The Sacred Amulet Review

It is the year of "Twelve House", near an Aztec village. A routine hunt ends abruptly, after the murder of a nobleman. Now, as "Little Serpent", you are wrongfully accused of murder, your parents are imprisoned, and the race is on to solve the murder, save your parents, and clear your name. Does the murder have anything to do with the mysterious illness that is slowly spreading amongst the people? And what about the carved necklace given to you by the dying nobleman? How does it fit into the mystery?

While being falsely accused of murder is not exactly a new plot, The Sacred Amulet takes a fresh approach, resulting in a story that is both appealing and entertaining. From the historically accurate Aztec settings to the sense of urgency created by being pursued by the real murderer, the game is always interesting and occasionally tense.

The Sacred Amulet is an "edutainment" title. Unfortunately, I've encountered one too many edutainment games that provided about 80% "edu" and only 20% "tainment". So, before playing The Sacred Amulet, I braced myself to endure a lot of dry educational material. My expectations couldn't have been more wrong. The educational portion of Sacred Amulet is a definite plus -- without ever distracting the user from the entertainment portion. Educational information is separated into an encyclopedia, allowing the user to choose exactly how much -- or how little -- time is spent learning about the Aztec culture. Switching between the game and the encyclopedia is made easier by numerous hot-points in the game, which link directly to related information in the encyclopedia. While I enjoyed reading about the Aztec culture, none of the encyclopedic material is actually required to complete the game.

The game installs quickly and easily. The game's interface is easy to use, and the documentation, though rarely needed, is excellent. The game is entirely mouse-driven -- most game play makes use of the left mouse button, while the inventory and game options are accessed with the right button. A few features found on the inventory screen are labeled with graphical symbols only, some of which are impossible to interpret without either trying them, or reading in the manual. Nothing, however, was difficult to learn. Less than five minutes after installation, I knew everything necessary to play the game.

My first impression of the game was absolute amazement at the stunning graphics. The game begins with an excellent video sequence, establishing the mystery surrounding Little Serpent. Many more cut-scenes are scattered throughout the game, all of which are enjoyable and well crafted. Video sequences are generally shown in third person, while the game itself is in first person -- and both are well done.

All of the graphics are a joy to behold. Outside scenes are beautiful and bright. Most indoor scenes, while still attractive, tend to be darker. The darker interiors are in keeping with the historical accuracy of the game, although it can make it mildly difficult to make out some of the details. Playing the game with the lights off is a definite improvement.

The game provides 360 degree side-to-side scrolling, in addition to letting you look all the way up and down. I liked the scrolling feature, but it took a while to get used to. While mouse movements around the center of the screen don't scroll the background scenery, the scene will automatically scroll when the cursor nears the edge of the scene. One quick move of the mouse, and the picture can tilt alarmingly fast. It is literally possible to make yourself dizzy.

Music is well done and appropriate for the Aztec setting. I must admit, though, the continuous loop-track background music became distracting after a while and I decided to play the remainder of the game without it. I would have liked the option to control the music and background noises separately, for once the music is shut off, other noises -- such as the sound of birds singing -- also end. The game did, however, differentiate between the regular background music and the music intended for cut-scenes. So, even though the background music was turned off, music was still available to enhance the cut-scenes.

The puzzles, in general, are too easy for experienced gamers. The difficulty level is better suited for a younger audience, which may be exactly who the game is intended for. Although most puzzles are interesting and unique, as well as being well integrated into the story, several times, the "puzzle" is simply retrieving a particular object and bringing it to the appropriate person. The game is very linear, requiring that all puzzles be solved in the correct order. Any attempt to deviate from the established order is either impossible, making it necessary to backtrack later, or will result in the death of Little Serpent.

Voice acting is generally good and easily understood, even without the optional subtitles. Little Serpent's replies are printed on the screen rather than spoken, which took a bit of getting used to; I kept expecting to hear his voice. Conversations usually allow only one choice for Little Serpent's reply, but I found the dialogues interesting enough that the lack of choices was not a detraction. Most of Little Serpent's instructions on what to do next are provided during conversations. Listening carefully is extremely important, since the instructions are usually not repeated. Taking a few notes helps -- especially before leaving the computer for any length of time.

The game keeps a little diary for Little Serpent, called a "Codex", which is easily accessed with a right-click. From there, it is possible to read a brief description of what Little Serpent has done so far -- and occasionally, what he needs to do next. While it is sometimes useful to remind us of what Little Serpent needs to do next, it can occasionally give away a bit too much, making the game slightly easier than it already is. Experienced gamers may choose to skip this feature, while younger gamers might find it useful.

Overall, the game was quite enjoyable and satisfying -- even somewhat addictive. One thing that made it even more enjoyable was that it ran extremely well, without ever crashing. It took around twenty hours to complete, including some time reading the numerous encyclopedia entries for which the game provided hot-points, but not counting more extensive reading. The game ended with a very satisfying video, leaving me with a feeling of "Ahhh." Now that's what edutainment was meant to be.

-- Christine Zarubin