Cosmic Top Secret Review

January 2, 2019
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Cosmic Top Secret is part journalistic discovery, part Monty Python surrealism. It is simultaneously a fascinating trip through filmmaker Trine Laier’s investigation into her parents’ history as Danish spies, and a gaming experience which veers from average to truly horrible. This is a title which at one point has you searching for your father’s leg which has been stolen by a buzzard, and at another leading a military march alongside your mother who stops for copious cigarette breaks.

This is more true than you may realise.

Denmark’s Defence Intelligence Service may be an obscure body to anyone outside of the country, but the draw here is Laier’s journey (under the guise of playable character Agent T) as she teases out snippets from her parents’ past. As they become gradually more and more outlandish, so too does the level of secrecy surrounding them and the surrealism of the game itself. The entire environment is papercraft, with Agent T transforming into a scrunched up ball to navigate the various levels filled with pop-up buildings, model planes and cardboard characters sporting Python-esque googly eyes.

There are a couple of flight sections. Neither are great.

The actual gameplay is simple enough. Agent T must collect nine different pieces of intel on each level to be able to progress to the next. This might be a classified file, a piece of punch tape, or another nugget of information revealed as she discovers more about her folks’ background. Laier’s interviews begin gently. Early on she joins her father on an orienteering trip which is represented in-game by a series of checkpoints, all the while probing for information. Unfortunately, even though the player’s task is simply to guide Agent T to each checkpoint, they are unnecessarily hindered. For one thing, movement involves holding down the left mouse button and basically dragging the crumpled ball of your avatar around while the camera bounces erratically behind you. Anything which isn’t a flat surface will inevitably lead to you running out of space to drag, getting caught behind the environment, or being spun around. The world map is often bewildering despite its simplistic design. A lack of notable features or repetitive greenery will see you desperately referring to your location map time and again to work out which sector coordinate you’re currently in. And in a bizarre design decision, rather than a live location marker pinpointing your current position, Agent T has to throw a grenade at her feet and then refer to the map to see where the explosion is.

The video segments are interesting, but some editing to trim the fat would have been useful.

Other quirks like this abound and they detract from what could have been a fascinating story. An inverted level late on is complicated to the point of frustration since the map itself is rendered basically useless. A section where you turn into a paper aeroplane and take aerial photographs would have been cathartically enjoyable if the controls — as with ground-based movement — weren’t so damn annoying. Each level has puzzles which are required to unlock the next level of classification, all the way up to the titular Cosmic Top Secret (which genuinely exists). While diverting for a time, you'll soon realise that the game either gives you the answers outright or via the scenery, requiring very little effort on your part. The absurd, left-field nature of some of the game’s tasks only go so far in redeem the problems faced in completing them; they confuse as often as they amuse.

Integrating old photos makes for some surreal gameplay elements.

There are countless files, conversations, audio and video recordings of her parents and their friends to unlock, many of which lie behind a myriad of collectibles. The problem is that they require you to explore the landscape to find them and only the most masochistic of players is likely to do so. It’s truly a shame, since the story of Laier’s parents takes some unexpected turns at times. Their marriage, and the story of how they came to be married, lays bare some guilt and vulnerability on camera which is truly touching. Similarly, Laier’s father revisiting his old spy headquarters to placate his daughter’s relentless inquisitiveness leads to fond memories and the reuniting of old work colleagues.

This level is genuinely awful to play.

As a TV programme, Cosmic Top Secret would have been an interesting if ultimately slight documentary, detailing the history of two former government agents as their story is revealed to their bewildered daughter. But burdened by the weight of a game which stretches out their journey through often painful levels of hoop-jumping it ultimately becomes more of a curio, one which is sadly likely to remain locked in the dusty depths of a Steam vault and only unearthed by history buffs, or those willing to grit their teeth and see it through to the bitter end.

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Cosmic Top Secret is let down by rudimentary and frustrating gameplay which stifles some otherwise fine investigative journalism.
Rob Kershaw

I've been gaming since the days of the Amstrad. Huge RPG fan. Planescape: Torment tops my list, but if a game tells a good story, I'm interested. Absolutely not a fanboy of any specific console or PC - the proof is in the gaming pudding. Also, I like cake.