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Learning Curve: 5 Hours with Tombs and Treasure


The Electric Frankfurter

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I never could figure out what this game was.  Based on the initial interface it looked like a Shadowgate style game where you interacted with the world through a window using commands.  But the next series of screens acted more like a world-exploring RPG with a party of characters and turn-based battles. Honestly, every time I popped it in, I rarely got much farther than the first few screens.  It just looked like more than I cared to unpack in a casual gaming session.  Despite its awesome Mayan theming and Mexico setting, it failed to have a really strong hook that pulled me in for more.  That means it is a perfect candidate for the Learning Curve, although in this instance it might be more of an “interest curve” as in, how long will it take for this game to pull me into its world and keep me playing until the end.  Over the next five hours we’ll get the answer to that question.


Hour 1


As previously stated, this game is an amalgam of other game types.  At its core it is very much like Shadowgate or Uninvited.  You interact with the world through a window using commands such as “put,” “use,” and “look.”  Tombs and Treasure (T&T henceforth) even gives you a few commands you use only once or maybe never…  Notwithstanding, the main game is conducted just like that.  However, the window interactions are separated by RPG-esque exploration as you take your team through the Mexican jungle searching out various locations for more interactions.  There is literally nothing you can do during these sequences except roam the world, but it does break things up a bit and creates some nice atmosphere, so I think it’s a nice bonus.
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I spent the first hour wandering about the world map to get a general sense of what I was going to be dealing with.  I discovered 3 pyramids, a bunch of wall sections, two lakes (which turn out to be “wells” in this game), a sprawling ancient ball court, and a LOT of jungle.  All in all this game probably has 3 times as many “empty” or useless screens as it does meaningful ones.  That’s just fine when you are trying to create a sense of scale, but it leaves me wanting more of the screens to have something to do in them.  Not a big deal, just means there is a big world out there with lots to find tucked away here and there.
Most of the places I ventured into featured monsters far too strong for me to fight, all of which resulted in my death.  The good news, however, is that death isn’t a big deal in this game.  You pretty much continue from where you left off with no penalty.  Even better, the combat is extremely basic (just use the “fight” command to swing your sword) and you can always run away.  Furthermore, leaving any building or fight instantly recovers all of your health.  From that it’s pretty obvious the combat in this game is more there to serve the story than to provide challenge.  I’m not upset about that in the slightest.
IMG_3191.jpgOne pyramid was not heavily guarded and I was able to find a secret passage to the crypt of the Hi-Priest.  A tile on his coffin enabled me to open a hidden door in another nearby location, the Castillo Pyramid.  I was successful in defeating a few of the lesser monsters and was rewarded with a literal treasure trove of items.  Oh, what untold adventures they might lead to!  One hour in and I was starting to get hooked.


Hour 2


IMG_3204.jpgWandering about the map with my new inventory of fabulous items, I stumbled across a few locations I had missed during Hour 1.  Indulge me while I backtrack a bit.  Your mission in this game is to locate a missing professor who was lost while studying these ruins.  Your party is made up of the professor’s daughter and Jose, your guide.  The only clues you have come from the professor’s journal which was one of the few things recovered when he went missing.  Why wait to tell you all of this now?  1. I forgot.  2.  Because in the journal the professor mentions a secret path through the forest that lead to something great.  That something great is the voice of Kukulcan.  This is important if you are going to play the game without a walkthrough because the voice imparts wisdom in the form a hint about what to do next in the game.  I would visit this location many times in the next four hours.  T&T is a little bit dense sometimes in being clear where to go or what to do next, so the hints are very helpful.  It was just such a hint that lead to my discovery of an entire structure I missed:  El Caracol!  When I found the Silver Globe, it was hinted that I take it El Caracol.  The problem was, I had not located such a place, nor even knew it existed.  Further exploration would reveal this structure and advance the plot considerably.  It would also lead to an encounter with the game’s most unusual monster:  El Slug.  A slimy green creature that looked a lot like a sheepdog.  Defeating monsters increases your level and basically makes it possible for you to defeat the next monster in the story.  If you cannot beat a given monster it’s because you are taking them on out of order.  With this in mind, I soon found I was able to beat pretty much any of the monsters that had previously been vexing me as long as I took them down in the correct order.  It doesn’t hurt that you can increase the power of your sword by inserting into them the different colored jewels you find.  Ultimately, I was finally able to obtain the Sun Necklace, one of the game’s key items that allows you to know the position of the sun.  This is vital to solving the game’s three main riddles.
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All in all, a solid second hour.  By this time I was definitely hooked into the game and it’s world, and very excited to find out what discoveries lay in wait during the next hour of adventure!


