Curse: The Eye of Isis

Ever since the release of Alone in the Dark over a decade ago, the development of the survival-horror genre has been steadfastly built on the dominant elements in this, and other popular series such as Resident Evil and Silent Hill. Despite their differences, they have been like-mindedly scaring the crap out of gamers with a mix of claustrophobic environments, nerve-wracking camera angles, haunting audio, and eerie lighting. Within this established framework, it can be quite tough for a new game to appear from the shadows, and win over the hearts and screams of suspense-loving gamers without being subjected to at least some comparison to the hallmark franchises.

Given these circumstances, Curse: The Eye of Isis (henceforth referred to as Curse) could easily be passed off as another mediocre "me-too" survival-horror effort, since on the surface it does not boast any truly new approaches to design or execution. However, the key to getting any enjoyment out of Curse is to clear one's mind of expectations that may be based on past experiences with other games. Within Curse are numerous nods to other horror games, mummy flicks, and adventure films; and while each aspect is not fully realized so much so that it makes the game shine on its own, when taken in together, they make for a reasonably enjoyable gaming experience that is part action, adventure, and horror.

The game's outset, placing us in late 19th century London, at the fictitious Museum of Great Britain, establishes the game's setting and key characters. Among the museum's current pieces is the Eye of Isis: shrouded in mystery, overseen by curator Victoria Sutton, sought by a professional thief, and -- once its power has been unleashed -- lethal to all who encounter its haze-like manifestation. Enter Darien Dane, son of Dr. Stanley Dane, the archaeologist whose dig uncovered the Eye, and long time friend of Ms. Sutton. Although the museum is closed to the public due to the unfortunate death of a custodian (all he ever wanted to do was sweep the damn floor), Darien sneaks in while the patrolling constables are distracted, and begins his quest within its dark halls to locate Victoria, and discover the truth behind the Eye of Isis.

The appearance and exploration of the museum's main lobby sets the tone for the game. Outside, it is night, and a storm brews. Inside, there is no light except that from oil lamps interspersed throughout the museum, casting ominous shadows across the Victorian decor. Seems like pretty standard "haunted mansion" fare, doesn't it? Examining and manipulating Darien's surroundings is straightforward: his head turns when he walks by objects of interest. Some of these objects can be picked up, some of them cannot, and all have basic descriptions that are relayed back to you through text-based commentaries. Once acquired, objects may be used with some parts of the environment, or with each other. Sounds like standard adventure gaming fare, doesn't it? Thus, herein lies the overarching issue with Curse: if you approach it as an adventure gamer, you will find the rudimentary puzzles too unfulfilling, and if you approach it as a survival-horror or action fan, you may find that it plods along.

The aforementioned tasks that are typical of adventure gaming (namely, exploration and object usage) are present in Curse in a rudimentary, and at times, dreary form. Any puzzles that are encountered require very little in the way of creative thinking. Additionally, the journey on which Darien and Victoria embark (they both play a prominent role in the game), structurally speaking, is laid out quite linearly. Make no mistake: the museum, cargo ship, and pyramid environments in the game are interesting, wonderfully modeled, and expansive; however, entire areas are typically inaccessible at first due to either locked doors or the presence of Eye of Isis' deadly mist. So, while it is easy to feel lost at times, it won't be a concern once it becomes apparent that there is one path to furthering one's progress, and it is almost always by way of a previously unpassable route. Whether this is considered a blessing or a (ahem) curse will depend on player tastes. Regardless, an unfortunate side effect of this approach in Curse is the partial loss of environmental awareness as a factor in problem solving: what may at first seem like pressing quests in great environments (e.g. figuring out how to get to the museum library as a first step in finding Victoria, or figuring out how to get the cargo ship to change course) eventually turn into methodical treadmill sessions of hunting for the next event-triggering point. Events are so rigidly hardwired, that on some occasions things can be done in the wrong order. (For example, being told that the cargo key won't open a particular door when you didn't even know this key existed.)

