If you’re no stranger to adventure games, then you’re probably aware of a little subset of spy games that exist. Codename: Iceman or Spycraft come immediately to mind. This makes sense, as the adventure game offers a good opportunity for interactive globe-trotting, clever gagets, and quick-thinking espionage. You’ll get most of that with Cryo’s KGB – a unique and uniquely brilliant addition to this genre, though it’s certainly a challenge.
The real KGB was the organization acting as the Soviet Union’s “sword and shield.” It absorbed a large and varied collection of duties since its founding, all of which were related to the security of the USSR. Its most famous tasks were overseas espionage and counter-espionage; setting it as a direct adversary to America’s CIA. Yet it was also responsible for some internal security as well, including monitoring other state departments, and policing of crime rings within its borders. I bring this up because the game will not be an expected cloak-and-dagger battle with the CIA or MI6. Instead, your interest will be the activities of your own Comrades, and your duties will encompass all the ones laid out above.
The game begins on August 13th, 1991, but was written much later, and with full knowledge of the events to come. Your character doesn’t have a clue that these are the last months of the USSR, but as this is history, that fact can’t be too much of a spoiler. It makes for a neat retrospective story because you’ll have the opportunity to influence the events of the coming August Coup, and the ending offers a pretty chilling glimpse of how those real events could have played out. However, the game’s fictitious interpretation of the plans behind the Coup seems a little more based in science fiction that science fact, and its overall inclusion seems just a little bit tacked on. This game was released in 1992, so it’s as if the writers started the story off in one direction in mid-1991, turned on their TVs toward the end of that year, and then rewrote Chapters 3 and 4 to accommodate the changed direction that pesky real-life history took.
Though like most spy stories, this one starts out innocently enough. You are Captain Maksim Mikahilovich Rukov, fresh transfer to KGB Moscow’s “Department P.” In the game, Department P is tasked with monitoring other KGB departments and uncovering internal corruption. This makes poor Rukov a friend of few in his own organization, while still being feared and distrusted by just about everyone else in the country simply for being an agent of the KGB. Unlike most investigative games, flashing your KGB papers around will probably hurt your case more than help it and encourage people to clam up and get defensive. Like a good spy, you should keep your real identity to yourself.
Your initial task is to investigate the murder of a former KGB operative turned private detective to ensure it had nothing to do with his previous state employment. You will quickly find that he had accidentally uncovered something sinister, and be put to finishing that investigation yourself. Without giving away more than I already have, you’ll have dealings with the Russian Mafia, the CIA, shadowy underground organizations, and other potentially distrustful KGB agents. If you’re looking for a serious spy thriller, this will provide the goods.
There are, of course, some caveats. First, it’s a good idea to have some working knowledge of Soviet society and “current” events. The game takes place in 1991 in Moscow and Leningrad. You’re playing as a Russian interacting with other Russians. Change is in the air, and conflicts between hardliners and progressives play key roles. The game dates itself gloriously, but it still dates itself. You don’t need a history degree or Soviet citizenship, but you will need to understand concepts of perestroika, glasnost, and basics of communist society and protocols, like the role of “The Party” in all state departments.
It’s a point to mention because, as the KGB and USSR themselves have been dissolved for over 15 years, future generations coming to this game won’t automatically “know” these points from growing up with them on the news and in the culture. They’re important to the game since they come up frequently in conversation, and you won’t really understand the plot unless you have some idea of what Russia was like at the time. It can also lead to a quick end to your game. If you’re supposed to be parroting the Party line to a superior officer, but don’t know what that line is, you’ll have a hard time making progress.
The game is also incredibly difficult, beyond the points mentioned above. You’re given very few clues about your investigation and can’t even rely on your strict orders to tell you how to get the job done. Death and other game over scenarios are frequent and often unexpected. Time elapses within the game. You almost always have to accomplish things within strict windows of time to be able to make a scheduled meeting or tail someone leaving their office. Notes are pretty much a requirement, as many times you will be asked to report details of your investigation or keep track of various people and their interconnections. The Sierra style of being able to miss an object or say the wrong thing and then get killed much later even returns to a degree.
Fortunately, this game comes with a friendly interface clearly influenced by the mistakes of previous adventure games. Backtracking is made fairly easy, and you will always have the ability to jump back to the beginning of the chapter or back to the beginning of your last scene. The latter is useful if a conversation doesn’t go quite the way you wanted (which will be just about every time). You can return to the beginning of the scene and start that conversation over.
You also have the ability to rewind time and review what transpired, but not to restart from any point in the past. It’s more like reviewing notes from a tape recorder. This is mainly useful for noting at what time certain events happen, or to review dialogue and the responses you chose. You can then use that information to try a different approach with one of the two restart options, or by loading a saved game from your allotment of four slots.
Most of the time, if you screwed up within a scene then you will know by the end of that scene. You’ll either get a message that you “feel like you forgot something” or receive an instant, nearly random death. At the very least, you won’t make it to the next chapter unless you’ve done everything you’re supposed to. This does serve to keep you from getting too far ahead without the needed information, but also does little to tell you what you actually need to do to pass the previous scene. You’ll have to rely on heavy trial and error and a few “test” plays of each scene to help with that.
The clock also isn’t true “real-time.” It is not always running. Instead, your actions and movements will add time to the clock, while time itself freezes until you take your turn. You’ll have countless moments where you’ve snuck into a room and you “hear someone coming,” but they won’t enter until after you take your next action. It doesn’t give you time to try everything or make mistakes, but it does give you all the time you need to think and hide. The clock is mostly a tool to know when to be at a certain place, and to limit your moves inside a scene. Any time you have left over, like if you get to a meeting point early, can be bled off with a “wait” option.
