Ankh: Battle of the Gods review
If there’s one word to describe the Ankh series after three different installments, it’s “consistent”. Or more specifically: consistently playful, charming, colourful, silly… and oh-so-consistently flawed and brimming with unfulfilled potential. That each game so reliably delivers its often delightful brand of ancient Egyptian adventuring fun is a testament to the developers, Deck13. At the same time, with the release Ankh: Battle of the Gods, it’s hard not to wistfully wonder what might have been been had each new title had actually built on the foundation of its predecessor, like the pyramids featured so prominently in the games.
It’s been almost two years since we last saw Assil, Thara and the rest of the Ankh gang in Heart of Osiris. Only two months of game time have passed, however, when Battle of the Gods picks up. The two protagonists have now settled down in their shared home, ready to live happily ever after, when disaster more or less literally falls from the heavens. The Egyptian gods, tired of simply hanging around in their Silver Age superhero costumes, are getting set for their millennial battle for world supremacy. Unfortunately, Seth has nefariously tilted the odds in his favour, and it’s bad news for everyone if he wins, so it’s once again up to our hapless hero Assil to save the day, this time by warping around various dimensions through sand-powered portals.
Well, technically it’s the titular ankh that holds such power. Little did anyone previously know that Horus had managed to get himself trapped in the sacred artifact-turned-bottle opener in the last clash of the titans, and at the beginning of this game, he’s awakened to help Assil on his quest. Or nag, I should say, as he’s never any real help. The addition of an ever-present “sidekick” should have provided plenty of comedic and even strategic opportunites (as much as a limbless instrument allows), but the benefits are pretty much squandered. Though permanently hanging around Assil’s neck, you can’t ever interact with him, and Horus so rarely says anything that you’ll forget he’s there until his next interjection, which adds nothing more than the last one. When he does, he speaks with an inexplicably street-smart New York accent. Egyptian gods must visit modern-day Brooklyn a lot. Who knew?
The addition of Horus as a character isn’t the only strange decision in Ankh 3. As in the first two games, Thara is a playable protagonist at times, but she's terribly underused here. The opening section sees the couple escaping a burning building, and it’s both engaging and well-orchestrated, requiring each character to play their part, even working together at times, with character-switching a mere icon click away. And then… that’s it. Much of the rest of the adventure is played as Assil alone, and when Thara does reappear later, she’s never used interactively, merely standing in place while Assil does the leg work. Just to emphasize the point, one of the tasks is accessing a ladies’ bathroom, which you can’t ask Thara to do even though she’s standing right beside it. Thara does get one last playable role late in the game, leaving Assil twiddling his thumbs idly, almost as if the developers remembered too late that they’d forgotten all about her.
Although disappointing, these issues don’t make the game worse, of course. They merely turn it into yet another game of largely single-character adventuring. In that regard, the game will feel very familiar to Ankh veterans, for generally better and occasionally worse. The point-and-click controls are intact from before, with simple left- and right-clicks performing actions and making observations (still curiously reversed from most adventures), double-clicks causing characters to run, and easy access to inventory. The task list is also back, just as vague and unhelpful as ever, only ever giving you main objectives rather than anything resembling substantive guidance. One welcome addition is a hotspot highlighter, and although you’ll never face pixel hunting for obscured items, some areas are so full of non-essential hotspots that you’ll appreciate the option. In fact, the game would have seriously benefited from cutting out a lot of the extraneous details. I’m all for added interaction, but so little of it actually benefits the game here. The highlighter often reveals multiple hotspots for the same background objects, and rarely does clicking on anything lead to any relevant or even otherwise entertaining commentary.
There is certainly entertainment to be found in Ankh, though as with the previous games, it’s more “comic” and less “comical” overall. While always lighthearted, the dialogue rarely reaches laugh-out-loud status. The odd translation foible doesn’t help, and the spoken lines can vary quite drastically from the subtitles for some reason, but three games in now, it’s become clear that the series just isn’t particularly funny. If not ideal, once again that’s okay, as it’s not filled with gags that fail so much as it comfortably settles for less riotous humour to begin with. Battle of the Gods isn’t one of the more dialogue-intensive games to begin with, but you’ll still encounter plenty of faces, both old and new alike, none of which are particularly memorable. Recurring characters include the likes of the Volcano the fire-breather, the three hippie revolutionaries, and even Assil’s ol’ pal the toothless croc. Among the newcomers are a faux-French chef, a smattering of lounge-about deities, and a suspicious cart-crash investigator, whose “I’ve got my eye on you” gestures represent some of the game’s few genuinely amusing moments.
