Score: 7/10 | DOCUMENTARY | ADVENTURE GAME | MILD THEMES
“Jujubee did a fantastic job in giving you a sense of being part of the fated KURSK crew, with excellent attention to detail to the visuals and sounds within the sub’s decks and halls and the equipment within them. Ultimately no one survived the events of that day but I’m glad to have played through this game to learn of the K-141 Kursk and the theoretical lives of the 118 crewmembers.”
KURSK is the first ever adventure and documentary video game inspired by real events. After a couple of delays, the game was released via Steam on November 7, 2018, to match the day the movie of the same story released starring Colin Firth. KURSK the game was developed and published by Jujubee S.A. KURSK focusses on the tragedy of the Russian nuclear submarine K-141 Kursk, which sank during a naval exercise in the Barents Sea in August 12, 2000. Of the 118 crew on board, 23 survived the first stage of the disaster taking refuge in the last compartment of the ship, waiting for a rescue that never came. The exact cause of the disaster is still unknown.
I don’t remember seeing or hearing any news about this here in Western Australia. The only reference I have to Russian subs is the movie K-19 Widowmaker (which is referenced in one funny scene during the game, in a swimming pool on one of the decks, would you believe it!), so I was intrigued to play through this game’s story and live through the events that unfolded to that fateful day.
The game opens in first-person view with the main character in his stateroom on the Kursk submarine. You can look around with the mouse and interaction items are highlighted with a white dot – focussing on them prompts you to press ‘E’ to use. You find a staple gun and an old handheld submarine game like what I played as a kid – ironic that you play this kind of game whilst on a submarine. I was playing away trying to shoot the ships when suddenly there was an explosion. You dust yourself off and try to open the door, but it is jammed. The music here is intense and gives you a sense of urgency and an alarm is blaring throughout the sub. Smoke is filling the room and you manage to staple some cardboard to the air vent and then find a loose pipe, trying to wedge the door open but to no avail. Someone spots you as they’re running through the corridor. Here you are introduced to conversation options, using the up/down keys to select an option, of which I asked him to help me with the door. As I’m shoving against the door, there’s another explosion. The game then takes you back to August 9, where I’m in a hotel room in Moscow.
This sequence introduces the player as an unnamed American spy. There is a laptop on the table and after receiving a phone call with further instructions, you obtain a PDA out of the room’s safe and then turn on the laptop. It takes you through the bios screen, logging into what looks like the old Windows 95 operating system. This is the start of many references throughout the game to technology and devices of the year 2000 and they’ve done well to capture that period. The files on the laptop explain that your PDA contains mission objectives, notes and acts as a lockpick, a computer hacking device and a high definition camera. Your mission is to infiltrate the K-141 Kursk submarine which is about to undergo some training missions, gain the crews trust and gather information about the Shkval super-captivating torpedoes and any other top-secret Russian technologies that is putting the Russian Navy 20 years ahead of the other war powers in the world.
The next day a Russian soldier is driving you to the docks where you will join the Kursk’s crew. All spoken dialogue is in Russian with subtitles from now on, and anytime I heard my American voice, I assumed it was my inner thoughts. After he drops you off, you have an opportunity to walk around the docks where I found a truck that had a locked box, introducing me to the lockpicking mini-game and some intel notes. I was able to climb a tower, taking a picture of the massive Kursk submarine, and help a bored sailor by giving him a cigarette, which I found by talking to another sailor who was going to escort me onto the sub. This was the start of many fetch and grab quests which are the core of the game.
Once on board I was given a quick tour of the sub as we headed to see the Captain. Inside the sub was corridor after corridor of machines, hatches and staircases, and you could hear the creak and groan of the metallic hull often. The developers having done an amazing job to capture the look, sounds and feel of being a crewmember inside a submarine. So much so that if it wasn’t for the waypoint system, I would have got lost so many times in this game as many of the deck sections look the same. The waypoint system was invaluable, especially with all the back and forth with the various quests whilst I tried to gain the trust of the crew members.
Walking around the sub, meeting the crew and just taking in the sheer size of the sub, the graphics looked very similar to some scenes out of Alien Isolation, especially in areas where I had to use a flashlight. Occasionally I would find spots to take a sneaky photograph, and some staterooms were locked so I had to use the PDA to pick the locks. There were some sections of the ship where the framerate dropped a little and there are waits for a few seconds as you transition through bulkheads. Your character feels a little sluggish to move but you can hold down shift to sprint.
You are free to explore almost any part of the ship, and a lot of the crew are fixated on their tasks. Some of their eyes follow you as you move around them, whilst others are just blankly staring forward. Some of the crew are facing you when you initiate a conversation, so they talked straight to you. However, a lot of the other crew/officers that you have conversations with, even main quest dialogue, continue with whatever they were doing at the time. One guy is looking into a hatch trying to fix fuses and answering your questions. Another officer is looking at his computer as he works, again have a conversation and if that was in real life, I’d think the person wasn’t interested in the conversation. I think it would have helped here if they turned their head to look at you, even once would have been enough. This started to break the immersion a little for me, but not game-breaking.
