Egypt 1156 B.C.: Tomb of the Pharaoh is one of the many edutainment games created by French game developer Cryo before they shuttered. Like each of Cryo's other edutainment games, Egypt is a short history lesson couched in an adventure game setting. In this game, the head of the Madji (think ancient Egyptian police force) asks you, Ramose, to help him find those responsible for a break-in of one of the Pharaoh's tombs. However, you have another reason besides being a perennial do-gooder to help. In fact, it appears that your father is the prime suspect, and you have just three days, before a major religious festival starts, to prove your father's innocence.
What follows is pretty straightforward stuff. You need to find the burglar and bring him to justice. Along the way, you will have to solve a few logical and some not-so-logical puzzles to do so. This is not a difficult task to understand, or execute, making Egypt a short, unsophisticated game.
To be fair, Tomb of the Pharaoh is not a bad game. But it isn't a really memorable one either. I found it held my attention for the twelve hours it took me to play it (nowhere near the twenty-five hours the box claims you will get). But like so many games in the early part of this decade, it seems to suffer from a terminal case of mildness. Mild graphics and mild challenges, this consistent lightness is only marred by a truly awful looped soundtrack. Playing Egypt is sort of like being tipsy. It makes you feel mellow and carefree, but sort of rudderless and unsure of where you are going at the same time. Though the puzzles have a purpose -- to help you find out who has robbed the Pharaoh's tomb -- about half way through the game you realize you could stand up, walk away, and never come back to finish the game. And that would be okay. Can you say the same for games like Grim Fandango, The Longest Journey, or even the deeply divisive Myst? Absolutely not. Love or hate those games, they kept your butt glued to your chair, or dragged you back to them like some reptilian enchantress.
I have played other games developed by Cryo, and I remember being impressed with the graphics in those games. More importantly, I was impressed with what they were trying to accomplish with those graphics: the recreation of long-lost historical buildings and artifacts. However, for some reason, the graphics in Egypt 1156 B.C. don't even hold that sort of promise. While they are not pixelated or hugely dated, they seldom employ lighting or camera angles that would illuminate or sharpen the images around you. I found a great deal of the graphics to be quite dark, making it difficult to distinguish important features in characters' faces or in cutscenes.
The truly sad part, though, is that when you are exploring the Pharaoh's tomb, where the walls are literally covered in thousands of hieroglyphics, you can't even take a close-up look at them. For those of you who have played Versailles, arguably the best of Cryo's edutainment games, you can imagine how frustrating this can be. In that game, you were able to click on any number of objects in the environment and be rewarded with a snippet of historical information. This is not the case in Egypt. The only time you can inspect objects in this game is if they can be used as an inventory item. When this happens, the items are often accompanied by a historical description of their use and importance in Egyptian society. At one point in the game, you even need to solve a puzzle that requires you to place a group of totems correctly on a board based on their meaning in Egyptian culture. However, if the object is not needed to advance gameplay, it can't be looked at closely, which is a real failing in an edutainment game. One way the game tries to overcome this is by including a small encyclopaedia in the game. This can be accessed from the main menu or inside the game, and contains information on Egyptian society and culture, but it really doesn't aid gameplay.
Egypt 1156 B.C. does do a sound job of creating a simple and easy to use navigation system, using the ever-faithful, first-person point & click interface you know so well and could do in your sleep. Directions are signalled by an arrow the mouse moves around the screen. Though this game does not offer 3D environments, it does offer 360-degree panning, which is great for some of the environments you must explore, such as the Pharaoh's tomb, where there are decorations on every flat surface. Advancing through each environment is done by using a node-based system with scene transitions. As with so many parts of this game, navigation is done just a needle-width above average. It is good enough, but is good enough where you want to rest?
The same question could be asked of the game's dialogue, which is mostly plodding. A lot of it is crafted in a high-mannered style meant to convey a regalness of tone, bespeaking what cultured language in 1156 B.C. may have sounded like. The problem is that it often comes off like badly written Jane Austen. To complicate this, dialogue trees do not automatically update as certain objects are found or tasks are completed. For example, after dispatching a snake with a rod I had found earlier, my character asks another person if he can have his rod to get rid of the snake. Certain lines are also repeated verbatim from one dialogue tree to another, which gives conversation a jerky, surreal feeling.
The puzzles are not difficult, but some are illogical, like getting an earring off of a cat. Though it appears bestowing an ear bob upon your cat is an ancient Egyptian custom, being 3000 years removed, it would have been nice if the game had built in some better clues regarding what needed to be done here. The game can also be lethally bad at providing hints regarding what you should be doing with inventory items. Therefore, a good rule of thumb is to click on every character with every inventory item you have. Also, because your cursor does not change shape/colour to signal a hotspot, you may wish to try dragging inventory items across strange looking indents and alcoves in walls. And don't forget to keep talking to different characters until you are sure you have exhausted all conversation. The motto for this game is if at first you don't succeed, try, try again. Preferably using every item in your inventory. And be aware that you can die in the game, and there is one timed puzzle at the end, so be sure to save often.
So what more is there to say? The voice acting is solid, with no over-acting or overtly voracious emoting. The soundtrack, which is simply a looped set of instrumental music meant to sound Egyptian -- a strangely high-pitched trilling Egyptian -- can be shut off. Which I can assure you is exactly what I did after about five minutes of gameplay. The puzzles don't offer a wide variety of challenges, as they are mainly inventory-based, matching the right inventory item to the correct person or object, along with a smattering of board-based games. I must admit to really enjoying Senet, an ancient Egyptian amusement similar to crib. Even though I think the game is largely programmed to give the player every chance to win, it took me a while to get my head around it. Of course, it would have helped if I had looked in my manual to learn the game's rules the first time out. But you know manuals are only really there to protect the CD in the event that a meteor crashes through your ceiling, covering your CD case in a mass of burning of rubble. Please don't follow this logic -- read your manual.
Egypt 1156 B.C. is anything but a standout game in the adventure genre. Even among the subset of edutainment titles, it is a pale reflection of some of its better sister games like Versailles, in which players are rewarded with more opportunities for exploration of historical artifacts, and longer, more interesting gameplay. In fact, a number of ideas and story elements in Egypt 1156 B.C. were seemingly recycled from that game, giving Tomb of the Pharaoh an unpolished and meandering sense of purpose in its story and puzzles. Further hampered by production values that range from middle-of-the-road graphics and voice work to downright awful music and dialogue, the game never takes any chances to truly create great moments that stick out. Which is too bad, as Cryo is clearly capable of so much more.