Review: Riddle of the Sphinx

Official web page; Omni Creative Group (creators); Dreamcatcher Interactive (publishers).

Review written by Andrew Plotkin

Pretty good
Pretty good
Mediocre to awful
Very little
Forgiveness rating
You can make fatal mistakes with little warning, but you'll know they were mistakes immediately.

How to categorize a game? How to summarize five years of work, art, music, creativity, design?

Oh, yes. "Another damn pyramid treasure hunt." That's how.

Look, I don't mean that I had no fun. Truly, I had more plain fun playing Riddle of the Sphinx than with most recent adventure games I've played. It was good, okay? As a set of puzzles, as a way to pass time, as an environment to explore.

It's just that I've now had one too many games whose plot was "Explore this mess and find the stuff." Especially for pyramid-shaped values of "mess". I have no moral objection to it. I've enjoyed it before. I've enjoyed it often before. Too often. I'm done now.

That ranted, let me talk about why I enjoyed this game too.

The puzzles were... not hard. Pretty straightforward, actually. You write down the clues, and they all fit together nicely, and you know what to do. But the puzzles weren't boring, either. Exploring and finding the clues is fun. You have to assemble a lot of clues to figure out some situations. Easy doesn't have to mean simplistic any more than it has to mean boring.

The pacing was good, is what I finally decided. You don't find a puzzle A and clue A, followed by puzzle B and clue B, and so on. That game-shape is either boring or frustrating, depending on whether you breeze through each puzzle or get stuck somewhere along the line. ROTS is much broader than that. You get a bunch of puzzles and a bunch of clues, and when you solve a couple of puzzles you get a whole bunch more puzzles and clues, and all the time you're exploring new areas and seeing more stuff.

(And I do like stuff. This game is big.)

You have a very wide range of options to check out, most of the time. And this means that exploring sets a lot of the pace of the game -- not puzzles. The puzzles happen, but because they're pretty easy, you don't spend a lot of time working on them, stuck and frustrated. You either know what to do, or you know that you either need more info.

So: I had fun.

That praised, let me talk about some flaws.

Early puzzle: maneuvering a robot probe in a shaft. The shaft is long. You spend about five or ten minutes, real time, pushing the "forward" button. This is fun? No, this is boring. I don't know who thought this was a good idea, but let me print out a six-foot banner for your wall: boring your players on purpose is dumb.

This game has a maze. Not an evil maze. Not a large maze. A small, round maze with a bit of visual variety. The sort of maze you'd enjoy wandering around in for real; the sort you can get a spatial feel for, and thereby map, if you're in that sort of mood. Except that the navigation hotspots are hopelessly confused and the maze is full of layout bugs. So that half the time you take a step and can't tell which way you turned, and half the remaining time you take a step and are silently teleported halfway across the maze. So there's that experience ruined.

(A side note on bugs: I found some doozies. When you can walk through a locked door -- from one particular angle -- you know the game needed rather much more beta-testing. Now, they do have a patch out, which fixes that bug and several others. You will want that patch, without question. But it doesn't fix the navigation bugs in the maze. Perhaps next patch, they'll get it right...)

You can die. This seemed like blatant stupidity when I first encountered it. So you step on a cobra and it bites you. How does this enhance the game? Couldn't the cobra just hiss at you and prevent you from passing? Or, consider the approach of Secrets of the Luxor (the first "big fat pyramid stuffed full of puzzles" game I played, ah, back in 1996... sigh). In that game, you could fall into a pit and die, and then the game would cheerfully undo that last step and let you keep playing. Lesson learned.

In ROTS, you die -- after several hours of no-death, no-fatal-mistakes play time -- and you're dead. You saved your game, right? (Why would you save your game in a game where there are no fatal mistakes? Oops.)

The rationale, I eventually realized, was more complicated than "We haven't learned our lesson from that 1996 game." The cobra-death was actually, I believe, a design side effect. The cause of death in ROTS (ha ha) is a set of puzzles where you have to choose between two alternatives, or six.

