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Riddle of the Sphinx review

The Sphinx--the icon of ancient Egyptian legacy--is a half-lion, half-man beast that watches over the Great Pyramids of the Giza Plateau. Greek mythology calls the creature a curse. Historians call it an architectural wonder. Ancient Egyptians called it a guardian of the most sacred tombs. And the Omni Creative Group called it inspiration for their first foray into the realm of adventure point & clicks with Riddle of the Sphinx: An Egyptian Legacy.

“What walks on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon and three legs in the evening?”

This official riddle told by the Sphinx to passing travelers in Greek mythology is said to have been deciphered by a single man, named Oedipus Rex. But now the beast is back and two game enthusiasts--a husband and wife team, Jeff and Karen Tobler--have come up with a new answer to the riddle: it’s not just an aging man, but an adventure gamer spending his life stuck at a slider puzzle in the middle of the desert. The Toblers’ quasi-edutainment title strives to un-stick players and make them mobile explorers in one of the most mysterious locations in the world, the Giza Necropolis. While this game could have easily fallen off the radar as yet another ancient Egyptian-based adventure, ROTS continues to sell well because--regardless of the desert sands--its plot and settings are deeply rooted in contemporary research and Egyptological debates. To boil it all down, this game isn’t afraid to explore more realistically the mystical nature of the Sphinx and the Great Pyramid…and do it without smirking. ROTS is the refreshing oasis the burned-out Egyptian theme has needed to revitalize adventure gamers and get them excited--once again--about scarabs.

As predicted by the prophet Edgar Cayce, your friend Sir Gil Blythe Geoffreys, an archeologist, unearths a mysterious tunnel leading below the Sphinx. Does it lead to the Atlantean hall of records... to a secret burial chamber of a long-forgotten pharaoh… or to a secret spa resort? The tunnel and where it leads, however, is left an enigma since soon after its discovery, your friend vanishes, leaving you to follow in his footprints and unlock the secrets buried under the sands of the necropolis. I have to be honest about my bias: I love ancient Egyptian history and will gladly spend hours researching the Sphinx and the Great Pyramids while surfing on-line. So the story snagged me with its contemporary and intriguing premise.

No, you don’t wander the ancient world in search of magical spells to heal an Egyptian mason, as you do in The Egyptian Prophecy, another game distributed by The Adventure Company. Instead, you enter a recreation of the Great Pyramid, and hike up the exact great hall into an identical Queen’s chamber only to use a robot--a real robot, known as Upuaut II--that had been created and used by Rudolph Gantenbrink. In real life, Gantenbrink and his team, who searched out answers to Cairo’s mysteries, were kicked out of the Great Pyramid and their robot research was terminated. You pick up where these men had truly been cut off.

An interesting note: since this game’s release, the actual door found in the star shaft by Gantenbrink’s robot has been drilled into and opened by none other than the very man who booted Gantenbrink and his robot off the sacred grounds.

For anyone at all interested in a game that takes its research seriously--as found in the Gabriel Knight series by Jane Jensen, for example--the Toblers’ work is for you. ROTS unveils a story that combines realistic details, from structural recreations of Egyptian artifacts to well-researched ancient art design, with fantastic plot twists to create an engaging story for those who may already enjoy Egyptology. For those who don’t, there is little here beyond investigating the mysterious disappearance of your archeologist friend.

The tempered sands of ROTS are navigated in what is now a traditional first-person point & click style. By clicking on a series of nodes floating out among the golden pixels, you can transition from one sometimes-static, sometimes-360-degree panoramic screen to the next in search of whatever hidden clues lie among the ruins. Overall, this game works best as a first-person experience, especially since your persona is devoid of any personality and is as empty as the Sahara desert. ROTS is not about building character or about interacting with others; it never even pretends to be about the people involved. It is simply about exploring, discovering artifacts and solving ancient and even prophetic mysteries. So, if you like your adventure like you like your bathroom experiences--relaxed and with little conversation beyond talking to yourself--then ROTS is the game that will keep you glued to your seat.

