The Omega Stone Review

The Omega Stone is aptly subtitled "Sequel to Riddle of the Sphinx". In the tradition of Myst and its sequel Riven, TOS begins at the very spot and the same point in time where ROTS ended. (It is, however, possible to play TOS without having first played the original.) With the discovery beneath the great Sphinx of Egpyt of the Ark of the Covenant, famed archeologist Sir Gil Blythe Geoffries has also uncovered another scroll containing information that will lead the player to the most mysterious and exotic areas of the world -- beginning at the Giza Plateau in Egypt, and including Stonehenge, Easter Island, the Devil's Triangle, the Mayan civilization at Chichen Itza, and the lost city of Atlantis.

TOS can be installed in two configurations -- a "small" version, which requires almost 850MB, and a "full" version, which allows all 4 CDs to be installed to the hard drive and saves disc swapping, but also requires 2.68 GB. I used the smaller install.

My test system was a 1.7GHz Pentium IV, with 384MB of RAM and an nVidia GeForce 3D accelerator card -- far exceeding the minimum requirements for the game. Yet response was often abysmal on this and other systems. Restoring a previously-saved game and swapping CDs typically caused waits of over a minute -- with no CD-ROM activity at all, only CPU activity -- before the CD-ROM would spin up, and I could continue playing. (At one point in the game, travelling between two locations requires swapping discs three times and a total loading time of almost 5 minutes!)

TOS uses the Phoenix VR engine, which provides a fairly familiar interface to veteran adventure fans. All scenes offer full horizontal and vertical panning. Often, the individual scenes are not crisp, but are a bit blurry, without the sharp contrasts seen in some games. I also noted an unusual dichotomy in the actual generation of the scenery itself. At some points, it was obvious that immense care was taken to develop life-like textures, such as on wood, or leaves, or other objects. But at other times, the textures were almost "cartoony". Similarly, contrasts could be seen in objects such as trees, where the textures were incredibly realistic, but the 3D artist simply slapped together two 2D planes at right angles to create a "3D" tree.

The cut scenes are frequent, and done well. Movement between two points is enhanced with a complete video. Shorter animations accompany most other object movement, although the individual scenes are static (e.g., there is no moving water, flags waving in the breeze, or birds flying). In my particular installation, the final cut scene -- the one in which Sir Gil explains the entire game -- was a bit choppy, and the audio and video tended to be a bit out of sync. (However, it was clear enough that I could see the abundant foreshadowing of YAS -- yet another sequel!)

Possibly the single biggest drawback that I found while playing TOS is that there is no cursor icon that indicates when you can "use" some object somewhere. There are various cursors to indicate that you can look more closely at something, move in a specific direction, pick up an object, etc. However, there is no cursor to show when you can use one item on another.

Ordinarily, this might not be a problem, but some puzzles lack the visual indications or other clues to suggest what needs to be done. Imagine having to click on several hundred bricks with different items just to find if something might be done to one of those bricks. "Puzzles" like these turned the game into something even worse than a simple pixel hunt -- because most pixel hunts only involve clicking on some object -- not scrolling through an entire inventory at the same time. And in a few places, objects were actually hidden behind seemingly nondescript rocks, walls, or other barriers. This required incredibly careful exploration over literally hundreds of scenes and locations, to avoid overlooking a critical item.

Traveling through some areas of the game also became quite tedious, because -- unlike ROTS, where a player could "warp" to a spot they had visited previously, and skip tedious intermediary scene changes -- TOS provides no such capability. Indeed, the Settings menu has a setting for "warps" -- however, according to the developer, they were never implemented. Without the ability to warp quickly to a nearby location, some paths required in excess of 50 steps (i.e., scene changes) -- usually through empty, dark, shapeless passageways -- just to return to a common connecting point.

The inventory also quickly became way too cumbersome. Only 5 items at a time display across the bottom of the screen, with scrolling arrows on either side. However, it is not uncommon to be carrying more than 50 items in inventory at one time, requiring you to scroll through all of those items to find the right one.

The screen is laid out well, and the ability to call up or hide the inventory quickly and simply is a plus. The player also has a "camera", which can take snapshots at any point in the game. This is a great boon for saving information about items that cannot be taken into your inventory (such as large, fixed objects). However, each snapshot is limited to roughly the size of 1/4 of the screen. And in almost all cases, what I wanted a snapshot of was all, or most of, the scene I was viewing. So I had to take multiple snapshots and later, scan back and forth through 3 or 4 snapshots to "piece together" the overall image in my mind. One simple design modification -- allowing the camera to take a picture of the entire scene at once -- would have made all the difference in the usability of the camera.

Another of the settings provided by TOS allows the player to choose a free-floating cursor, or a fixed cursor (where the scene "revolves" around the cursor). I played most of the game with the fixed cursor, although I appreciated the option of letting the player choose whichever is more comfortable. At times, though, controlling the interface became difficult. The "hot spot" to scroll the inventory was quite small; picking up an object doesn't leave it in your hand; and returning to the game after saving a game requires unnecessary extra clicks.

