If you're a patient gamer looking for a challenging adventure, you should giveSPQR a try.
Your goal in SPQR - a puzzle-adventure rooted firmly in the tradition of games like Myst, Shivers, Lighthouse, Jewels of the Oracle, and TimeLapse - is lofty indeed: Prevent the destruction of Ancient Rome in 205 AD by an unknown saboteur known only as "the Calamitus." Yes, the very idea is enough to stir the blood of any sleuthing adventurer. But after a few confusing and uneventful hours playing the game, many gamers might start to wonder whether saving Rome is worth the effort.
That's too bad, because the premise is intriguing. As the game opens you've been summoned by your patron Cornelius, who's been arrested as part of a crackdown by the Emperor Severus. After making your way out of the sewers and into Cornelius' office, you learn that he's narrowed to five the list of people he suspects of being the Calamitus.
Using an amazingly high-tech device called the Navitor - which lets you surreptitiously journey through the streets and buildings of Rome from the comfort of Cornelius' office - your first task is to locate the journals of all five suspects. Over the course of a year (in game time, naturally), entries will be added to the journals, giving you leads to explore and insights into the various characters' motives and agendas.
While SPQR: The Empire's Darkest Hour bills itself as a 3-D adventure, that's not really the case - you can't look up or down at will, and your movement through various locales is displayed through a series of still screens (a la Myst, Shivers, TimeLapse, etc.). In short, you can't go where you want to go, but only along a path that's already been determined - not exactly what I'd call 3-D.
That's a convention of this genre, though, and the upside is that the graphics in SPQR: The Empire's Darkest Hour are excellent, almost photorealistic at times. What makes this even more impressive is that this is an accurate representation of Ancient Rome (at least according to developers CyberSites), making SPQR: The Empire's Darkest Hour educational as well as entertaining - especially when you add in all the background material on Roman architecture, culture, politics, religion, and more found in each suspect's notebooks.
But there's one thing missing from all the beautiful scenery: people. You know there must be people here: The journal entries refer to huge religious festivals, political events, and other gatherings that you'd expect to see on the Navitor as you move through the city. Yet it appears that someone (that wily inventor Cornelius, perhaps?) has focused some weird death ray on the Eternal City, leaving the buildings intact but somehow reducing the inhabitants to dust. While it's wonderful to read about Rome, the bottom line is that SPQR: The Empire's Darkest Hour does nothing to portray the vibrant nature of one of the world's greatest cities. It's like a diorama, but without any model people.
And speaking of reading: you'd better enjoy it, because you'll be doing a lot of it during the course of your investigation - it's essentially the only way you learn anything new. There are literally dozens of screens of information for you to read almost from the start - each of the five suspects has a five-chapter notebook, with each chapter containing anywhere from five to 35 entries.
Though informative and presented quite tastefully, there's enough text here to overwhelm many gamers, and before long even journal entries directly related to the plot become numbing. If you want to read this much about Roman culture, you should at least get some enjoyment out of - Robert Graves' historical novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God do a much better job of combining history and drama than SPQR: The Empire's Darkest Hour does, for instance.
Another weak point is the interface, a needlessly complicated affair that makes you focus more on game mechanics rather than on solving puzzles and chasing clues. Part of the problem is the manual: It's terse tone and lack of annotated illustrations mean there are some features you'll simply have to discover on your own. But even the sparse manual doesn't explain why I found myself constantly switching between the main view and the map screen in nearly futile efforts to reach a destination; why notebooks are set up so that you must flip from the first page to the page you need to read, which can sometimes take 20 or more mouse clicks; nor why icons such as arrows and open hands often don't yield the expected result (ie, grabbing and moving an object or moving to a new screen).
The biggest problem, however, is pacing. I spent many, many hours with this game and didn't feel as if I'd accomplished anything to speak of, a sensation only aggravated by the uncertainty as to whether I'd missed an important festival or event. This sense of ennui is exacerbated by the lack of any type of cut scenes or animations: There's just not much excitement to be had when the only way you can experience a major event such as a foiled coup d'etat or a major religious celebration is by reading about it.
SPQR: The Empire's Darkest Hour unquestionably provides a wealth of information about Roman civilization, and looks very pretty doing it. But the game's slow, tedious pacing and overly complicated interface will turn many gamers off before they've even gotten their feet wet, leaving only those who have a burning interest in Roman history and culture - and it's those players who have the least to learn from the experience.
So here's my verdict: If you're a patient gamer looking for a challenging adventure, you should give SPQR: The Empire's Darkest Hour a try. For others, all I can say is caveat emptor.