An Egyptian artifact protected by a deadly curse has been abducted from a museum in Curse: The Eye of Isis. As archaeologist Darien Dane, players must recover the statuette and return it to its original resting place in Egypt. Together with his assistant Verity, Dane must travel by train, cargo steamship, and through an ancient pyramid to break the evil curse once and for all. Until the statuette is returned, players must be prepared to battle mummies and other creatures while solving a variety of puzzles. A number of 3D animated cut-scenes further the story as players encounter an assortment of characters during the perilous journey.
Curse: The Eye of Isis (let's call it Curse) has been hanging around the gaming world for at least two years, as an unreleased product. References can be found to interviews and previews from the fall of 2001. Usually this suggests some problems in completing the game in a way satisfying to a publisher, and it did serve as a cautionary flag to this reviewer. Having said that, though, the survival/horror genre is one of my favorites, and I was quite looking forward to this Dreamcatcher/Wanadoo release. Unfortunately, Curse proved to be rather a disappointment, although it does have a few almost redeeming qualities. Let's examine the game.
The Eye of Isis, a priceless Egyptian statuette, has mysteriously disappeared from a London museum in 1890. It was protected by an ancient and evil curse that causes madness or violent death to all who come into contact with it. Mummies, but not daddies, are raised to exact revenge on the idol's desecrators, as well as anyone else standing around - desecrator or not!
You play the hero, Dr. Darien Dane, summoned by his friend, Vicky, to find the artifact before it completely wipes out greater Victorian London! You'll spend considerable time in the museum, ride a steam train to the coast, board a huge cargo ship, pass through a desert village, and finally enter the dreaded labyrinthine pyramid where the Eye of Isis statuette must be returned. Without your success, the angry deities will never get back to eternal sleep. Heavens! Along the way, you'll encounter a few helpful citizens, a few not so helpful, a twist in the plot, and hordes of very nasty mummies.
Do you see now why this game was of interest? In fact, while writing this, I'm wondering anew why I felt let down. Let's move on.
After checking into your fine hotel, you proceed to the museum to meet Victoria, only to discover there's a problem. But a simple sign certainly doesn't deter our intrepid Dr. Dane, and you begin your frightening quest with an entry into the main hallway. At this point, things start to get really creepy.
Indeed, the ambience and atmosphere of Curse, especially initially, is most impressive. Doors close loudly and unexpectedly, suggesting a nearby and not particularly welcome "presence." Random lightning and thunder makes one jump. The eight available graphics choices range from 640×480 16-bit to 1280×960 32-bit.
Except for a pervasive, and understandable, darkness, especially in the museum, the graphic quality of Curse is excellent. The touch of Wanadoo is evident, and one thinks of the Dracula pair of games. Cutscenes are well done, using the game engine, and special effects are very fine. The movement of the foggy green Curse is foreboding; the raising and death twitches of the inhabited mummy/zombies is "realistic;" and the barbecuing effect of your flame thrower is grimly satisfying.
Darien is controlled in third-person with a mouse and keyboard combination. The mouse smoothly rotates our hero, while WASD or arrow keys provide direction. However, and it's a big however, the management system gets quite complicated after that effective beginning. True to its console orientation, Curse has a convoluted inventory approach. First, Darien needs to perform a number of actions and, with all of these, including securing and even using inventory, it is necessary for his head to be turned towards the desired "target," whether door or enemy. Then you find yourself introduced to a series of F keys - F5 to access inventory, F1 to use or equip within inventory, F2 to view a not very effective map, F3 to combine items within inventory, F4 to leave the inventory. You also need to be concerned about shooting and targeting the mummies and others. Right mouse button is needed, plus F12 to reload weapons, F9 to change targeting with multiple enemies, F10 to target particular weak spots. Frankly, I've never experienced either a survival/horror game or even a shooter with this convoluted an approach. The net result takes away considerably from gameplay, particularly in the heat of battle.
Not surprisingly, many doors are locked, and you spend considerable time and energy looking for keys, accesses, letters giving ideas, switches to activate. This is expected and acceptable, but oftentimes the setting where the key is to be found is so dark as to make it very hard to distinguish a hotspot. Fortunately, playing on the easier of the two settings, you are given hints, such as, "You cannot proceed without a key" (duh) and "You have found an oil lamp; do you wish to take it?"
