though.
And then there are the mini-games, which can really help to break up the constant influx of inventory puzzles. Despite creating many of the mini-games from scratch, veterans of Artifex Mundi games and indeed life itself will recognise some of the core concepts; finding the correct glass after they’ve been swapped around, filling in a grid like you would in Picross and connecting each end of a wire to symbols in order to achieve the required shape when combined. There’s a decent variety though with brainteasers, visual conundrums and even action-based puzzles to test your reflexes. The only real issue is that there could be more mini-games present.
Occasionally, a lack of knowledge on Evan’s part is withholding the necessary solution needed to advance in Matryoshka and that’s why talking to folk is a crucial aspect. Some of the personalities you’ll meet are very odd and it’s rare that any single character is similar to another in appearance or otherwise. Getting used to the voiceovers takes a little while as the accents of the locals ranges from a thick Eastern European twang to some kind of hillbilly dialect, which is bizarre yet great at the same time. Every character is still believable though and the deadpan delivery of inadvertent jokes by the more stern characters is superb.
In terms of visuals, the art department have gone down the cartoony route with characters animated via a time-lapse technique. It works really well apart from the moveable model of Evan which sticks out like a sore thumb and doesn’t look quite as neat. The environments are smashing though, with the Western world locations like the TV studio and a family home depicted in vibrant colours while the Matryoshka palette is much murkier on the whole for a drab hotel, the streets filled with struggling people and a ‘fun’ fair. Such moody tones don’t make these places any less interesting either, so that’s credit to the design.
On a technical note, there was an awful fault that saw my save game load up for me to find Evan running on the spot, not able to move him or interact with anything in the room. Not even a reload helped matters, thus rendering the save utterly useless and I had to start again from scratch. Hopefully it won’t happen to you, but going through a large chunk of the game again did highlight that there’s no real replayability factor, which is fine as the eight or so hours to completion are more than enough.
Overall, the problem found in a vast amount of point and click games is the slow-paced storytelling, with puzzles taking forever and a silly amount of back-tracking, but in Irony Curtain on Xbox One the pacing is spot on and everything is more condensed for the better. In fact almost everything meets a high standard as far as the writing is concerned, the character design, the problems to overcome and the voiceovers. Only the small number of mini-games, that awful bug, and a couple of confusing moments where you feel a tad helpless hold it back slightly. It’s damn funny though and the story being told is also an important one worth taking in as gives us an insight – a satirical one, granted – of how life used to be in the communist run country.
I, for one, am glad that Artifex Mundi are expanding their repertoire because Irony Curtain is right up there amongst their best offerings. It’s a no brainer for those fond of the point and click genre!