A word must be said about the puzzles in TOS. The good news is that the majority of the puzzles are challenging and well-integrated with the storyline. The bad news is that they are complex, obtuse, arcane, difficult, and often laborious. Eventually, all of the puzzles make sense -- after the player knows the answer. But they are not intuitive. I am not bothered by a complex puzzle, when it is, at the same time, intuitive. However, complexity that is contrived, simply to extend playing time, is annoying, at the very least, and infuriating at worst.

What made several of the puzzles even more difficult than they already were was the fact that necessary information was not always available. In one case, symbols found in a dark tunnel are critical to solving a puzzle, but several of the symbols are unreadable. In another spot, markings have been etched on stones, but not all the markings are clearly legible. Puzzles are often multiple-levels deep, meaning that solving one puzzle doesn't necessarily result in a sense of satisfaction or accomplishment, because the solution is simply one piece of another puzzle.

There are a lot of "red herrings" in the game, primarily in the form of dozens of inventory objects that can be picked up but never used, or documents that can be read but shed little light on actual gameplay. There is essentially no intuitive way to determine the relative importance of objects in the game.

There are many ways in which your character can "die" during the game. Making a wrong move, picking up a wrong object, or running out of air in a confined space are merely a few of the ways this can happen. And when it does, the game provides no means of undoing the most recent action. The only option is to return to an earlier saved game (which, hopefully, the player is creating on a regular basis).

With regard to game saves, TOS uses a save-game engine that, frankly, I wish were used by more games. In theory, you can create as many saved games as you'd like, giving each one a title of your choosing. Each save is then displayed with its title, a thumbnail, and a date/time stamp. Hovering the mouse over a saved game brings up a larger, clearer image of the location where the game was saved. For me, it was almost the epitome of game-saving engines. Almost.

Until I went to restore a saved game, after having saved a dozen or more previous games. I discovered, much to my chagrin, that when restoring a previously-saved game, the screen only shows 5 saved games at a time -- which means that if you have close to 60 saved games (as I did), you have to do a lot of scrolling to find the right one. But what was even more annoying is that the list of saved games was not displayed in chronological order (or, even better, reverse chronological order, so that the most recent showed first). Instead, the saves were displayed in... reverse alphabetical order!

I never knew, when restarting the game a day or two after last playing, which game was my last saved game. And it was far too cumbersome to scroll through almost 60 images, checking for date/time stamps and trying to remember which one was the latest. I eventually resorted to opening my Saved Games folder in Windows Explorer each time before playing TOS, so that I could check the name of the latest file that I had saved, and then navigate to it within the game restore screen. This was, arguably, the most clumsy "maintenance" issue in the entire game.

Even though I was running a current copy of TOS, complete with a patch from the support Web site, I did encounter one "show-stopper" bug, and it was apparently related to game saves. After saving 57 game save files, TOS just quit running! If I tried to save a new game, or restore an existing game, TOS would immediately shut down and return to Windows. My only workaround was to manually remove some of my saved game files from the directory, after which the problem disappeared.

One thing that puzzled me throughout the game is that no matter where I was, each time I made a major discovery, or solved a critical puzzle, I'd have some interaction with Sir Gil (usually in the form of a letter), which showed he was always one step ahead of me -- in much the way that a mentor stays just one step ahead of a star pupil (or a trainer does with an animal), encouraging them on. Without giving anything away, the premise of the story is that Sir Gil has information that, if correct, could be predicting the end of the world as we know it, within a very short span of time. Yet Sir Gil -- who seems to already know the answer -- allows "his friend" (us, the players) to roam around at our own pace, and doesn't seem to care how well we're doing our job. The fate of the entire world is on our shoulders, yet Sir Gil is content to sit back and watch how we are doing. The image I got was similar to that of a student driving instructor casually allowing his first-time student to drive in the Indy 500.

TOS is a fairly non-linear game. You can move around, explore to your heart's content, and interact with most of the places and objects in the game, without having to progress through a set of pre-defined "stages". The flip side of that is that quite often, I found myself asking "What do I do next?"

The game provided about 30 hours of gameplay, playing with two fairly seasoned adventure gamers. However, that was only accomplished with the help of a complete game walkthrough. Without that help, it would have been considerably longer. I am not one to resort to a walkthrough unless I feel totally and completely stumped, and feel that the enjoyment of the game is being diminished by some tedious (or obtuse) puzzle or other impediment in the game. Yet this is exactly what happened several times while playing TOS. I would be extremely astonished if anyone could play -- and finish -- TOS without getting similar assistance, or hints from some other source.

TOS is a difficult game to quantify. There are parts that I loved; there are parts that drove me berserk. However, after finishing the game, and then going back and re-reading some of the documents, and mentally reviewing everything that had gone on in the game, it was apparent that the story was more cohesive than it first appeared while playing the game. And despite all of the issues mentioned above, my overall reaction to the game is that I am glad that I played it, and will undoubtedly be at the head of the line when the sequel arrives. I did not enjoy The Omega Stone nearly as much as I did its predecessor, Riddle of the Sphinx. Yet if the game is approached with the right mindset (mostly a lot of patience!), TOS should provide an enjoyable gameplaying experience.

-- Frank Nicodem