Dead Tomb is a game that can spark your interest before you even start playing it. It’s based on a lost media game, Temporel Inc. Its progenitor was released on the Videoway content delivery system, which means it just disappeared when the service shut down.
Being the most complex game on Videoway, it had its fans, and they went to work remaking it by reverse engineering a recorded playthrough of it. I don’t have any firsthand insight on the Videoway, so I’ll again direct you to Hardcore Gaming 101’s write-up. Fans first recreated Temporel Inc. in Flash, and then Collectorvision created an NES port, which was released a few years ago on a cartridge by Limited Run Games under the name of Dead Tomb.
Now, 8-Bit Legit has released it on modern consoles, which makes the game much more accessible, as it should be.
Dead Tomb is a verb-drive adventure game, which is sort of a halfway point between a point-and-click and a text adventure. To interact with an object, you pick a verb from a list. It’s a style of game most famous in Lucasart’s SCUMM titles, such as Maniac Mansion and The Secret of Monkey Island.
You play as a time traveler from the future, who gets waylaid on a trip back in time and finds themself in ancient Egypt. You’re captured by Pharaoh Seti I’s soldiers, robbed, and dumped in a pyramid. Your goal is to try and find a diamond used to power your time machine and escape.
It’s probably important to set your expectations with Dead Tomb. Maniac Mansion, this is not. It’s a much simpler and more linear experience. It’s not necessarily shorter (though it is quite short), but there is less chance that you’re going to become stuck or have to start over. There’s also far less backtracking involved, so it’s a bit more comfortable than Maniac Mansion, but also less complex.
That’s not entirely a bad thing. In fact, it’s a big part of Dead Tomb’s charm. Depending on your aptitude (and a bit of luck), you might still find yourself wandering in circles, occasionally trying to figure out what verb you need to use on a noun, but there’s usually a feeling of forward movement. Again, that’s going to depend on your adventure game literacy, but I definitely felt some momentum.
Where Dead Tomb can get a bit vexing is figuring out how it wants you to interact with the environment. You build up an inventory, but learning how to use it can be tricky, especially in the beginning. It’s not a matter of going into your pockets, pressing “use,” and rubbing it on something in the environment. Often, once it’s in your pocket, you need to approach something in the environment and select the right verb, at which point it says, “Pour ranch dressing on cheesecake.” It feels kind of backward and unintuitive. Then, by the time you get used to it, you’re done with the game.
While Dead Tomb is not terribly cryptic, there are spots that go against common logic. Early on, there’s a nail driven into the wall. If you try to take it, the descriptive text says it barely moves. You have to try and take it three or so times before it finally lands in your pocket. I don’t think this is the only time I’ve seen such a mechanic (and it only happens once in the game), but it’s always interesting to me when a game requires you to fail in exactly the same way repeatedly before you meet with success. Video games have instilled in me the principle that if something doesn’t work on the first attempt, I need to try something else.
On the other hand, you don’t have to worry about death. I mean, you can die in sometimes hilarious ways, but then the game just prompts you to continue, and you start back where you were. It contributes to Dead Tomb being such a brief experience, but I think I prefer it to just repeating puzzle solutions until I get back to where I was.
It also allows you to test out obviously bad ideas just to see your character die.
I keep mentioning this, but it’s the brevity that bothers me most about Dead Tomb. As I said previously, you can complete Maniac Mansion in roughly the same timeframe, but that game has multiple solutions and gives you a variety of characters to put together a team from. Dead Tomb is linear. There’s only one way to solve it. There may have been a secret ending I missed, but I’m doubtful.
It’s certainly a fun game while it lasts. The breeziness of the puzzles and charming but unremarkable soundtrack make it a comfortable experience. I really enjoyed playing Dead Tomb, I’m not sure I’m going to remember the game will stand in my memory quite as much as the history behind it. At least the price for the digital version makes that kind of experience absolutely worth the recommendation.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]