Sphinx and the Cursed Mummy Review
Even as a newcomer to Sphinx and the Cursed Mummy I felt pangs of nostalgia from playing it. Not because I recognized anything but because its designs and features felt so familiar. It is a puzzle action platformer that draws obvious inspiration from the Zelda series. Coming from an era predating physics based puzzles (Half Life 2 would be released a year later) means you’ll be solving puzzles with good old switches, buttons and an ever growing selection of equipment and environmental factors.
This remaster arrived 14 years to the day after its original release (November 10th, 2003) on PS2, Xbox and GameCube. For context, a few games from that year include The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne. I’m happy to assure you that this is a competent port and that the game, while not without its grey spots, has aged surprisingly well.
As the title suggests you’ll be splitting your time between playing as Sphinx, the lion tailed hero, and Tutankhamen, the cursed mummy. The pacing is excellent as you swap between the two at predetermined times in the story. Sphinx plays like a hero should. He swings a sword, double jumps like a champ and knows how to use the tools he finds. And he does it all with a confident air and swagger in his step.
Meanwhile Tutankhamen, once called “the Misfortunate Mummy” in the title, plays the slapstick comic relief. He is imprisoned from early on and his mission is one of stealth and thievery. There is no combat in his sections and item use is limited. Instead he uses his undead body as a tool. Among other things, he can be lit on fire, smashed flat and sawed into pieces. For all his misfortune he keeps a cheery demeanor.
This style of dungeon and puzzle design has fallen somewhat out of favor but it remains as one of the strongest aspects of this game. Sphinx’s puzzles often follow a familiar pattern where you get a new upgrade or item and then the next dungeon will require heavy use of it. Tutankhamen’s puzzles regularly add new environmental tools and obstacles that build on the ones before. Both have a moderate amount of platforming throughout. Just don’t expect any highly cerebral mind benders along the way.
I was very happy with the balance between exploration, fighting and puzzle solving. This variety combined with a strong sense of progression do a great job of keeping monotony at bay. Conversely, my biggest moments of frustration came from dying and having to redo sizeable chunks of a dungeon. I would’ve liked to have seen an autosave feature implemented in this remaster or at least additional save points added.
A collection of minor time wasters also hamper the experience. A small number of sections make you repeat steps unnecessarily. I spent a bit of time wandering, unclear on what I needed to do next. There are some brief locked animations that stand out when juxtaposed with modern games. For example, pushing a block requires approaching it and pressing a button to engage and disengage it, which each play a short animation. Added up, there are enough of these to be worth mentioning.
Combat is a smaller part of the game than I anticipated. When you do fight there is a good assortment of baddies. Attacking is a one button affair that repeats the same three hit combo. Most fights involve running around avoiding attacks until you see an opening to strike. This simplicity is one area where the game negatively shows its age. There are, however, a small number of boss fights with neat mechanics that occasionally elevate the experience.
Sphinx is able to capture his enemies and either sell them or give one to the museum. Collectors out there will enjoy growing the museum. Two monster types can be used in the field but having to regularly catch more of them grows tiresome. Other side activities include a handful of minigames and obstacle courses that you can earn money and achievements from. These are good for short distractions but no more than that.
As it stands, keyboard controls for the game are bizarrely awful. ABXY are mapped to Space, F, Tab and Esc respectively. Meanwhile the mouse buttons go unused even though the mouse controls the camera. Remappable controls are in the works but it’s hard to say whether a one-to-one mapping of keyboard controls to controller buttons will ever be that good. Suffice to say, this console port practically requires a controller. Xbox controllers have native support while my PS controller was easily added using the free program x360ce.
The story in Sphinx and the Cursed Mummy is thoroughly average. It does what is expected and no more. The villain is evil and wants to control the world. He even has a hunched, subservient sidekick to carry out his evil biddings. Visual designs and dialogue foreshadow events so heavily that they lose much of their impact when they do happen. It’s not cringe worthy but it follows typical pathways that will likely only excite young people.
Setting the game within the world of ancient Egyptian mythology provides an enticing backdrop. But again, from a story perspective the game mostly does what’s expected with this rich setting. Thankfully, it does have a positive influence on the visuals and gameplay. The writing matches the cartoony exaggeration of the visuals. In that sense it is a success. However, I wanted to see more depth and originality from it.
I got the sense that more world building had been planned that had to be cut during development. In fact, prerelease media mentions several regions that aren’t in the game. The most interesting bit of lore is written on product sales pages but is hardly represented in the game.
Graphically, Sphinx and the Cursed Mummy is a testament to how skilled artistry can hold up over time even when the technology backing it doesn’t fare as well. Great use of color does wonders to distract from the relatively low environmental detail and polygon count. It seems to take inspiration from Disney’s Aladdin. Animations are exaggerated and allow body language to be used to get a quick read on characters. Tutankhamen’s goofy movements are particularly fun.
On a five year old computer running on a GeForce 660 GTX 2GB I was able to hit a mostly smooth 60 FPS. Occasionally a big special effect in a cutscene would briefly drop me to around 30 FPS. The developers have announced that scalable text will be patched in soon but at the moment text size on a 1080p monitor is unreasonably small. PlayStation button prompts can replace the default Xbox ones but it currently requires editing a separate config file to activate.
One common complaint about the original release that is still present is the absence of voice acting. There are short, Mario-esque clips of gibberish that play each time you initiate a conversation. The amount of reading doesn’t reach RPG levels but is above average for this genre.
What sound effects are present are of relatively good quality. They are somewhat sparse in quantity though. I only encountered one low quality wind effect that may have been glitching for how quickly it was looping. Audio cues are used to indicate enemy health which I found to be a creative way of cutting down on UI.
The soundtrack has some strong melodies and is a prominent part of the experience. While the compositions aren’t terribly complex, their enthusiasm matches and lifts the aesthetics.
With a launch price of 14.99$ and a run time averaging around 16 hours I’d call this a solid value for a niche audience. It took me just over 18 hours to 100% complete it. It will primarily appeal to those of us that were gaming back in 2003. Those looking for more 3D puzzle dungeon delving outside of the Zelda series should also find enjoyment in it.
- Puzzles that continually introduce fresh mechanics
- Great pacing between Sphinx and Tutankhamen sections
- Vibrant colors and character animations
- Story never deviates from what you'd expect
- No autosave function; semi-infrequent save points
- Small moments of frustration add up