The revival of adventure games on the DS is great news for gamers, but it can make things tough for developers like Austrian outfit Sproing, whose Undercover: Dual Motives will be competing with prestigious genre stablemates such as Ace Attorney, Hotel Dusk, and Professor Layton and the Curious Village. With the likes of Gyakuten Kenji, Jake Hunter, and more Layton on the horizon, the competition isn't about to get any easier.
In other words, we DS-owning adventure fans are a spoilt bunch, which means it takes something special to impress us. And, as hard as it tries, Undercover: Dual Motives isn't it.
Gallery: Undercover: Dual Motives
This is unfortunate, because Sproing's game initially sounded like our kind of thing. Before we dipped our toe in the game's waters, we were intrigued by its setting and premise. The idea of playing as double-crossed physicist Dr. John Russell in a British research facility during the Second World War and fighting to clear his name from allegations of spying for the Nazis is a promising starting point. The main hook of the game -- solving puzzles by combining Russell with busybody receptionist Audrey -- shows genuine potential.
Slot the cartridge into your DS, however, and interest levels quickly dwindle. Right from the off, it's clear that Dual Motives has suffered from poor localization (having originally been released only in German-speaking territories). Spelling and grammatical errors are worryingly common and smack of a rushed product, and the dialog itself is hardly riveting. In fact, it's downright wooden at times, and not once were we convinced of Audrey's motivation to assist in clearing John's name. Most of the time, it's as though the two only just met on a particularly uncomfortable blind date.
If the weak script leaves Dual Motives critically wounded and floundering about for life, the puzzles just about finish it off. Okay, so we'll be honest here: some of the puzzles in which you use John and Audrey in tandem are nicely executed -- distracting an MI6 agent while the other sneaks past was entertaining.
That said, the rest of the game's conundrums are either too dull or illogical to care about. Many are nothing more than fetch quests (note: Dual Motive's cast are a deeply unhelpful bunch, and will almost always want something from you before they help out and allow you to trudge further through the game's pedestrian story), while others are laughably obscure.
How obscure? Two examples spring to mind here (these can be classified as spoilers, so take care): creating a makeshift stethoscope out of a funnel and an old bit of rubber hosing (what the --?) and fashioning an improvised grappling hook by sawing off the top of a coat tree and tying it to some old rope that's conveniently lying around in a totally different office (EH?!). Mercifully, the game does include 'hotspots' to highlight each interactive item in a room, but some of the logic on display here is batty.
It quite enjoys being exceedingly picky on a regular basis (for example, progression often rests on whether John is speaking to Audrey or Audrey is speaking to John), while the minigames that pop up every now and again are largely forgettable affairs (though we did enjoy picking locks).
Even the animation manages to look borked, with John and Audrey appearing to walk sideways everywhere, like giant crabs in 1940s attire. It's a disconcerting effect that no number of attractive pre-rendered backgrounds can save.
It's hard to pinpoint what could have saved Dual Motives, simply because there are too many holes to plug to prevent the whole thing from sinking miserably. Stronger dialog and localization would have helped, certainly, but then what about the tiresome/obscure puzzles, the characters that are almost impossible to care for, or the dull-as-dishwater story with its absolutely flat ending? It's a bit of a shame, because the dual character hook is a novel one, and something that should have been used more often over the six or seven hours it takes to finish the game. For those seeking a handheld adventure, there are numerous superior options.
Final score: 3/10