Yet, when the mystery wears thin and the environments fall flat, the game suffers. For example, as I strolled into the very epicenter of a special, hidden pyramid, I found myself in the midst of a rotating chamber, a quasi-maze made more complicated by the navigation system and by having to swing the camera around in every which direction simply to orient myself. To be sure, a third-person point of view would have made this kind of task more approachable and even more enjoyable. But instead, you simply must torture your persona with sudden head-jerking motions in order to escape tight corridors. Maybe it is a good thing the character has no dimension; you’d break her neck otherwise.

When in doubt, or when the game’s pacing slows, you always have the visual feast of Egypt to gander at. Not only did the Toblers do their research, they also used their imaginations. Far too often, we--as adventure gamers--get one end of the spectrum or the other…an edutainment title devoid of well-utilized fantastic elements, a la Timescape: Journey to Pompeii, or a fantasy environment devoid of any grounding, as seen in Forever Worlds. ROTS not only effectively combines these two elements in its unraveling story, but also in its detailed pre-rendered environments. Okay. I know what you are thinking: “But I’ve seen the Great Pyramid before. Nothin’ special.” True, but you’ve never before seen an image-by-image recreation of its innards, nor have you seen a mythological valley of the kings reconstructed with rich color and proportioned detail before its erosion. Then again, the question is: do you want to see anything Egyptian at all? Because all this game can truly provide is one earth-toned picture after another, however intricate they may be.

Though the scenes are surprisingly vivid and meticulously detailed, in full screen they are now a little weathered by time, and this was even an initial complaint made nearly five years ago. Sure, a player can immediately see the age and lack of a big budget in the rendered backgrounds, but this is no reason to dismiss this title. The graphical splendor of this game is not brought about by its resolution or by its color palate; you are not buying this now very affordable game for the same reasons you may be purchasing Myst IV. Instead, ROTS’s visuals stand on their own, simply because they evoke wonder and awe in the viewer. Case in point: as I first took the helicopter from the Sphinx to the Great Pyramid of Giza, I sat back in my chair and stared at the screen, my mouth slightly ajar, watching flying particles of sand sweep by the window as I lifted off the ground and watched the entire necropolis below me sweep by. Though I know I may never be able to afford a trip to the Giza Plateau, this adventure game gave me the next best thing: a virtual tour.

This free roaming tour of Egypt’s wonders is full of sand, sun, and its fair share of dust storms, but nothing in the game is quite as mood-inducing as its subtle, yet distinct music. Scored and produced by Jeff Tobler, the music--with its ambient sound and Arabic flare--enhances each new discovery, changing with each corridor and adding slivers of intensity at key moments. Though quite different from the music in Dark Fall by Jonathan Boakes (for good reason, of course), the ROTS score has a similar flair of individuality and sparseness that makes it more appealing than average adventure game music. As a matter of fact, Jeff and Karen Tobler now have the Riddle of the Sphinx soundtrack remixed and mastered in hi-fi, available to purchase on CD-ROM for $16.99. Would I buy it? Yes, but only because of nostalgia, rekindling the awe I experienced when I first entered the Great Pyramid of Cheops. Would I recommend the soundtrack at $16.99 to the average adventure gamer? No, not unless you have a strong desire to feel like Indiana Jones as you drive your car to work at five in the morning. Regardless of whether or not you desire to rock to Egyptian panpipes on your personal CD player, the in-game music does sweep you into the sands of Egypt and bury you in its original orchestrations.

Speaking of Indiana Jones, you too must cross caverns, solve ingenious puzzles, unlock hermetically sealed passageways, and uncover clues in an attempt to--no, not hook up with a beautiful, somewhat forceful female sidekick--but to stop an ancient curse, all alone. Yet these puzzles are less Indiana Jones and more The DaVinci Code, asking players to listen to audio tracks, take notes, match up symbols, and be patient. While it would be nice to run into the Great Pyramid by grabbing a torch and lighting it on the way as you chewed tobacco, you must instead think ahead, start the generator and turn on the work lights.

