Version tested: PC
Dan Brown. Love him or hate him, you've got to admire the skill with which he's managed to write a clutch of successful novels which are practically bloody identical. Take some pathetically simple cryptography, one twist, a lemon - usually the lead character - and a bunch of two-page long chapters and voila, one Brown book. The best-seller of these templates, The Da Vinci Code, has spawned a film, a court case, and now the inevitable computer games, of which this isn't one. Well, it's obviously cashing in on the impending Hollywood blockbuster, but unlike Take-Two's official Da Vinci Code console license, this has absolutely nothing to do with murder in the Louvre.
The Secrets of Da Vinci is an adventure game set in 1522, shortly after the bearded Italian's death. The player is cast in the role of Valdo, the disgraced apprentice of Francesco Melzi, who in turn was a student of the great man. A mysterious benefactor (one day a straightforward benefactor will be born) has employed Valdo to snoop around Da Vinci's old gaff in France, where he hopes to find a secret codex document and get one up on his former master Melzi. The adventure is firmly rooted in history, with the setting, Leonardo's Clos Luce manor, modelled on its real-life counterpart. Actual Da Vinci paintings adorn the walls and the soft, diffused visuals evoke a suitably musty and medieval atmosphere.
Exploring the mansion is handled via a typical click to move system, with a full 360 degrees of mouse-look provided, although bizarrely there's no invert option. Okay, this isn't a first-person shooter and we don't expect the ghost of Leonardo to be turning up, requiring rocketing with a shoulder-mounted scroll launcher, but plenty of gamers are acclimatised to inverted mouse-look.
Optional quibbles aside, The Secrets of Da Vinci is all about the puzzles, of which it contains two types - the standard use item X on object Y" adventure fare and mini-game puzzles. The latter draw heavily from Leonardo's ideas and inventions. To give an example, one task is to build a water pump for a fountain, which is achieved by fitting pieces into place on a schematic diagram. There are plenty of Da Vinci riddles and logic tests which all adds variety above and beyond the usual "How do I get the honey out of the beehive?" conundrums (just tell them they have nice knees, flattery will get you everywhere).
And even when it comes to the honey grabbing, it's pleasing to see that logic is paramount, as the developers have ensured that the puzzle solutions don't descend into deliberate obscurity. (Oh, so you had to use the diamond studded necklace with the cat and the Catherine wheel to create a distraction for the bees so you can collect the honey with the leather purse!). Sure, there are more abstract moments, but nothing too daft, and progress through the tale occurs at a suitably satisfying rate. If anything, some of the tasks err on the easy side, but rather that than banging your head against a brick wall.
However, the game isn't without issues. The simple context sensitive interface is generally very slick, but it's occasionally finicky when highlighting possible actions or objects. When you do end up stuck, you'll get good odds on the likelihood of having missed some tiny point of interactivity approximately two millimetres in size. It pays to painstakingly search every nook of every screen with the cursor, and you have to keep returning to rooms, as new objects appear throughout the game. This sort of repetitive fine-tooth combing can irritate at times. The inventory system is also a let-down, as it's a sprawling affair with five pages to scroll through - the sheer amount of objects can be quite bewildering, as even during the early stages the player will have accumulated around forty items.
The "innovative" extra (there's always one) in Secrets of Da Vinci is a morality meter, which measures good and evil depending on your actions. Halo wearers won't be able to bring themselves to steal or lie, and nefarious reprobates will lose their distressed damsel aiding privileges; although solving puzzles earns you bonus points which can be spent to alter this standing, so it's a somewhat artificial system. This mechanic isn't brought into play often, but it can alter the path of the story in places, with multiple possible endings to the game.
Although this doesn't exactly break the mould, figuring out Da Vinci's secrets is generally a pleasurable stroll through a variety of well-crafted and largely logical puzzles and mini-games. The lack of psychotic monks and professors of symbology is an added bonus.
6 / 10