Sphinx and the Cursed Mummy is a game I learned about because of a game-ending glitch. If you use a certain save point in this game and load from there, a door you need to move through to progress is permanently closed, meaning you have to restart from the very beginning after getting nearly halfway through a decently long title. If you know about this glitch though or just happen to avoid it by luck, you’ll find the rest of the game is designed well enough that such a glitch is the exception rather than an indicator of the game’s quality.
Sphinx and the Cursed Mummy takes place in a more mystical interpretation of ancient Egypt where the human citizens live hand in hand with humanoid animals and confer with their gods in often quite direct ways. Sphinx, the game’s main character, is actually one of the humanoid animal creatures, although while most of them are more creature than person, Sphinx has a mostly human body offset by some characteristics he shares with the mythical creature he’s named for. Sphinx and the Cursed Mummy actually keeps much of its story close to its chest until you’re nearing the end, but you are given some idea that something is going wrong in this world. The Castle of Uruk is using a powerful beam to enforce its will and strange incidents keep hitting the inhabitants of this land. Sphinx sets out with the Blade of Osiris to start righting the wrongs he finds, but perhaps the biggest incident occurs with the other playable character of the game. Prince Tutankhamen is cursed to become a mummy by the game’s main villain who then proceeds to steal some precious jewels as part of his bid for greater power. Believing the mummy to be as good as dead, they leave him in a dungeon with other bodies, but soon Sphinx and the Mummy are able to make a connection, the two working together, one on the outside fighting the forces of evil and the other inside the Castle of Uruk sabotaging them any way he can and sending things to Sphinx on the outside to use in his journey.
While the game has dialogue boxes and a few plot twists along the way, neither of our protagonists talk, this being a bit more obvious with Sphinx who just kind of makes the same smug expression at everything he hears. The Mummy is a much more interesting and endearing character though, the game making his muteness a feature of the character and acting as if they had to accommodate the lack of communication, his animation and actions expressing a lot of personality and his expressions exaggerated to be readable. The two also have different gameplay styles that the player alternates between based on when Sphinx finds a portion of Tutankhamen’s soul to invigorate the mummy’s body with. The Mummy also proves to be the more interesting of the two here. While the game is at its a core a 3D action platformer, Sphinx and the Mummy approach this gameplay style in different ways.
The Mummy’s portions of the game involve him moving around The Castle of Uruk solving puzzles to open paths to the valuable jewels or items Sphinx needs to progress his quest. The Mummy is by all means immortal, meaning that during his portions of the game, there is nothing that can truly put him down for good, but the game takes things a step further and uses his immortality as a puzzle mechanic. Frequently, the player will need to throw the Mummy directly into traps, and while these would end a living being, they instead change the state of the Mummy. By lighting him on fire you can then burn away wood with his body, and by being electrocuted he can hold a charge to activate switches. There are even times the Mummy is sliced with blades only to be reduced to three mummies who can work together to solve puzzles, and the creative ways these states interplay makes the Mummy’s segments incredibly interesting. Many puzzles involve making sure you can navigate an area properly with the effects of a trap still running on the Mummy, the player needing to figure out just how to set things up to let the powers reach their destination. Since the traps can have different effects that can be cancelled out by touching water, the player needs to turn the environment in their favor and rearrange objects on their route to succeed, but there are even other considerations here than just those powers. Stealth puzzles, block puzzles, and delicate movement crop up as well, with some puzzles even requiring a long sequence of actions to finally make things work in your favor. Ultimately, it feels like if Sphinx and the Cursed Mummy had spent more time here, the game could have been a wonderful puzzle platformer.
