Ankh – Anniversary Edition Review
For the longest time, only Ankh 2 and 3 were available as digital releases and you had to find the original game secondhand on this site or that site, which turned out to be weirdly frustrating due to the game’s relative obscurity and the rarely-used “reverse the curse” line being used in some listings and not others. Needless so say, I kept kicking the can down the road so that I wouldn’t have to deal with untangling all of that. I was interested in the series, of course, being a fan of later Deck13 games and having an interest in their earlier stuff, but only if I could start from the very beginning without having to worry about accidentally ordering the wrong game. Then out of nowhere the developers released the digital Anniversary Edition of the original Ankh, which isn’t a remake so much as the normal game with support for HD resolutions. My interest was piqued, but I convinced myself that there was a reason the Ankh games received so little attention. Just days later, it showed up in a bundle for a price too good to pass up and I couldn’t help but finally pull the trigger. As it turns out, the original Ankh is an amazing game. It suffers from a few shortfalls like the occasional crash/bug and the beginning being a bit overwhelming, but it’s also filled with the kind of unabashed weirdness that seems to have fallen out of fashion since Rare’s heyday.
There’s nothing like lighthearted humor
Nothing is sacred in the Egyptian-themed Ankh; you have the time-traveling slave who seems to genuinely like his portly slave driver, the incompetent and party-loving pharaoh who outlaws bananas, the retired genie who lost his lamp in the vaguely masturbatory act of rubbing it, the trio of hippie Israelites, and all kinds of other bizarre characters and situations that you come across while wandering around. That’s really just the tip of the iceberg, too, because this game is devoted to its lovable weirdness.
That’s not to say that the humor is laugh-a-minute, because that wouldn’t really be the correct way of describing the game. It’s more of a slow burn of affable weirdness than a collection of gut-busting punchlines, and this really helps the game universe to avoid wearing out its welcome as you play. It also avoids playing becoming uncomfortable as jokes start to fail to land (cough Jazzpunk cough).
It supposedly inherits these things from the game it’s inspired by, Ankh: The Tales of Mystery, developed by Artex software for the Acorn Archimedes. Want to know more? Good luck, because the original game might as well not exist. Apart from some 15 year-old reviews and a single video, I wasn’t able to find a single thing about it. That was, however, enough to see that the Acorn game was borrowed from loosely, becoming something else entirely by the end. Not only is the name of the main character different (Domi in the Acorn version, Assil in Deck13’s Ankh), but the beginning seems entirely different. I’m sure there are plenty more differences, but the only way to know for sure would be to build a time machine since the Acorn version doesn’t seem to be for sale anywhere on this planet. In fact, most sources I found link both versions of the game interchangeably, which only contributes to the confusion.
You want adventure game weirdness? Ankh has adventure game weirdness!
The game starts out with Assil breaking into a tomb with his friends, clumsily breaking some vases, and receiving a death curse for it from a mummy who also accidentally forks over the eponymous ankh. Once he returns home, he gets grounded and has to find a way to break out of his house and convince the incompetent pharaoh (and/or Egyptian god Osiris, who has been looking for said ankh) to lift his curse. Of course, in the process of doing so he stumbles onto the Arabian ambassador’s imprisoned daughter, Thara, and finds true love. Or something. It’s hard to explain in words, but she’s not a very likable character at first. Her stubborn machinations eventually grow on you, however, and she ends up being far more responsible for the game’s happy ending than Assil is.
While Assil is the playable character through much of the game, Thara also becomes playable during certain sections, and there’s even one section where you have to switch back and forth between both characters in order to solve larger puzzles. Ankh’s puzzles aren’t nearly as intimidating as in most adventure games, though, eschewing the ugly obscurity of things like The Longest Journey’s underwater puzzle in favor of more straightforward solutions. Throughout most of the game, puzzles require little more than combining inventory/area items in predictably strange ways (this is standard for the genre, after all) in order to progress. For example, the very beginning of the game where you have to escape from your house is as simple as finding two shirts and combining them into a rope that you can then use on a hanging plant to swing to freedom. Another puzzle requires finding bucket and filling it with water to use on a sleeping person you need to wake up, because adventure games sadly don’t recognize the legitimacy of waking someone up by backhanding them as hard as humanly possible.
