Cosmic Top Secret – Review
Follow Genre: Puzzle game, Interactive documentary
Developer: Klassefilm, Those Eyes
Publisher: nakana.io
Platform: Switch, PS4, Xbox One, PC, Android, iOS
Tested on: Switch

Cosmic Top Secret – Review

Site Score
6.3
Good: Immersive story with genuinely poignant moments
Bad: Gameplay feels like an afterthought
User Score
4.5
(2 votes)
Click to vote
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Rating: 4.5/10 (2 votes cast)

The least we can say about nakana.io’s Switch releases is that they’re different from what you’d typically expect from a video game. Whether it’s an emotional gut-punch like Lydia or just outright weirdness, like Infini, nakana.io’s library certainly stands out. The latest addition is Cosmic Top Secret, which is a documentary in video game form, developed by Danish artist Trine Laier. It’s a late arrival on the Switch, having debuted on PC in 2018. With its striking visual style and intriguing premise, Cosmic Top Secret certainly has a lot going for it, but does it deliver a journey worth taking?

Story

Before we delve into Cosmic Top Secret’s story, we have to go back in time a bit and look at its origins, as knowing how this game began is elementary to understanding the story it tries to get across. Everything starts with Danish artist and documentary maker Trine Laier, who suspects that her parents were spies for the Danish Defence Intelligence Service during the Cold War. Her suspicions led her to conduct a series of interviews with her parents, gradually prying more and more snippets of information from them. These interviews formed the basis of Laier’s graduation project in 2012. The graduation project got the ball rolling and the Danish Film Institute gave funding to Laier to turn her documentary film into the interactive experience that is the subject of today’s review. You’d expect the parents to be the main subject, but actually, Laier herself is the protagonist in Cosmic Top Secret, under the guise of Agent T. Her mission is to collect snippets of intel and piece together the stories of her parents, mirroring her real life undertaking.

For one part, her parents are naturally apprehensive about the information they are willing to divulge -if only because they don’t know if what they tell her has been declassified. However, Laier’s close relationship with her subjects also shines through occasionally. One particularly touching moment is when Laier’s mother reminisces about her first husband, for example. For Laier’s mother, the information is long in the past, and she only mentions it in passing, but for Laier herself, hearing about this man is heartbreaking, by her own admission. Small moments like these add some poignance to Cosmic Top Secret, and they help to keep the player engaged to sit this journey through to the end. It’s very much Laier’s own story, and although it might come across as a bit self-indulgent at times, seeing everything through her lens helps with immersion and it also explains why certain questions simply aren’t answered.

Graphics

Cosmic Top Secret’s papercraft world and googly-eyed protagonist give the game a very distinct feel, although we’re not quite sure we agree with the choices made here. The game’s subject matter is intriguing but it’s also a serious affair, and the aesthetic choices undermine the impact of the stories told by Laier’s parents. The simple animations are reminiscent of the animation style seen in Monty Python. While this makes Cosmic Top Secret visually appealing, this also makes it difficult to really accept the snippets of information here as being based on real-life events. Of course, Cosmic Top Secret is a project that is very close to Trine Laier herself, and the aesthetic choices are her own. It is likely that there is a layer here that outsiders don’t see, but that would also mean that she fails to get her point across in this regard.

Sound

Most of the used documentary footage predates Cosmic Top Secret by a decade, and the recordings weren’t made with the development of a video game in mind. As such, the audio quality of the associated interviews isn’t as crisp as one would like, but it makes sense given the source material and it is implemented in a natural way. The game’s audio is very focused on these interviews though, rather than on music or sound effects. Most of the dialogue presented here, both from the interviews and what was written specifically for the game, is in Danish, although there is some English audio present as well.

Gameplay

The surrealistic gameplay presented in Cosmic Top Secret is as difficult to explain as it is weird. From a technical point of view, things are simple enough. Throughout each of the five distinct stages of the game, Agent T must collect nine pieces of intel. Once she does so, she can move on to the next. This is easier said than done though, and collecting intel often is done in strange and occasionally convoluted ways. It’s difficult to put a label on what genre this game should fit in, as it’s too simple to be considered a true puzzle game. The five stages are completely different, each representing a different point in Laier’s journey, and they range from a hike in the woods with her father to Agent T taking to the skies in an airplane to take photos. For what it’s worth, there is a lot to discover in the stages, and almost everything you can interact with also provides a snippet of information. Not all of these snippets are the ones Agent T seeks, but even the ones that are irrelevant to the mission provide useful information regarding the historical context of Laier’s parents’ stories, for example providing short descriptions of relevant historical figures such as Kruschev. There is a lot of information to take in though, and Cosmic Top Secret can feel overwhelming as a result. The information isn’t always easily digested either, which hurts the pacing, and more than once, we had the feeling that gameplay was an afterthought and was only there to make certain elements of the story more palatable.

Agent T moves around by crumpling herself up into a paper ball, rather than by walking, and controlling her takes some getting used to, although the controls for the Switch version are pretty decent, in contrast to the PC controls which reportedly are convoluted and involve dragging Agent T around with the mouse. Key points in the story are turned into exaggerated small gameplay elements: when Laier’s father talks about injuring his shoulder, his in-game paper doll version’s arm gets torn off, for example, making Agent T’s objective at that point to reclaim it. While the gameplay elements are implemented fairly well, the question we have to ask is why this is a game and not a documentary series. We understand the point of Cosmic Top Secret is to immerse the player in Laier’s investigation into her parents’ past. The absurd exaggerations -such as the aforementioned torn-off arm- serve as an example of how this approach doesn’t work though, as things are oversimplified or turned into a cartoon, and the actual message gets lost.

Conclusion

As is often the case with any title offered by nakana.io, any gameplay weaknesses are countered by the way the story lingers with you for a while after you finish the game. In that regard, Cosmic Top Secret certainly succeeds, although we do feel the gameplay sections actually undermine the impact of the captivating tale told by Laier’s parents. There’s also no incentive to return to the game after you finish playing, so we’re left wondering why Cosmic Top Secret wasn’t turned into a documentary series instead.

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Rating: 4.5/10 (2 votes cast)
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Rating: -1 (from 1 vote)
Cosmic Top Secret - Review, 4.5 out of 10 based on 2 ratings
SebastiaanRaats


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