Reviewed: January 28, 2004
Released: November 10, 2003
Sphinx and the Cursed Mummy might just go down in history as the biggest sleeper hit of 2003, but I’ll do my best for the remainder of this review to make sure you go out and buy this amazing game right away.
THQ seems to be on a roll with their platform games. About a month prior to Sphinx a little island native name Tak worked his Juju on the console crowd and now we have perhaps one of the most wildly original and creative buddy-games to date. Designed by Eurocom, a proven developer with a substantial library of hits, Sphinx combines traditional platform action gameplay with a wonderful background story that sets the stage for some of the most ingenious levels that take us on a wild romp through ancient Egyptian mythology.
Buddy games are not uncommon to the platform genre but Sphinx does something interesting and introduces the two members of our team in solo adventures long before they ever join forces. We are first introduced to Sphinx, a half-man half-lion creature who has been quested to rid the world of evil. All in a day’s work for your average demigod.
After you are introduced to the gameplay through a few easy opening levels that consist of some jumping puzzles and environmental interaction the game shifts gears and characters and puts you in the royal robes of Tutankhamen. The gimmick here is that Tut is just a young boy and while snooping around the palace he uncovers a sinister and evil plot to overthrow the pharaoh and ends up captured and turned into a mummy.
For the first part of the game we bounce back and forth between our two heroes until they are brought together by circumstance to fight the ultimate evil. Despite the epic nature of the plot the story is rather simple and so are the movies that appear between the various levels. It’s just enough story to keep you interested in the characters, but the quality gameplay is what will keep you coming back.
The game is classic action-adventure but the added elements of earned skills, gradual upgrades, returning to previous levels to explore newly accessible locales, is all platform stuff and it all works great in this game. You are gradually eased into the game and as you learn new skills the game design encourages you to use and master these abilities. You actually learn the game by playing it.
Our two characters are quite diverse in their skills, which creates two very unique types of gameplay. Sphinx is all about combat, running, jumping, and everything that is “action”. He can use a sword or fire darts from a blowgun. He climbs, has a double-jump, can use a shield, and even learn special powers and attacks. As he learns new abilities the enemies and the environment adapt to test those skills.
The Mummy is the direct opposite. He is rather weak and frail looking by design but since he is already dead he can take a real beating. He cannot use weapons so he must rely on stealth to navigate levels. His levels are also more puzzle-driven. The Mummy can get flattened paper thin and slip through bars or catch on fire then run around trying to extinguish the flames. Catching on fire or getting shocked with 10,000 volts is not only fun to watch, but also an intregral part of many puzzles, and figuring out how to keep the pain going for as long as you can is an ironic challenge. So while Sphinx is the man of action the Mummy is the “brains” of the duo.
Whether you are fighting or sneaking through the levels you will get to enjoy one of the finest control schemes ever created for an action game. The sticks control movement and the free-floating camera. The movement is analog so you can control the precise speed of the character. The face buttons are context-sensitive to the gameplay so their functions vary based on your situation. The button diamond is shown in the upper-right corner of the screen so you always know what button does what.
Combat is great fun thanks to a surprisingly intelligent camera system and some awesome collision detection that borders on perfection. There will never be any visual doubts on whether you are connecting with your sword or hitting that distant target with a dart. Some of the more intense combat can get a bit hectic and I would have liked an optional target-lock mode so I could circle strafe. The battles seemed rather two-dimensional but great fun nonetheless.
Puzzles range from very simple to some very challenging brainteasers that may stump a few experience gamers. Some are as simple as finding a key or a lever to open a door while others will have you manipulating pieces of the environment to redirect light beams or stepping on lighted pads in a certain sequence to open a door.
Sphinx is a gorgeous adventure designed with rich saturated colors that give the game a fanciful, almost surreal look. Eurocom’s proprietary engine is cranking out some seriously huge levels and the PS2 manages an impressive framerate with only a few minor occurances of slowdown. Just standing on that first ledge that Sphinx starts on and looking out over the vast landscape to the city spires beyond is a majestic experience. While there is no “pop-up” per se, there is a bit of fogging on the horizon that gradually fades in the distant landscape or architecture. It’s not terrible or even that noticeable, but it is there.
The game is loaded with special effects that include realistic lighting, colored lighting like flickering torchlight, shadows, amazing water, reflections, and just about everything else in the next-gen graphical handbook.
The characters are always the stars in games like these and Sphinx and the Mummy just ooze personality, both in their creative design and their wonderful animation, especially their idle animations and the comical "thumbs up" when the Mummy discovers treasure. There are nice subtle touches like Sphinx’s wagging tail or the Mummy’s tattered bindings. The Mummy is also the victim of plenty of cruel and admittedly funny punishments. Not since Voodoo Vince has a video game character suffered so much cartoon abuse.
The sound package is a love-hate relationship. I love the authentic and stylized music that fits the theme of the game and adds greatly to the emotional impact of the gameplay. The sound effects are topnotch and even music is used as a sound effect during combat with Sphinx. Each time he swings his sword an “orchestra hit” plays and with each subsequent strike the pitch rises until you reach the finishing blow. It’s a tried and true animated trick that I have never seen (or heard) in a game before, but it steals the show.
The real killer is that there is no spoken dialogue in Sphinx and this is a travesty of epic proportions because not only do these characters ooze personality in their design and facial features, the dialogue is very well written and just cries out to be heard. Of course I would have hated to hear this game poorly read, but the entire time I played this game I kept trying to fit popular voice actors with the characters. It became an obsessive distraction that lasted the entire game.
Sphinx is a surprisingly long and satisfying quest that should take the average gamer about 15-20 hours to finish. The difficulty is moderate, geared for teens and older but younger kids will likely find the game enjoyable. Aside from the cartoon violence this game could easily have been rated E, and if you let your kids watch Bugs and the Roadrunner then this is no worse.
The story is linear and so is the gameplay. There are no diverging plot branches or alternate endings and you cannot pick which character to take through a level so once you have finished the game you won’t likely be returning to Egypt anytime soon. Even so, this is a quality piece of software and at only $39; the designers should be rewarded with a purchase.
Sphinx and the Cursed Mummy is a fantastic game that offers dual play modes, challenging puzzles, a progressive character development system, and balanced gameplay that is great for gamers of all skills and ages. There are some not-so-subtle nods toward the Zelda franchise and their game design, but Sphinx manages to create its own unique genre niche with a style and class all its own. I highly recommend it to everyone who is remotely interested.