Riddle of the Sphinx

21 February 2002

Copyright © 2002 Balmoral Software (http://www.balmoralsoftware.com). Portions copyright © 2000 Omni Creative Group, International. All rights reserved. Republication or redistribution is expressly prohibited without the prior written consent of Balmoral Software.

Riddle of the Sphinx is a 3-CD fantasy from Omni Creative Group based on exploration of the ancient Egyptian monument and the nearby pyramids. In this first-person adventure game, you play an archeologist following in the footsteps of a predecessor who believes he has found a secret meaning to the purpose of the pyramids. Starting with an introductory event timeline, gameplay offers an interesting mixture of fact and supposition about unexplored regions of the Giza pyramid complex. Overall, the game is very reminiscent of other point-and-click adventures such as Riven - there are no characters to interact with and most puzzles involve inventory manipulation and some degree of logic. However, the game's graphics are less than impressive and the interface and navigation leave something to be desired.

Graphics in Riddle of the Sphinx are texture-mapped renderings, but generally appear rather grainy in full-screen mode. Some backgrounds are pixelated in close-ups. Animated sprites are found everywhere, particularly as torch flames (who lights these, anyway?), but only at static navigation nodes. There is a wealth of detail in the environment, and much of this must be explored to uncover obscure objects and other hints needed in your quest.

The game interface is somewhat awkward to use. A combined inventory and preferences menu is accessible with the spacebar, and provides full control over transitions, graphics, saved games and other customizations, as well as a web-based sales pitch for a game hint booklet. Unfortunately, this screen must be brought up each time an inventory item is stored or retrieved. To store an object, its cursor must be clicked on a particular spot in this menu screen. This non-intuitive three-step procedure makes inventory manipulation difficult and detracts from the gameplay. It's impossible to identify an inventory item unless it's stored, and a wielded item disappears at intermediate VR nodes in the main game viewport. Also, we were unable to examine scrolls once they were stored in the inventory bar. Accessed from the same menu screen, saved games are file-based, unlimited and offer an overwrite warning, but a non-default saved-game directory is not remembered during the game. For this reason, it may be more convenient to copy existing saved games into the installation directory prior to play. The game manual is extensive and professionally done, but all game locations and inventory items are disclosed in it, which may ruin some of the surprise.

Navigation in Riddle of the Sphinx is a strange mixture of static slideshow nodes and points where spherical orientation is possible. On approaching these VR nodes, you must wait for the 3D engine to kick in and shift to medium resolution. This delay is often accompanied by sound skipping. These VR nodes were apparently designed to allow more interaction with the environment, but more often than not they are merely branch points for navigation. Between the VR points are many slideshow nodes that seem far more numerous than necessary to move around in the game. These slideshow nodes can often produce inconsistent navigation, where you can't reverse your steps. As a result, it's sometimes easy to lose your bearings (and this seems intentional in some areas, such as mazes). A spotty zoom feature allows a few slideshow nodes to be skipped. Throughout the game, the "action" cursor indicating possible movement or interaction is indicated by an annoying flickering.

The plot of Riddle of the Sphinx basically involves discovering the correct patterns in artifacts you collect in your explorations; there is virtually no dialog or human interaction apart from encountering the occasional note or journal from your predecessor. A cute "sleeping" feature is useful at a couple of points in the game. The game is fairly non-linear in that many tasks can be completed in a flexible order. There were a few instances in which seemingly-unrelated changes in the environment would occur as the result of a trigger event, but there weren't any traps or logic errors in which the game couldn't progress (other than the occasionally death). There is a nice payoff for all your hard work at the end of the game, but you can't access it until after you sit through a five-minute lecture from the one character you encounter in the game (yes, he's one of the game designers).

The puzzles in Riddle of the Sphinx could be much better. Too many of them involve what seems to be nonsensical or arbitrary use of inventory items. Some of these items are difficult to find due to the vertical limitations of VR movement, but are still required in order to advance gameplay. Several puzzles are excruciating exercises in dogged persistence rather than any higher-order thinking. One in particular requires a mouse button to be continuously held down for 10 minutes. Others are tedious to solve, requiring far too much repetition of complicated move sequences. Unfortunately, there are few standalone puzzles - at one point, an Egyptian board game looked interesting, but turned out to be merely part of the background. A few timed sequences have been included, but these are not major obstacles.

Sound effects are one of the best things about Riddle of the Sphinx. Many areas in the game have them, and they do a good job of immersing the player in the environment. However, much of the background music is somewhat repetitive and can be overwhelming; in one case, an important musical clue is obliterated by it. Frequent sound skipping was encountered during movement between VR and static nodes.

A large number of bugs, strange logic errors and technical issues that may occur in the game under certain circumstances are addressed by the v1.01 patch available from the publisher's web site. However, we found that the patch actually created a serious problem that prevented gameplay from continuing. This issue was a black screen in the Queen's chamber that could not be circumvented. We also found that "reverting" a game while in close-up holding an inventory item could cause an invalid page fault, crashing the program and leaving the desktop in a low-res video mode. As a result of these problems, we played most of the game using the unpatched v1.0 release and fortunately were lucky enough to avoid most of the known problems. Ugly effects of video repainting during sideways pans were circumvented by simply turning off pans and transitions in the game preferences menu.

In summary, Riddle of the Sphinx is an interesting diversion that offers treasure-hunting activities in an exploration of Egyptian tombs. It's not bad for what is essentially a two-person effort by its principal game designers, but has a number of technical and design shortcomings.


Copyright © 2002 Balmoral Software (http://www.balmoralsoftware.com). Portions copyright © 2000 Omni Creative Group, International. All rights reserved. Republication or redistribution is expressly prohibited without the prior written consent of Balmoral Software.