SerpentHead Revisited

Developer/Publisher:  Pharos Games
Year Released:  2003

Review by Steve Ramsey with Clare (April, 2003)

Pharos was responsible for the rather thoughtful Cherokee Trails, a game that almost slipped under my radar but which provided me and my children a good deal of shared enjoyment. So I was rather keen to get my hands on this revamped version of an earlier Pharos outing and see whether the same sense of gentle fun could be repeated. It conveniently arrived just before Easter, and Clare (my 10 year old daughter) and I set off to explore Castle SerpentHead together.

As detailed in the first screen, the castle is the ancient stronghold of the Xanarian Empire. Besieged by Salorann and his dragon army in the 9 Day War, it survived thanks to Cendric and the SerpentScepter. But now Salorann has returned, and you, the Mage Mharim, must find and retrieve the Scepter from where it has been magically hidden. The fate of Xanaria depends upon it.

You will learn more about the history and times of Xanaria as you go, some of which is background but some you would do well to pay attention to. This is sufficient to get you started, however, and the way forward is clear - into the castle and find that Scepter.

Fairy tale fun
Dragons and wizards and magic provide a generally sound basis for a fun time, and Clare was immediately interested. After about 10 minutes she observed that it reminded her more of Harvest than it did of Cherokee Trails, which is certainly true. There is much in the style of the game that brings to mind not only Harvest, but many old time pictorial adventures (the early Kings Quests spring to mind). If you have a hankering or a fondness for a hand drawn point and click fairy tale adventure not trying to be more than it is, you will likely be pleased with this.

Clare did get impatient when we hit the library, books in her opinion tending to slow down the moving on, but there aren't too many so we were not delayed too long. A much greater delay was caused soon afterwards when trying to find the key to the throne room chest, inside which we knew to be the sequence of the symbols needed to enter the locked door guarded by the wizard's cat. Turning our attention elsewhere, we retrieved a gold cross, and found somewhere to use it, only to find its placement was blocked by some mechanical lock. We couldn't get the spider to leave its web, the dragon wouldn't let us past, and a magic force field prevented our entry to what looked like a study. Time to regroup.

It may be clear from the above that a certain amount of freedom is present in the game. Whilst certain things must be done first in order to do other things, Clare and I were able to go off and try to make inroads elsewhere, particularly in the initial part of the game. It does become more linear as you progress further, but this is to some degree a result of the plot narrowing towards its conclusion.

Looking, looking, looking
Clare and I did remain fairly stuck at one point because we failed to appreciate that a single "view" hotspot might in fact hide more than one spot. A small range of cursors help your search, and hotspots are present to indicate some interaction (eg "view"). So a wall (perhaps) might indicate it can be viewed. If you then move your cursor over the wall it indicates a single fairly large hotspot, but we (eventually and thanks to Clare) learnt that a number of surfaces will in fact elicit different responses if you click in just the right spot on the seemingly lone hotspot; ie if you click the correct brick.

Not everything that can be examined will react in this way though, so we were never quite sure whether we were searching a dud or simply had missed the right spot. Also, on two occasions I can think of there was no visual clue to indicate a relevant spot. Finally, some of the hotspots are rather small. It added up to some fairly extensive but futile clicking.

Whilst I don't want neon lights, some better hotspot delineation in some areas would have helped things move along. Or alternatively, make it clear that everything acts in a consistent way (ie if it can be viewed then there is something to find).

But move on we did and we had a good time. Finding the Scepter essentially involves you opening up more and more of the castle, and finding and using objects in the right way. Some items need to be combined, and some magic needs to be performed.

Some of the conundrums contain quite a few parts, and you will need to acquire and combine objects from a few different areas (and solve puzzles in order to do so). Various solutions have an effect elsewhere in the game, so revisiting locations is a must. You will also need to read between the lines of a few observations, and solve the occasional riddle.

A six letter word for .... ?
Some puzzles were particularly well constructed and the secret word puzzle was the pick. I spent a good deal of time trying to think of what the word could be using the history I had found and the setting concerned. Obviously the word was not a random one and several times I was convinced a word must be right, to no avail. I did eventually find a path to the correct word, and was not only pleased with my deduction but, and without spoiling anything, enjoyed what followed.

You will be rewarded by paying attention and thinking logically. Clare was an able participant, many of the conundrums being well within her ability. Only one item (used twice) escaped our logic as to why it would or should do what it did, but perhaps every game needs some trial and error - or perhaps Clare and I simply failed to find the logical thread.

Sound is used sparingly, and dialogue is limited. What there is, is all subtitled. The inventory appears when the cursor is moved over the inventory label top left of screen. Simply drag the item to combine, or to use in the game world. The screens are mainly static, though there are some minimal animations. Transitions between screens can be turned on or off. Short pieces of music accompany many screens.

We found the SerpentScepter and like all good fairy tales we got a happy ending. Our quest wasn't terribly long but nor did we feel short changed. It was a satisfying way to spend some quiet time in an otherwise hectic holiday weekend, and continues my positive experiences with independent producers. rating:  

Copyright © Steve Ramsey with Clare 2003. All rights reserved.

System Requirements:
Win95/98/ME/XP/NT, 16 bit or better video, and windows-compatible soundcard recommended.