In the 1930s, Robert Ripley made a name for himself by traveling the world in search of cultural oddities for his Odditorium museum of curiosities. He became quite famous for his daily newspaper comic strips and airing live radios reports from strange far-off place like a snake-pit or a cavern. A true adventurer who would later be referred to as the 'Real Indiana Jones', he makes for an intriguing subject matter for a point n' click adventure game...
Before its sad demise in 1999 (though all game development ceased in 1996), Sanctuary Woods developed two classic and under appreciated adventures - The Riddle of Master Lu released in 1995 would be their first. You play as a fictionalised version of Robert Ripley, a suave globetrotter ever on the lookout for bizarre new stories. After an encounter with the titular Master Lu, he decides to go in search of the tomb of the First Emperor of China. The story is entirely fictional - the tomb better known as the Terracotta Army wouldn't be discovered until the 1970s - but the manual does an excellent job in discerning the fact from the fiction.
Twenty years down the line and I'm still impressed by the effort that's gone into the art and graphics. The romanticised backgrounds are beautifully drawn with environments that truly sparks the imagination. They may not be photo-real but the many real-world locations you visit will certainly be recognisable and are often surprisingly accurate. The character sprites are rendered from recorded footage of actors but it doesn't jar with the settings like you would think. In fact it compliments them perfectly. The actors are all dressed in period clothes usually saved for Agatha Christie adaptations and the way they interact with hand-created objects is smooth and seamless.
The only niggle I have with the way it looks is that the camera to zoomed out too far - a decision presumably made due to the technical limitations of the time. Going by this setup alone, the nuances and character ticks the script requires will be missed by many players. The designers cleverly overcame this by inserting close-up videos placed over the screen whenever a facial expression or emotion is required.
The puzzles are predominantly inventory based and it does err on the difficult side. Despite the need to try everything, the fact that you can actually die makes experimentation less inviting. Thankfully most deadly situations are fairly obvious and if you do make a wrong move, you'll automatically be taken back to the beginning of the scene. There is a fair amount of pixel hunting going on too - a major no-no in my book - and the fact that there are a huge amount of hotspots makes finding the right item a bit taxing. I had to often resort to a walk-through for this reason alone during my first run and I'm thankful I did.
Out of the whole adventure, what truly shines is the story. It's full of excitement and intrigue and everything from the actors (whose voice and likeness are played by different people), the script and the interactive game-play only adds to the experience. Like our hero, the designers sure know how to spin a good yarn.
Ripley's Believe it or Not! The Riddle of Master Lu is a truly great game. It may have some flaws but they are minor considering how of fun it is to immerse yourself into the world. Before Sanctuary Woods' financial troubles a sequel was being considered and I can only mourn what could have been. Robert Ripley is a worthy hero and deserves to be the subject of many more adventures. I live in hope.
To download the game, follow the link below. This custom installer exclusive to The Collection Chamber uses DOSBox to bring the game to modern systems. Manual included. Tested on Windows 7.
Ripley's Believe it or Not! The Riddle of Master Lu is © Sanctuary Woods
Review, Cover Design and Installer created by me