Lora's Computer Game Reviews

The Backseat Game Designer: The Rest of Riddle of the Sphinx Review

This is the addendum to my Riddle of the Sphinx Review in which I put all my opinions that contain spoilers. If you haven't finished playing Riddle of the Sphinx yet, you don't want to read this page. Please go back to the regular review site, where I promise to tell you everything you need to decide whether or not to play this game without giving away any of its plot.

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These Backseat Game Designers pages are primarily a place for me to put all my game commentary that was too revealing for the regular reviews, as well as a place to tell everyone exactly how *I* would have done the game so much better. Hey, who knows, maybe a game designer'll be Googling for the title of some recent hits, read this page, and be inspired to write a kid-friendly Indiana Jones-style archaeological adventure that DOESN'T completely suck. Ah, well, a girl can dream, right? Here's all the news about Riddle of the Sphinx that's fit to print, just not on the no-spoiler review site.

Personal Reactions

This is the single worst game I've played in at least a decade. It was so bad that I had myself half-convinced it was going to turn out to be a clever parody of really bad graphic adventure games at some point. It never made it there. Not only is this one of the cheesiest games of all time, but there's no humor in the entire thing (unless you count the unintentionally funny stupidity of the ending). This is a game that takes an intrepid archaeologist hopping across drifting crocodiles' heads a la Pitfall so dead seriously you can't even really laugh at it. Add to this the interface, which managed to do absolutely nothing right, the directionlessnss of the plot, and the rather amateurish production values (the final cutscene was so badly recorded it sounded like a teenager had taped it on his cassette recorder), and you've got a game that leaves me wondering how it ever found its way onto the shelves of CompUSA. I have played shareware games that were head and shoulders better than this. I've heard the complaint in the past that Dreamcatcher Interactive would publish anything that came across its desk. Until playing this game, I always thought they were exaggerating.

I literally would not have finished this game if I hadn't been playing it with my children. They liked the (few) locations where you could actually pan around and look at the Egyptian scenery, they liked the statues of the gods scattered around, and they liked the creepy snakes (implausible though they might have been). But they got frustrated with the crummy navigation system, too, and annoyed that I couldn't pick up useful objects they saw lying around, and they both wandered away from the computer during the long, boring ending cutscene. Usually I have to keep a game installed on my computer for weeks after we finish playing in, because my younger son wants to watch the finale over and over again. He hasn't asked for Riddle of the Sphinx since we stopped playing. If this game can't even hold the attention of a couple of Egyptophilic kids who thought that the mediocre Mystery of the Mummy was the bees' knees, it's failed, as far as I'm concerned. As a parent, I can't say I'm too enthralled with the way this game indiscriminately presents historical fact, Egyptian mythology, the Bible, and made-up magical mumbo-jumbo as if it were all about equally true. I think my kids came away from this knowing less than when they started, and I'm kind of glad they couldn't pay attention during the endgame movie, because I really wouldn't have enjoyed trying to explain the difference between the real Old Testament stories they get at Sunday school and the fake Old Testament story about God killing the bad Egyptians who were trying to harness divine power into black magic. I'm one who thinks video games should stay the heck out of religion-- the Old Testament doesn't need a rewrite, and if it did, I wouldn't pick a third-rate computer-game author who can't even give his own game a plot of its own to do the job.

But I would have put up with that. I put up with the stupid Gabriel Knight game where was an NPC (and a vampire at that). Not every game is for children. Not every game has a plot that appears before its finale, either. Not every game has a character you might care about, or a gameworld that really draws you in, or puzzles that make vaguely logical sense, or a tolerable interface, or glitch-free gameplay, or a fast pace. But Riddle of the Sphinx is the first game I've played in a long, long time that has NONE of these things... and the only game in recent memory that I genuinely wish I'd never played.

