Mr. Bill's Adventureland Review
Reviewed by Laura MacDonald
Salammbo is a tale first told by Gustave Flaubert. However it took the talent and vision of Phillippe Druillet to take this saga and bring it to life in the form of graphical fiction. Druillet creates a dark and brooding tapestry with his art, reminiscent of Mobeus and others who raised the bar for illustrated fiction. With Metal Hurlant and its American cousin Heavy Metal, 'Comics' evolved from Scrooge McDuck on the bottom rack of the corner store to an adult-oriented art form. Druillet is at the heart of that evolution.
For those unfamiliar with Druilletís computer gaming credits, he is the guiding force behind the games Ring I and II. Now we are fortunate to travel in the environs and reaches of his newest effort... Salammbo: Battle for Carthage. The somber graphics, evocative music and characters create a dark tale of love, hatred, quest for power, and the darkest motive of all... Revenge!
The scheme of things
The game opens with a sweeping view of the twin temples and Salammbo, the high priestess. We spiral down from this lofty vista into the great city-state of Carthage until finally, at the end, we find ourselves deep within its most brutal and sinister interiors. For this adventure does not center on the beautiful priestess, or even on her love, the mighty Mathos.
Instead this story centers on a lesser individual... Spendius, a mere slave. He is enslaved within the city, beaten, tormented, and ultimately thrown into a forgotten dungeon. His fate is now cast. His future is to die and take his place among the bones crowding the floor of this fetid pit. But in ancient stories, the least shall be the greatest. The gods and goddesses were famed for their caprice. And to aid his cause, Spendius is clever and resourceful. A thief by trade, a survivor by default, he vows to escape this place... and take his revenge upon the city of Carthage and its masters.
As fate would have it, he is aided by a vision that Salammbo receives from her Goddess and mistress. Salammbo is desperate to contact Mathos, a fierce warrior and general encamped below the city. She has fallen in love and is determined to send him a message and proof of her love, so she sends Spendius on his way in secret. But she has no idea of what forces she has unleashed with this small act.
The players in our tale
The characters in Salammbo are wonderful to encounter. These are complex personalities, an uneasy mix of self-interest and honor, greed and selflessness.
Salammbo is the high priestess for the Goddess of Carthage. Her father is the commander of the Carthaginian forces, and rules this great city. Mathos, a general of uncertain motives and unsettled passions, is the leader of the Mercenaries. And our main character, Spendius, is crafty, devious, and bent on the destruction of all he sees. He has well-oiled phrases that gain him allies (for the moment), and an instinct for taking advantage of sudden shifts in loyalties and power.
In the barbaric days of ancient Carthage, the best one could hope for was a temporary alliance. No one could really be trusted and all were suspect. A wise man would always sleep with a knife at his side and with one eye open. So you may not like Spendius in this game. But you understand his ways, and you admire his capacity to take advantage of every situation and most importantly, his will to survive in desperate times.
The other characters are also noteworthy. Salammbo is fixated on her love, but ever mindful of her position. Mathos has a passion for this priestess, but is canny and power seeking. And the other people that you encounter throughout the game all have very distinct personalities. The people of this story create a rich focal point for the plot. I found the interaction and development of these figures to be one of the strongest points of the game.
A tapestry of sight and sound
As mentioned above, the graphics are brooding and strongly built. These are the colors that Wagner, Bartok and others would have used if they had painted pictures rather than composed brooding symphonies and operas. What is interesting is the use of metallic lines against soft swatches of color. Hints of teal and pink stand in stark contrast to the overwhelming structures of iron and stone, and it creates a surrealistic feel and mystical quality to the game. I found myself instantly transported to ancient and mythic times. You become absorbed in the mood of Salammbo rather quickly. To those who have played Druillet's earlier games, this will all look very familiar. For those of you who havenít, I would try to envision a world of gods and goddesses, adventurers and sorcery. These are not the graphics for those who like light-hearted tales.
The ambient sounds are excellent, and aid greatly in setting the mood. And the musical background is even better. As in Ring with its Wagner cadences, the developers of Salammbo have chosen a symphonic based musical background for their game. In this instance it is the music of Dvorak. I felt like I was playing an interactive great symphonic opera rather than a PC game. There is no dumbing down here with dialogue, characters or music. It is difficult to review Salammbo and treat the music, graphics and sounds as discrete events, because it is the synergy of them all that create the flow and art of this game.
