Having recently played, and unfavourably reviewed, Gametek's 'interactive movie' Hell: A Cyberpunk Thriller for our first issue, I approached their latest offering, Bureau 13, with cautious scepticism, especially as the box showed similar mannequin-like characters to those used in Hell. I was soon to be very pleasantly surprised, however, as this game bears only a superficial resemblance to its predecessor and makes no pretence to being an 'interactive movie'. It is, in fact, quite an acceptable 'old-fashioned' adventure despite it being loosely based on a pen and paper role-playing game.
The Bureau 13 of the title is a shadowy, secret government organisation whose operatives normally investigate supernatural and extraterrestrial phenomena. Only, this time, one of its own agents, J.P. Withers, seems to have turned feral and has attempted to blow up a sheriff in Stratusburg thus drawing unwanted attention to the Bureau. Two agents must now be selected to go to Stratusburg to neutralise J.P. and remove all evidence of the Bureau's involvement. A simple enough assignment one would think, but there may be more to this than meets the eye.
After a short introductory sequence where this scenario is outlined you must choose the two agents you will take from the six presented. Each agent has special skills and you can learn a little about them from their dossiers. I took along Jimmy Suttle, the thief, and Selma Gray, the white witch, as I thought this combination offered me the best balance. Although now, having finished the game, I realise that it makes little difference which agents you choose as all the correct outcomes are achieved by finding and utilising objects along the way. There are only a few items that require a specific skill and an alternative is usually close at hand. If, for example, you choose not to take the thief there are other, more obvious ways to break into buildings.
This, of course, raises the issue of consistency with the storyline. If you go around breaking into places, won't that call attention to your activities? For the first part of the game I made sure I closed everything that I opened to cover up my actions, but this was completely unnecessary. Especially when you realise that the imperative not to call attention to yourself or the Bureau, is shot to pieces anyway if you choose to take Delilah Littlepanther as one of your agents. Clunking around in a mechanical suit with a huge transparent bubble-front and showing off your underwear, is hardly conducive to travelling incognito!
Bureau 13 has a couple of flaws, one being that your previous actions have little impact on the continuity of the game scenario. For example, once you first get past the security guard at the Advanced Instrumentation Office you can use the same 'trick' every time you return. Though, admittedly, if you do everything you have to do in that building the first time there is no need to return. On a similar note many of the characters you talk to have extremely limited responses and will continue to repeat conversations that no longer apply to the situation. Fortunately, most of the conversations are short, but I would have welcomed the opportunity to click through the spoken dialogue in the same way that you could speed up the on-screen text.
Also, I couldn't fail to notice several unnecessary 'glitches' in the game which can only be put down to poor play testing. Occasionally the program would identify objects on screen where none existed as I had previously taken them, and sometimes the description was totally wrong such as when I clicked on Eddie Houston's coffee table only to be told that it was a two-lane highway leading east ...!
Another shortcoming, I thought, was the inability of your agents to talk to each other and possibly suggest ideas for overcoming a particular problem. However, I was prepared to live with this as it meant that, unlike Hell, there were none of those drawn-out cut sequences of your characters babbling on as you quietly fumed and drummed your fingers on the table waiting for the self-indulgent 'conversation' to end.
Speaking of the characters, although Bureau 13 has the same mannequin-like figures as Hell, I found these to be less obtrusive and far less annoying. No doubt because this is much more of an adventure game and I felt more involved than I did in Hell. And I am pleased to be able to inject a positive note to balance my criticisms. Despite the gripes I have outlined, I still enjoyed Bureau 13 simply because it is an adventure game where you are presented with a series of problems to overcome, and the story unfolds in a logical manner the more you learn about what is going on. I thought there was a good range of puzzles which involved being alert for clues and overcoming obstacles to get objects to manipulate or use at the correct location. Some were fairly easy whilst others were quite taxing - just getting safely into Veronica Cotton's house took me quite a while. Though, of course, once you have solved it, it all appears blindingly obvious.
Refreshingly, the game had none of that 'in- your-face' aggression that generally seems to accompany this sort of title. There was no combat to speak of, and on the rare occasion that I was able to fire my gun or use my magic in anger, this was invariably not the right thing to do and my score dropped dramatically to show me the error of my ways.
The 'show score' facility is a useful way to keep track of your progress through the game, although it was at times a little annoying to see my score drop when I was certain that I was on the right track and subsequently proved to be so. I guess the lesson here is to check your score periodically, but don't become obsessive about it.
The interface is simple to use. Move your cursor around the screen and your red 'bulls eye' will light up, then you can click with your right mouse button to scroll through the usual action icons such as look, search, talk, etc. Alternatively you can access your interface bar by moving the cursor to the top of the screen and right clicking then selecting the appropriate action. This is also the way that you can view your inventory, examine any objects you have picked up, and swap between agents. Moving around is equally simple. For the most part, new locations are highlighted by moving the cursor to the edge of the screen. You just point and left click to where you want to go though I did think it was a long walk from Elm to Sixth street and back.
Your inventory itself is a scrolling, seemingly limitless, hold-all for everything that you can pick up, and this includes fallen tree branches of considerable size. You will also pick up a few items that are of no use to the agents you have chosen, but unfortunately there does not appear to be a way to drop these, so I am afraid you will be lumbered with them for the duration of the game. Most items, but not all, have only one use and this will become apparent as you progress, so that you needn't waste time by trying every object in every location, it's not that sort of game.
On the whole then, I found Bureau 13 to be a surprisingly enjoyable adventure game and, despite its imperfections, one that kept me thoroughly absorbed right up until the very end.
Copyright © Gordon Aplin 1995.
All rights reserved.
386/33 or higher, 2MB RAM, 13 MB hard drive space, 2xCD-ROM, DOS 5.0, VGA, mouse.