Let's go back to about ten years ago. A beautiful orange middle-eastern house in the middle of a garden, surrounded by lovely rose hedges. Well, let's see... a rose could come in handy... let's try and pick one! "Alexander has not been invited to pick the family's roses." Well, then, let's go to the house and ask for permission, shall we? "Alexander doesn't want to intrude on private property unless he's been invited." Okay, sorry I asked... (deep sigh). You know, it's at times like these I wished adventure games would let me play a villain instead of the usual law-abiding morals-enforcing errand-running heroes. And I don't mean a Malcolmesque villain, trying to prove he's not half as villainous as people think he is. No, I mean a greedy, selfish, murderous villain. Wouldn't that be fun? Well, if you feel this way like me, Salammbô might just be the game for you.
Salammbô is Cryo's (or whatever they're called now that they belong to DreamCatcher) adaptation of Gustave Flaubert's homonymous novel, a historical story set in the 3rd century B.C., in Carthage. The Republic has just lost the first Punic war against Rome and now has to pay the mercenaries it had hired. The game casts you as Spendius, a Roman slave trying to escape from a Carthaginian prison. On his way out, he is helped by a beautiful woman named Salammbô, daughter of Hamilcar (Carthage's best general) and high priestess of Tanith, a goddess of love, water and the moon. She asks him to bring a statuette to the mercenaries' leader, Mathô, as a token of her love. As Spendius arrives in the mercenaries' camp, he realises they will not protect an escaped slave, as Mathô does not wish to anger Carthage. Being the cunning villain I said he was, Spendius decides his best odds of survival lie with starting a war between the mercenaries and the Republic, and therefore does so. As the game unfolds, Spendius will rise to power among the mercenaries and strike strong blows against Carthage, sneaking, lying, betraying and murdering whenever the need arises.
I said Salammbô was adapted from Flaubert's novel, but that is not exactly true; it is adapted from a comic book, made by French artist Philippe Druillet, which was based on Flaubert's book. Druillet was also responsible for the game's artistic direction (now, why can't French companies make games without the help of a comic artist anymore?) and he definitely left his mark on the game. Druillet's world is surprising at first and hard to describe (that's why there are screenshots). The sky has strange changing colours, seemingly echoing of the conflict between Carthage's two main gods, the soothing moon Tanith and the devouring sun Moloch; the colours of the landscapes seem to have been chosen accordingly. Characters are clothed in an intemporal manner (sometimes historical-looking, sometimes futuristic) and have glowing red eyes; so do horses, who also have tusks and horns, and so on. Some people will say that Druillet's style is ugly, inconsistent, historically innaccurate, totally unrealistic anyway, and whatnot. I thought it was brilliant. Having read Flaubert's book a couple of times, I felt right at home looking at the game. Druillet chooses to not draw things as Flaubert described them, but as he made you feel them. I'm not sure though that those who haven't read the book will immediately like the graphics, as it is Flaubert who provided the bridge between historical reality and the dream-like world Druillet drew. Yet, I still believe they will enjoy his style, once they get to know the story and the world it takes place in.
Druillet's vision may be brilliant, but the technical realisation is another story. The game uses the panoramic engine Cryo used in many of their games (about the same engine that was also used in Presto's Myst 3: Exile). I don't care much for that engine. The first reason is that it makes the navigation difficult, and I often got lost, wondering where I came from and where I was going to. Luckily, the game provides several maps that ensure you never get completely lost, but I still found navigating in the mercenaries' camp or in the streets of Carthage quite difficult. The second reason is that the engine just feels out of place: Druillet's style is rather sharp, while the in-game graphics all look blurry because of the engine. To quote Marek (and how could the boss be wrong?) "it really seems that it's time to retire this dated piece of technology." On the other hand, the videos are very sharp and beautiful. Unfortunately, they are short and few (more on that later). Instead of videos, the game's cutscenes use a comic book style (imagine Gabriel Knight's cutscenes coupled with a very Irulan-ish narrator) and are kept in a log if you need to refer to them later.
