Review for Riddle of the Sphinx: The Awakening
Adventure games by Old World Studios
The year 2000 seems like a lifetime ago, back when we first saw the release of Riddle of the Sphinx: An Egyptian Adventure, a hulking three-CD-ROM monolith of FMV footage, slideshow-style exploration, and 3D panoramic vistas. With technology advancing at an exponential rate since then, Omni Creative Group's archeological deep dive is practically as ancient by today’s gaming standards as its enigmatic namesake, obscured by the shifting sands of time (and nostalgia). However, under the new company name Old World Studios, the Tobler family has resurrected their original creation for modern audiences in an updated version called The Awakening, overhauling a few things and applying a fresh coat of paint to this monument to meticulous detail and hard-as-nails puzzle solving.
With its new “Enhanced Edition,” Riddle of the Sphinx may have received an HD upgrade, but make no mistake: this is essentially the same game it’s always been. Even when it first launched, at a time when adventures pulled no punches and we all had to crack the most ridiculous moon logic puzzles while walking to school uphill – both ways! – this was a very challenging game, thrusting players into a sprawling complex of interconnected subterranean halls, mazes, and burial chambers, all but requiring us to take copious notes or falter somewhere along the way. None of that has changed this time around, though a number of tweaks and quality-of-life improvements have been implemented to make the puzzle-centric tomb raiding a bit more seamless.
A major new feature is that you’re now equipped with a Polaroid camera and an unlimited supply of instant film. Being able to take a snapshot of the screen at any moment for future reference considerably eases the potential frustration of, say, encountering a twisty labyrinth in one section, then remembering (or even worse, not remembering) that you’d seen an etching far, far earlier, in a very different location, then having to painstakingly search for it again in order to avoid brute-forcing your way through the maze. Simply take a snapshot of any carving, mural, or other clue that seems poised to become important later on, and you’ll have access to it when needed somewhere down the road. Of course, this raises the issue of recognizing when something is important enough to warrant pointing your camera at or risk inundating your photo album with random snapshots, but this is clearly the lesser of two evils.
Other user interface elements have received an overhaul as well. Opening your backpack now displays a scrollable full-screen grid of inventory items, rather than the original’s paltry selection that had to be constantly clicked through; also gone is the item weight capacity. The on-screen cursor now takes the shape of an Egyptian scarab that raises its wings to indicate the ability to move left, right, or forward, though there is no separate animation to indicate interactive objects, so some trial-and-error pixel hunting is required.
Most welcome of all is the built-in hint guide, as Riddle of the Sphinx poses a considerable challenge. It’s not just a matter of solving puzzles once they’re encountered, as even the process of working out how to operate the various contraptions you’ll come across – and what their intended purposes and uses are – can often be quite cryptic. Then there’s the fact that items necessary to solve puzzles (including numerous hieroglyphic scrolls that provide clues but are themselves quite difficult to decipher) can be scattered all over. For the most part, the game world is wide open, and a large majority of it is accessible quite early on, so expect plenty of backtracking as you check every nook and cranny for the umpteenth time, wondering in which room a vital item has been inadvertently overlooked. It doesn’t help that there are copious numbers of objects littering many of the spaces, with only a few actually being interactive and no way to tell without clicking to find out.
As useful as a hint system would seem to be, then, reining in wayward players and preventing puzzle burnout, its execution, while stylish, isn’t perfect. It’s essentially a tour guide, written in an engaging, almost narrative tone, chatting to you in a very informal way. Called “The Book of the Dead Ends,” it is full of screenshots, maps, illustrations and even the odd archaeological fact, and accessing it from the in-game menu brings up the page for your current location, offering a choice between spoiler-free nudges in the right direction and full-on solutions. However, due to the game’s open-ended nature, there’s absolutely no guarantee that you’ll visit locations in the same order in which the guide is laid out, so items and locations referenced in it may or may not sound familiar or make any sense to you yet. There is no way to view other pages short of traveling to their respective scenes first, no table of contents that lets you skip straight to another section. Riddle of the Sphinx is, by design, the type of nonlinear game that even a unique hint guide like this one simply has a hard time keeping up with.