Hour 3


IMG_3206.jpgThe discoveries of the third hour were somewhat less than the second hour had anticipated.  The three main riddles of the game all involved the position of the sun.  You were to locate the censer at dusk, turn the Jaguar into a statue at noon, and drink a shrinking potion at midnight.  All three of these required you to be in the right place at the right time.  I had no luck with the censer or the potion, but I knew where to find the jaguar.  In the Warrior’s Tomb there were three statues:  a girl, a warrior, and a jaguar.  The jaguar statue was drawn differently than the other two so it was obvious that it was going to come to life.  Clues in the game had told me that the jaguar could be tamed (reverted to statue form) by playing the pan pipes (found earlier in the Well of Paradise).  So I went to the Warrior’s Tomb and to my surprise, the jaguar was gone.  Gone, I tell you.  In the wall behind where his statue was perched, I found a small hole.  In the hole was an iron key, but the hole was too small for anyone’s hand to fish it out properly.  A hint was given that a magnet would be useful in such a situation.  Back in the treasure room of Hour 1, I had found a metal rod that was magnetic, however I had already joined that rod to a small bowl found in the same room to make a compass, so it would not be able to help me solve this problem.  (This would prove to be significant later in our tale)  But there was little time to ruminate on this problem as the hour struck noon and the jaguar suddenly appeared in the room before us.  Luckily, this was not a combat situation, just a puzzle.  However, it was during this encounter that I learned another one of the game’s key strategies:  switch characters whenever you aren’t sure what to do.  Turns out the main character is terrible at playing the pan flute, but the girl character is a maverick.  So to tame the jaguar, switch to the girl character and have her use the pipes.  Problem solved, the fearsome cat becomes a statue permanently (another significant act) and the team is able to continue their adventure (at least somewhat…)
With nothing else to do in the Warrior’s Tomb, I decided to explore the other “too tough to beat” part of the game: the Ball Court.  Having defeated the monster in the Warrior’s Tomb I was now strong enough to defeat the monster in the Ball Court as well.  This opened the area up for exploration.  It also introduced me to the first element of the game’s major, major downfall.  You see, in the Ball Court there is a room you can uncover wherein you find the most powerful item in the game, a jewel that significantly weakens demons.  If you remove this jewel from its stand, the door you came through slams behind you forever.  You cannot die, there is no monster to kill you.  All you can do is stand in the room, look at things, and have the game taunt you with too-late hints like “you should have opened another exit before taking the jewel. Better hit reset.” 
That wouldn’t be so bad if hitting reset didn’t mean entering both of your characters’ names and the ridiculously long password just to start over wherever you last obtained your password (passwords can be obtained at any time by looking at the Ixmol Jewel you pick up at the start of the game).  So unless you are in the habit of writing down 32 character passwords before every single action in the game, this means you are going to be doing a LOT of data entry just to trial-and-error your way through some of the game’s more menacing puzzles.  This is a fun killer.  A big one.  After three unsuccessful attempts to obtain the powerful green jewel from the room, each one followed by several minutes of password entry, I decided Hour 3 was over.