When you first reach the Giza Necropolis, the adventure and puzzles are organic. You are given just enough direction from items found in your friend’s now abandoned tent and then you must go your way, starting with the Great Pyramid or with the Sphinx. Your inventory, a practical backpack, is easily accessed by tapping the spacebar. Though you will be storing all sorts of practical items and mystical artifacts in your satchel, this game is not inventory-heavy; instead you will be required to use--dare I say it--your memory or a notepad to jot down numbers, symbols or phrases. Oddly enough, though adventure gamers might not think so, sensible and logical puzzle solutions can coexist with a Myst-mutation about ancient Egypt. How long do such logical and deductive puzzles last in the Sahara, you may ask? Well, about as long as a puddle of water in the sand. The further you explore into the belly of such Egyptian structures, the more gritty and obscure the puzzles and their clues become. Though these puzzles may grate on nerves and become frustrating for players with shorter attention spans, they make perfect sense. Outside the Egyptian structures, puzzles, heavily inventory-based, are more straight-forward and practical, while within the Egyptian structures, the puzzles turn deadly, more ambiguous and intricate. The reason: the puzzles inside the pyramids have been crafted as riddles and various obstacles to detract tomb robbers or to keep ancient secrets hidden from lesser minds. So, if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the ancient coffin.

ROTS--like the Sphinx itself--stands the test of time for a variety of reasons, and not simply because it is based on a tried and true Egyptian formula. It is a game about still controversial Egyptological topics; it is a game about evoking awe in the adventure gamer; it is a labor of love and an obvious passion of its two primary developers, Jeff and Karen Tobler. Though far from perfect or even mainstream classic, the Toblers’ ROTS is an accomplished, engrossing, and rewarding adventure jaunt, and one of my all-time favorite adventure games. Lasting about 20 hours, or more for the Egyptian-lover, and now available for the budget price of $19.99 or even cheaper at local stores, ROTS is a steal.

In the event of an adventure game drought, don’t fear. Instead, simply head over to the budget aisle, and sift through the ruins of ancient, and sometimes not so old, adventure games. And even if you’ve had enough sandy titles, don’t just grab the first non-Egyptian budget title you see because you could be missing out on one of the most reinvigorating adventure games available: Riddle of the Sphinx: An Egyptian Legacy.

This title is the refreshment Sahara-scorched adventure gamers have been looking for, and that’s no hallucination.

Our Verdict:

Among the masses of Egyptian-themed adventure games, Riddle of the Sphinx stands as one of the best--if not the best--game in the genre. With a unique premise, a true understanding of Egyptian history and a love for mysterious revelations, the Toblers have created a monster of a game.

GAME INFO Riddle of the Sphinx is an adventure game by Omni Creative Group released in 2000 for PC. It has a Illustrated realism style and is played in a First-Person perspective.

The Good:

  • A vastly detailed venture into the very heart of Egypt's most prized and beloved ancient structures
  • Filled with detail, research, enchanting music and personal passion--as found in the extreme attention to detail--and featuring organic and rewarding puzzles steeped in Egyptian history

The Bad:

  • Some lo-res graphics, especially by today's standards
  • Hollow, if even remotely present, character development
  • With its intricate attention to detail it is generally aimed at players interested in contemporary Egyptology

The Good:

  • A vastly detailed venture into the very heart of Egypt's most prized and beloved ancient structures
  • Filled with detail, research, enchanting music and personal passion--as found in the extreme attention to detail--and featuring organic and rewarding puzzles steeped in Egyptian history

The Bad:

  • Some lo-res graphics, especially by today's standards
  • Hollow, if even remotely present, character development
  • With its intricate attention to detail it is generally aimed at players interested in contemporary Egyptology
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