The Riddle of Master Lu, Ripley's Believe It or Not!

Developer/Publisher:  Sanctuary Woods
Year Released:  1995

Review by Gordon Aplin (January, 1996)
riddle.jpgWhat an excellent little gem! And I am not just referring to the great seal of China's First Emperor, Chin Shih Huang-di, which is Ripley's ultimate goal in this quite delightful adventure game from Sanctuary Woods. The Riddle of Master Lu has received very little publicity (at least here in Australia) yet it deserves to be near the top of every dedicated adventurer's shopping list.

Based loosely on the life of cartoonist and collector of oddities, Robert L. Ripley of "Believe It or Not!" fame, this game is a fitting tribute, mixing fact and fiction to create a story that Ripley, no doubt, would have appreciated.

Trouble brewing
It is 1936 and fascism is on the rise in Europe whilst on the other side of the world Japanese forces occupy Manchuria. Meanwhile, in the Sahara Desert, Ripley is pursued by two 'baddies' intent on relieving him of his 'treasure', and his life. Once back in New York Ripley learns that men of evil intent are seeking a 'key' to unlock the tomb of China's First Emperor in the belief that the great seal, which is said to rest there, will give them access to unlimited power. Therefore, Ripley must find it before they do to keep it from being used for evil purposes. But first he must solve the Riddle of Master Lu.

You can learn about Master Lu and Emperor Chin Shih Huang-di in the manual that accompanies the game, so I won't go into details here. As Robert Ripley you must follow the ancient trail of Master Lu through fascinating locations where mysteries and puzzles abound. Who knows? You may even pick up a 'treasure' or two which you can send back to your Odditorium in New York. (This is strongly recommended otherwise your funds will dry up and you'll be halted in your tracks.)

Variety of challenges
From the opening sequences you are drawn into an adventure that will keep you thinking all the way through to the very end. The problems and challenges Ripley (and you) will face are intelligent and varied. They are also logically solvable if you have been paying attention to the story and listening to the things people tell you. Not all of the puzzles are fiendishly difficult, of course. Actually, there is a good balance so that at times you seem to be whizzing along and making commendable progress -- then wham! Another stone wall and you have run out of ideas. I particularly enjoyed the rather complex dual problem in the Baron's secret laboratory in Danzig where first you have to rig a mechanism to get the gem, then rig a second mechanism just to get out.

There are one or two pixel hunts, so you must search some screens very carefully and there are, from memory, two time limited puzzles, but you do get the first one out of the way right at the start. I am usually highly critical of puzzles with a time limit as often this device is used to make easy puzzles seem more difficult. However, that is clearly not the case here where the time limit has been used sparingly and appropriately to heighten the dramatic tension and provide variety.

If you are not careful it is possible for Ripley to get killed in this game. You don't die too often, but if you do the game automatically restores you to a place just before your 'fatal' action.

The Riddle of Master Lu also features a substantial maze, though it is not too difficult as long as you are patient and are prepared to map it with pen and paper. I know that some players hate mazes, but I am not one of them and I had some fun with this one.

Simple interface
At first glance, I was a little disappointed with the interface as I thought it was rather limited with only 'pick up', 'use' and 'look' icons plus inventory. My experience with similar interfaces in other games is that this tends to make the puzzles too easy to solve. Not so with this game, however, and it just goes to show that with a bit of thought and effort game designers can give us challenging and entertaining problems to overcome and, at the same time, provide an interface that is easy to use.

I found the transitions between locations to be a little on the slow side, but then, I didn't have the space to install all 620MB to my hard drive. A quad speed CD ROM may have helped too. Unfortunately, I had to make do with a 34MB installation and a double speed CD ROM and slow transitions. Moving Ripley around the screen was, at first, also painfully slow as he tended to saunter. That was, of course, until I read the manual. (Tip: Always read the manual!)

There is a quick way to move around. Simply point the cursor where you want Ripley to go, click the left mouse button to start him moving then right click immediately and he will jump to that spot. This is especially useful to zap through the many, excellent scrolling scenes. Make sure you have searched them first, though. This feature can also be used to have Ripley carry out an action. For example, you want him to use an item across the room. Select the 'use' icon, left click on the object then right click and presto! No more sauntering. About the only time this feature is partially negated is when Ripley is accompanied by Mei Chen. Sure you can still click/jump Ripley, but Mei will not be hurried.

Conversations too, will not be hurried. I tried clicking the mouse buttons and pressing the 'Esc' key, but to no avail. Fortunately, there are very few drawn out conversations and I can only think of one that, perhaps, went on for too long.

Adventurer's dream
But these are just minor 'criticisms'. The game overall is an adventurer's dream. There is so much to see and do. The rendered 3D settings are superb and remarkable for their detail and, for the most part, the characters look like they are really there. The sound effects add a measure of realism and atmosphere and the music is very good without being intrusive. I particularly liked the quite stirring theme when you finally enter Chin's tomb and the enormity of it unfolds before your eyes in a very impressive scrolling sequence.

Ripley is portrayed as a sensitive and intelligent man, not a wooden action hero and the female characters, Mei Chen and Dr Samantha Twelvetrees, are refreshingly presented as capable and intelligent women, though for some strange reason both seem to have a slight lisp. That apart, the voices are very clear. However, I still prefer the option of on-screen text. Only the 'thugs' who pursue Ripley are stereotypes and that is quite acceptable in an adventure game of this sort. Speaking of 'baddies', I must admit that I did not anticipate the twist in the plot right at the end, but I am not about to give anything away here. You will just have to play it through for yourself.

All things considered, The Riddle of Master Lu is a top-notch adventure combining an absorbing story, challenging puzzles and mysterious locations in a well thought out and well presented game. Thoroughly recommended. rating:  

Copyright © Gordon Aplin 1996. All rights reserved.

System requirements:
486/25 (486/33 recommended), 8MB RAM, 8MB hard drive space, 2xCD-ROM, DOS 5.0, SVGA VESA compliant.