The last graphic item that should be discussed is the dialogue close-ups. They are beautiful, but each character has his/her/its dialogue video, and that same video plays every time the character speaks. This has three bad consequences. One: dont expect any kind of lip-synching (I personally can live without it). Two: the characters' lips stop moving about halfway through their lines. Believe me, it's really odd. Three: they always keep the same neutral face and show neither fear nor anger nor sorrow nor any other feeling. That really doesn't help the voice actors. Still, the actors do a rather good job. It's not brilliant, but it's quite good. I also got to play the original French version of Salammbô, so I could add for our French readers that I actually found the English voices to be better than the French ones (which are not bad, but maybe a little dull). And while I'm at it, I should also mention that the translation from French to English went rather smoothly, even though a few details still show it is a translation: the frequent choice of Latin sounding words over their Anglo-Saxon counterparts, such as "the city's ramparts" instead of "the city wall" or "they were massacred" instead of "they were slaughtered", as well as the use of some awkward circumlocutions when the dictionary didn't provide a simple translation, betray the game's origin.
Most of Salammbô's puzzles are inventory-based and are pretty straightforward (about the same difficulty level as Syberia). All of the puzzles seemed logical to me and there are thankfully no mazes and no 7th Guest-style puzzles. A feature I found interesting is that the game log not only keeps track of the game's important events, but also of any interesting clue you may have found. I usually play games with a pen in the hand and a notebook on my lap, but those who don't might enjoy that feature. Salammbô also has a few non-conventional puzzles, such as timed sequences (it can be anything between two seconds to exit a room before it explodes to a few minutes to find food before you starve to death), as well as a few parts requiring some skill. Don't worry, though: they are few and actually help the pace of the game. And, on more than one occasion, I started getting angry at that stupid game that asked me to click faster than light, until I realised it was actually more clever than that and that the game wanted me to solve a puzzle instead of just clicking around like a madman. There are also a few strategy sequences (you have to choose the disposition of your troops before battle, and then see how things turn out); they're not difficult and are very funny. To be complete, there are also a few conversation puzzles as well as a Myst-like puzzle. The overall impression is that, while focusing mainly on exploration and items, Salammbô also features a important variety other types of puzzles, each perfectly integrated within the story (I don't think I've ever played a game in which the puzzles' presence seemed so natural and adapted to the situation). I just wish all those puzzles, which are not extremely easy, but not very hard either, had been a bit more challenging. Then again, maybe they wouldn't have fit so well within the story then (after all, trying to retrieve a key may seem natural, but trying to do it with a rubber ducky certainly doesn't). I guess Cryo chose to provide a well-crafted story with a good pace instead of the intellectual satisfaction of solving devious puzzles.
I just said "well-crafted story." Well, up to a point, that is. One thing that I strongly disliked about Salammbô is the ending, for two reasons. The first reason is that the game designers chose to change Flaubert's ending (which was also the historical reality). The book's final chapter is by far the most powerful and memorable chapter, and they should have kept it. Without wanting to give too much away, a major plot point is changed where it is unnecessary, and I believe that's a shame. The second thing that bothered me is that the ending consists of a very short video (39 seconds, to be perfectly accurate) and then the (completely silent!) credits. I know Salammbô must have been made around the time Cryo was going bust and was being taken over by DreamCatcher, so I understand they may not have had the money, or the time, to make a nice closing video, but 39 seconds is ridiculous. And when you've spent hours trying to finish a game and are rewarded by a very disappointing ending, it's difficult to keep an overall good opinion of the game.
Still, I tried to remain fair. Salammbô is certainly not the game of the century, it certainly has flaws, but it is stunningly beautiful (albeit blurry) and on the whole an enjoyable experience. A word of caution, though: after playing Salammbô, you may have a hard time returning to other more heroic (and more boring) adventure characters. "Pardon me, maid. I hope you don't think me forward, but I see you like roses. I thought you might perhaps like a fresh white rose." (deep, deep sigh)
Not perfect, but still gorgeous and very enjoyable.