Stop me if you've heard this one before.
A priest, a rabbi, and a penguin walk into a bar, and… Oh, you have? Probably just as well, as I always blow the punch line. Besides, I'm sure some of you are wondering what on earth a joke is doing in an adventure game review, right? Did I not get the memo that dictates the genre is to be a no-fun zone where comedy is strictly forbidden?
Okay, so maybe there was no such memo literally, but for all intents and purposes, there may as well have been one issued ten years ago or more. Long gone are the days of Discworld, Monkey Island, Space Quest, and Zork. Funny is out, grit is in. Reality sells, laughter flops. At least, that's how publishers read the "marketplace realities", and what they see is what we get.
Fortunately, there are still a few developers that believe there's as much future for comic adventures as there is history. Among them is a German team called Deck 13, who are defying the longstanding amusement-free industry trend with their latest release, Ankh. So is this the game that will drag the genre thigh-slapping and side-splitting out of the dark, foreboding shadows and back into the light? As it turns out, probably not on its own, but it's bold in its attempt, and there is much to enjoy for those who don't require an adventure to take itself too seriously.
As the title might suggest, Ankh is set in ancient Egypt. Now, I had previously vowed to eat a plateful of live scarabs before I played yet another game in the land of pharaohs, so if you're anything like me, you're probably groaning at the return to such an overused location. But hold your camels, because this is an Egypt quite unlike anything we're accustomed to. Remember, Ankh represents not the dry, solemn sort of adventure that's as much fun as dust in your eyes and stones in your shoes, but the new, zesty version that makes you want to get jiggy with the game cast in the opening song-and-dance number. So while you've been to Egypt before, this trip sure won't seem the same as the other times you visited.
Nowhere is this refreshing distinction more evident than in the game's aesthetic display. Ankh possesses a delightfully stylized, whimsical appearance with enough charm to fill a Great Pyramid. Like most good comic designs, the art is simple but clean, and best of all, presented in rich, vibrant colours. The latter may seem a throwaway detail, but for a game based in the desert, it's not. Let's face it, one of the dangers of any Egyptian setting is that it becomes all about sand. And while I'm a great admirer of sand in, say… beaches and miniature castles, my appreciation starts waning when seeing nothing but 632 shades of beige in my games. Not so with Ankh, whose scenic vistas include a sparkling blue Nile and lush green oases, with plenty of other bright hues sprinkled throughout its small slices of Cairo, Giza, and surrounding regions. Rendered entirely in 3D, the game's vivid graphics provide a solid foundation for a playable cartoon, and create an ideal atmosphere for a lighthearted caper.
With tongue planted firmly in cheek, Ankh tells the story of a young man named Assil, who inadvertently brings a mummy's death curse upon himself while having an illicit soirée with his friends inside a pyramid. In the process, he comes into possession of the titular ankh, which of course he keeps as the very thing his party was missing: a bottle opener. Like any good ankh, however, the sacred artifact will prove to be the key to life and death for our unwitting hero. But if life-threatening affliction provides a morbid-sounding backdrop for the story, that's exactly where it stays, allowing Ankh to focus on the crazy shenanigans required for Assil to overcome his predicament.
In the course of seeking an audience with the Pharaoh and ultimately Osiris, the god of the underworld, Assil meets up with an eclectic cast of characters, including a jive-talking ferryman, a half-blind tailor, hungry assassins, and Israelite hippies waiting on the Exodus. Throw in a retired genie, a limb-eating crocodile, and the ever-present threat of revolutionary banana throwers, and the stage is set for the game's various hijinx. Along the way, you'll help Assil rescue a beautiful but feisty girl named Thara, who accompanies you for part of the journey. Thara becomes a playable character at times, and also serves as the romantic interest that provides the requisite flirtation-through-fighting.
If there was ever any doubt of the game becoming too serious, it is quickly dispelled by an early dialogue where Assil asks whether his adventure will contain a typical laundry list of genre conventions. Such self-referential commentary is indicative of Ankh's approach throughout, poking fun at anything and everything, including itself. Unfortunately, in what is easily my biggest complaint about the game, the writing simply isn't particularly funny. Cute, yes. Entertaining, sure. Funny, no. I snickered at some sight gags, chuckled a few times at some of the banter, and smiled at such cultural references as Indiana Jones and Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, but more often than not I found myself wishing the game provided more actual yuks. Of course humour is often subjective, and perhaps this says more about my expectations going in, but the end result is the same. A comic adventure it is, but a comedic adventure it's not (or at least, only sporadically). Set your sights accordingly, and you'll play Ankh with a silly grin on your face. Hope for more, and you might find yourself disappointed.
Now, about those adventure conventions Assil was asking about… Aside from its 3D graphics engine, Ankh is pretty much all old-school. With its point & click interface and third-person perspective, players will feel instantly familiar with the control scheme of Ankh, whether you're an adventure veteran or complete newcomer. Except for the reversal of dominant functions of the left and right mouse buttons, that is. For some reason, right clicking performs the context-sensitive actions on hotspots, so expect to find yourself "looking" excessively at a lot of things until you get the hang of it. When you've mastered that, you'll find no dead ends, timed sequences, or any of the other time-honoured but player-hated activities.Continued on the next page...