Sherlock Holmes: Mystery of the Mummy Review

The Mystery of the Mummy is an adventure/puzzle game, where the player takes the role of fiction's most famous consulting detective. Responding to a request from a young lady, who wishes Holmes to investigate the disappearance -- and potential murder -- of her uncle, Holmes will examine the missing archaeologist's mansion/museum, in search of not only the missing man, but a valuable Egyptian mummy as well. And one wrong move may cost Holmes his life!

MOTM is distributed on a single CD-ROM. Installation was trivial, and I had the game up and playing in a minute or two. I used the minimal install, which requires more access to the CD-ROM during gameplay. Performance did seem to lag, however, any time a change of scene, or change of environment was taking place. My test system -- a 1.7GHz Pentium IV, with 384MB of RAM and a 3D accelerator card -- far exceeded the minimum requirements; yet response was often abysmal, as I waited for different screens to appear. Even a "full" install still leaves quite few performance problems and still requires the presence of the CD-ROM to start the game. (Some scene changes did occur a bit more quickly, though.)

While most of the game was bug-free, I could not switch to another window, either if I used ALT-TAB to switch programs myself or if another application started itself up -- MOTM would be minimized in such a way that it could not be restored again, and I had no choice but to close the game and restart. I also had problems viewing the final cut-scene (see below).

MOTM takes place entirely inside the mansion/museum of the missing archaeologist. The game bears a striking resemblance to another game produced by Wanadoo, The Mystery of the Nautilus, from the type and quality of the graphics, to the background music, to the on-screen layout of items, and even to the "5 stage" game design. Players of Nautilus will feel right at home with virtually all aspects of MOTM.

First and foremost, it should be noted that MOTM is not a "mystery", in the sense of Tex Murphy or the more recent Nancy Drew series. There are no characters to interview, no notebook to keep, and the player does not contribute to the unraveling of the mystery. Instead, it is a true adventure/puzzle game, combining the best elements of both -- with the actual "mystery" resolving itself through comments and documents that Holmes finds as he solves other puzzles. In fact, the actual solution to the mystery is laid out in a rather lengthy monologue by Holmes at the very end of the game, in much the same way that Jessica Fletcher would do in the last 5 minutes of each television episode of Murder, She Wrote.

Gameplay in MOTM is fairly standard adventure/puzzle gaming. Most actions are performed with a mouse click, and panning (360 degrees horizontally or 180 degrees vertically) is accomplished simply by moving the mouse. There was no control to adjust the acceleration of the panning, and I often found myself spinning wildly.

Throughout the game, Holmes is constantly talking to himself. His comments provide some of the clues to the game -- often in the form of a hint as to what to do next. However, the comments are not always intelligible (sometimes due to the phony "accent" given to the Holmes character, sometimes due to the softness of the spoken voice compared to the background music -- a setting that is not modifiable). Fortunately, subtitles are available, displaying all of Holmes' comments on-screen. Almost. Most of the time. Sometimes, subtitles did not appear or appeared for only a few seconds, but a special "notebook" that Holmes carries also records -- in writing -- everything that he has spoken out loud.

Speaking of Holmes' comments, I had to chuckle on occasion at some of the anachronistic or out-of-character comments made by Holmes. Somehow, I can't imagine Doyle's world-famous consulting detective saying things like "Nice statue!" or "Bingo!"

At all times during gameplay, there are several items on-screen -- one icon for Holmes' inventory and another for the game options and Holmes' documents and notes. There is also a fancy border at the right side of the window throughout the entire game, the purpose of which I never understood. All of these continue to get in the way of the game. At times, they block the view of an important object; at other times, trying to access an icon results in the current scene spinning sideways erratically, as the mouse movement is interpreted as a request to pan the scene. A significant improvement would have been for the developers to include a few keystrokes to hide and recall these items only when they were needed.

There was an occasional faux pas or two in the design of the game. On more than one occasion, I walked through a door whose hinge was on the right-hand side, only to turn and see the other side of the door with a right-hand hinge, as well. While it may have provided a nice Escheresque touch, any reasonably good game designers should have caught these kinds of things during testing.

There were plenty of red herrings in the game. Whether by decisive forethought, or simply added to throw a few curves into the game, a couple of objects discovered by Holmes never have any use in the game. And some of Holmes' own comments are actually quite misleading at times, making one wonder if the game designers weren't just trying to extend gameplay time by sending the player off on a wild goose chase. Even many of the documents that Holmes collects have little or no bearing on the overall gameplay.

The puzzles in MOTM range from the simple to the complex -- with the most difficult being more time-consuming than devious. Many are of the "find the right object to interact with another location" variety (e.g., find the key to open a locked door). Occasionally, there were some more traditional puzzles -- including not one, but two sliding tile puzzles! Solving some of the more non-intuitive puzzles often involved going through the entire inventory, and using each object on a "hot spot" on the screen, trying to find something that worked.