Salammbo has the most varied mix of challenges/puzzles of any game that I have played in some time. There are inventory based standard puzzles. And you have dialogue trees where the right question or response will get you where you want to go. But choosing badly will hinder your progress, and possibly could even lead to your death. Then there are a few practical 'hands on' puzzles, like calibrate an ancient weapon or toss a helmet at a shield. You have infinite chances at these and they are not too difficult to quickly master.
There are also some strategy type puzzles, where you set up where people should go in particular scenes and then sit back for the auto play to see how you did. I enjoyed these very much and was pleasantly surprised by their inclusion. But for those who hate the thought of in-game challenges that are timed, note that there are also a few of those. Fortunately, failure lands you back at the point of your ill-chosen move and again, these are not the hardest kind of this type of puzzle. You can save as you go and baby step your way though them, or just ramble through a couple of times to see the quickest route and then do it very easily.
One thing has to be mentioned. You can die in this game. Make a wrong dialogue choice and you can find yourself in deep trouble. Walk into the wrong place and, whoosh, you are captured. And Carthaginians had one sentence for escaped slaves... immediate death. But it is a bit of a treat to run into these from time to time, because you get to see cartoon panels unfold that detail your fate. And the good news is that after watching the cut scene of your death, you are redeposited exactly where you were in the game before you made your bad move or statement. So unless you have a low tolerance for any 'game over' moments, no matter how gentle, I wouldnít let this aspect of the game scare you away from Salammbo.
However I do think that although most of the puzzles in this game were hinted at from dialogue, encounters, observation and intuitive attention to the story, there were a few that were quite difficult due to a lack of hints or a sense of what to do. I managed to get past these, but some could find it necessary to consult hints or a walkthrough for these areas. This warrants a slight depreciation of where I would rate the game, but it is hardly a game killer.
Interface and game mechanics
I found the game interface and controls to be very easy to use. There appear to be unlimited saves, or at least a very generous number of saved slots. All saves are labeled with a time/date stamp, but the associated screenshot shows up to your left when scanning through saves. The controls are the mouse. Movement is slideshow in appearance, but the transitions are very smooth. Once stationary, you have 360 degree panning available. The overall interface is almost identical to Zork Nemesis.
But you can get a bit lost in some locations. This occurred primarily in the Mercenary Camp below the walls of the city. Clicking on a forward arrow there will carry you way past where you would expect to end up, and you may spend some time backtracking in this area. However once you are within Carthage, there are maps throughout the city and it is quite easy to get around. And later in the game, you get a map that allows you to go from place to place by using the map feature. I wish that they had employed the same tool for the camps below Carthage. I am not sure why the interface had such inconsistencies, and it is one black mark against an otherwise intriguing game. I was not thrilled with the constant wandering around that I had to do whenever I was in this area of the game. Even after I felt fairly familiar with what was where, I still got momentarily lost and would have to backtrack.
One big plus for the game was the well designed 'options' area. You can alter both the resolution and the color settings for the game load. You can also access or turn off in-game hints and/or subtitles. Almost any fine-tuning to accommodate system configuration differences could be accomplished here. I like adaptable games, where you can re-configure the game rather than having to adapt your system to it.
I played Salammbo on Windows 98 SE. I did have a problem initially with the audio and video in the cut scenes synching up, but after I adjusted the options to 640 x 480 screen resolution and 32 bit color, the game played perfectly. There is also an update (patch) that was released for the European edition. I am not sure that you need it for the imported version sold in the U.S., but I installed it just in case and it didn't cause any problems. So if itís needed itís there and if not, it doesnít seem to affect the game load/play negatively.
Given our current sparsity of new released games, it is easy to give Salammbo high marks. Regardless of your past exposure to games on the dark side and/or games with a few timed sequences, it would be worth your time and money to get Salammbo. And even if the games were rolling out daily, I would still strongly recommend this game. My only caveats are inconsistencies in the movements within the Mercenary Camp, and what I perceived as a lack of logical hints or plot threads for a few of the puzzles. But with the rich story line, music, graphics and characters, I definitely think that you will find Salammbo worth a try.
© 2003 Laura MacDonald
You can get the Salammbo Update (Patch) HERE
Developed (2003) by Ontario Europe and Phillippe Druillet and published by DreamCatcher Europe.
Rated: T for Teen 13+ (alcohol reference, suggestive themes, violence)
Minimum System Requirements:
PC: Pentium II 333 MHz Processor (Pentium II 450 MHz Recommended); Windows 98 / 2000 / ME / XP; 64 MB RAM (128 MB Recommended); 8X CD-ROM Drive (12X Recommended); DirectX 7 Compatible Video Card; DirectX 7 Compatible Sound Card; Mouse
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