If you put Monkey Island and Dr. Strangelove into a blender and hit puree, you’d get something not altogether dissimilar to Irony Curtain. The most recent release from developer Artifex Mundi, Irony Curtain stars Evan Kovolsky is an independent journalist and die-hard socialist in a parody of 1950s America, The States. When he shares his views on a televised debate, he catches the attention of Anna, a secret agent from communist Matryoshka, who spirits him away to the motherland. Will Evan foil a plot to assassinate the Party Leader? Or will everything go horribly, horribly wrong?
Not Really A Spoiler Alert: Everything is going to go wrong.
Evan is intentionally naive, obtuse, and weirdly self-confident; the same kind of Idiot Hero trope that many other point-and-click adventure game protagonists tend to conform to. It works better in cutscenes than in the flavor dialogue. However, as veteran players will know, no matter how many variations of “that doesn’t work” are recorded, by the end of the game, they’re still stale as thrice-traded meat ration card.
Irony Curtain is, from a narrative perspective, a rather short game, with fewer than ten self-contained areas. However, like most adventure games, a metric ton of backtracking is required to solve all the puzzles in order to unlock the next area. This becomes progressively more frustrating as you go from relatively self-contained levels like Evan’s house and his hotel room to all of Crimson Square, or the Metro level which includes the station itself and multiple stops.
The puzzles are standard point-and-click fare, with a fair amount of “wait, really?” moments up to and including: joining the army to get a condom and making a balloon out of it, making a slingshot to retrieve a pair of boots to trade to a hobo for a votive candle that you will fashion into a pipe, and milking a cow to lubricate a tank’s loading chamber. There are at least a couple of instances of the classic “get this for Character X so they’ll give you something for Character Y so you can repeat that process a couple of times before you get the thing you actually need” scenario.
Irony Curtain actually does a good job of strongly indicating what you need to do to accomplish your goals through dialogue and environmental elements. They also include two mechanics to keep players from getting stuck: a helpline that takes different forms, carefully marked in each level by a yellow light bulb, and the space bar, which reveals all elements in the area with which the player can interact.
One interesting choice is the opening tutorial sequence, which takes place chronologically later than most of the game. The amount of plot revealed in the opening scene sets up certain expectations which make the third act reveals more impactful, as well as providing a simplified puzzle to get one’s feet wet.
If it wasn’t clear by now, the game is just stuffed full of Soviet Russia stereotypes. Aside from the fictional country being named after Russian nesting dolls and Anna, the redheaded femme fatale spy, there are jokes about traditional dishes (borscht and vodka), the exchange rate and inflation, and endless permits and applications for everything from using the bathroom to ordering from the hotel restaurant (each with their own minigame).
There are a few more subtle environmental gags that are never explicitly called out in the game, like the “skyline” of the capital being mostly made up of cardboard cutouts and tanks that are actually helium balloons.
The voice acting in this game is decent, but there are a couple of stylistic choices that make it really stand out. Characters that are established to be speaking English are voiced with Russian accents, but characters speaking Matryoshkan are represented by analogous regional dialogues in the western world. Although initially garbled, once the player finds and utilizes a Matryoshkan phrasebook, the citizens’ dialogue is in English. The farmer in town to make a delivery speaks with a country drawl, the lady welder working on a construction site has a little bit of a South Bronx vibe, and the crazy old moonshiner past the city limits sounds like… a crazy old moonshiner.
Evan blindly believes in the virtues of communism, to the point where even when he is in the country and witnessing the fascist dictatorship rather than the socialist paradise he expected, it takes him a while to come around. He mentions multiple times over the course of the game that he has been exposed to nothing but government-sanctioned propaganda, and that he trusts the information he has gained from it wholeheartedly.
Considering where the story takes him by its end, there are one or two plot holes we could contemplate, but what’s more interesting is how Irony Curtain portrays such a tense period in world history. We get to see something of the ostracization and scrutinization that anyone with socialist leanings experienced in the U.S., and we are beaten over the head with the realities of life in the Eastern Bloc, especially corruption in the government and military. The conclusion of the story is a weak sort of compromise that still manages to put the US as a sort of savior working with the Matryoshkan resistance.
However, it’s hard to think really deeply about a game where the main character refuses to take a bath until it has bubbles in it. Irony Curtain gives players classic adventure game shenanigans in a new setting, and that’s honestly enough. For fans of Zork, Monkey Island, and Thimbleweed Park, this is definitely worth a playthrough.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.
In Soviet Russia, Game Plays You
Irony Curtain is a fun throwback to classic adventure games but provides lots of different ways to solve puzzles and plenty of help if you get stuck. Also, keep an eye out for Monty Python references!
When Alyssa isn't gaming, she's teaching high school Computer Science or locked up in her craft room sewing and binging true crime shows and cartoons on Netflix. She has a Pokemon Red save file with...