The lion’s share of the puzzles have been kept as they were twenty years ago, though the occasional bit has been slightly altered or reconfigured. Accessing the observatory, for example, used to require finding and inserting star-shaped pins into a control panel; now the same puzzle operates by touch, letting you recreate certain patterns by pressing on the panel itself. The overall challenge remains formidable, but the satisfaction of overcoming the brainteasers is equally rewarding. Nonetheless, the difficulty curve veers into unfair territory a time or four. Clues are hidden everywhere, and it can feel disheartening to put your all into solving the most cryptic of contraptions only to get stuck because you didn’t accidentally stumble across the wall mural that put the whole puzzle into the right context. Clues for one puzzle may be hidden behind a separate puzzle, and I was perplexed when I completed the game with a few unused inventory items and at least one area left incomplete – apparently I’d solved a series of puzzles out of order, completely skipping a mid-chain obstacle that would have netted me a clue for one of the subsequent challenges.
Being an HD remake, The Awakening does of course feature the requisite graphical upgrade, improving visuals across the board, in particular animated elements like flickering torch flames. Exploration still occurs via a first-person slideshow-style navigation system, by clicking on the area of the screen you want to move to. The developers have taken no half measures here, and the more expansive locations can easily require dozens of incremental screen changes to navigate. Sadly, the panoramic scenes present in the 2000 version, where certain stops along the way would allow you to swivel the camera around 360 degrees to take in your surroundings, are nowhere to be found this time. Thankfully, however, the instant warp points that propel you down a long hallway or around a large set piece with a single click once you’ve explored them on foot have been retained intact.
Appreciating the more lifelike interior of the Great Pyramid of Giza, the splendor of a hidden desert oasis, and the enigmatic Sphinx herself is only the aesthetic half of the equation. Just as important is the game’s amazing score, filled with gorgeous Egyptian motifs and geographically appropriate instrumentations – it is equal parts bustling Cairo bazaar and ominous embalming chamber. The music cues seem lifted straight out of the original release, as do the sparse instances of voice acting, largely present on a handful of audio tapes during the opening puzzle gauntlet.
With only the excellent music to keep you company much of the time, the new version of the game remains a rather solitary experience throughout its ten or so hours of play time. You’ve been summoned to the archeological dig site of your good friend Sir Gil Blythe Geoffreys, who, along with the rest of his crew, has disappeared by the time you arrive. There’s not much more to it than following in their footsteps, and once you’re past the opening salvo of puzzles and have left the trappings of the dig crew behind, even this little bit of narrative falls away as you delve deeper and further into the ancient structure than your friend ever did. Being thrown right into such an open world comes across as daunting at first, a frustrating beginning for those expecting a more guided approach. But this feeling subsides as the realistic gives way to the fantastical, as the modern tools and toys of the archaeologists advancing into the pyramid’s anterooms give way to hidden passageways, mythical stone tablets, hidden treasure rooms and an ancient dry-docked royal ark flanked by statues of crocodile-faced deities.
For all its enhancements, The Awakening still has a few hiccups in its mouse-based navigation. As in the game’s original incarnation, movement frequently results in a visible object or location not actually being accessible, as clicking on it just moves you past it or off to the side in a somewhat disorienting lurch. The generic “move left/right/forward” cursors don’t do much to alleviate this, either; a “turn left” mouse click may instead spin you fully around, while “move forward” could mean zooming in on an area of interest or actually walking past it. You’re constantly reorienting yourself, making small adjustments and fine-tuning to get where you want to go. Navigation also results in brief but frequent load times, momentarily interrupting the flow of clicking through all-too-familiar screen transitions, particularly when entering a new area. It’s so consistent, and the backtracking so extensive, that before long you’ll have memorized by heart exactly which spots cause the game to go into its freeze frame.
Riddle of the Sphinx was an impressive achievement two decades ago, and it still is. A small team of indie developers not only thoroughly researched (as evidenced by the journals and schematics found at the archaeological dig site) and faithfully recreated a fascinating real-life architectural marvel both inside and out, they did so with a keen eye for marrying the factual and the fantastic. Moreover, the game never loses sight of its goal of being a test for you to prove yourself, to earn each and every step forward on this journey by overcoming its abundant challenge. Its subject matter may be ancient history, but the game proves to be a timeless example of how a focus on exploration and challenging puzzles can overcome a few less successful aspects. With slicker production values than ever, The Awakening is the definitive version of this game, making now the perfect time to (re)experience it all over again for the first time.