In my conversations with the crew, I did my best to not blow my cover. In doing so I did everything they asked of me and kept conversation choices as nice as possible. I believe if you were to be nasty to the crew then you would get alternate conversation and could ulimately change the way the game plays and ends. There were times where I felt the crew should have found me suspicious with all my snooping around, but they didn’t. Even to the point where I walked into several rooms which had sailors in them and they didn’t question what I was doing there. Some didn’t have conversation options, and others had generic conversations. I could even read letters and loot some of the collectible items off their desks, so I felt this took away from thrill of getting caught and the suspense of picking locks or hacking computers to gain intelligence. There was one mission however where I felt a sense of urgency – I had to work out how to gain access to the Captain’s quarters and there was only one crew member who guarded the keys 24/7. I’ve recorded 11 minutes of footage to show this mission.
There is a break room where you can play a multitude of mini-games, one of which you must gain a certain score to then have a sailor give you a hip flask – I found that one particularly challenging and it took me a good 15 minutes after multiple attempts at it. There’s also a cool board game that can be bought and played in real life if you desire. There were many fetch and grab quests over the next couple of hours of gameplay as I was getting to know and gaining the trust of the various crew members. They even put me through a newbie initiation test of sculling some bulkhead water and kissing a swinging hammer without it knocking your teeth out. Thankfully I had the stones not to throw up, which then sparked another side quest to settle a feud between two crewmembers who puked their guts up and were laughed at. The developers did a great job giving some of the crew members a good personality despite some of their frigid movements.
Having had such an intense start to the game and knowing there was eventually going to be an explosion, my initial feelings of tenseness of potentially being caught as a spy and suspense of knowing about the explosion, after a couple of hours of doing these story quests, I was starting to find the quests tedious and left me wondering when this explosion was eventually going to happen. After having eventually worked my way to finding a critical piece of evidence around the torpedoes, I was eventually caught and confined to my quarters. This then initiated the game’s starting sequence, so finally I was at the critical events of the story.
Here is where the game got interesting and that intensity of that opening sequence of the game was back, kicking it up a notch with fires in the hallways and water seeping through the ceiling. It was clear we were on the bottom of the ocean with limited oxygen and we didn’t know if there were any other survivors. There is a section with quick-time events pressing E and Q when prompted, and then there was a scene where people were trapped under a grate, pleading for my help. I looked around and found an iron pipe, but it wasn’t enough to pry the grate open. I wanted to help them but there wasn’t anything around, so I had to leave them behind. I felt a tinge of regret in leaving them behind but I had to try get to safety myself.
On the deck above I bumped into one of the officers who said he was heading to the rear compartment where he was aware of other survivors banging on the walls with a hammer. He asked me to go with him, and I felt this was a pivotal decision that determines the outcome of the game. Knowing the ultimate outcome, I took an option that meant I would search for a dive suit and swim out of the hole caused by the explosion. Again, I thank the waypoint system here otherwise I would have gotten horribly lost. Eventually after swimming through many corridors and levels, eventually I found the external hole and started swimming to the surface.
Upon reaching the surface, the game concluded, and I earned an achievement for completing the third ending, so there are at least two other ways to complete the game. I imagine one of them would be to join the 23 crew that survived longer in the last compartment, but I imagine that would be a sombre experience. I had a thought that perhaps the game created a save point at the critical decision time, however unfortunately this wasn’t the case. I will have to play through the whole game again to see how that ending works out.
Overall, I gave this game a 7/10. Jujubee did a fantastic job in giving you a sense of being part of the fated KURSK crew, with excellent attention to detail to the visuals and sounds within the sub’s decks and halls and the equipment within them. Ultimately no one survived the events of that day but I’m glad to have played through this game to learn of the K-141 Kursk and the theoretical lives of the 118 crewmembers. I also loved the spread of references to technology of the year 2000, even poking fun at Y2K on one of the notes I found. Some characters felt rigid, and there were occasional framerate drops and length loading transitions, however the quest interactions with key personnel did give you the sense of being a spy and trying to gather enough intelligence to complete your mission. Jujubee are releasing regular patches for the game, so I’m sure some of the things I’ve picked up with be patched soon and improve on an already great game.
This review utilised the Steam version of the game with 6 hours of gameplay. KURSK is available now on Steam and is coming to Xbox and Playstation in 2019.
For those interested in the movie starring Colin Firth, below is the latest trailer. The film follows the 2000 K-141 Kursk submarine disaster and the governmental negligence that followed. As the sailors fight for survival, their families desperately battle political obstacles and impossible odds to save them.