Every puzzle game has combination locks, right? Some kind of combination lock. It can be disguised or well-integrated, but fundamentally if you want the player to visit point X before he passes point Y, you have two alternatives: put a keyhole at Y and a key at X, or put a combination lock at Y and the combination at X. The player seeks a physical object or he seeks information.

Hm. Just realized that I missed one case: put a flammable wall at Y, and set fire to the player's hair at X. (The player seeks a new ability.)

But right now I'm talking about combination locks. The point of a combination lock is that it has too many combinations for the player to try. Woe betide you, of course, if the player manages to brute-force the combo anyway; then he's skipped point X and gotten bored doing it, both of which ruin his fun. So how do you prevent that? You either use a lot of combinations, or you mess with the player every time he gets it wrong.

ROTS has many combination locks. Nearly every puzzle, in fact, is a combination lock. (This is why they're usually pretty simple.) Most of the locks have a lot of combinations. The second-to-last puzzle of the game, for example, has 720.

The last puzzle of the game has just six. And if you get it wrong, the game kills you.

I really don't know why the designers thought this was clever. The first time you encounter a death-choice, maybe, you die -- possibly losing hours of play time. The second time you encounter such a choice (which is instantly recognizable!) you save the game. Yes, that's right. Saving the game! A miracle of modern game technique. Two choices, so it takes either one or ten seconds to solve the puzzle, depending on whether you guess right. By that six-choice at the end, you're probably cautious enough to save first. So it takes all of a minute to try each case. Or maybe you got sloppy and didn't save, in which case you have to re-play some of the game, getting bored and cranky, and then it takes you all of a minute.

Lest you think me snide, let me list solutions to this design problem which I found elsewhere in this very game. One: require both physical keys and combinations, so the player has to reach point X whether he guesses the combination or not. Two: make it a matter of careful work to enter a single combination, so that the player is led to think it through before he guesses. Three: lots of combinations. Four: lots and lots and lots of possible combinations. (Factorials can be phun!)

So, some two-choice puzzles, which I figured out after the fact. One six-choice puzzle at the end, which I never did figure out the rationale for. And a few step-and-die cobra traps scattered around the game. I assume the authors threw those in because, hey, if you can die in one place, why not another?


To the interface. I learned from the credits that ROTS was a five-year development project; but I might have suspected that in any case. It feels like a game from that early era. The interface uses both fixed images and anamorphic panning; but the panning views are optional. They aren't used everywhere, and you can turn them off. Presumably the game design was set when not all home computers could handle real-time panning views. And there are no background animations in the panning views, although they exist in the fixed views. Again, that technology just doesn't seem to have been there when the game engine was invested.

The two-mode interface causes some irritation; you get an unusual number of shapes of hotspot cursors. ("Move forward into fixed view" and "move forward into panning view" are different cursor shapes, and while I appreciate the extra information, the complication isn't a feature.) But then the cursors aren't always consistent -- see maze rant above. In particular, some turning hotspots are marked with the wrong cursor.

On the other hand, this game has the "zap" cursor. Once you've walked down a hallway, an extra hotspot appears that lets you jump from one end to the other in one click. Myst had this. You'd think every game since Myst would copy such a obviously useful idea... well. At least this game did.

But then there's the inventory interface. Oh urk. The inventory is a separate screen, not an overlay on the main view. This is a minor sin, and actually has some positive results: you can open a scroll (map or diagram) in the inventory screen, and easily flip between navigation and looking at the scroll -- using the full screen for each.

Why then do I urk? You pick up an object. Your cursor becomes the object; it is in your hand; fine. You wish to put it away. You must hit space to switch to the inventory screen, and then click the object on the put-away icon. Not great, but tolerable. (Picking up several objects in a row is annoying. If you could shift-click to put away, or if there were a put-away icon in the corner of the main screen, the system would be more comfortable.)

