Point and click games go a long way back. Their origins lie in the Multi User Dungeons (or MUDS as they are more commonly known) of the 1970s, popular text-based adventures for the PC. Entering simple keyboard commands allowed users to explore a world full of puzzles and battles using only the power of their imaginations. Sooner or later graphics took over and 'point and click' as we know it had now arrived. Classics include Lucas Arts' Monkey Island series and Maniac Mansion which entertained the player with tricky puzzles and a sense of in-game humour that mocked the designers themselves. However, in recent years their popularity seems to have unexplainably waned. Ankh is a 21st Century renaissance for the genre that deserves to see itself back in the gaming mainstream very soon. The story is set in ancient Egypt and centres on Assil, a young man who fancies celebrating his birthday in style. He steals a key to the Great Pyramid in which he boogies on down with his friends. When it is time to leave he disturbs an antique vase which smashes, conjuring a nasty death curse. Obviously this is not good so it is up to you to help relieve Assil from this little pickle on an adventure with more than a couple of narrative twists.
Controlling Assil is simple. One click and he walks, two and he runs. As you explore the screen, hovering over the scenery, the name of every item will appear as well as a prefix to it - most commonly 'look at', 'use' or 'pick up' and occasionally, 'pull', 'push,' etc. The majority of items that the game lets you pick up are useful in some way or another. In tandem with the narrative you must use the items you have collected to interact with the environment to progress. This involves combining certain items with the scenery or running errands for people, (a tailor who asks you to sharpen his scissors, for example). Told like that it sounds simple, but be assured that it isn't. Solutions to some of the scenarios are impossibly subtle and often require random bouts of clicking and combining items. A changing series of objectives exists in a list that you can bring up at any time so you at least you always have something to aim for, but finding out how to do it is sometimes very challenging to say the least.
Unlike point and click games before it, Ankh's environment is tracked through a cinematic camera that pans over the action between scenes. As well as being nice to look at it helps the game feel more like one solid world rather than a jigsaw joined by hundreds of small pieces as in other point and clickers. The environments to explore range from bazaars to palaces and pyramids and each appear skillfully crafted in a convincingly cartoon-like way. Every scene is plentifully detailed and nearly every prop is available to be investigated. If an item is interesting then Assil will react accordingly. Even everyday items such as jars and chairs prompt him to exhibit some form of oral reaction - 'Jars. Very common around here' while descriptions of stationary characters are explained necessarily simply - click the boatman and he says, 'The boatman - obviously.' That told you.
It is on the subject of sound which the game most excels. Every one of the dozens of characters is voiced brilliantly, although not many even by English-speaking Egyptians. Instead they are acted out by people with the ordinary-sounding voices of Britons or Americans in a sarcastic tone that permeates throughout the game. A list of questions appears every time Assil needs to speak to someone and many exist just to wind up the character you're speaking to and are genuinely funny to read. The entire cast all have their individual personalities and mannerisms that really make the player feel part of the game and also help to reveal clues to solving puzzles. The exploration elements of Ankh are partnered with a pleasant soundtrack that changes depending on the situation you are in - whether it be the bustling bazaar or the desert.
One of Ankh's largest faults may also be a reflection of the player. As touched upon earlier on, some of the puzzles' solutions are very difficult to achieve and rely on fluke more than anything else. Other times might see you trudging the world to find a scene where something noticeable has changed or talk to someone who you'd last talked to a couple of hours ago. A good memory and a lot of patience is absolutely essential if you are to enjoy Ankh to it's full. Saying that, even if frustration gets the better of you and you have to shut the game off you will definitely return for another crack... probably about five minutes later. The only other noticeable disappointment is the rusty collision detection. Far too often will you see characters sticking their arms through 'solid' brick walls or inanimate objects in cut-scenes. This does not affect the player until a point where you must take charge of two characters at once, switching between them as necessary. Walking past one character whilst the other waits requires the berth of a rather large desert-ready camel.
In a word, however, Ankh is brilliant. The puzzles are inventive, the storyline is genuinely funny and the completion of some of the more difficult puzzles is pleasurable rather than a relief. Commendable also is the way that Ankh does not take itself seriously, in a gaming environment that never takes anything with a pinch of salt. Ankh jokes about the inclusion of colour and shape puzzles and laughs at so many other gaming cliches. If reading this has reawakened fond memories of playing Sam and Max or Hugo's House of Horrors then you can do no wrong with Ankh - when it is released in February of next year make sure to be first in those queues. If however you are reading this after a blast of Counter-Strike and drifting off to sleep at the thought of a game that involves nothing but a gentle clicking action, then truly you would be missing out. It may be just be a glorified "Where's Wally?" puzzle, but it's the most entertaining glorified "Where's Wally?" puzzle and adventure for a long time.