Cleopatra: Riddle of the Tomb Review

Cleopatra: Riddle of the Tomb (a.k.a. Cleopatra: A Queen's Destiny, outside the U.S.) brings history alive, as it is founded on the battle between Cleopatra and her brother Ptolemy, in a struggle for the throne of Egypt.

Developed by Kheops Studio (Return to Mysterious Island, Voyage, Secret of the Lost Cavern, Destination: Treasure Island), the game exhibits all of the characteristics that have made Kheops Studio renowned: excellent historical context, outstandingly realistic artwork, a simple and intuitive user interface, and a level of play that is suitable for novices and seasoned adventurers alike.

As with previous Kheops Studio games, the system requirements are quite reasonable (see sidebar for details). Cleopatra is a standard first-person point-and-click game, with the player taking the role of Thomas, a young apprentice astrologer, who has been asked by Cleopatra to assist her in obtaining a divination from the stars, determining whether she or her brother will succeed to the throne. Of course, nothing is ever as easy as it first appears. Thomas' primary task is immediately interrupted when the daughter of his mentor (and Thomas' own "sweetheart") is kidnapped.

The artwork is Kheops-standard -- which, in a word, means awesome. Scene after scene is intricately detailed with realistic textures, colors, lighting, etc. Each scene (except for some puzzle close-ups) provides full 360-degree panning and complete 180-degree vertical panning. At various points throughout the game, video cut scenes are presented in great detail, typically including one or more of the characters in the game rendered in high-quality 3D animation. I kept watching for a place where the artists slipped up -- where they hurried through a scene with somewhat less than superb quality; I never found any. The only thing that occasionally seemed awkward was some character movements within a fixed scene -- such as mouth and facial movements while talking (not unlike Saturday morning cartoons). These were much smoother, and better rendered, in the cut scenes. But for the most part, from start to finish, Cleopatra presents outstanding "eye candy."

The puzzles encountered during the game are integrated completely into the story. There are no gratuitous "stop here and do this puzzle before continuing" interruptions; rather, the puzzles fit into precisely what is going on at the time. Usually, they are integrated into the scene itself -- i.e., using objects in the scene to solve some puzzle. Puzzles involve ancient Egyptian astrological tools, zodiac signs, Egyptian hieroglyphics, Egyptian gods and goddesses, and the like. (One puzzle takes place in a lab that would turn an ancient alchemist green with envy.) The puzzles were frequent enough to keep someone like myself satisfied; but they should not hinder those who want to move along through the story, and the game, at a reasonable pace. One side note: one of the puzzles required a solution that could be considered slightly incorrect (from a pure mathematics standpoint). However, it was quickly overcome with a little trial and error.

One of the hallmarks of Kheops games seems to be the ability to provide the player with the opportunity to solve a puzzle in more than one way. In Cleopatra, this is done in a very novel manner. At the beginning of the game, the player selects a sign of the zodiac to be their "sign" throughout the game. Thereafter, many of the puzzles are designed to operate in one of two manners, depending on which sign is being used by the current player. The different signs will generate either a "single-level" or a "multi-level" puzzle. The typical situation is that the simple puzzle presents itself, the player gathers all necessary clues, and then solves the puzzle. In the multi-level case, however, depending on the sign chosen by this player (and the puzzle itself), the player still gathers the same clues. But in attempting to solve the puzzle, something usually "goes wrong." One of the inventory objects required to solve the puzzle breaks and is unusable; some items in the simpler form of the puzzle are not available, and substitutes must be obtained; some change in circumstances makes the puzzle just a bit more difficult; or in some other way, an alternate solution to the puzzle must be found. In a sense, it ends up being a puzzle within a puzzle. There is no way to determine which puzzles will be which, or when this additional twist will manifest itself -- which contributes, in a small way, to the replayability of the game, simply by selecting a different zodiac sign at the beginning.

There is one thing about the game play that will probably appeal to some, and disappoint others. There are no life-threatening circumstances in the game -- either in terms of exploring in areas that shouldn't be explored, or attempting to solve puzzles with incorrect solutions. Most puzzles, if an incorrect solution is attempted, either do nothing at all, or may simply result in a message from Thomas, indicating the lack of progress -- nothing more. This lends itself to the ability to do "trial and error" solutions, with no negative repercussions. While this makes it a "safer" game to play, some gamers enjoy the potential threat of life-threatening situations that could end in the player's demise if they are not careful. Cleopatra is definitely designed on the conservative side, in this regard.

The excellent user interface normally associated with Kheops Studio games is enhanced even further in Cleopatra, with contextual scenes for loading and saving games (scrolls are "written" for each saved game, and stored in a bookcase; they can be retrieved for re-loading later), and other common options. Even something as simple as the "Main Menu" is not a menu, but an entire room that can be explored, where various objects in the room that the user can interact with represent "menu options." Everything is integrated incredibly well with the environment of the game.

In addition to standard menu options -- such as loading and saving games, setting system options, etc. -- the game tracks all conversations, any of which can be replayed at will (a wonderful "refresher" when things get difficult), and a running documentary is kept detailing Thomas' progress -- things he has done, things he has yet to accomplish, etc. By the time this document has been completed at the end of the game, it amounts to a detailed narrative of the entire story. There is also a map that allows the user to quickly move to and from locations already visited -- something that I always appreciate in an adventure game. And from this same menu, the user can visit a gallery of all video cut scenes and other short animations, and replay them at any point in the game. All in all, the options available outside of the game play itself, and which support the game play, are the best I have ever seen in an adventure game.

The inventory is also simple to use. It is as intuitive as the rest of the game, and presented quite well visually. The game is divided into sections, or chapters, usually separated by a change in location. And several of the "wonders of the ancient world" (e.g., the Library at Alexandria, the Lighthouse at Pharos) are incorporated integrally into the game play. The culmination of the game is not only satisfying for the player, but also in keeping with the historical records.

Cleopatra is clearly a story-driven game. And yet the linearity that can sometimes accompany such games does not seem to befall Cleopatra. There is always plenty of exploration to do, and the reference materials provided (and mentioned above) were certainly sufficient to keep me busy -- re-reading documents that I had found throughout the game, reviewing conversations that had taken place with the other characters, and even scouring through the notes that accumulate with regard to the story's summary. The "T" (Teen) rating is mostly due to the fact that there are deaths (and dead bodies) portrayed in the game; yet when taken in context of that period of civil war in Egyptian history, I did not find it in any way offensive.

Cleopatra offers a treat for those who enjoy Egypt-based adventure games (combining, as it does, the general Egypt theme with actual historical events and locations); yet it will also appeal to adventure gamers in general. Everything -- the artwork, the story line, the history, the user interface, and the puzzles -- comes together to make Cleopatra a game that should please adventure gamers of all ages.

-- Frank D. Nicodem, Jr.