Note: This review was originally posted April 24, 2008
If someone were to ask me if I wanted to play and review an adventure game about Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt – well, the ensuing yawn would be so loud that sleeping infants in the mythical city of Atlantis would be awakened.
Now, before you claim that I have already tainted my opinion with such an admission, let me inform you that I love adventure games based on history and historical figures. It’s just that you already suspect right up front that you will not be playing as Cleopatra – and guess what, you don’t – but as some third-rate putz who has no historical basis. And why is that? Why do we never play as the title character in any of these games? I want to be Cleopatra and lay around on my asp, I want to be Jack the Ripper and stalk prostitutes in dark alleys. I don’t want to be Thomas, the young astrology student.
But Thomas you are as he unintentionally becomes a central figure in the war between Cleopatra and Ptolemy, her brother. Thomas sets out to uncover the whereabouts of his missing teacher, Akkad and his daughter Iris, for whom Thomas is hot-to-trot. The search leads from one puzzle to the next – most of which utilize actual objects from Egyptian culture – until you finally rescue Iris and divine Cleopatra’s future in a not-so-dramatic conclusion.
The photorealistic graphics and cut-scenes are often quite gorgeous, though there is a scarcity of citizens, which is explained away by the war raging outside the city walls. Some of the puzzles can be taxing in their length, but if you take care to read all of the scrolls you find and apply some common sense, then they shouldn’t be a problem. At the very worse, you might learn by osmosis as many of the puzzles require you to either spell out names or signs of the constellation using Greek letters or necessitate at least a passing familiarity with Egyptian gods and goddesses. It almost smacks of ‘edutainment’ and is often similar in tone and concept to early Cryo titles such as Egypt 1156 B.C.: Tomb of the Pharaoh or Egypt II: The Helios Prophecy which is not surprising considering much of the development team at one time worked for Cryo.
There are some nice touches employed, such as the option to choose an astrological sign to begin the game. Depending upon the sign you choose, you then have ‘good days’ and ‘bad days’ during gameplay. On a good day, for example, a papyrus lodged in some overgrown weeds can be easily obtained. On a bad day, the papyrus will slip from your grasp and float downstream, necessitating an alternative solution. It’s innovative and does add some replay value to the game.
Where the game falters unlike any other in recent memory though is the dialogue. Not the voice-acting mind you, but the dialogue itself. Such as the first time Thomas encounters the horrific and blood-curdling Crocodile Guardian who yells out to Thomas – “Yo, you there.” Yo? Did people in ancient Egypt really say ‘Yo?’ I was actually expecting the Crocodile Guardian to break into a rap:
I guard the crocs
They don’t like narcs
They’ll eat your queen
And spit out her spleen
Yo, Peace out!
Alright, so I’m no 50 Cent. But compared to what is yet to come, the above is Shakespeare. Consider the following exchange:
Iris: I don’t know. I didn’t see his face, he had some sort of funny mask. All I know is he was a hunchback!
Thomas: A hunchback? What a coincidence, I just met one of them. Then again Alexandria does have its fair share of hunchbacks. It’s all the rage right now!
Schadenfreude, the pleasure of delighting in somebody else's physical misfortune, was a common and accepted part of Egyptian culture. For all I know, maybe hunchbacks were a hot commodity, but were they really “all the rage right now!?” Most grating of all though are the conversations that occur once Thomas finds and frees his lover, Iris. It’s not that their exchanges in themselves are insipid – though they are – it’s that these two characters suddenly take on vocal intonations that make them sound as though they have dropped in from an episode of The O.C. or MTV’s The Hills (or, in deference to our more mature readers,Beverly Hills 90210). C’mon now, while I don’t expect the characters to speak ancient Egyptian, this unexpected lapse into valley girl dialect completely erased any positive karma that the game had earned up to that point.
The current crop of games from Kheops – the developers of Cleopatra: Riddle of the Tomb - just have an assembly line feel to them; almost as if Lucy and Ethel are working harder and faster just to finish with the same results. Great care is taken to ensure historical accuracy, but the template stays the same and only the subject matter changes: Cleopatra is interchangeable with Nostradamus, who is interchangeable with Da Vinci. Nor would it surprise me if they were to announce that their next crop of games were to be based on Napoleon and Tutankhamun.
I’m not saying that they are not games of quality, for they are, just that they are all starting to look the same. It’s become difficult in my memory to distinguish Echo from Return to Mysterious Island fromDestination Treasure Island.
And it’s not that it can’t be done. Frogwares – another French developer – continues to pump out one, sometimes two games per year, each of increasing quality. The first quarter of 2008 alone will findSherlock Holmes Nemesis and Dracula Origins on our hard drives.
I would love to see Kheops step outside of the box. Let us play as the main character. That Dracula game you’re currently developing - I want to BE Dracula, not some third-rate supporting flunky. Show the same care with the dialogue as you do with the historical accuracy of the game. Let a little bit of craziness creep into your games, everything always looks so sanitized and pristine. Make us sweat a little, play with our minds. We won’t mind, heck we’ll come back for more. But if you continue to put out this homogenized, by-the-numbers pabulum, then you’re going to lose some long-time supporters.
Final Grade: C-