I think it began with the box. It always does. Laura on the front. And on the back, a man, murdered, standing inside a sarcophagus. Then opening the box and marvelling at the detailed museum brochure, the edutainment which will serve as copy protection and cleverly starts introducing some of the characters, like the arrogant archaeologist and the weird palaeontologist. Then, as the game starts, the pleasure of hearing the familiar clock chime once again, the boat, the murder, the music, Laura, so likeable from her very first lines, the train fleeing through the night, all of it coming together with perfect pacing. And, always, shouting at the top of my voice "Hello, New York, Laura Bow has arrived!" together with her. Oh, gosh... It was, it still is, all so engaging. What happened? I've always wanted to like this game. What went wrong? How could it look so good at first sight, and in the end fail so miserably? Questions, questions – mysteries which, unfortunately, are far too easy to solve...
Let's begin at the beginning. We had last seen Laura Bow in The Colonel's Bequest on a bright morning when she left Misty Acres plantation after solving a series of murders which had occurred during the night. A year later, having received her degree in journalism and curled her hair, she leaves her hometown of New Orleans to go to work as a reporter in New York, where her first assignment is to research the burglary of a priceless Egyptian artefact: the dagger of Amon Ra.
In the meantime, other things had happened as well. Roberta Williams, the creator of The Colonel's Bequest, gave over the reins of the new game to Bruce Balfour, retaining only a role of consultant to make sure the two Laura Bow games would feel alike. And the basics are indeed similar: one long night, a closed space, lots of murders. This time, after exploring New York a bit and learning more about the suspects, Laura finds herself at a fundraising party in the museum where the dagger was stolen, trying to get information. But the party is soon brought to a halt as one of the museum's curators is found dead, stabbed with a replica of the dagger. As the night unfolds, Laura will have to solve an ever-accelerating series of murders, on top of the "mystery of the missing letter-opener" (as one of the characters puts it) – and try to remain alive.
A slight twinge of disappointment is bound to occur fairly early on, when it becomes apparent that one of the few flaws of the previous game has been retained: the characters' personalities range between paper-thin and cardboard-thin. With suspects obsessing over the handful of interests they have been given, the conversations tend to get bland. I had a hard time going on listening to the French tart (yes, another one!) raving about all the "so beeg and so strrrong" men hanging around, or the spooky Greek palaeontologist directing all discussion towards death and scars. It's true that individual lines more often than not manage to be entertaining, but conversations never really rise above the prattle of soulless characters. Even the nice idea of having suspects of many different nationalities gives births to endless clichés. The game would have benefited from not having the British head of the museum end his lines with "jolly good" with the same depressing regularity as the German security chief begins his with "Achtung" – or rather, "Aktung", since hiring an actual German actor was obviously not included in the plans. The acting was in fact provided by the usual Sierra employees (such as Josh Mandel, also credited as a writer, Richard 'Cedric the owl' Aronson, Balfour himself, and Leslie Wilson, who does a great job as both Laura and the narrator) and is mostly all right. Alas, the tedious nature of the conversations is worsened by the fact that they are all grouped together during the first third of the game, and they use an awkward interface which requires a painful five clicks and two screen changes for each and every question asked.
Thankfully, Laura's means of investigation are not limited to conversation. As incorrigibly nosy as she is outwardly naïve, she will leave no document unread and no door unopened – unless she's listening at it. Exploring the museum offices involves a bit of pixel hunting (and bookcase-searching!), though nothing unbearable. But the most original – and surprisingly enjoyable – way of gathering information is searching the bodies you discover; you are allowed (and expected) to examine and touch everything on and around the corpses in order to gather clues as to how the murders occurred and who did them.
Laura will also have to solve some traditional inventory puzzles to further her investigation – one of the many things that keep The Dagger of Amon Ra imbued with the familiar "Sierra" feel. The traditional icon-driven interface also returns (with an Egyptian twist), as well as brilliant lip-synch, the inability to have both voices and subtitles (something made especially annoying by the fact that, in a ridiculous fit of realism, the characters refuse to discuss the same topic twice), and ugly character sprites who walk (and dance!) with the grace of C3PO. Another such typical touch is the use of lengthy descriptions for everything on-screen, with a consistently high quality of writing – and a subtlety that the dialogue lacks. The mix of edutainment and wacky nonsense used to describe the museum's exhibits, or the dark irony which pervades the examination of the bodies, all of it with the narrator's perfect deadpan deliveries, make The Dagger of Amon Ra one of the wittiest games ever.
The graphics have an artistic feel to them which allows them to still shine despite their age. The setting of the screens is studied, and the use of large black areas left undrawn adds to the elegance and originality of the backgrounds and close-ups. This is especially striking in the murder scenes, which exhibit a deliberate aesthetization of the corpses, often stopped in death in an improbable composition. Aesthetic... and gruesome as well; the murders are brutal and cruel, and their (often unexpected) discovery is a startling experience.Continued on the next page...