One key difference in this game from its predecessors is an all-new voice cast. Like the ankh (still pronounced “onk” and “ank” depending on who says it), the new actors sound mostly American with some notably European accents sprinkled in. A few grating exceptions aside, these sound fine for the most part, though the lack of anything remotely Egyptian still defies logic. Unfortunately, both the sound editing and voice direction are areas in which yet another Ankh flounders. Background chatter can drown out anything the playable characters are saying (with even the subtitles overlapping), volume can change suddenly, and vocal inflection is periodically wrong for the context required. When exchanging items in the opening, for example, both Assil and Thara exclaim “There you are!” as if discovering each other delightedly, rather than the appropriate casual remark required for handing something over. Problems like this aren’t huge, but they’re like a single nail scraped across the blackboard of an otherwise solid performance. There are no such problems with the music, which is once again excellent and provides a welcome atmospheric backdrop.
Visual design is another wonderful aspect of Ankh 3, once again delivering bright, Saturday morning-style (remember those?) cartoonish 3D graphics, with lots of tweakable options – including widescreen support – to best suit each player. Character models are nicely caricatured with pronounced features, and the game includes a healthy dose of animation, often switching to short letterboxed cinematics to display certain actions. Backgrounds are vivid and bold, and avoiding the different-shades-of-brown dilemma of its natural desert location, the game keeps players in more visually compelling areas like the lovely Luxor town square (complete with fireworks at night); the garishly decadent Lotsaluk Casino; a pastel-shaded, otherworldly dimension of paths and platforms; and surprisingly, the small snow-covered Viking village of Eric the Red. This bizarre mix of locations perhaps signals that ancient Egypt has finally run its course as subject matter, but it also allowed the artists to creatively apply their talents, and Battle of the Gods is nothing if not lovely to look at.
Wherever you go, you’ll mostly be doing traditional adventuring things along the way. The huge majority of puzzles are inventory-based, many of which follow the old-school design book that says not to worry about the solution making sense. Oh, they all make sense from a backwards-logic perspective, but many include such patently ridiculous combinations that trial-and-error is all but guaranteed. If you scan every adventure review looking for the word “MacGuyver”, you’ll find much to satisfy you in this game. Others may find themselves wondering what’s in the hookah the puzzle designers were passing around. Personally, I’m okay with the odd throw-reason-out-the-window adventure on occasion, so long as experimenting is fun and obstacles are sound. In this regard, Ankh 3 is hit-and-miss. Actual clues can be few and far between, and sometimes even misleading. Trying to use a cat toy on a cat, for example, gives this insightful response: ”Only cats like to play with stuff like that.” Elsewhere, a pursuit of something decorative is not to be found in the forever-unreachable treasure box that displays the “pick up” cursor, but in something that doesn’t even have a hotspot of its own. While not generally a difficult game overall, it’s examples like this that can throw you into stuckville, somewhat unfairly.
Adding a bit of variety, the game also offers the occasional dialogue puzzle, plus a lengthy section in a labyrinthine location with stairs, doors, and obstacles on all sides. It’s a clever sequence, even if one of its self-contained puzzles plays a little loose with the rules. Where the game really excels, however, is in its opening and endgame sequences. These are decidedly more linear than the rest of the game, but they’re far better suited to the crazy-item-use requirement, and Deck13 has a real knack for simulating excitement in that “tense without any real danger” sort of way. Only when the game becomes a little too open-ended does it tend to bog down, as it occasionally does when Assil faces such tasks as proving he’s man (without offending anybody), disguising himself to sneak into a treasure room, and convincing someone – anyone – to believe in Horus as worthy of worship.
Of course, we’re rather fortunate to have the opportunity to play the game at all. For a long time, Ankh 3 was one of a growing number of games that seemed uncertain ever to get a localized English release. Even now, it’s available only through digital download at The Adventure Shop, so while the Battle of the Gods may be decided in this game, the war against publisher indifference hasn’t yet been won. As it stands, ultimately this game is an easy recommendation to fans of the series, and a slightly-qualified endorsement for all others. Like with most sequels, knowledge of the first two games is not necessary to play this one, but there are numerous small references to previous events, so series veterans will appreciate the continuity. Whether a returning player or complete newcomer, what you’ll find is a whimsical romp that unashamedly embraces its wackiness, in atmosphere and gameplay alike. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t, but its problems are never deal-breakers. They’re more like small irritants; grains of Saharan sand grinding away at the polish. Even so, the good times are no mirage, and there’s fun in the sun to be had for the 8-10 hours or so it will take to complete.
Note: The Adventure Shop is an Adventure Gamers affiliate.