Sphinx and the Cursed Mummy (2019)
Eurocom, THQ Nordic | Reviewed on Nintendo Switch
Hey guys it’s Throwback Thursday! If you think I had this post ready to go and waited until Thursday just so I could say that, then you are absolutely right. I hope you’re ready to walk like an Egyptian (please forgive me) down memory lane, and straight into a olden-golden favourite of mine.
Sphinx and the Cursed Mummy was originally released way back in 2003, as an action-adventure title that featured uniquely distinct sections of combat, and puzzle-solving. You’ll play as both Sphinx – the sword-wielding, prophecy-fulfilling hero, who handles all the combat – and Tutenkhamen, Prince of Egypt, and the titular ‘cursed mummy’. Don’t worry though he’s only mostly dead, and his sections will focus entirely on puzzle gameplay, as you explore the inside of the otherwise impenetrable Castle of Uruk. As the game alternates between the two perspectives of our heroes, you’ll traverse this fictionalized version of Egypt and slowly unravel the cleverly multi-layered narrative that spans the game. When I found out (via some research for the Sunshine Blogger challenge) that this game had been remastered for the Switch, I bought it immediately, and I was beyond excited to jump back into this underrated childhood favourite of mine. Before I start, I do want to make it clear: I am evaluating this game in the context of the time in which it was created. This game is over 10 years old now. I won’t be holding it to the same standard/criteria as I would a modern game like God of War. With that out of the way, let’s talk Sphinx and the Cursed Mummy.
The game opens with Sphinx, in a dedicated tutorial section to show you the basic platforming and combat mechanics of the game. You are simply told to retrieve the Blade of Osiris – a dark force has been gathering, and it’s your job to start preparing for whatever evil is on the horizon. The game spirals into the main plot after Sphinx – having retrieved the blade – is blasted off-course by the infamous ray (protecting the Castle of Uruk) and forced to travel through a portal to an unknown destination.
Gameplay as Sphinx is incredibly fun, and even to this day, with all of my gaming experience, still genuinely challenging at times. The basic combat in this game plays like the old Zelda titles – i.e. a single button to swing your sword. As you progress through the game, you’ll get some more cool items, like the Blowpipe (with standard, ice, acid, and bouncing darts) and the Shield of Osiris. The shield has somewhat limited use – as this game has no lock-on system, and you cannot move while using it, you’re forced to block an attack, wait for your enemy to pause, and then go in for your counterattack. The Capture Beetles, a gift from Anubis, are probably the most interesting item in this game – once you’ve done enough damage to a monster, they’ll begin flashing yellow; this indicates that you can ‘capture’ them with one of your beetles. You can then summon these monsters later, maybe to burn through a wooden barricade, or to collapse a fragile-looking stone column. Many of the monsters have unique abilities to help you solve environmental puzzles, or you might just want to donate your rarer captured monsters to the Abydos museum to earn some rewards.
None of these items are really incorporated into the combat, as they are used primarily for puzzle gameplay; for instance, the Blowpipe is typically used for activating distant targets, or occasionally freezing monsters to use as stepping stools. I do wish that this game had diversified the combat a bit. However, the enemy variety and occasional challenging sections ensure that these monster encounters are never boring. There are a few areas where the game will trap you – gladiator style – in an arena and force you to take on multiple enemies at the same time. Individually, none of the monsters will give you too much trouble, but when faced with 2 or 3 of them at a time, you’ll definitely be in trouble. I remember struggling a lot with these sections when I played as a kid – coming back to them now, I still found them challenging, but never a complete roadblock to progress.
When the game introduces Prince Tutenkhamen, he is living his best life in the Palace, preparing to marry Nefertiti (and celebrating his birthday, no less). The game will take you through a similar tutorial level, as you learn the basics of the puzzle-centric gameplay specific to the mummy segments. You’ll also be introduced to his brother, Akhenaten, and his obvious jealously and disdain towards his brother. This first chapter ends with Akhenaten kidnapping Tutenkhamen, and preparing a nefarious ceremony to drain him of his life force, and transform him into the mummy.
Coincidentally, the venue that Akhenaten has chosen to perform this ritual on his ‘brother’ is the same area that Sphinx is forced to travel to via the Portal. As Sphinx, you’ll interrupt the ceremony, save (sort of) Tutenkhamen, and send his brother back to his base in the Castle of Uruk. It is then revealed that Akhenaten is actually the ancient god of evil, Set, and he has been using Akhenaten’s form (via his mummified body) to assume his position. Eventually, he had planned the same fate for Tutenkhamen but because the ceremony had failed, he can no longer take on Tutenkhamen’s form. He plans to extend his influence over the lands of Egypt, though it is unclear exactly how. This is the primary narrative arc for the game, with Sphinx working in Heliopolis and Abydos to attempt to slow Set’s progress, and the Mummy working inside the Castle of Uruk to find items to aid Sphinx, as well as eavesdropping on, and generally disrupting Set’s plans.
Each mummy section will begin with Sphinx sending a canopic vase – all containing a piece of Tutenkhamen’s essence or soul – to temporarily restore him to life, so that he can explore. The puzzles in the mummy section are so well executed, I cannot praise them enough – they are creative, visually well-designed and genuinely fun to play. As the mummy is technically dead (and cannot be harmed) many of the ‘traps’ in the Castle serve as puzzle catalysts; you can light yourself on fire to activate torches or burn through barriers, electrify yourself to power other objects, and even be crushed to become as thin as paper. My personal favourite are the sections where the mummy is forced through some kind of saw or blade trap – this splits him into 3 versions of himself. You can swap between the 3 and control them individually to solve a collaborative puzzle with a wider scope.