One word about the more time-consuming puzzles. There is one puzzle that consists of almost 900 pieces. It is not difficult, once the concept is understood. However, it is time-consuming, and it does take place during a timed sequence. Which is a segue into a topic that irritates me.

I do not like timed puzzles. If I wanted stress, if I wanted to test my trigger finger, I'd be playing a shooter or an arcade-style game. I play adventure/puzzle games for the relaxation, and so that I can afford to be interrupted, and look up from my game without losing out on a puzzle I'm working on. MOTM contains not one, not two, but several timed sequences -- areas of the game where a particular puzzle or conundrum must be solved within a fixed amount of time... or Sherlock Holmes dies. And, of course, the game ends. There is no way to re-enter in the middle of one of these puzzles. If the timer runs out, you start at your latest saved game. Sometimes the timed sequences are long enough to explore a bit. In one particular case, a timed sequence was less than 10 seconds long. And the amount of time required to explore enough to find the solution was in excess of several minutes. I'm not particularly pleased when I have to restart a game 10 or 20 times, just to solve one puzzle.

As already mentioned, there are several places where Holmes' life can be terminated abruptly, but there is no automatic provision to restart the game just before the deadly mistake. Instead, it is up to the player to create continual saved games to avoid having to return to a much earlier part of the game when (and not "if") Holmes dies.

With regard to saved games, MOTM uses a fairly familiar save-game engine, but one which is very limited. The saved games are displayed with a thumbnail view of the location from which they were saved, along with a date and time, and cannot be "titled". Unfortunately, room is provided for only six saved games! One other thing that irritated me about the saved game files is that, regardless of what drive you might have chosen to use for the game installation, the saved game files automatically go into a folder on your C: drive, and that cannot be changed.

Like Nautilus, MOTM is quite linear. As mentioned, the game is played in 5 stages, or levels. Upon completing one level, you cannot return to a previous level. Within a given level, however, there is a reasonable freedom of movement and exploration. Unfortunately, once I was reaching the end of a particular level, there would often be one or two things left to do before the game would progress. And in almost every such situation, the difficulty in finding those triggers was due to some kind of pixel hunt -- where you must find a tiny object, almost invisible to the eye, before proceeding. (In one particular case, even after another player had described to me exactly where an object was, it still took several minutes to locate an object only a couple of pixels wide.) That kind of "puzzle" loses its novelty with me very quickly.

Not uncommon with games of this linearity, there were often objects which were not interactive the first time they were encountered (no icon, no response), but which were active later in the game -- typically after some "trigger event" had taken place. This meant that I was doing a lot of retracing of my steps -- re-examining locations I'd already studied earlier, re-doing previous pixel hunts, "touching" all objects again -- in an attempt to find if there was anything new going on. Also, some objects had hot spots that were only active if you were standing in exactly the right spot -- even though you could see (and click on) the same spot on the object from another position. That, too, extended the annoying pixel hunts, because an object often had to be searched for a hot spot from more than one position.

Given that the game was distributed on a single CD-ROM, and there were hundreds of scenes in the game (including several rather lengthy cut scenes), the graphics were reasonably well-done. The scenes were complex enough to give an air of reality, with good rendering of the objects within each scene. The images were a bit blurry, though -- not quite as sharp, or with as high a contrast, as I would have liked. (I assumed that was due to the compression algorithm used, which allowed the developers to store the entire game on a single disc.) With the addition of the complete 360-degree panning at every location, I was quite satisfied overall.

The video cut-scenes are average. The quality is fairly good, but the movements were a bit stiff. There is not the level of detail given to things such as lip movements of speaking characters, or the other minor body movements that make characters so "real" in games like Syberia or even the Cameron Files series. In my particular installation, the final cut-scene -- the one in which Holmes explains the entire solution to the mystery -- was defective, and I was never able to hear the actual details of what the mystery was all about! For me, the result was a disappointing ending to a game that, for the most part, I had enjoyed. (One common shortcoming with regard to all of the cut-scenes is that there is no method provided within the game to review previously-viewed videos, short of returning to a previous saved game and replaying that portion of the game.)

The music that accompanies Holmes as he is exploring through the deserted mansion/museum, creates an eerie, haunting feeling appropriate to the game. There are not as many ambient sounds as in some other games, but the few that are there support the game well. Traditional panning effects lend an air of realism to the audio, as well.

MOTM provided about 25 hours of gameplay, playing with two fairly seasoned adventure gamers. What makes it difficult to give a rating to this game is the fact that the game overall -- concept, general gameplay, story design, graphics, puzzles, etc. -- provided a very satisfactory experience. But the countless little things -- timed puzzles with insufficient time, not enough save slots, graphic layouts that are inconsistent, frequent pixel hunts, interruptive placement of game controls on top of the playing screen, etc. -- were annoying enough to keep it from being a top-notch experience. However, given the option of playing MOTM with these problems, or not playing it at all, I'd choose to play the game. If one can manage to surmount the problems mentioned above, MOTM should provide a fair amount of pleasurable gameplay.

-- Frank Nicodem