Ankh: Curse of the Scarab King
The inaugural adventure of German development studio Deck13, Ankh is a comedy game that compares itself quite liberally to the LucasArts adventures of the 1990s. The original PC release was a real-time 3D game with a third-person perspective and a point-and-click interface. The player takes the role of Assil, a troubled ancient Egyptian teen who has been inflicted with a death curse by an angry mummy. While seeking an audience with the Pharaoh and Osiris to get the issue cleared up, he hooks up with a girl named Thara who becomes a playable character for a portion of the game. When Ankh was released in 2006, its tongue-in-cheek humor and colorful cartoon artwork set it apart from the dark, serious games that had become common in the genre, and the game became popular enough to warrant two sequels.
On DS, the real-time 3D graphics have been replaced by prerendered 2D backgrounds and character sprites that can be moved across the screen either by tapping the stylus where you want them to go, or using the +Control pad. Dragging the stylus makes the character run, which is nice at points when you have to backtrack through several screens, but unfortunately there's no +Control pad equivalent for running. Most of Ankh's action takes place on the touch screen, with a map and close-ups of certain graphics occasionally displaying on the top screen and cutscenes sometimes spanning them both.
The characters in Ankh are more animated than the stock-still CSI cast, but their gestures are jerky and unnatural, and often don't match the tone of what's being said. This is true in the PC version as well, but for some reason it stood out to me more on the DS. Granted, the exaggerated gestures are a lot more lifelike than CSI's statue impersonations, but I'd welcome a balance between these two extremes.
In addition to being used for movement, the cursor has several states that allow you to interact with the environment, including "look at," "use," and "pick up." On PC, Ankh employs a smart cursor that changes to the most appropriate state for the hotspot you're interacting with, but in the DS version, the cursor doesn't change automatically and you must select the state yourself from a bank of icons at the top of the touch screen. This can become tedious because you need to anticipate if you're supposed to look at, pick up, or use something, and if one of these states doesn't work, the game doesn't provide adequate feedback for you to know you should try another state. Several times, I missed items and then had to go back to get them, because I assumed incorrectly that I had exhausted an item's usefulness by looking at it.
This is the first DS game I've played that has full voice acting, not only in the cutscenes, but also when the player character is just poking around. I wish I could say this is a plus, but it's so poorly implemented I ended up turning off the volume. The problem is that the character communicates out loud every time you try to do or select something. In a PC game, this would be fine, because you can sweep the cursor over the screen, looking for active hotspots, before making a commitment and clicking. On the DS, the step where you move your cursor around to investigate has been removed, and the only way to find out if an area is selectable is to tap it with the stylus or select it with the A button, at which point, more often than not, Assil or Thara says "It doesn't work." This gets old fast.
This necessity for haphazard tapping is similar to the cursor issues I experienced in CSI, and in both ports I wish more thought had been put into how the player interacts with the game world, rather than simply slapping the PC behavior onto a handheld. Although the stylus and the mouse are similar, they don't work exactly the same way, and trying to use the stylus as if it were a mouse doesn't work well in either CSI: Dark Motives or Ankh: Curse of the Scarab King.
Another problem Ankh shares with CSI is that some hotspots are too small or too subtle, often blending into the backgrounds. Ankh's backgrounds are crammed with detail, and hotspots that stand out perfectly well on a PC screen can be practically invisible on the much smaller DS screen. As a result, I once again found myself clicking all over the place in hopes of finding interactive objects (with Assil and Thara's repetitive voice lines making this practice even more annoying than it had been in CSI), then going to a walkthrough because I'd missed a tiny or inconspicuous hotspot.
Although you switch between Assil and Thara at points in the game, in the DS port you can't pass items between them. Since Ankh was originally designed based on the premise that you'd be able to pass items between the two characters, this limitation can lead to a dead end situation at least once that I encountered. In fact, this port has several egregious bugs that make me wonder how it got through Nintendo's approval process. I encountered three showstoppers that prevented me from continuing. Two were logic issues that I was able to work around by loading previous saved games, but according to a post on the publisher's tech support forum, the last bug, which happened about two thirds of the way through the game, would have required turning off background music (which is on by default) and starting over from the beginning. No thanks. These bugs suggest the game was rushed out the door, and should give anyone considering playing the DS port serious pause--especially if you're going to pay full price for it.
Unlike the gameplay in Dark Motives for DS, which remains almost identical to the PC version, some of Ankh's puzzles have been simplified, presumably because they didn't translate well to the new 2D perspective and the DS's small screens. This is most obvious in a section that takes place in Osiris's temple. The original puzzle involved repeating a series of steps depicted on an Egyptian mural. In the DS version, the same mural is displayed as on PC, with Assil and Thara drawing the same conclusions when they view it, but the steps you actually need to follow have changed. Whatever the reason for making such a change, it's a sloppy execution that reeks of the developers looking for a quick fix without following through to ensure a fair solution for the player. This problematic puzzle was made more difficult by the fact that either Assil or Thara could pick up an item, then not pass it to the other. Each needs to be holding a specific set of items for the correct solution, so as I flailed around, trying to follow the steps laid out in the inaccurate mural, I never knew if I was on the right track or if I'd already shot myself in the foot by distributing my inventory incorrectly.
Curse of the Scarab King's multitude of problems were all the more disappointing since I had high hopes for Ankh on the DS. I'm okay with CSI-style gameplay, but I'll take a third-person story game over a forensic crime game any day. But after my glitchy, frustrating experience playing it, I unfortunately can't in good faith recommend this port to anyone but the most diehard DS devotees (and maybe not even them). If you've already played the game on PC, you've already experienced it in a much more enjoyable format. If you haven't played it yet, the PC version is the way to go.
But Wait, There's More!
CSI: Dark Motives and Ankh: Curse of the Scarab King were some of the first, but there are several other DS ports of PC adventures already out (including Myst, Runaway: Dream of the Turtle, and Secret Files: Tunguska) and more on the way. So let's get that hyperbole back in here. Are ports like this harbingers of great things to come, or the downfall of the entire handheld adventure genre as we know it?
Neither, of course, but they do have the potential to beef up the DS's adventure catalogue, provided future efforts are able to avoid the most annoying pitfalls that plagued the first two I played. CSI: Dark Motives and Ankh: Curse of the Scarab King would both have been more enjoyable if more consideration had been given to optimizing the interface and controls and making the hotspots easier to find. Tweaks like these, with a few (dare I suggest it?) DS-specific puzzles thrown in for good measure, could breathe new life into some of our most beloved PC adventures and introduce them to an entirely new gaming audience. Let's keep our fingers crossed.