The Sphinx sections aren’t quite as tightly designed and inventive though, but they’re not necessarily bad either. Sphinx’s portions have a much greater focus on fighting enemies and exploring the different locations of Egypt. The fighting isn’t that deep though, usually Sphinx only needs to slash an enemy a few times and its over, but the light variation does mean that when the game locks you into combat, it can be a moderate challenge, just not something that’s all that noteworthy when it occurs regularly. Boss battles don’t even really engage the basic battle system much, although the fact they’re puzzle bosses means that they are at least more interesting than a sword-swinging fest. Sphinx’s more interesting activities involve the puzzles hidden in his side of the story. While not nearly as involved as the Mummy’s, Sphinx still has some interesting trials to overcome. Most of them focus on getting to the next area, Sphinx needing to activate switches, find items, or eliminate road blocks, but there is much more of a focus on tight platforming and proper movement here. They are the action puzzles to the Mummy’s thinking puzzles, but Sphinx does gradually get new abilities to help shake them up some. The game does tend to spend just one area exploring the potential of some of its new ideas, and while you can expect to use things like the capture beetles that let you use enemies as puzzle solving tools for the rest of the game after you get them, things like the Acid Dart and Ice Dart are quickly forgotten after the area you first got to use them, and Sphinx’s Shield of Osiris feels nearly useless after its early purpose disappears, many enemies breaking through it so that moving around attacks becomes the preferred method.
Sphinx does have some optional objectives to complete too, ones that give you more reason to explore around Egypt. From helping build up the museum’s creature collection to speed challenges to playing minigames for the game’s currency of Scarabs, there is a bit to do off the beaten path that can make visiting old areas pay off, and since the main story often takes you through the game’s large areas a few times, it’s not hard to keep up with the sidequests that warrant repeat visits. Catching creatures is perhaps the most interesting side quest as it requires weakening enemies in a fight just enough to catch them and not kill them, something that breaks up the otherwise straightforward “slash them til they’re gone” approach when you find a new enemy for the collection. Sphinx is vulnerable to damage though, unlike the Mummy, and even though the combat is basic, you might find yourself dangerously low on health more than you’d expect. Areas have deadly hazards as well, and while the game will pick you up after a dangerous fall, it taxes your health. Avoiding the level hazards is also part of the action puzzles with the punishment for failure being the damage, and while save points are abundant enough, being thrown back to one sets you back far enough that caution is encouraged. The Mummy actually has less save points possibly because he can’t die, and outside the save glitch, you usually want to take up any chance you get to save to ensure you can easily get back into the game.
THE VERDICT: Sphinx and the Cursed Mummy is a game split into two styles, and while neither one is bad, one certainly stands out more. The Mummy’s areas involve complex puzzles with creative powers, plenty of moving parts, and a goofy and flexible character at the middle of them. Sphinx has his share of puzzles too, choosing to focus more on action and proper movement instead, and while there are certainly some interesting trials to overcome here and some nice quests in the world of Egypt for him as well, the weak combat and simpler puzzle design means it’s not quite as good as its companion play style. He does gain some interesting abilities along the way to keep things from growing stale, so thankfully, both Sphinx and the Mummy bring something interesting and fun to the table, just one more than the other.
And so, I give Sphinx and the Cursed Mummy for Playstation 2…
A GOOD rating. While Sphinx and the Cursed Mummy may look at first like it’s just another PS2 action-adventure platformer, its puzzle design manages to salvage it from blending in with the crowd and that’s partially why it’s a shame it pulls away from that angle as often as it does. More engaging combat would certainly make that shift justified, but battles don’t carry the same weight or intelligent design that the other portions of the game have. The Mummy’s segments are involved and make the puzzle solving satisfying by making it require some figuring out but not being too oblique, and while Sphinx’s puzzles are a bit less demanding mentally, they can still carry his portions with their focus on proper movement and ability use. Sphinx’s portions have more to do in them, but that means they can’t be quite as refined in their execution, but there’s still very little that feels outright bad since you can move through the lesser parts easily enough.
While I could see the Mummy’s segments working as their own separate title, Sphinx’s portions don’t ruin the title with their presence, they just aren’t the stronger part of the pair despite their greater prominence. If anything, combining the two fluidly would be the best version of this experience, but at least the shortcomings of combat don’t interfere with the Mummy’s portion, and the strong puzzle design still shows up during Sphinx’s just in a different form. Sphinx and the Cursed Mummy plays to its strengths often enough that you still can find quite a bit of fun if you give it a shot.