by Murray Lewis
reviewed on PC
I'LL HAVE WHAT THEY'RE HAVING
A new point & click adventure from Nightly Studios, Bunker The Underground Game has you playing as Otto, a man kidnapped by the soviet union and thrown into a decrepit underground bunker. As you try to escape, you'll conduct bizarre scientific experiments, repair a giant robot, and start a nuclear war and that's not even including the really weird bits.
It's never adequately explained why you've been kidnapped by the Soviets, but it quickly becomes apparent that it's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to inexplicable weirdness. The game's story takes regular, blind leaps into the surreal, leaving the game world feeling like a patchwork quilt of increasingly mad events. Impressively, Nightly somehow manages to keep on top of all this by virtue of funny writing and compelling gameplay.
That's not to say there aren't consequences to the haphazard storyline structure. By the end of the game, the plot has tied itself up into a near-incomprehensibly tangled mess of half-developed ideas and baffling leaps of surreal logic. It just about hangs together in the moment, carried by the gameplay, but taking a step back to look at the story as a whole feels like analysing a fever dream, and after the last cutscene rolls, you may find yourself wondering what actually just happened. Like a pair of colourful woollen socks, it's best not to pull at the loose threads, because the whole bloody thing will fall apart.
The most noticeable problem is that so many elements are left undeveloped, like a mobile phone which functions as an in-game menu but never actually works as a phone, and pretty much every character having about as much depth of personality as a rice cake. Two-dimensional NPCs in games are hardly uncommon, but the real crime here is that the main character is as forgettable as the rest of them. There are sporadic attempts to give personality to Otto, but by the end of the game you still know almost nothing about him. Forget character development arcs here, as there's hardly any character to begin with.
Dialogue is extremely important in adventure games, and it's a relief to see that Bunker doesn't fumble here. The game is funny from start to finish and, although some jokes fell flat, there were also a few laugh-out-loud moments to balance it out. There are a number of oddly-translated sentences dotted throughout, but the biggest disappointment is that there's no voice-acting. It really knocks the delivery of lines down a few pegs, and has a huge negative effect on the feel of the whole game. There's even a short section later on with no music, which leaves the player in an eerie silence until the scene moves on.
Bunker's gameplay seems to have been designed with the same mindset as the plot, and so it shoehorns a tonne of assorted minigames throughout. As might be expected, they're a bit hit-and-miss. When used to add more detail to an object, such as fiddling with wires or fixing a mechanism, they work excellently. When used as a more abstract puzzle, though, the game often fails to communicate possibilities to the player. There's a puzzle involving tangled ropes which perfectly exemplifies this, as at no point is it made fully clear either what you're attempting to do, or what actions will help you to achieve it.
The developers have clearly tried very hard to make all their puzzles work logically, avoiding that classic adventure game pitfall, but a persistent lack of clarity works against that goal by making a number of the otherwise excellent puzzles needlessly frustrating. It's all magnified by UI inconsistencies with things like highlighting interactive objects (sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn't), and the patchy verbal feedback from Otto, who often says nothing when you click on an interactive object, leaving you wondering if you even clicked it at all. Even when working correctly, the UI feels a little clunkier than in other games, as it uses a mixture of keyboard and mouse controls, while games like Deponia manage to map all of the controls onto the mouse.
Visually, Bunker is a good-looking game. Characters are smoothly animated in a clean, cartoon style. The background art is also excellent, with lots of interesting details to take in. Cutscenes are rendered in an entirely different pixel-art style, which is a little jarring. Both methods look great in themselves, but it would've been nice if they could've chosen one or the other, rather than as usual trying to cram both ideas into the game together.
Bunker is also, for the price point, not a long game. You can expect between 3 and 4 hours of gameplay, which is less than I expect for something approaching the price of much longer adventure games. I must also point out that those few hours I had with the game, from start to finish, were littered with bugs. The vast majority were minor and the game only crashed once, but there's a definite need for some intensive QA to avoid putting off players unwilling to deal with these flaws.
EVERYTHING AND THE KITCHEN SINK
Bunker The Underground Game is a rough diamond. It's funny and challenging in equal amounts, but it's also a frustrating game, with an erratic, barely-together approach to storytelling. It feels as if Nightly has tried to squeeze in as much content as they possibly can. An admirable intention, but one that gives the impression of a game which can't keep up with itself. As quickly as ideas are thrown at the player, they're bundled aside and forgotten about, to be replaced by something new.
Anyone who plays adventure games for deep stories and complex characters should definitely avoid this one, but players looking for a short, surreal point & click will undoubtedly enjoy their time in the Bunker if they can look past the flawed gameplay experience.
Funny dialogue and situations. Some very satisfying puzzles. Lots of good ideas.
Haphazard design of both gameplay and story. Very unpolished experience.