This partial loss of any sense of place, and how it relates to solving your quest, has a nearly identical unpretty sibling in the action-oriented side of the game. Throughout your journey, the perilous roadblocks you encounter, and the violent solutions to these problems, also seem lose a bit of their punch. There certainly are moments during combat that induce a feeling of desperation, and there are plenty of scares that lurk around corners. In this respect, those who have played something from the Resident Evil series will know what to expect: suspense is created by odd camera angles, and controls are almost intentionally awkward. Unfortunately, each foe you encounter, whether human or undead, has very predictable patterns. The arsenal of weapons that are at your disposal don't vary enough to make you truly cherish one over another (they are all equally effective). Even if this wasn't the case, the ammunition you use to punch holes through, or torch enemies are too generously supplied anyway, as are the props with which you heal your wounds (most gamers should be able to finish the game without dying). And although the camera work can be quite dramatic (the view slides along a fixed rail), the wide angle shots, and abundance of areas that are a bit on the roomy side offer plenty of backpedalling and flanking opportunities when fighting the undead. All of these things, when working together, often detract from any kind of true back-to-the-wall desperation that one might expect from survival-horror fare. Granted, the chilling, minimal audio and extreme camera angles will no doubt cause a scare almost every time you encounter a foe, but once you get over it, you have little reason to worry about leaving the encounter in one piece.

Thus far, it seems that Curse makes for a poor puzzle-solving game, and a somewhat ineffective horror game. Despite these faults, the action or horror cannot and should not be relied on as the primary vehicle on which the game's enjoyment is delivered. These are secondary components to a bigger scheme: to allow a reasonably light challenge to the player's mind and dexterity to frame a setting and story that is meant to entertain. In the end, the game overcomes these individual issues because the adventure, the horror, and the action are all adequate, and they accompany an overarching tale of mystery, family ties, and redemption, which slowly unfolds at a fine pace.

The introduction of Abdul, an Egyptian friend of Darien's deceased father, who has somehow managed to come all the way to England to warn him of the crisis at hand, acts as your save point and inventory manager. The catch is, he is never in the same place for too long, but appears at critical points in the game. What's novel about this approach is not just the elimination of backtracking in massive environments just to save your game, but it makes him effective as a storytelling hub that enforces a deliberate pace to the events. This helps maintain a requisite sense of direction and purpose that would otherwise be completely lost if the previously mentioned gameplay elements were solely relied on for this purpose.

What is also entertaining is the clichéd humor with the environments (e.g. have fun in the Torture Exhibition, "a history of law enforcement through the ages"), Darien's gentlemanly demeanor despite facing the most extraordinary circumstances, and Abdul's adherence to depictions of the street-smart, Middle Eastern sage in adventure films, always appearing from the shadows after the strum of an oud, dressed in fez and robe, giving great reasons for showing up after the fight is over. Additionally, opportunities to switch between Darien and Victoria happen only when the former is rendered unconscious, and the latter is abducted. Guessing how and when Darien is going to get clocked next is almost as easy as figuring out when that USS Enterprise away-team member with the red uniform is going to die. Curse feels like more of a light-hearted adventure with a heavy dose of spooked-out zombie mayhem than a disturbing and heavy-handed horror game.

The locales in Curse offer the perfect backdrop for a tribute to rollicking adventure flicks, from the cerebral museum with Victorian fixtures (not quite as browsable as a real museum, but fun nonetheless), to the creepy London sewer system, to the dizzying cargo ship, to the mysterious Pyramid of Osiris. The game takes us on a thousand-mile journey, and there are plenty of archetypical characters and elements that are a part of it: the evil art collector, his hired thugs, the professional thief, the archeologist, the foreign sage, the cursed statuette, and the mystery that surrounds it. It's a fun and scary story that is backed up by excellent voice actors, and has a touching ending that decisively wraps up all loose ends, giving the experience a sense of closure.

Whether you enjoy Curse boils down to what you want from it as a game. A hard core fan of any specific genre into which Curse bleeds may be quite disappointed with the experience; however a gaming generalist may find it a fun one. Although it does not push the boundaries in any way, some gamers may find it to be a comforting choice, especially at its great price.



feb 2004

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