A truly good puzzle is a rare thing. It has to be challenging but fair, with a solution that is isn’t immediately evident but instead deducible only by those who buckle down and set their minds to it.
Cleopatra: Riddle of the Tomb, a traditional point-and-click adventure, has many conundrums of this sort; puzzles that have the potential to break the brains of both rookie players and seasoned solvers, but become obvious to all once they are finally understood. Unfortunately, it also has a number of seemingly unreasonable riddles the answers to which remain opaque even after the puzzle has been successfully solved.
The story concerns an apprentice astrologer named Thomas who lives in war-torn Egypt a few decades B.C. Things kick off with our hero discovering that his girlfriend, Iris, who also happens to be the daughter of his master, Akkad, is missing. He immediately sets about looking for his sweetheart. Stepping into his sandals, we search for clues, solve plenty of puzzles, and travel to a variety of beautiful locations famous to the era, such as the Library of Alexandria.
Presentation is terrific. From the main menu, which is actually an explorable environment in which doorways lead into and out of the game and save files are represented by ancient scrolls in a cabinet, to the wonderful attention paid to the game’s lovingly rendered three-dimensional environments, which feature authentic Grecian writing and lots of complicated looking millennia-old gadgets, Riddle of the Tomb’s world is wonderfully and utterly immersive.
The writing, both in dialogue and in the many text clues we find, can often seem dense and unclear—sometimes to the point of impenetrability—but the game’s talented actors deliver their lines with exuberance and conviction, compelling players to pay attention to and care about what they’re saying.
What’s more, the in-game menu is well designed and accessible, providing players the ability to sort and store objects in several tabs, break down and combine items, view a regularly updated summary of the narrative, and access a record of game dialogue. There’s even a map here that can be used to instantly travel to any location you’ve previously visited—though it’s not strictly necessary, since clicking from one location to the next takes a fraction of a second, making a trip from one end of Alexandria to the other a surprisingly quick journey.
But while expertly designed atmosphere and game mechanics are always appreciated, in the world of point-and-click adventuring a game’s worth is judged primarily by the quality of its puzzles, and Riddle of the Tomb only partially succeeds in this area.
I thoroughly enjoyed some of the common sense conundrums I encountered. An early task, which involved collecting the items necessary to create replicas of a figurine, creating a mold, and firing it in an oven, demanded real-world reason and resulted in satisfaction once properly solved.
Even when I had difficulty with tasks of this sort—as happened once when I failed to find a grappling hook needed to help me spin a quartet of marble columns—the problem usually rested with me; I’d eventually find that I’d read a document too quickly or that I hadn’t been observant enough while searching the environment.
Other conundrums, however, felt downright Byzantine. There were several instances in which I had some notion what my objective was, but, due to an inability to make sense of the clues provided, I was completely stumped as to how to solve them. Even once I stumbled upon the answers for some of these puzzles—usually through a combination of unhealthy tenacity and pure chance—I was often unable to see why my solution worked or how I was supposed to have arrived at it.
There are also some puzzles that feel like nothing more than make-work projects. Collecting spilled ingredients and then repeatedly referencing formulas stored in the menu to make cocktails of varying complexity is a simple enough challenge, but also lengthy, monotonous, and not particularly fun. Thankfully, there are only a few of these.
One last game element worth noting is Riddle of the Tomb‘s innovative good luck/bad luck system. At the beginning of the game players choose an astrological sign that impacts the difficulty of various puzzles. For instance, if your sign results in bad luck for a task that involves pouring water into the holes of a door’s lock mechanism, then one of the water retention knobs will pop out, forcing you to replace it, collect more water, and refill the hole. It’s a simple twist, but it adds a bit of surprise and suspense to the mix for players who choose to play through the game a second time.
Little touches like this, combined with smart artistic direction and sound design, leave little doubt that Cleopatra: Riddle of the Tomb is a clever, well polished game. What’s more, most of the puzzles are a lot of fun; fine ways to tease one’s brain. It’s too bad that a minority of frustrating and seemingly unfair conundrums taint this otherwise excellent bit of point-and-click adventuring.