Ever want to visit Ancient Rome? With S.P.Q.R. The Empire's Darkest Hour by CyberSites you can, at least virtually. Originally conceived as an interactive website the year before, this 1996 game published by GT Interactive upgrades the visuals and adds some nice touches, but how does it handle as a game?
The answer is pretty well, but with some caveats. The idea is to prevent a vengeful figure named Calamatus from destroying Rome. There are five suspects who could have taken on this alter ego and you have a year to figure out who it is. It starts you off simple enough with you playing a nameless assistant to an inventor named Cornelius. With his forays into some seriously out-there contraptions, the authorities think he is Calamatus and have had him arrested. And it's up to you to clear his name.
You begin in the subterranean underground beneath Cornelius' workshop tasked with fixing a contraption before you can return. Once you do, your boss has made plans for you to use the Navitor, his latest invention that allows you to virtually travel through the city over the course of the last year and snoop around for clues.
In the workshop where you begin the game resides the Navitor,
a retrofuturist time machine that's prone to breaking down.
It plays in the first person perspective with the occasional transition animation between the static screens. Your first objective is to find the five scrolls of the main suspects which all but one are hidden behind obtuse clues and strange puzzles. The first one is found conveniently on the floor when you first step into the city. As time goes by, the scrolls will update with the events of the day and it is here along with the local newspaper Acta Diuma where clues are gleaned and plots unfold. Unless you want to make huge leaps with the many clues (and red herrings) in the environment, you'll have to read everything. Thankfully, it's pretty compelling stuff.
As you play, the year will pass by. Areas can only be accessed at certain times (often marked with a Roman date nearby) and some events can be missed entirely. If you want to solve everything, the Navitor has the ability to control the speed, though you cannot go backwards. Everything you come across won't affect much as you will choose your dissenter at the end of the year anyway. Choosing the correct culprit, however, is near impossible without the learned info.
The city of Rome is surprisingly small. It is apparently recreated almost perfectly if you don't count the moving paintings and sliding puzzles scattered around. It is also empty. Despite a myriad of events described as happening around you, not one of them is actually depicted. There are no NPCs to talk to either so the vibe is a very solitary one. Despite the recreation, it still feels like a museum.
Navigating the city is also a tad confusing, though it's helped measurably by not one but two maps found on the Navitor. One details the buildings around you in respect to your own location, while the other is a standard map. The latter also allows you to jump to spots you've already been which comes in very useful when you're completely lost. There's also a compass which helps set you off in the right direction too.
Nearly all puzzles are incongruous to the setting and work rather strangely. Why
would putting skulls on saucers open a locked box on the other side of the room?
If you pull down the doors behind these useful items, you'll find shelves for your inventory. There are a number of items that can be collected and used in a later puzzle, though most of them are keys or act as keys to open doors or boxes. The real puzzles are more observational. The answer is usually represented nearby but more often than not the clues are incredibly obtuse unless you spot that one line on that one day in that one suspect's journal. Still, I stuggle to see how counting dolphins on a moving painting corresponds to the code to an ancient safe?
The main draw here is exploring the entire ancient city. It's incredibly immersive even without its population. There's even a Quicktime virtual tour on the CD to traverse the place in full panoramic mode, though quite why it's not featured in the actual game is anyone's guess (mine is technical reasons). The website on which the game is based is now sadly gone, but you can view the skeleton of it here (though the interactive sections among others no longer run).
S.P.Q.R stands for Senātus Populusque Rōmānus. Translated that means The Senate and People of Rome. It's a bit of a strange title when you consider neither are represented visually, but their footprints left behind in their writings and their buildings make you understand how fitting a name it actually is. If you enjoy the atmosphere of Myst, a whodunit mystery and a somewhat apocryphal history of Rome with tons of necessary text, S.P.Q.R. The Empire's Darkest Hour is for you.
To download the game, follow the link below. This custom installer exclusive to The Collection Chamber uses DOSBox running Microsoft Windows 3.1 to get the game working on modern systems. Manual, Map, Bibliography & Virtual Tour included. Run ROMEVR.bat to play the tour. Tested on Windows 10.
File Size: 295 Mb. Install Size: 670 Mb. Need help? Consult the Collection Chamber FAQ
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S.P.Q.R. The Empire's Darkes Hour is © CyberSites
Review, Cover Design and Installer created by me