Riddle of the Sphinx II: The Omega Stone

Review by Mike Phillips
May 2003

"Embark on an epic adventure that will take you to the ends of the earth ... Immerse yourself in an unforgettable journey as you search for lost cities and ancient civilizations. Decipher clues left by the ancients on a cryptic scroll linking the world's most mysterious locations to a forgotten past and a hidden code foretelling the end of time. Untangle the myths surrounding the riddle in your quest to discover the secret—The Omega Stone."

If you happen to be of the adventure gaming persuasion, undoubtedly you have a feeling of deja vu upon reading that encapsulated promotion of The Omega Stone. For good reason—it is a blatantly derivative game, a cliché of a cliché if you will. So what's the lowdown on this perplexing puzzler? Is it more akin to a favorite pair of comfortable old shoes or a bottle of Sominex disguised as a game? A little of both, unfortunately.

Love it or hate it, those familiar with Riddle of the Sphinx will collectively admit the graphics in that game were ... a bit dated ... to be polite. Certainly that was a result of it being the brainchild of a mere duo, a wife/husband team, Karen and Jeff Tobler. This go-round, their alias, Omni Adventures, has added a few employees and has more capital to work with, and with their virgin effort of game design now in hindsight, the results are immediately evident. TOS has that certain professional, polished feel not experienced in garage games. By no means am I insinuating this game is wart-free; it has several that could be considered show-stoppers by many.

A caveat to anyone who feels critiquing a game created by an upstart, shoestring development house or holding it to the same standards as established, corporate-driven conglomerates is blasphemy, read no further. Purchase the game now and enjoy it. Once such a developer places a price tag on its efforts, it plunges it into the same pond, lurking with the big fishes.

Now let's pop the hood and see what makes this dog hunt.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Start Your Engines

A full install of the game is an available option to avoid swapping the four discs, which will happen far too often if you balk on it. The footprint for said install is 2.7 GB, a paltry amount of real estate by today's standards. However, if you happen to be a bit impoverished drive-wise, factor in some space for a swap file, 248 KB for each saved game (of which there will be many) and 240 KB for each screenshot (of which there will more than there are pending lawsuits against AOL).

Like many aspects of this game, one step forward, two steps back. Once a disc has been copied to your hard drive, it auto-ejects. This was a poor idea when first introduced; ten years later, it is inexcusable. Audio and visual cues are enough to understand that a disc has finished loading. Rendering the unwittingly exposed CD tray FUBAR with a whack from a knee isn't a great way to get off on the right foot with a game—I know this from personal experience.

If you opt for the full install, put the discs back in the box; they won't be used again. Every game should offer this choice—bravo to Omni for adding this feature.

Another available option is for either hardware or software rendering. The difference between the two occurs when panning (360 degrees on the horizontal axis, and 180 degrees on the vertical)—there is little degradation of textures when using your video card to do the grunt work. Also, there are two methods of panning, either via moving the cursor to the edge of a screen or revolving the screen around a fixed cursor, and a speed control for each. A welcome addition for those who believe the Anti-Christ (aka Quicktime VR-mode) was the death-knell of ROTS.

A distant nightmare are those wretched-looking rectangular Quicktime 4 videos pasted on 2D backdrops. The FMV now blends into the environments almost seamlessly, and Mr. Tobler gives a fairly convincing stint (albeit short) as Sir Gil Blythe Geoffreys in this iteration. Also gone are the 640×480 muddy graphics, replaced by 640×480 gauzy graphics. In all sincerity, it is a huge leap forward, but still far from state-of-the-art.

In thirty words or less, the musical score and sound effects can be described as, simply, adequate. They are neither stellar nor irritating—vanilla is an appropriate depiction.

Saved games are unlimited, but there is a slight kink involved. When using the "Save As" option, you are prompted to name the file; however, the "Save" option overwrites your most recent save without warning.

Inventory and screenshots are accessed via a simple right-click of the mouse. Ingenious as it sounds, this is where the game begins to get mired in a pit of quicksand. Inventory items are displayed in a side-scrolling toolbar at the bottom of the screen, showing five items at a time. By the end of the game, one has an abundance of excess baggage, and scrolling through it becomes a chore. A semitransparent grid system would have worked much better for inventory-juggling, as would simply wiping out the unneeded inventory items once the related puzzle has been solved.

Screenshots via an in-game camera are displayed in the same fashion, five at a time, then it too is a scrolling nightmare. There are a staggering number of etchings, glyphs, and scrolls that you need to take pictures of in order to solve puzzles. The problem is, the camera cannot capture the entire screen. You'll need four shots in order to see the entire screen, so the equation goes: Four multiplied by a gigantic amount of etchings, glyphs, and scrolls, raised to the power of a horrid scrolling scheme, equals one near disaster.

The only way around this fiasco is to take pen to paper and draw the clues (for we "artistically challenged" types, this is not an option) or to create a shortcut for the executable and set the properties to run minimized. That enables one to Alt-Tab out of the game if using a third-party screen capture application; then again you'll be staring at your desktop at a grotesquely huge resolution.

One last note concerning the mechanics of the game: be sure to grab the patch to avoid aggravation.

Walk Like An Egyptian ... or an Atlantean ... or a Mayan ... or a ...