Riddle of the Sphinx Game Advances

I honestly can't think of anything in this game that could possibly be qualified as a "game advance;" technologically and artistically, it lags behind games written 5-10 years previous. That said, there were a couple of positives about this game that I wouldn't mind seeing a more professional game designer make use of in another game:

1) The concept of actually exploring an alternate-universe version of a real-life archaeological structure is a compelling one, and is probably what sold this game concept to a marketing agency in the first place. It's interesting to have an adventure in a real-life location, and using more advanced VR techniques than Riddle of the Sphinx was able to, the concept could easily be expanded upon. Especially for kids' adventure games, this would be a welcome development.

2) The Egyptian theme is a very attractive one to kids. It was sort of half-developed in this particular game--I had to explain to my children who each god was myself, because it was never shown to them in the game itself--but the idea is a sound one. I'm still waiting for a kids' game that will really knock the Egyptian motif out of the park. Judging by the unprecedented success of even the half-hearted and decidedly poor attempts I've seen, there's a mega-blockbuster a la Myst waiting to break out one of these days once some designer manages to merge Egypt with solid game design and a real plot.

Advice from the Backseat Game Designer

In my game review, I gave Riddle of the Sphinx a 2 out of 10 (rating: poor). So, what would have taken this game to the next level? Well, almost anything they changed about it would have been an improvement, to be frank. From the overarching directionlessness of the plot down to details like the especially inconvenient disk-swapping mechanism, Riddle of the Sphinx was a game so overwhelmed with problems that I'm not even going to try to detail every thing I think could have been fixed about this game. Instead, here are three general categories of improvement this game could have benefited from: fixing any one of these system-level problems would have turned a horrible game into an adequate one.

1) BELIEVABLE GAMEWORLD. A half-decent game should not have players rolling their eyes at it throughout; it should not provoke eight-year-olds to announce "That's STUPID" (at least, not very often); it should not remind anyone of the worst movie they ever saw, done on a lower budget. If there are going to be patently campy things in it like 4000-year-old magic robots and alligator-jumping puzzles, the game desperately needs to be able to laugh at itself--look at the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, very obviously one of the inspirations for Riddle of the Sphinx, and the way humor is used in that movie to get the audience past some of the sillinesses. Riddle of the Sphinx doesn't even try. And that's just the implausible--there's plenty of the flatly ridiculous in here, too. The supposedly British archaeologist speaks with a broad Southern accent and doesn't realize that his own name, Geoffreys, is supposed to sound like "Jeffreys." Your character is capable of carrying around six 62-pound stone tablets at the same time (their weight is explicitly announced), and of swimming long distances underwater while so burdened. (Yet you cannot light a gas stove with a match by candlelight.) No one has set foot in this secret tomb for thousands of years, yet one sealed room contains live cobras trained to respond to musical cues. More ludicrous still, the top-secret sealed section of the pyramid that has never been discovered for thousands of years has WINDOWS in the walls through which you can SEE THE OUTSIDE WORLD. As if archaeologists and tomb robbers really would not have noticed THAT? You just can't enjoy a gameworld that's this sloppily tossed together, people. None of these idiocies were necessary--the archaeologist could have been an American named Dr. Peterson, the stone tablets could have been two pounds apiece or their weight left unremarked upon, the windows could have been eliminated, the snakes... well, perhaps they could have been declared a curse from the Egyptian gods, like the silly lightning bolts. The point is, nobody spent even a few minutes thinking about this, because they obviously didn't think it mattered. But it matters all right. Just look at the response to Myst, whose creators bothered putting together a realistic-feeling gameworld for it. You think that would have sold 80 million copies if it was this kind of nonsensically non-immersive? The senselessness of the puzzles really hammers this home--why would a key hidden in a pot of stew be unfindable upon examining the stew, yet then suddenly become findable when you cook the stew? It's like the game designers dimly grasped that the physical puzzles of good adventure games were fun, but had no idea that it was the basic physical plausibility of those puzzles that MADE them fun. In the original Myst, for example, there was a chest that you could only move up a level if you corked it before filling the room with water. If you didn't cork it first, the chest wouldn't float. But that wasn't RANDOM! Chests full of air are buoyant, and chests full of water are not. There was consistent physical sense behind that puzzle. In Riddle of the Sphinx, there are no puzzles like this; none.