Now: you're holding an object and you click on another object. What happens? Obviously, the first object is put away and the new object moves to your hand. Buzz! Nope! Wrong! In fact, the first object vanishes in a puff of malice, teleporting across the universe to wherever you originally found it. The designers, somehow realizing that they'd stumbled across the worst inventory management system since the zip-lock lung pouch, added a warning dialog: "Do you really want to lose this item?" A modal dialog box, no less.

The same thing happens if you're in the inventory screen, click on an item, and then click on another. Beep! Warning dialog. Next time, remember to use that put-away icon. On pain of trekking halfway across the game to get back your lost item -- assuming you remember where you found it. (Can you remember the last adventure game where it was critical to remember where you found each item? No? That's because it's really annoying and nobody ever requires it, that's why.)

Just in case I haven't made it clear enough: When you pick up a new item, the one in your hand should go back in your inventory. Not vanish. Okay, let's move on.

The graphics are good. Dirt, check; worn stone, check. Nothing overwhelmingly spectacular, but good use of detail. Although I got tired of flickering torches.

I liked the sound. (So I'm a sucker for echoing, grating stone.) Music was pleasant and not annoyingly repetitive; it faded in and out and to different themes as you moved around, unobtrusively. I liked that. Complaint: the long monologue at the end. Way too much echo. I had trouble understanding the words.

As I said, I found the puzzles pretty easy. I got stuck in exactly three places, each time because I'd missed spotting an object or exit in the copious scenery. That's the sort of thing I go to the walkthrough with cheerfully, because I know I won't be tempted to keep playing from the walkthrough; I won't lose faith in their game design. (Their graphic design, maybe. Unobtrusive objects are fine, but the sense of focus was too weak at times. I see one such spot even made it into the game's FAQ; apparently a lot of people agreed with me that the object was too hard to see.)

Hm. I must say more about unobtrusive objects. In a very broad game like ROTS, a game with many parallel routes to explore, you usually get stuck because you missed seeing something. And re-exploring the entire game is painful. As much as I love a really huge environment, there are obvious disadvantages when you realized you missed an object somewhere. And that's the other reason I don't mind cheating to find out where it was.

And now, I return to the plot. "Explore the mess and find the stuff." But somewhere in the middle, the game verges towards another classic plot: "Mayans and Atlanteans and Easter Islanders, oh my." You know, the one where all the Ancients Knew Something. Beyond Atlantis did this; Timelapse did it, and I complained about it vociferously. It's not that I hate an ancient-miracles secret-history plot; I don't. (Heck, I watch the Stargate TV show and like it. Or -- go read Mary Gentle's Ash tetralogy. Really. I mean this.) It's just that most game authors who do this, do it so shallowly. As if merely mentioning the Mayans and Atlanteans and Easter Islanders in the same breath was worth some points. Folks, it's not. Add something to the cheap new-age mythos. Create some truth.

(In ROTS, the designers throw in one more mythological angle at the end. I think it was supposed to be a surprise twist, but it came out as, well, just one more incoherent reference.)

(And while I'm complaining: the Bermuda Triangle does not fit in that set. It's a modern conception; the very idea that that patch of ocean is a triangle is a modern conception. World War 2, I believe.)

And then the long closing monologue, the lead-in for the sequel -- what, five more years? -- and roll credits. It was, mind you, not a totally stupid closing monologue. The frame situation had some logic to it. But since it was a frame situation, I wasn't very motivated to care. Prologue and epilogue have to be relevant to the story itself, and the story is what the player does. Which is: wander around a pyramid and solve puzzles.

Conclusion: A perfectly acceptable puzzle-hunt; very satisfying, but not very challenging.

System requirements: 166 MHz Pentium or 80 MHz PPC. (Ha ha!) 32 meg RAM minimum, 64 recommended. 8x CD drive.

Availability: Dreamcatcher's on-line store, or Omni's store, or most retail stores; Dreamcatcher has pretty good distribution. Again, you will definitely want the patch file.

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