During the introduction, we're back at the Giza Plateau, barely conscious, inside Sir Geoffrey's tent. He informs us that the world is in grave danger, as he has learned from translating a major portion of the mysterious second scroll. The story isn't exactly worthy of an award; besides, the people who will play this game are puzzle fanatics, i.e., no plot needed. Good thing as there isn't much of one, an original one at least. It's 2014, and Stonehenge is about to be turned into an amusement park (I'm not kidding); the ancients deliberately misaligned the stone formations to signal the end of the world in ... yep, you guessed it ... 2014. Your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to save the world. Of course, the Ark of the Covenant, Druids, and Templar Knights get thrown into the mix, as does Atlantis. I'm amazed Dreamcatcher didn't rename this game Atlantis XXXIV: The Final Chapter. One can hope, but we all know in our hearts this dead horse will be beaten again ... and again ... and again ...

As the game proper begins, we're inside the Sphinx. A small, self-contained, somewhat challenging puzzle awaits, then it's time to trek outside. Upon exiting the tunnels, the view is nothing short of amazing. Vibrant colors abound, and looking up at the ominous figure gives one a feeling of actually being there. Lens flare has been added when looking in the direction of the sun, but it does look rather cheesy and is overused. The other locales are just as stunning—initially, they include Chichen Itza, the Devil's Triangle, Easter Island, and Stonehenge. Deja vu all over again. Despite the feeling that we've vacationed at these locales far too often, they are presented with a great deal of accuracy that serves to heighten the mystery involved with their enigmatic existence.

The story is unraveled slowly in numerous journals, books, and letters left for you by Sir Geoffreys and his associates. Yet again there is a problem—the aforementioned gauzy graphics. Deciphering much of the text is an eye-straining task. If you happen to have perfect vision, by the end of this game you won't.

But a puzzle game is all about the puzzles, so on to that aspect.

Glyphs and Mazes and Calendars ... Oh My!

The puzzle structure of TOS undoubtedly is its strong point, as it should be. Instead of opting for endless, disjointed, twiddle-ware puzzles, the designers crafted a nested approach. You'll be working on subpuzzles in order to find a clue for a much larger, extravagant variety of bewilderment. This aspect alone should get pupils of puzzling all giddy with glee.

By no means are the solutions easy—it takes an abundance of thought and scouring for clues to solve them. They are, however, very fair. All of the information you need is given, along with some red herrings to increase the challenge factor. No existential leaps away from grounded logic are needed, though.

The downside of using familiar locales proposes a vexing issue. Upon arriving at Chichen Itza, one finds a book describing the Mayan calendar and numerical system; this information is used extensively when exploring the tunnels under the El Castillo pyramid. Any adventure gamer worth his or her salt should be able to comprehend differential equations using the Mayan system, as we've seen it so often.

There are also a few duds included, most notably a hedge maze that has to be traversed twice. It is a fairly simplistic maze, especially for a seasoned player who has been treated like a lab rat searching for the elusive cheese far too often in adventure games.

As inventive as the puzzle design is, the implementation is a polar opposite, perhaps the worst I've ever suffered through in any game to date. Although quality assurance testers are listed in the manual, I sincerely doubt the game was actually play-tested by an unbiased team in order to submit feedback on the positive and negative aspects of gameplay.

After gathering clues for a particularly clever puzzle and pondering the solution, naturally one is excited to see if the solution works. Crash and burn time—to keep it spoiler-free, let's say basically you have to follow a recipe. What snatches this puzzle from the jaws of brilliance and vomits it into an abyss of mediocrity is the execution. Over forty painfully mundane, tedious, repetitious moves have to be performed to see if you have figured it out. One slip of your mouse finger? Start it over and try again. On a scale from one to ten, the enjoyment level is about a negative fifty. I imagine working on an assembly line manufacturing those plastic things that keep box lids from crushing a pizza has about the same fun factor.

Turn out the Lights, the Party's Over

What really turns this game into an overpriced frisbee is the series of puzzles in the tunnels under El Castillo. The tunnels are dark, very dark. So dark that no way, no how, can you play this game until vampires lurk. Pump up the gamma settings for your video card, and you'll be staring at chalky, washed-looking graphics. It only goes downhill from there, folks—the designers purposely made the node-based movement a maze, and remember this all happens in the dark.

How could one possibly make this scenario worse, you ask? How about having to walk through these tunnels several times in search of a clue that triggers the next event, all while pixel-hunting for inventory items? Yes, it is that bad—game design at an all-time low.

All of this brings up the million-dollar question, or perhaps the thirty-dollar question: is this game for you? If you still haven't decided, here's a subjective opinion. If you love solving puzzles, story be damned—go for it, as there isn't much out there of late. If you're looking for interaction, character development, and an involving plot, you're not going to find it here. Want an edutainment game giving factual information concerning locales that are still enigmas to this day? Give it a go—the accuracy of the dig sites will grab you and won't let go. Want to play a fun game? Run, Forrest, run ... run as fast as you can away from TOS!

Simply stated, TOS is a mediocre puzzle game at best. It really is a shame because the designers came so close to crafting a game that would forever reside on your shelf with the classics. Due to a few incredibly inept flaws, and channeling of energies into creating an accurate game in lieu of a fun one, TOS will fade into obscurity in a few months, if it hasn't already.

Hopefully, Omni Adventures will continue refining its skills and offer us a third game ... but please, give us something unique. Build it, and they will come. The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: Omni Adventures, LLC
Publisher: The Adventure Company
Release Date: March 2003

Available for: Windows

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Screenshots

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System Requirements

Windows 98/2000/ME/XP
Pentium II 300 MHz or equivalent processor
64 MB RAM
12x CD-ROM drive
DirectX compatible video card
DirectX compatible sound card

Where to Find It

GoGamer 27.90



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