Though each section can take some trial and error (and occasionally some frustrating backtracking if you mess up) the mummy sections may actually be my favourite in the game. Few games I’ve played since this title have reached the same level of inventive and enjoyable puzzle gameplay as this character manages. Each chapter ends with the mummy finding a key item (giving you a thumbs up when he does, which is so goddamn wholesome, I love it) to send back to Sphinx, via the magical Bas-Ket, passing out, and magically teleporting back to his prison starting point.
Typically, each new item the mummy finds in the Castle will allow Sphinx access to a new section of the world – the Atun statue opens up a new section of Heliopolis, while the Pass Card allows entry to the Council Chambers of Abydos – and in so doing, progress the story. This is where the narrative of the game starts to unfold; you have the troubles in Abydos, with electrified eels making the water dangerous and impossible to traverse, and the inhabitants of the Cursed Palace all turned to stone (with the enigmatic Anubis being the cause). The increasingly powerful ray at the Castle of Uruk, and the Prophecy of Ra are plot threads that are all introduced and unraveled as you progress through the story. This multi-layered narrative that is slowly unpacked is extremely well-done, as it feels like a more natural progression, rather than a set plot straight from the beginning that your characters must follow. It feels like the story develops as you play, rather than the characters being forced down a specific path. Though this does lead to a lot of narrative convenience (i.e. the mummy always finding the EXACT item Sphinx needs to progress) the story unfolding as it does it works extremely well for this title.
The environments you’ll explore as you go through Sphinx and the Cursed Mummy are all superbly rendered on the Switch, with fantastically bright colours, and fun to dig in to. There is a myriad of sidequests, minigames, and other secrets to find. You can hunt for Gold Ankh pieces to increase your health, or play some mini-games in Abydos to earn yourself some medals. While not totally open world in design, it is again more like a Zelda game, with a linear narrative that allows for some wandering, and sandbox-style exploration. Heliopolis is a vast, central hub desert, with access to several dungeons and other areas like the Bedouin Outpost. Abydos is a singular city, with narrow streets, canals, and fun spots to zipline around. The music in this game is also fantastic – I never paid much attention when I was younger, but the soundtrack to this game is powerful, and I was able to appreciate it much more in this version on the Switch.
My only minor gripe in terms of the exploration and narrative might be the pacing – it’s a bit odd. The first half of the game is paced well, however, as you reach the halfway (ish) point and beyond, the game starts to accelerate. While not inherently a bad thing, as it does point to the narrative increasing in urgency, it does feel unbalanced. As Sphinx, you won’t fight the first boss of the game until almost the halfway point. There is another significant chunk of gameplay before getting to the second boss as well; the third boss however, crops up almost immediately after. These two fights almost back to back (and essentially preceding the very end of the game and final fight) ends up feeling like a crunch, and when compared to the rest of the game, just slightly off. These fights are quite enjoyable however, with light puzzle elements to them, and unique design. I was quite nervous to fight the Geb Queen as it was the part I always got stuck on way back when.
There is a lot going on in this fight – the lingering poison pools, The Queen’s spinning attacks, and the summoned minions that you have to deal with all combine to make this a distinct step-up in difficulty. However, I managed it in one go, and found it to be quite a fun fight. You have to allow a specific attack of hers to hit you, in order to – bear with me – turn into a frog, which then allows you to jump onto a higher platform and release a few spider-like creatures. These creatures can break the Queen’s shield and allow you to get an attack in. This boss fight is such a unique design, and a standout in this title – I do wish that all the others were as involved.
Time to talk about the ending! Sphinx and the Cursed Mummy ends on a giant cliffhanger. One goal of the multi-faceted narrative was always to return the mummy to his living human form, by retrieving all of the canopic vases. With Set weakened and once more combined with Osiris (to re-form Ra) Ra rewards Tutenkhamen with the final vase. The mummy, in his clumsy eagerness, breaks it, scattering the final part of his soul into oblivion. Sphinx’s mentor, Imhotep, insists that there is probably another way to reverse his transformation, but the game ends there.
I’m sure they intended to make a sequel, but they never did, and I’m so disappointed. I always wanted a follow-up to this story that I loved so much, but at this point, it will probably never happen. Regardless, this is such a special title, and despite the open-endedness of the conclusion, it doesn’t take away from my enjoyment at all.
It sounds weird to say this to no one in particular, but I’m super grateful this game was remastered and put on the Switch – my old copy no longer works, and I had such a good time returning to this game that I never thought I would play again. Major props to the studio that made this happen. The unique character models, environments, and gameplay in Sphinx and the Cursed Mummy has really stuck with me over the years; I’ve never played anything quite like it since. Despite the now outdated elements, like the lack of voice acting (which I actually prefer in this title), overly simple mechanics, and occasionally wonky camera, this game still plays well and the remaster looks incredible. Improved load times and graphics made this an even more enjoyable experience than the original game, and its comparatively short completion time (my playthrough clocked in around 11 hours and 40 minutes) makes it a short and sweet adventure. I’d highly recommend this game to anyone looking for a golden oldie to play. Its diversity in gameplay, switching between Sphinx and the mummy, and one-of-a-kind puzzles make it a title that has withstood the test of time; it is definitely still a worthwhile experience.