What do you get when you mix the humor of The Curse of Monkey Island with the looks of Deponia and the puzzles of Broken Sword? Coat all this with a lot of Russian Red and the end result is Irony Curtain: From Matryoshka With Love, a surprisingly well put-together adventure game from Artifex Mundi, a developer that mostly creates short smartphone-based games.
I honestly never heard of it and picked it up on the Nintendo Switch in on a sale. Because of it, expectations were low—boy, were we wrong! Irony Curtain is fully voiced, fully witted, and will fully tickle your classic point & click urges (up to a certain degree). In the game, you are Evan, a naive American reporter that fell in love with the mystical land of Matryoshka and its divine Great Leader, which of course turns out to be a bit of a misnomer. After a lecture gone wrong and a faked home-jacking, Evan ends up in a hotel in Matryoshka, is unwillingly involved in a coup d’état, shuffled along with the resistance, thrown in jail, and of course, ultimately, cooks up a happy ending.
Structure and puzzles
In order to get there, Evan—or me—had to fumble about, steal and dye clothes, get lost, trade items, and occasionally call a help line. The most important aspect of a classic adventure game is of course its puzzle structure. How does Irony Curtain fare on this? Fairly well! Every item Evan picks up should be thoroughly inspected first though, sometimes it needs to be taken apart or opened—or a hint in the form of a funny line finally gets you going.
There are very few red herrings in the game, compared to Monkey Island 2, where many items ended up being useless (but funny). Some items do make it from chapter 2 to 3, and in desperate moments, I ended up doing the classic “combine everything with everything” trick, although that rarely ever worked. The puzzles usually require nothing but a bit of logic and do NOT fall in the Simon the Sorcerer’s “moon logic” category—thank God. Although an unusual amount of combining and manipulating was needed compared to the latest adventure game I played (Kathy Rain), it never was too much.
In chapter 3, puzzles followed each other in quick succession, but each one was fairly easy, so I quickly made a lot of progress—that is, until I ended up in the last chapter, where the difficulty (or amount of phases you have to get through) suddenly ramped up. In terms of the interface, it’s a fairly standard “modern” adventure game system: clicking = interacting, no verbs like the classic games, and just “talk”, “inspect”, or “use” (enter/open/combine/…) will get you through.
Graphics, atmosphere, music
The creative process behind creating the locations of the game digs deeper in the steps that were involved into creating layer upon layer of complex environments. The Russian sauce oozes with charm, sometimes dreadful (in the cemetery, big bombs and laundry comes together), sometimes playful (funny waiting animations or background NPCs that do not take part in the game itself). In-between chapters, cut-scenes show zoomed-in graphics, but they feel a bit plastic-like and are very stiffly animated. Evan’s animations (bobbing hair while walking/moving) are okay.
Compared to 1992’s Monkey Island 2, there’s little variation. Picking up stuff does not invoke a unique animation. There are effectively jump-through-window moments but the animation always felt a bit stiff compared to its big brother pixel-filled adventures. I guess that’s one of the perils of the art direction. At least compared to Deponia (it does look an awful lot like it!), Irony Curtain looks and feels a bit more lively (and has way less stupidly difficult puzzles).
The least compelling part of Irony Curtain is the music. It’s atmospheric at best, but the repetitive Russian/Matryoshkan jingles get boring—or even, irritating—fast. I cannot remember a single piece of the soundtrack, so it’s hard to apply the word “memorable” here. Granted, Kathy Rain’s is also more atmospheric than orchestry like in the iconic Monkey Island games. But that game is gritty and dark, and I do remember the police station and depressing lake house tunes.
Who is this game for? For Monkey Island fanboys? For Broken Sword puzzle addicts? For Sanitarium horror-like enthusiasts? I think the answer is clearly the former: its jokes clearly refer to the “good old” LucasArts days, and Evan’s puns and some scenes remind me a lot of The Curse of Monkey Island. It is really difficult to get the humor right when stepping into the shadow of a giant like Monkey Island, but Artifex Mundi really pulled it off. The game is designed to be funny, and towards the end, a bit of sorrow and seriousness is induced to counterbalance the jokes.
Scenes are stuffed with clever puns and secret remarks. The town square refers to Grim Fandango and Machinarium. In the ending, Evan learns to never pay more than 20 rupryeshka’s for an adventure game. I’m sure I missed more than a few of those genuinely funny moments.
Controls and platform
Perhaps the biggest mistake we made was playing it on the Switch. You control Evan with the left thumb stick, instead of clicking your way through, so it feels a bit more at home at consoles. Although the pathfinding works well enough, at a few moments, I was completely stuck, and even had to reload a previous savegame!
In another puzzle, I had to pick up a picture frame, but since it was not highlighted (white stars appear on things you can interact with in a scene to avoid pixel-hunting on consoles without a mouse), I thought I couldn’t use that. It took a guide to point me to what was right in front of me: pick up that frame and put it in the machine, damn it! That was a one-off, but a serious oversight that kept me grumbling for a few minutes. Sorting through all your junk in the pockets was manageable. Only a few sections in the game have you scrolling up and down because a lot of objects were involved. The game does a good job at pacing the objects: some chapters erase everything but a few ones that can be re-used in later puzzles.
Overall, Irony Curtain was a very pleasant surprise that is apparently highly rated at Adventure Gamers—and now, also by me. It’s hard to award it a nominee for “classic” adventure game, but it sure was a lot of fun (literally).