Hour 4

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I set out in Hour 4 to just leave that stupid jewel alone and come back when I had a better idea of how to defeat the trap.  So instead I headed back out in to the jungle to see if there were more areas I had missed in previous ventures.  I explored everywhere for about 30 minutes and finally decided to seek out the wisdom of Kukulcan to see if that would point me in the right direction.  Turns out there is a second floor in El Caracol that I was not aware of.  Again, if you are stuck for what to do, try switching characters.  Turns out Jose, the guide, is strong, strong enough to move the pedestal in El Caracol to reveal a hidden staircase.  After discovering this, I was able to solve the riddle of the censer and locate the censer itself.  Now I just have to figure out what to do with the censer itself.  The Kukulcan clue about getting the iron key before turning the jaguar into a statue is neither helpful nor encouraging as I still no idea if there is any way to get that iron key since I don’t have the magnetic rod any more, and seeing as to how I had already stoned the jaguar…


Hour 5


I spent 45 minutes of Hour 5 desperately, and ultimately in futility, going about the time-honored tradition of traveling to every location and trying every command with every character with every object, just to see if I could accomplish anything.  I could not.  I did locate the hole that the iron key fits, but without the key this was a hollow discovery (slightly clever pun unintended, but pleasing).  Time was growing short and frustration was mounting, so I did the only thing a person in the modern era can possibly do when faced with such an impasse:  I spent my last 15 minutes searching the internet for a walkthrough that would explain what went wrong.
Remember that iron rod that I used to make a compass back in Hour 1 that seemed like a mistake by Hour 3?  It was.  Not only was it a mistake, it was a game-breaking mistake.  You can never remove the rod from the compass, so once it is joined, the rod is lost to you for the rest of the game.  Which means that if you did what I did, you can never get the iron key.  Not that it would have mattered, because you see, I got the hint about "getting the key before thwarting the jaguar" AFTER I thwarted the jaguar, another game breaking mistake.  Once the jaguar is reverted to statue form, it will never come alive again, meaning that unless you get the key first, you can never complete the game.  
Turns out T&T suffers from at least 5 of these game-breaking mistakes from which there is no return, unless, as I said before, you are writing down 32 character passwords before every single move in the game.
This is no end of frustrating and discouraging.  I completed my five hours with T&T utterly defeated and discouraged.  What had started out as a really fun explorative adventure was ground into utter aggravation by game-breaking mistakes that are way too easy to make.  It doesn’t seem like the game would allow this because it is constantly cautioning you against leaving a room too soon, or grabbing the wrong item.  There are tons of places where the game helps you not screw it completely up, but there are at least 5 times where you can make the game unwinnable by doing something very, very simple.  Maybe if the game had employed a SAVE system like Shadowgate does, these kinds of screw-ups wouldn’t be as galling, but with the massive password system, running into one of these honest mistakes is worthy of the controller throw.
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This felt like the mantra for Hours 4 & 5


Final Appraisal:  
Tombs and Treasure is an incredibly fun adventure/puzzle game with a unique take on a classic formula, however it features several game-breaking mistakes you can make that cause the game to be unwinnable.  Furthermore, its cumbersome password feature makes trial-and-error puzzle solving tedious and frustrating.  There is a lot of fun to be had with this game, but the drawbacks for playing it wrong threaten to drain all of the enjoyment right out of it.  If you decide to take the game on, it can be a very rewarding play, just make sure you DO NOT join the rod and the bowl until you enter the maze, DO get the iron key before you freeze the jaguar, DO NOT grab the green jewel until you have two doorways open, and DO NOT take the handle from the Castillo machine.  If you do the converse of any of those things, you are doomed.  You have been warned.


Learning Curve:  
It doesn’t take as long as I thought to get really invested in this game.  It’s a lot of fun, it features a unique setting and theme, and there is a lot to explore.  While the game can be obtuse in telling you exactly what you need to do next, there are plenty of clues and if you learn a few of the games essential mechanics: look at everything, switch characters often, beat enemies in the right order, and avoid the game-breaking mistakes, you will be having a lot of fun in no time.  I would say it took me just over an hour to be fully committed to this game.



Will I Finish It?  
I did.  After Hour 5’s crushing revelations, I decided I would see the end of this game.  So I started a new game and played all the way through avoiding the game-breaking mistakes.  All in all it took me probably an hour and fifteen minutes to beat, knowing already how to complete 3/4 of the game before I started.  As I assumed, it was a very satisfying experience.  Again, this is a great game with a few very serious flaws.
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