Like its predecessor Da Vinci’s Secret, Pharaoh’s Secret is a puzzle game that is easy to learn but challenging to master. A tracking timer gives bonus points for rapid play while still allowing those with slower reflexes to enjoy the game, and the addition of new obstacles and powerups along with several new minigames update the spinoff nicely.   

The story is thin, but sufficient: an archaeology student and professor solve puzzles as they track down hidden Egyptian treasures. Gameplay has the same basic format as Da Vinci’s Secret. Players move colored stones on a grid. Stones that are moved into matches of 3 or more are removed, but any stone can be moved anywhere there’s a path to an open space. Each level has a specific goal like moving a key into a lock or assembling pieces of a broken picture.

The challenge is that anytime a match is not made, more stones are randomly added to the board, making it more difficult to achieve the goal. If the board fills up completely, the game is “lost,” although players can restart instantly at the same level.  

Although it sounds simple, 6 different powerups and 6 different obstacles provide variety and challenge.  Locks and keys may be stuck behind brick walls, down a maze of one way paths, or, new to this game, in the dark or under a lattice grill. Powerups include bombs that can remove bricks or stones, lightning that can remove all stones of one color, a flashlight, and an ankh that can remove an entire row and column of stones at once.

The most interesting new feature is the lattice.  It lays over a set of stones. It can only be removed by moving a special tile to its holder. This adds a structure to the puzzles that the previous title didn’t have, since players almost always have to play to remove the lattice first.  

Each level has a target time. Faster finishes earn bonus points. This provides incentive to replay boards for players who like to challenge themselves. Early levels have a target time of 2 to 3 minutes, but by the end of the game target times may be 8 minutes or more. There is real satisfaction in beating the “Ace Time” on a difficult level.

Tutorial is built into the gameplay. In early levels players are introduced to one obstacle or powerup at a time. By the end of the 100 levels, a round may include 3 types of obstacles, multiple key/lock sets, and several kinds of powerups. Players can increase the value of powerups over the course of the game and choose which ones to improve first.

The new mini-games are simple but make a nice break. They include a hidden object scene, a kind of mah jong where players remove pairs of tiles from a stack, concentration, and some easy jigsaw puzzles. These suit the story well, and each minigame provides a mini history lesson on Ancient Egypt, which reveals the name of the next temple to be searched.

There are some minor spelling errors (“shepard kings” instead of “shepherd kings”), but nothing serious. Graphics are elegant and well done. Background music suits the theme, but isn’t intrusive.

The game does have two noticeable weaknesses.  First, the story is very thin. It certainly doesn’t motivate players to move forward in the game. And the professor seems to say “We’re getting close” at the end of just about every level. We would have liked to see a more structured story, something like a search for “the 10 keys to the treasure chamber” or “8 jewels in the amulet” to create a stronger sense of making progress.  

Second, the animated cutscenes are physically dizzying. They’re all the same, a swooping shot around curves in a darkened tunnel. Combined with a spinning amulet that starts the level, they’ll induce queasiness in some people.  At least they’re short, so it’s easy to look away until the grid is reached.

Fortunately neither flaw affects the basic board play.  A classic puzzler, Pharaoh’s Secret offers satisfying intellectual stimulation in a wellcrafted package.