2) CONVENIENT, EVEN INTUITIVE GAMEPLAY. Most aspects of an adventure game are kind of negotiable. Interesting characters are great, but you can have a good game that's completely solitary. An absorbing plot is a plus, but you can have a good game with the simplest conceivable plot. Pretty pictures are nice, but they're not necessary. Without an interface, though, you don't have a game. However many hours a game takes to solve, that's how long you're going to be sitting there interacting with whatever controls the game designers have provided. If doing this is inconvenient, difficult to use, and wasteful of your time, playing the game just isn't going to be fun. Now every game has a few flaws in its interface and game mechanics, but Riddle of the Sphinx had so many that there was almost nowhere to go but up. The inventory, for example, required you to click an object, change screens with the space bar, drag it over and drop it on the little backpack icon, then spacebar back to the main screen. This COULD NOT have been more inconvenient when you have to move multiple things into your inventory at once. There should have been a shortcut for this, such as double clicking the object, perhaps. Better still, the inventory could have been accessible from the front page in the first place (as it is in most of Dreamcatcher's other titles). Too often getting around inventory restrictions was used in substitution for a real puzzle, too--okay, you're not allowed to bring the matchbox with you, so how can you light the stove on another screen? You can't take the star charts with you, and you don't know which one you need, so you have to copy tons of extraneous information down. There's NO excuse for not being able to put these maps into your inventory. And then there was movement. The original flaw of the Myst navigation system (an inability to tell whether clicking to the left would turn you 90 degrees or 180 until you try it) has not been fixed for this game, and has in fact been expanded upon: clicking a forward-facing cursor on something may move you closer to it, further away from it, past it, nowhere, or may activate it. In a point and click game, movement cursors need to be consistent. Anything less is headache-inducing. Riddle of the Sphinx is the worst one I've seen yet. Moving around a large room is a teeth-gritting experience, especially when there are several hotspots around the room, as in the room with the statues whose eyes glow. Trying to get from statue to statue without the game rotating you the wrong way is awkward and aggravating. The interface also switches from slideshow presentation to free rotation at a few random intervals, which is not only jarring, but means you have to waste still more clicks switching back and forth. Finally, as if all these obstacles to gameplay were not frustrating enough, the game designers are intentionally disrespectful of a player's time, forcing you to perform a long and tedious task six times when two would have sufficed, forcing you to listen to long boring audiotaped monologues for one pertinant fact when giving you a skimmable journal would have sufficed, forcing you to sit through a ten-minute robot ride when one minute would have sufficed, forcing you to waste click after click after click marching down pointlessly long empty hallways and thrusting useless red herrings upon you at every turn. Not to mention the backtracking. It is bad, bad game design to deposit a player in a long, complex area (like the Queen's Chambers) that turns out to be unsolveable until you have gone all the way back to the beginning and visited another long complex area far away (like the King's Chambers). All this does is frustrate the gamer with lots of pointless extra travel, and artificially inflate the time it takes to solve the game at the expense of its fun-to-mindlessness ratio.

