The Cameron Files: Pharoah's Curse Review

Pharaoh's Curse is the sequel to Secret at Loch Ness, the first in the series of adventure games that introduced detective Alan Parker Cameron. In Pharaoh's Curse, the year is 1936, and Cameron has been asked by one of the characters from the first game, Moira MacFarley, to investigate some strange happenings at an archeological dig near Cairo, Egypt. And when Cameron appears on the scene, things begin to get stranger yet -- as key characters seem to have disappeared, and age-old mystical curses create unearthly happenings. It is up to Cameron to follow a very faint trail of evidence, and contend not only with German Nazis, but with the very soul of an awakened Pharaoh.

Fans of Secret at Loch Ness will most likely enjoy Pharaoh's Curse as well. It caught my attention not only because I had fun with the first game in the series, but also because I have a propensity for games that take place in Egypt and involve ancient secrets and unexplained mysteries.

Pharaoh's Curse is a first-person, point-and-click adventure, with the action taking place through the eyes of Cameron. Movement is fairly intuitive, using a very similar game engine to the one from Secret of Loch Ness, which provides 360-degree panning from any given spot. Moving the mouse causes the scene to shift around a stationary cursor that changes to remind players when they can perform an action.

There are almost a dozen characters in the game with whom Cameron can interact. Third-person cut-scenes show Cameron's interactions with these characters, but the cut-scenes are pre-scripted and players do not select Cameron's dialogue themselves.

For the most part, gameplay consists of a lot of exploring, and locating and retrieving objects that can then be used in other situations (e.g., find the key for the lock). Following the example set by Secret at Loch Ness, the general flow of Pharaoh's Curse is a fairly linear. While there are half a dozen locales in which Cameron can explore, most of them are not accessible until after some action (or "trigger") has taken place. And some of the early locales cannot be returned to, once Cameron has moved on.

Within each of these locales, a good amount of non-linear exploration is possible. At the same time, keys to locked doors only become available when "the time is right," and Cameron has to continually return to places he has searched, and look once again -- new objects seem to turn up in old places as a result of some other action that has taken place. (Sometimes that action may be nothing more than watching a video of Cameron speaking with one of the other characters.)

As with the first game, one of the "features" of Pharaoh's Curse is that Cameron talks to himself. At times it is idle conversation; but often it is some spoiler that simplifies gameplay. (E.g., "Hmmm... I think I should go back and talk to the curator about this.") On the bright side, the notebook that Cameron used in Secret of Loch Ness (which was constantly being filled with all sorts of spoilers) is thankfully missing from Pharaoh's Curse.

One other note about gameplay -- although Pharaoh's Curse does not present too many hazards to the player, there are several places where Cameron can be killed or the game can be brought to an abrupt end. As with the first game in the series, there are quite a few timed sequences, where if the proper action is not taken before a timer runs out, the game is over. In these cases, the player does not have the ability to return to the point just before the fatal mistake, so saving frequently is important.

Speaking of game saves, Pharaoh's Curse uses a fairly intuitive game-save engine, which provides for 16 simultaneous saved games. The saved games cannot be titled, though, but simply show a picture of the scene where the game was saved. Not even a timestamp is included with the saved game.

The game did leave a few loose ends, as the eventual fate of several of the secondary characters was left unexplained. And at times, the intracies of the plot were not explained in enough detail, leaving me wondering exactly what was going on (or, for that matter, what had happened to bring the story to this point). But none of these shortcomings was a significant detriment to my overall enjoyment of the game.

There isn't much to be said about the puzzles in Pharaoh's Curse -- because there really aren't many. At least, not in the sense of true puzzles. I spent the vast majority of gameplay on three primary activities: exploring ("I wonder where this path goes."), locating objects needed for interaction ("Where's the darn key for this lock?"), and trying to figure out the next step in the game ("What the heck am I supposed to do now?"). Only near the end of the game did a few actual puzzles turn up -- and they were nothing to challenge hardcore gamers. Still, they were entertaining, and provided a break from the normal explore/pick-up-object/use-object/move-on activity that made up much of the early game.

As a by-the-way, I thought it rather out-of-the-ordinary that an adventure game of this type actually improved significantly toward the end of the game, rather than "running out of steam," as some others tend to do. I even wondered, at one point, if perhaps the last part of the game had been developed first, while all of the developers ideas were still sharp, and the earlier part of the game was filled in later, as an infrastructure to the rest.

I have to admit that I have perhaps become a bit jaded, with regard to graphics, by games such as Myst III: Exile, Schizm, and Syberia -- games that take 3D rendering and animation to the extreme. So it is becoming more and more difficult to impress me with simpler graphics. However, the scenes and artwork and rendering of the characters in Pharaoh's Curse were remarkably good -- even better, in places, than Secret at Loch Ness. The videos, which all used a letterboxed aspect ratio that filled the screen side-to-side but not top-to-bottom, were done quite well. In fact, the quantity of video throughout the game was almost surprising, given that the entire game is distributed on 2 CD-ROMs.

While the primary game engine and overall graphics are quite similar to the first Cameron Files game, fans of that game will be pleasantly surprised, not only at the continued quality of the still graphics in Pharaoh's Curse, but also at the improved video animations. Close-ups of the characters' faces provide such incredible detail, that it almost seems possible to read their lips as they talk. Faces wrinkle, and laugh lines appear, highlighting the individual characters' emotions. These are very real 3D characters, not flat "cartoony" drawings.

The ambient sounds do well to support the game. Creaking doors, water lapping against a ship, birds crying in the air, and so on, all serve to add an air of reality to the game. And I learned (later in the game) that the music can be a significant "omen" to something that lies immediately ahead. (This clue alone reminded me to save my game in a few places.)

One problem I had on my own system, though, was that some sounds in some locations did not play correctly, but appeared to play at the wrong rate, or with some other incorrect parameters that resulted in sounds more similar to rocks grating together than anything else. However, I was never able to determine whether the problem was specific to my system.

Voiceovers in Pharaoh's Curse are actually quite good -- especially given that the game was originally developed in France. There were no over-caricaturizations, or "hammy" acting. In fact, when combined with the video "acting", there were actually quite a few very entertaining scenes (such as watching Cameron push his hat back on his head and scratch his forehead while he thinks through some problem). Perhaps most amusing of all is the dry humor that Cameron displays, which, at times, actually had me laughing out loud.

As I played the game, I was thinking that one thing that would have helped immensely would have been some kind of a map showing the layout of the game. In fact, I was actually hoping for a way to be able to move quickly between any two points that I had already visited -- in much the same way that some adventure games will either let you click on a map (and go directly to a specific location), or allow you to "warp" somewhere by skipping ahead several scenes at a time (a la the Myst variety of games). Only after I had completed the game, and read another players online comments, did I discover that there is at least one (limited) shortcut that provides some of that capability. However, it is not documented anywhere in the manual that accompanies the game, nor within the game itself. So it is up to the user to discover how this "feature" works.

Good gameplay with entertaining cut-scenes and (eventually) some average puzzles provide an enjoyable atmosphere for this sequel to another good adventure game. The graphics are quite pleasurable, and the music supports the game well. The puzzles are few and far between, and not terribly difficult; however, they are entertaining. Pharaoh's Curse is a good choice for anyone who enjoyed Secret of Loch Ness, as well as general adventure gamers looking for a pleasurable -- but not strenuous -- game.

-- Frank Nicodem