“Fun with radiation” – Review of The Bunker

What would you do if you were trapped as the last survivor of a nuclear fallout inside a surprisingly spacious bunker with a head full of neuroses and anxiety?

Well, shit, let’s find out. You play as John, a man born and raised inside the confines of this nuclear bunker, in an alternate reality where a nuclear strike happened sometime in the 1990’s and decimated the world’s population.

John spends his days checking for radiation levels, reading books to his dead mother (!), eating canned foods on the can (I couldn’t make this up), and fretting like a badger caught in a bear trap about the prospect of venturing out of his comfort zone. Because something in his past is haunting him; something he is not ready to remember.

This scene repeats three times, which is three times too many.
This scene repeats three times, which is three times too many.

Sounds fun, right?

For the most part, it is. Story-wise, anyway. It’s a great story, expertly paced, beautifully shot, wonderfully acted, and with a haunting electronic score. Did I mention the whole thing is shot with real actors in a real nuclear bunker?

What has promise to bring FMV games into the new age with a compelling story and superb production values is sadly squandered when you get into the actual game aspects of it. And, bear in mind, this is coming from someone who loved the shit out of games like Gone Home and The Beginner’s Guide, games usually lambasted by the quote-unquote “hardcore” gamer demographic as being “non-games.”

It’s as though the lads at Splendy Games went out of their way to shoot this fantastic story, then remembered far too late that games are supposed to have this “interactive” element to them.

This guy commands every scene he's in. Which is good, because he plays the bunker's Commander.
The acting is phenomenal all around.

Interaction in The Bunker is accomplished by clicking hotspots. Sometimes you drag a little circle into a bigger circle; sometimes you click on a circle before a timer runs out; sometimes you click repeatedly in a circle to fill up a meter before a timer runs out. You don’t pick up items, or combine items, or talk to anyone.

The latter point you could forgive because there isn’t anyone to talk to. The story unfolds mostly in flashbacks as John is forced to explore the bunker — something he is not very keen on, because they trigger his suppressed memories of what happened when he was a child.

I say “explore,” but that’s not really what you do. Contrary to games like Gone Home, you are not free to walk around the bunker as you please. The game is incredibly linear. Every stage of the game boxes you into a few screens with the protagonist constantly repeating what your objective is. There is no sense of freedom or participation; you’re literally just clicking to advance the movie.

The game gives you the illusion that there are puzzles to solve when, in reality, there are none. At the start of the game, you are expected to replace a busted fuse. Replacement fuses are in plain sight right on top of the fuse box, and pulling out the wrong fuse has no consequence whatsoever. You can’t do things out of order, because the protagonist will politely tell you that’s not the correct sequence. Later, you are charged with replacing an air filter, and the process is the same: the objects you need are all in the same room, and there is no way to fuck it up.

Did someone order a puzzle? No? Okay, I'll just leave this air filter here.
Did someone order a puzzle? No? Okay, I’ll just leave this air filter here.

The flashback scenes are usually where the game puts you on a timer to click a hotspot, but the only consequence of not doing it in time is that the game rewinds and starts the scene over. You can’t skip FMV scenes you’ve already seen, and the appearance of the hotspots are spaced very far apart.

You’ll quickly become complacent just watching a scene, then suddenly lunge for the mouse because one of those little stupid circles appear. If you don’t make it in time, nothing much happens — the game just barks at you, then forces you to sit through the entire scene again.

Pictured: what passes for "interactivity" in this game.
Pictured: what passes for “interactivity” in this game.

I’m all for games that focus on telling a story rather than getting you bogged down with puzzles or weird game mechanics. The so-called “walking simulators” do this expertly by putting you in the shoes of a protagonist, exploring their world through their eyes. Typically, you pick up scraps of paper or listen to audio diaries as you progress through the story, and The Bunker admittedly has some of this, but it is in woefully short supply.

There really isn’t anything to click on that doesn’t advance the story by simply triggering another movie clip, and the game has you on such a tight leash that any sense of freedom is non-existent. Even though the QTE-ish sequences aren’t particularly hard, they are annoying, and the fact that you can’t fast-forward through scenes you’ve already seen means that failing one feels like a grueling punishment. Any interaction is simply an afterthought rather than integrated into the story, and a pretty shitty one at that.

It’s a pity, because The Bunker had excellent potential to tell its story and be an interesting game at the same time: Either they could have added in some actual puzzle solving, or made the story branch depending on the choices you make (or how many QTE’s you fail). You know, the things that games can do that traditional media, like movies and television, can’t.

As it is now, there is no replay value whatsoever — the ending is a very intense build-up to a binary choice of which the outcomes are incredibly anti-climactic — unless you feel like combing through the screens looking for collectibles in the form of little wood figurines, and, honestly, putting in this “hidden object” shit just feels like a last-minute act of desperation.

The build-up to the ending is honestly gripping and harrowing as all fuck.
The build-up to the ending is honestly gripping and harrowing as all fuck.

Final verdict: Great story, great acting, amazing score, phenomenal production values — but it utterly fails as a game.

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