3) PLOT DIRECTION. As I played this game, I had absolutely no idea why I was doing anything in it, aside from the old saw "Because it was there." At the beginning of the game an archaeologist who apparently died of a mummy's curse happened to posthumously reveal the secret password to the Great Pyramid to the main character, who then basically randomly decides to spend the rest of the game wandering around inside the pyramid collecting old scrolls and keys shaped like fluorescent light bulbs. There's never any sense of what the goal is in there, why you're picking up the things you're picking up as opposed to the scores of other objects scattered around the tomb, or where you're supposed to be heading once you solve each new puzzle. It's aimless, it's confusing, and you don't even have a clear sense of when you're finished exploring because you don't really know what you were searching for in the first place. You don't find out, in fact, until you solve the final puzzle and the supposedly dead archaeologist pops up out of nowhere to give you a long-winded exposition about what the game was really supposed to be about. Well, clue phone, Mr. Tobler: if your players have to wait till the final scene to learn that, they may have spent the past 30-40 hours of gameplay trying not to fall asleep, as I did, or becoming frustrated by never knowing what they were supposed to be doing next, as my best friend did. And either way, finding out that the only thing you could possibly have cared about in this plot until now (discovering how Dr. Geoffreys had died) turns out to be the biggest red herring in existence--Geoffreys faked his death so that you would explore the pyramid instead of him, for poorly explained reasons that led me to suspect he just wanted me to be the one to brave the deathtraps. So basically, if my character had skipped out on Riddle of the Sphinx and gone to Las Vegas instead... well, this archaeologist still wouldn't know where the Ark of the Covenant was, or else he'd eventually get up the nerve to go in and find it himself. That isn't exactly satisfying. This game would have been better if the plot were direct and engaging. You are an archaeologist, you have been trying to open a mysterious door recently excavated beneath the Sphinx, and then you find a hint that the six keys you need are contained in the Pyramid, so you go in search of them. Instead of Geoffreys expositing to you in the final cutscene how he knew the lost Ark was in here (something the player never had a chance of figuring out, as there were no clues provided), you could have discovered this same evidence over the course of your journey, and either realized what must lie behind the door or being legitimately surprised by it. If Geoffreys had to play a role at all, he could have disappeared while searching for the answer and the player could have found him, somewhere inside the Pyramid, where he was trapped by an incorrectly solved puzzle and in need of rescuing by the main character yet holding the final piece of information you need to escape yourself. Now instead of being uselessly duped, your character would have done something meaningful--saved a friend's life who might have died if you hadn't played.

Ah well. You win some and you lose some. Hopefully Dreamcatcher Interactive has gotten this out of its system and won't make a game this bad ever again; hopefully other game designers will learn from its mistakes. Hopefully there won't be a sequel, and if there is, hopefully no one will buy it for my children. Human nature being what it is, though, I'm not holding my breath on any of these.

Best Puzzle: The rotating room puzzle was cool, and actually made me feel like I was exploring a creepy magical tomb, not just jumping through a silly hoop.
Lamest Puzzle: There were dozens of truly awful puzzles in this game, but the one that stands out most in my mind was the elevator that wouldn't go down until I weighted it with enough sand. Thus requiring me to run back and forth between the elevator and the sand dispenser six times (this must have taken 100 clicks to execute), all to collect twelve pounds of sand so that the elevator would sink. Despite the fact that I was carrying 300 pounds worth of stone tablets at the time. Apparently only sand affects gravity in the Great Pyramid.
Best Plot Twist: I do not remember even one plot twist in this game that did not deserve to be shot on sight.
Lamest Plot Twist: At the end, where Geoffreys is, surprise, alive! And knew the Ark was here all along! And just let you think he was dead and find this place all on your own without knowing what was supposed to be here in the first place because, because, because his colleagues are all out to get him and you're so darn clever and deathtraps are bad for his blood pressure anyway. And by the way, God is MUCH better at cursing people than those feeb Egyptian gods, just in case all those lightning bolts impressed you so much that you were considering converting or anything! ...Well actually that last part kinda cracked me up, to be honest with you, but it was the kind of laughing you do at someone, not with them. The final stupid in a huge morass of stupid.
High Point: When I broke open the wall in the watery tunnels, and a cobra jumped out at me. That was nicely evocative.
Low Point: Driving the Cheoptronic down a long straight tunnel for about ten @%!#!! minutes. You couldn't take your hands off the controls during this brainless, intentionally aggravating exercise, either. I nearly stopped playing then and there.

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