This can become frustrating in itself, of course. In the example of the water bucket, you need to wake that person up so that they move a caravan so that a merchant leaves his stall so that you can steal a cocktail umbrella so that you can give the slave driver a drink with the umbrella he requires so that you can knock him out so that you can free his slave and get a favor in return. Throughout the whole sequence, I kept wondering why Assil couldn’t just steal one of the slave driver’s old cocktail umbrellas, or punch the sleeping person in the face, or just steal the cocktail umbrella from the merchant. Alas, adventure game logic dictates that all puzzle solutions be needless complex and roundabout. Another example of this in motion is late in the game when you’re given a health meter (which is really just there so that Assil can break the fourth wall and complain about its presence). As part of the story, your health is reduced almost to zero, but entering a late-game area nevertheless requires you to get your health back up to full. How do you do that, you ask? Why, by taking a can of dates and throwing it out of the sphinx’s nostril escape hatch onto a bed of spikes, of course! Because logic. It’s worth pointing out that these two puzzles are the only ones I got stuck on and that the rest are fairly straightforward despite their weirdness, but I still think these two sections of the game could have been designed a bit better.
The early game can be a bit overwhelming
Once you’ve managed to escape your house in the beginning of the game, you’re given free rein of Cairo. Now, this is only a handful of screens, but there are numerous items you’re able to pick up, many of which don’t actually have any use. As such, the first 30 minutes to an hour of the game can be a bit overwhelming as you figure out who does what and try to piece together a way to progress the plot. The vendors in the market are amusing enough to make up for this a bit, but it’s also remarkably easy to convince yourself that the empty vial you randomly picked up has a use. It doesn’t, and why you’d be able to pick up a completely irrelevant item is beyond me. You’d also be completely justified in thinking that you could use some fruit on some hungry cats. Again, the fruit is just some meaningless thing Assil can pick up for some reason. These items that serve no purpose are all the more confusing since Assil won’t under any circumstances pick up one of the million vases that litter the game (this is a bit of a reoccurring joke, not unlike the ladder/stepladder in Phoenix Wright games). A little more consistency would have helped make the early game a bit more friendly.
Control weirdness and bugs
Something that isn’t immediately obvious is that left-clicking and right-clicking do different things inside the game. Left-clicking an item will have Assil comment on it, while right-clicking actually uses that item (or, when used on an inventory item, grabs it to be used on another item or the environment). I’ve seen people confused by this, so I figured it merited a mention before I start talking about some of the more curious, problem-causing weirdness.
The most obvious bug-type things I encountered were crashes, of which I experienced 3. That’s not counting the number of times I accidentally crashed the game by alt-tabbing out, either, which somehow managed to crash the game 100% of the time. Then there were a few bugs that didn’t crash the game but that required me to force it to crash by alt-tabbing. These bugs were basically the screen getting stuck in its blurred state (which it goes into when you open the menu) and not giving you back control or letting you see the menu. I also had the game lock up on me when I viewed the treasure map from my inventory, though this only happened once. I should probably mention that all of these bugs occurred to me on my first playthrough, which lasted several days; when I played through Ankh a second time to get a feeling for how long it takes when you know where to go (a respectable 2 to 2 and a half hours when you rush through, though probably less than that if you skip through all the dialogue) I didn’t experience a single crash or bug.
The weirdest thing that happened to me on my first playthrough was Thara becoming transparent, however. This happened at the end of the game, and I thought she had died given the fact that dead “ghost” characters were the only ones who were transparent. This made the ending incredibly confusing, and it was such a deeply-rooted issue that when I hunted down the original game and imported my save to see if it was an issue with the Anniversary Edition, the problem showed up there, as well. As it turns out, her becoming transparent was some kind of bizarre save game corruption that let me finish the game, but required playing through the game a second time for her to not be transparent at the very end. Needless to say, the ending made much more sense the second time around when I didn’t have to figure out why one of the characters randomly appeared dead, and I was glad to find that it was just a bug.
Camera swoops are the devil
Ankh features dynamic camera movement, which is a fancy way of saying that the camera often moves as Assil does, swooping around to reveal more of whatever area you’re exploring. This makes things appear much more cinematic, but it also proves to be annoying whenever you’re trying to double-click an area transition to run to it (there are no automatic area transitions when you double-click on them, sadly). Many, many times, I would double-click only for the camera to have moved just enough for only one of my clicks to register, causing Assil to slowly walk toward something other than what I wanted him to run toward. It’s a minor problem at best, but it can certainly compound your frustration when you’re already going crazy dealing with a weird puzzle like the cocktail umbrella one mentioned earlier.
The graphics and music are pretty good
If you’ve played Venetica, you probably have a pretty good idea of what you’re getting into musically, though the soundtrack has a few strange outliers that you probably won’t see coming. For example, the absurdly memorable and cheery opening song where many of the characters from the game are dancing while someone sings a song that references a number of elements in the game. Other than that, however, it’s largely orchestral music that suits the Egypt-and-pharaohs theme. The graphics also have a great deal in common with Venetica, with the character models and animations being very similar (though Ankh has less bloom). All in all, whether you’ll love or hate the graphics and music depend on your tastes. If you can find charm in older games, especially those by Deck13, then you’re bound to enjoy both quite a bit.