As regards oil lamps, the developers have taken justifiable pride in not only the 19th century setting, but also what they term "Victorianized components" in the inventory. Although there is a flamethrower available at one point, you're as likely to be using a policeman's truncheon in your confrontations. The museum rivals the best of classic haunted houses, with its Atrium, Torture Room, Science Exhibition, Disease and Medicine Room, and claustrophobic sewers! Unfortunately, the included and developing map is not especially precise, and you can easily become lost or disoriented.
Although shocked by the first "zombification" he has to dispatch, Darien soon realizes he will spend a good part of his adventure fighting, and possibly dying. Here, too, we find a serious awkwardness with the control scheme. Some of this has to do with the roving camera, occasionally painting you into a corner without clear visibility of nearby attackers until too late. As mentioned above, the actual act of fighting can be awkward. In my first go-round, with a possessed guard, I seemed to get stuck in a lethal embrace, and I couldn't pull back to effectively wield my truncheon. Part of this is camera control, part is the weird targeting scheme mentioned above, and it's possible part may be a bug - not of the zombie type, but of the program type.
Speaking of bugs, the fine sound effects dropped to an almost inaudible level during my confrontations with enemies. Hopefully, this will be corrected with a patch.
Combat isn't as frequent as in those games where hordes of zombies are continuously rushing at you, but it is a major component of Curse and is difficult to judge, soon becoming button-mashing with one eye on your health meter. By the way, you'll want to pick up all the menthol and smelling salts you can find to increase your health. It's during this frenzied combat that you start to think about your last saved game.
Curse is one of those games where saving is done at a particular location or, in this case, a traveling location - in the form of your enigmatic associate, Abdul. When first met, he kindly gives you an initial orientation. You discover that not only can you not carry all of your inventory, but you also have to leave excess pieces with him (or Victoria) and locate him or her if you need to reaccess those items. Further, saving a game can only be done by speaking with Abdul. Now, although this isn't as bad as the old Resident Evil typewriter approach, sometimes Abdul just isn't nearby or readily found when you need him the most, as at the beginning of a fight with a possessed bear! Terminal depletion of health and curse levels (as in losing) then takes you back to your last save (at least 15 are allowed), and a repeat of the steps to that bear confrontation. Of course, now you'll be on the lookout for Abdul, with that ineffective map not being of much use even if you do remember in which room you saw him last.
And is Victoria of much help? Game descriptions suggest a two-party affair, much as with Alone in the Dark 4. However, Vicky is very much the assistant, giving a few helpful ideas, possessing a couple of unique weapons, but mostly of use in holding inventory items. She does come more into direct play later in the game.
There is a website that sometimes rates games as "for fans of the genre only." Curse: The Eye of Isis falls into that category, I'm afraid. What initially is frightening and most impressive soon falls into a routine of frustration, key-mashing, even relative boredom.
A good deal of this letdown has to do with the "consolitis" disorder with which Curse is infected. Even though this PC version seems to predate the console releases, it is clear that this is yet another title designed for consoles first, PC second. Although control of the characters is not as problematic as in some console-to-PC conversions (cf. Silent Hill 2 and In Cold Blood), there is still considerable difficulty in precise maneuvering, particularly in the critical fight sequences. There are also too many F keys (as in F4, F5, etc.) to worry about, especially with inventory management. Finally, there is the cursed save game system, reminiscent of the infamous Resident Evil typewriter. In this case, it's usually Abdul, your trusty associate. You either have to find him to save or hope that he shows up nearby. Otherwise, it's repeat the sequence from the last save.
Curse is given one of our new "maybe yes, maybe no" ratings (as in 3 of 5). It's a darkly beautiful game, with fine acting and sound effects. But also it quickly becomes a game of "find the key, open the door, pull the switch, read the letter, slay the monster, save game (hopefully), find the next key, next letter, etc." Gameplay is mundane, not especially involving, let alone inspiring. The Victorian setting is interesting, and the gimmick of the Curse moving about is novel, but locations are not especially varied and the storyline is quite dull and predictable. Clive Barker's Undying continues, without serious challenge, as the hallmark of survival/horror gaming, at least for the PC - with Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem the best console title of that subgenre I've experienced.
I finished Curse in about ten hours, admittedly with the occasional help of a walkthrough. There is no replay value. For console owners (Xbox and PS2 versions are on the way), I would suggest this as a rental. For PC version buyers, Curse comes with a guarded recommendation. Understanding the limitations of weak story, consolitis, and mundane gameplay, you may still opt to try yet another survival/horror game with an impressive atmosphere and novel approach.
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