Review: Secrets of the Luxor

Official web page at Mojave

Review written by Andrew Plotkin

Above-average to excellent
Dialog and writing
Middling easy
Mostly good, but some warts
Forgiveness rating
You can't lose or get stuck. You can die in many places, but after the screen goes black, the game backs you up to just before you made that fatal mistake.

So you're this archaeologist. You've found a pyramid. But the army shooed you out of there when you found something you shouldn't have. And there's this unpleasant guy, calls himself Osiris, who is interested in the pyramid too.

That's the summary of the diary you begin the game with. I say this so that you don't have to slog through it yourself. I wish Mojave had hired someone who could write, preferably with wit and brevity. Instead, we have 70 pages of mummified prose:

    Stephens looked up at me "That's right my friend. We
  believe it is you who have discovered the final piece
  to the puzzle."
    "What? In that hole in the ground? I'm afraid I got
  some bad news for you boys. It's empty.... So best of
  luck to you, it looks like you're going to need it."
(All grammar and punctuation errors are copied precisely from the game.)

Ok, I admit that's the worst passage I could find. And take heart; there's really no need to read the whole thing. Just skim through for important-looking diagrams, note where they are, and get on with the game.

And it is a nice game. Overall, I'm as happy with it as I was with Myst, Daedalus, or Buried in Time. A big fat pyramid stuffed full of traps; what could be a better setting for a puzzle game?

The great thing about pyramids is that they don't need an excuse to have puzzles. This helps Luxor avoid Soup Can Syndrome.

(Soup Can Syndrome? It's something someone once said about Seventh Guest: "What kind of evil genius thwarts his enemies with soup cans?" There is a dreadful tendency in puzzle games to throw in puzzles which have absolutely no logical place in the world which has been built. A door locked with a jumping-pegs puzzle, to name an example from a different game. I hate this sort of thing, but the fact is it's very hard to avoid; even classic Infocom games succumb occasionally. But the point is, see, pyramids are supposed to be stuffed full of traps and puzzles.)

Well, of course, the plot thickens. I won't get into spoilers, but you progress from the ancient Egyptian pyramid to... something stranger. Stranger and more beautiful. This is where art design and rendering really shine. (So to speak. :-)

Unfortunately, at this point the game sometimes falls into the opposite of Soup Can Syndrome, which I will call Doom Syndrome. This is where you spend all your time (A) pressing buttons that (B) open doors so that you can (C) find keys to (D) open more doors. It does make perfect sense -- it's easy to explain locked doors in your game world. But it gets dull.

Really, I'm being too harsh. This second section of Luxor does have some puzzles which are well integrated; places where I really felt I was staring at a realistic but unfamiliar set of mechanisms that I had to understand. So I liked it. And gosh, it did look nice.

The third and final section of the game has the weakest gameplay. One big puzzle -- ok, two, counting the endgame. Lots of stuff to wander around in, but the atmosphere is somewhat cornball rather than the eerie effects of the earlier parts of the game.

And then you win, but I can't talk about that without giving away the plot.

On to technical matters. The interface is quite good, once you get used to it. (The manual is wrong at one point. It says to double-click on an item in your inventory in order to use it. In fact, you have to single-click and then move the mouse upward into the game window.)

My big complaint here is the navigation hotspots. As with most of these games, moving the cursor around the screen changes it from a hand to an arrow pointing forward, back, left, or right. But a lot of these click-areas are either badly placed or badly labelled. A left arrow sometimes means rotate left, and sometimes rotate left and walk forward. There are several places where just trying to turn around can take you off in a direction you didn't want to go. Some of these are in twisty little corridors. I spent a lot of time walking back and forth along corridors, trying to figure out which the hell way I was facing. Bad Mojave. No navigator biscuit.

There are a couple of nice frills. You have a magnifying glass, which can be used on any screen, and actually does magnify the image. There's a camera, which will snapshot any screen image for later reference. (Use sparingly; the images can take up a lot of space in your save file.) There's a VR headset (found early in the game) which lets you look panoramically around many of the game areas, and highlights secret doors to boot.

On the other hand, none of these gadgets are actually necessary. The magnifier does nothing that leaning close to your monitor won't do; keeping pen and paper by the computer is more convenient than the camera; and there's only one secret door that it's useful to reveal, and I found that without the VR set. High marks for toys, low marks for integration.

Luxor took me three days. I never got seriously stuck. The puzzles weren't that difficult, but more importantly, they were all solvable. I mean, none of them required telepathic contact with the authors. This is good.

And the plot is cheesy. The box says "The most Myst-like experience we've had since Myst itself!" I think that sums it up. Wonderful art, wonderful atmospherics, the plot is trash. Which puts Luxor right at the top of the heap as far as CD-ROM games are concerned. I'm still waiting for something as well-written as the average novel on my shelf.

Conclusion: I'm a cynical bastard, but go buy Secrets of the Luxor anyway.

Availability: I ordered from MacWarehouse.

System requirements: I played on my nice new 9500 with 4x CD drive. Lovely. 16 megs of main memory (9 megs free) and I was able to keep my monitor in "thousands" mode almost all the way through. (Once the screen went blank -- the game was obviously running low on memory -- but I was able to save, quit, reload, and play from there with no trouble.) You can use virtual memory, but it tends to add static to the sound effects.

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