In the early 90s, Sega‘s CD-based add-on for their Genesis console ushered in a whole new genre; the FMV (full-motion video) interactive adventure. Littered with odious offerings such as the infamously insipid Night Trap and the forgettable likes of Sewer Shark and Ground Zero Texas, these titles effectively killed off this brand new genre as quickly as they helped to pioneer it. Fast forward nearly quarter of a century later, and Soul Axiom developer Wales Interactive is attempting that most contemporary of acts; a reboot, not of a single title, but of a whole genre with its latest effort, The Bunker.
The Bunker Review: A gripping narrative
In the halcyon days of those Sega CD FMV efforts, it’s probably fair to say that the acting, sets and general direction all absolutely sucked and as such, there really weren’t any entries in the genre that could stand as qualitative flag-bearers. Seemingly aware of this, the developer behind The Bunker has gone the extra mile, hiring real actors to ply their craft in real-life sets with a gripping narrative that has been scribed by the writing talent behind the rather decent Broken Sword games.
After nuclear war devastates the country and forces the remainder of Great Britain’s population underground during the mid 1980s, a child is born in an Essex bunker during the chaos – John. As thirty years pass and the population of the bunker mysteriously dwindles down to just him and his mother, The Bunker puts us in the shoes of John himself; a thirty year old man who knows nothing of the outside world and has spent his entire existence in crushing solitude, his fragile psyche compromised yet further still by the remembrance of traumatic events from his past.
Living an almost Groundhog Day type existence defined by regimented process where he wakes, checks radiation levels, oxygen quality and eats cans of tinned peaches each day, John’s life takes a turn for the worse when a computer error forces him to venture outside of the room that has been his comfort zone for so many years. Essentially, imagine the Vault Dweller from Bethesda’s Fallout games if he was a little simple-minded, wracked with crippling anxiety and also suffered from chronic agoraphobia.
As more and more things go wrong in the bunker itself (for the risk of spoilers, I’ll stay deliberately vague), John is forced to relive key moments in his past, with the narrative continually hopping back and forth along its chronology to impart its tale to the player. At the centre of it is Adam Brown‘s (Ori in The Hobbit movies) inspired performance as the protagonist, John. Neatly balancing a feeling of creeping insanity with the struggles of a man striving to find his place in the world, Brown turns out a superlative performance that deeply immerses the player in his plight. Of near equal note is the work of actress Sarah Greene (Hecate in TV’s Penny Dreadful), as John’s mother; a measured and well-judged performance, Greene excels in her portrayal of a fiercely devoted and loving parent.
Further cementing these performances is the bunker itself, which with its gloomy corridors, time-worn equipment and starkly functional operation rooms, often feels like a member of the cast in its own right. Filmed on location in an actual decommissioned British bunker in deepest Essex, the feeling of authenticity in The Bunker is eerily poignant and feels much more tangible than the green screen vistas that previous entries in the FMV genre tended to slavishly embrace. Simply, there is something that only the magic of a 24 frames per second movie presentation with real sets can ably provide, and The Bunker taps into this with fanciful aplomb.
The Bunker plays in a fashion that’s very much akin to point and click adventures, such as Telltale Games output; albeit with far less interactivity. Flicking between first-person perspective and third-person perspective scenes of looped footage where John often stands around idly, looking anxious, the player is tasked with dragging a cursor around the screen in order to comb for points of interest, such as a door to walk through, something to collect or some equipment that requires examining.
The problem is, the points of interest are extremely few and far between, despite having a bunker full of things to potentially muck about with. Something else that further reduces the level of interactivity is that there is no dialog system in place, which not only makes The Bunker (a somewhat obviously) lonesome experience, but also an emaciated one, too.
Compounding The Bunker’s meagre offering is the issue that there’s no real challenge, either. The puzzles, such as they are, are extremely straightforward and the whole experience can be breezed through in a single sitting of between two and three hours. Occasionally, there are some basic, QTE-style events where you need to hammer a button quickly, or move the cursor to a particular part of the screen, but otherwise, there’s not just far less points of interactivity in The Bunker, there is just much less everything basically and as such, The Bunker feels like the first episode in a series rather than a substantial experience in its own right. Granted, there is a second ending but other than that, The Bunker simply feels too linear.
The Bunker: Collectibles aren’t enough
Although The Bunker’s narrative is certainly grandly woven and told, there isn’t much to go back for other than the second ending. In itself, this wouldn’t normally be a problem if there were other modes or a truly branching narrative, but there isn’t any of that here, and so returning to The Bunker’s three hour or less experience becomes difficult to justify.
Sure enough, dotted around the place are token collectibles such as wooden figurines which can be scooped up and these yield a trophy for each one collected (this game hands out trophies like candy)not to mention a smattering of journals and recordings, but other than that, there isn’t much to do other than to get swept up in the distinctly linear path of The Bunker’s storytelling. Essentially, The Bunker just felt like needed more.
Wales Interactive deserve credit for resurrecting the FMV interactive adventure genre and also for side-stepping many of the problems that plagued it back in the day. Arguably, while The Bunker is an effective overture to that forgotten genre, it also fails to fit in with its contemporary peers as its reductive offering, both in terms of substance and longevity, invariably hurts its prospects a great deal.