Salammbo: Battle for Carthage

Review by Jen
July 2003

"Her hair, which was powdered with violet sand, and combined into the form of a tower, after the fashion of the Chanaanite maidens, added to her height. Tresses of pearls were fastened to her temples, and fell to the corners of her mouth, which was as rosy as a half-open pomegranate. On her breast was a collection of luminous stones, their variegation imitating the scales of the murena. Her arms were adorned with diamonds, and issued naked from her sleeveless tunic, which was starred with red flowers on a perfectly black ground. Between her ankles she wore a golden chainlet to regulate her steps, and her large dark purple mantle, cut of an unknown material, trailed behind her, making, as it were, at each step, a broad wave which followed her." —Gustave Flaubert, Salammbo

Flaubert's Salammbo (1858) is among the first works of heroic fantasy. It's a love story about Salammbo, daughter of the great Carthaginian general Hamilcar, and Matho, a Libyan mercenary, in the time of the fall of Carthage to the Roman Empire. (Carthage still exists near modern-day Tunis; all that is left of the once-mighty empire is some broken columns and rubble.) Flaubert's Salammbo is rife with tales of treachery and deceit, much of it spearheaded by the slave Spendius.

From 1980 through 1986, French author/illustrator Philippe Druillet published three graphic novels based on Flaubert's Salammbo. Druillet moved on from comix and became involved in multimedia some years ago; he provided the illustrations for the Arxel Tribe games Ring and Ring II. It is this latter little tidbit, in combination with the fact that work on the game Salammbo was begun by Cryo before that company's unfortunate demise, that gave rise to my grave misgivings about this game. However, these turned out to be unfounded.

Salammbo the game deviates considerably from Flaubert's original work but at heart it is still the story of the love between Salammbo and Matho, the rivalry between Matho and fellow warrior-chief Narr'Havas for Salammbo's attention, and how a once-great city-state was sacrificed so that Matho and Salammbo might finally be together. You play as Spendius, the slave who is instrumental in bringing the two lovers together, only in the game you are portrayed as heroic and scheming rather than oily and scheming. Carthage is a fantastic place full of mythical beasts and magical powers. Given the license taken with story and settings in the Ring duo, all of this should come as no surprise. However, while it worked largely to the detriment of the game in Ring (I have not played Ring II), it succeeds in Salammbo.

In playing Ring, I was never quite clear on who the players were or what the goals were. It ended up being merely a matter of solving puzzles by sheer guesswork and seeing what happened as a result and sitting in front of my computer scratching my head a lot. It probably didn't help that the whole Viking mythology was translated to some outer-space futuristic setting, or that I had only passing familiarity with the opera's story. With Salammbo, however, the story unfolds very linearly, in discrete chunks, in such a way that the game stands alone even for those who may never have heard of Flaubert. Plus, even though Carthage has been turned into a fantasy world, it is still Carthage and still set in the correct time period.

As Salammbo opens, the slave Spendius is thrown into a dungeon, we know not why. He escapes into the Sacred Precinct and is caught by Salammbo herself. Salammbo promises to help Spendius out of Carthage if he will agree to take a message to Matho, a mercenary camped outside the city. Spendius agrees, setting into motion a string of events leading up to the fall of Carthage. You play as Spendius in the first person, although cutscenes are third-person (at least you get to see what you look like; you aren't pretty!).

Gameplay is varied—you will encounter many different puzzle types as you play, ranging from conversation puzzles and simple chess-like battle strategies to old standards like a memory game, the much-reviled timed puzzle, and even a couple of (easy) shooting gallery–type sequences. All of it is mouse-driven, pure point-and-click goodness, although you can, and will, die—frequently. However, when you perish, you automatically are resurrected at a point just before you made your fatal decision.

Your cursor is fixed at the center of the screen, and you revolve the world around it. Salammbo has the worst case of inside-a-sphere panning that I've ever seen. This doesn't matter to me; I know it bothers some, which is why I brought it up. A right-click brings up your inventory and the in-game options; with the interface open, you merely click on what you want to use or do. There is no combining items within the inventory, although sometimes you must put one item down and then use another item on it.

The various stages of the game are divided by comix-style artwork overlaid by a narration of the events that occur in between each segment. Basically, you solve a puzzle or group of puzzles in a small area and that part of the game is finished for good. There is no backtracking, and all gameplay takes place in manageable areas, a la Largo Winch. Navigation around the mercenary encampments was confusing for me, even with the aid of the in-game map, but everywhere else getting around is very straightforward.

Aside from the spherical distortion issue, the graphics are phenomenal—each scene is moody and dramatic and overlaid with just the right level of unreality to make you believe you are in a different place, a different time, and yet not out of the range of believability. Characters are exquisitely rendered. The Maxfield Parrish-ish skies and detailed backgrounds, while lovely and atmospheric, are heavily pixelated. The in-game options settings include three different resolutions—I played at the maximum 1024×768 (all of my screenshots are reduced to 640×480 in the interest of preserving server space).

Most if not all of the music consists of existing classical pieces. All are well placed and appropriate to the onscreen action. Voice acting is passable, not great, not awful. Subtitles are available.

All in all, Salammbo gives us a good story, well told, and it's fun to play through. It offers us an experience familiar enough to be comfortable and at the same time different enough to maintain our interest. The high production values, unique setting, beautiful graphics, and lack of old chestnuts in terms of puzzles make this a refreshing alternative to the usual generic Egypt-Atlantis-maze-sliding-tiles pabulum we've been force-fed for the past few years. The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: Druillet
Publisher: Ontario Europe (distributed by Dreamcatcher)
Release Date: 2003

Available for: Windows

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System Requirements

Windows 98/2000/ME/XP
PII 333 MHz (450 MHz recommended)
64 MB RAM (128 MB recommended)
8X CD-ROM drive (12X recommended)
DirectX 7 compatible video card
DirectX 7 compatible sound card

Where to Find It $18.99

Prices/links current as of 07/06/03
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