The game is graphically impressive and features a sharp interface. Rooms are quite detailed and sensibly laid out, though a lack of color depth results in a grainy or mottled look to some of the walls and furniture. No animation actually takes place at any time within the game screens, though characters can fade between two different stills to simulate it. The rest of the time, characters enter and exit scenes by fading to a rectangle outline and shrinking down to their point of exit, like moving an icon to the trash on an old Macintosh computer. It’s frugal, but it does work perfectly well in allowing you to know which direction a character came from or departed to.
You will also often switch to a close-up portrait of a character during dialogue scenes, with a different look than the rest of the game. These faces resemble watercolor portraits with extremely exaggerated features and some basic animations for eye and lip movement. They often fall into caricature, and seem out of place with the rest of the game, but the detail is appreciated. If I had any real complaints, it would be that most “bad” or untrustworthy characters are drawn that way, which sets up unnecessarily correct expectations.
The game is also full of adult scenes that it would probably be irresponsible of me not to mention. You won’t see much visually, but graphic actions and graphic videos are fully described and are heaps of unpleasant. Drugs and drug use are rampant, along with prostitution, shootings, and even some topless nudity in certain apartments. I wouldn’t be overly concerned about anything depicted in the game, and again you’re not going to actually see anything gruesome, but I wouldn’t let kids play it either. Though if your young kid actually understands perestroika, he deserves those titties.
Controls are handled well. Right-clicking offers a menu of all your potential actions. You’ll have quite a few beyond the staples, as well as a few spy-specific ones like “Hide” and “Fight.” You won’t get opportunities to have too much fun though, as most things out of character or otherwise unintended will simply give you a “You can’t do that” in semi-Soviet phrasing. Pixel-hunting is alleviated by having a small description of the object just under the game window, and by not breaking objects out too distinctly. If you search a closet, you’ll automatically search everything in it. The pointer will also blink when over something plot-specific, or an object with items contained or hidden inside. Though you’ll need to “Look” around to follow the story, the blink-o-cursor makes sure you can speed through the plot and its scenes with ease.
The final point worth mentioning is the “Smart Pointer” option. By selecting this, the cursor automatically switches to the most obvious action as it moves over different objects – “Go” for a doorway, “Look” for a desk, “Talk” for a person, and so on. It does streamline the experience a bit, but you can’t play through the entire game with this on. You’ll also need to be careful that you don’t “Talk” to an enemy you’re following, for example.
Sound is almost exclusively limited to a handful of tracks of background music. This is a strange synthesized style; again seemly mismatched with the game itself. It’s not terrible though, and does support the scenes reasonably well – a sneaking scene has appropriately quiet music, while an action scene has tense themes.
If you should locate the CD version, reissued under the title “Conspiracy,” you will gain some video clips of Donald Sutherland as Rukov’s dead father. These act as an optional guide. If you want hints, you click on Sutherland’s face in the inventory. These clips are Sutherland’s talking head against a black background, with a strange dot-matrix like compression, and are universally considered to be useless. The hints he doles out are rarely on target, and are often too vague or too late to be helpful. The floppy version isn’t shy about letting you know when you screw up anyway, and putting Sutherland’s voice to it is unnecessary. It is worth noting as it is the only difference between the CD and floppy versions, making the CD version almost worthless.
You may also be asking what Donald “Hawkeye Pierce” Sutherland is doing playing a Russian, and my reply is his performance in Citizen X. He’s not hampered by his faux accent, but he is woefully underused, perhaps even misused, in the CD version of this game. Especially since he is misrepresented as “starring” in Conspiracy.
If you look at other reviews and comments, the most lasting impression of this game is its difficulty. This is unfortunate, as KGB is certainly not impossible and can certainly be defeated without a walkthrough. What is unfortunate is that you have to be willing to die frequently, or give up the first few attempts at each scene to “intelligence gathering” used to figure out what you’re supposed to do in a later playthrough. You will not breeze through this entire game on the first try – no one will. It’s not designed like that. You’re literally overwhelmed with dialogue and action choices, but only certain ones are correct. Instead of feeling like you can do anything, you mostly have to sift through useless, red herring responses to find the single linear path. Anything you miss that doesn’t get you promptly killed just means you’ll be missing out on pieces of the puzzle, not heading off down a side path and changing the outcome.
It is worth noting that Chapter 3 and 4 seem noticeably weaker and shorter than 1 and 2. The depth and multitude of options is reduced – most of Chapter 3 is spent waiting, and most of Chapter 4 is listening to characters talk. This supports my theory that the ending was rewritten once the Soviet Union collapsed, especially when you consider that what you spend most of your time investigating really has nothing to do with the master plan revealed at the end. You do, however, get a couple different endings based on your Chapter 4 actions.
Still, KGB is a serious challenge and the kind of game that no one is likely to ever make again. It’s certainly unique; there simply aren’t that many games that take place in Soviet Russia, and despite the fact that it comes from outside French developers, it feels authentic. If you’re willing to invest months of time in it (most of which will be spent in replays, as the actual game is rather short), you’ll find an enjoyable spy adventure, with an interesting, if sometimes hard to believe, interpretation of the Soviet Union’s final days.
Clever game that has the spy vibe nailed. Also a fairly intriguing look at late Soviet Russia. Can be beaten with persistence.
A lot of time will be devoted to dying so you can learn enough to proceed in a replay of that scene. If this isn’t how you like your adventures, you won’t be a fan of this one. Hard to recommend to even serious adventure gamers because of the difficulty.
“Rukov! Beware antisocial pranksterism!” — The game’s “stop screwing around” message.