Tuesday, December 28, 2010

King's Quest II: Romancing the Throne

Since winning the throne of Daventry in his first quest, King Graham’s been thinking it’s about time to start his own dynasty but none of the local ladies tickle his fancy. A solution to his dating problems is only a handy plot device away, as the magic mirror reveals a beautiful maiden locked in a quartz tower by Hagatha, a spiteful old witch. Once again arming himself with nothing but his jaunty adventuring cap, Graham sets out to save the woman of his dreams.

Unlike the previous game, the player’s given a little guidance toward their main objectives this time around. A little. There’s a series of doors leading to the final area, and each one gives you a clue to where to find the key that opens it. Although only the first clue actually gives you much of a clue.

In addition to the problems mentioned in the first game, Romancing The Throne feels like it’s trying to do a better job to guide you along but failing to do so even more than its predecessor. The first clue tells you the seeker of the first key will “make a splash,” which probably has you thinking to look for it nearby water. You might also think that means to search the ocean screens, or you might think you need to look around the three inland bodies of water for the key.

It's the ocean.

I don’t mean to imply I want these games to just give me all the answers, but in a well put-together adventure game, the solutions will make sense once you overcome the puzzle and look back on them. As with most adventure games of the 80's, that’s not often the case in this game. On the contrary, it contains one of the most notorious examples of “how was I supposed to think of that?!” in adventure gaming history.

Most gamers picking on this focus on one obstacle in particular, but in truth it starts even earlier than that. I can’t talk about this without revealing the answers to a good chunk of the game, so if you’re planning to play it yourself, skip down to after the italicized paragraph. Or if you like your sanity and want to keep it, feel free to keep reading.

In the process of getting the first key, Graham gets a bottle containing a sheet of cloth. What he’s supposed to do with this is enter the lair of Hagatha herself and use it to cover a nightingale’s cage so he can take the cage without the witch noticing and putting him in the stew pot instead.

What he’s supposed to do is then take the bird to the owner of an antique store on the far east end of the map (who does she sell antiques to? Red Riding Hood’s grandma and the monk, singular, who lives in the temple up north?) and trade it for a magic lamp. Why would you give the bird to this old lady? Again referring to the novelized version, Graham took it there because the cage was big and bulky, and she was the only person around he could really give it to. In the game it’s just another item, no more encumbering than any other. Players probably thought there was something useful in the antique store. Most probably didn’t think of pawning a bird for it.

The genie of the lamp gives Graham three gifts: a flying carpet, a sword and a leather bridle. When Graham steps on the carpet, it takes him to a cliff where he runs into a poison snake right in his way, which leads to the biggest complaint players tend to have about this game.

Now, if you look at the sword you may notice it says there’s a picture of a snake engraved in the hilt, and a lot of players complain this is a bum steer because it indicates you’re supposed to use it on the snake. While you can kill the snake with the sword and still win the game, you won’t get the high score and you won’t get an item that’ll remove the risk of dying from an upcoming obstacle.

No, what you’re supposed to do is throw the bridle at the snake. This turns it into a winged horse. That’s not the end, though. You’re then supposed to figure out that you’re meant to talk to the horse to get its help.

And no, there’s nothing about the bridle indicating you should use it on a snake.

In the novella, the author’s explanation for Graham tossing the bridle at the snake is that it was a complete accident. He’d meant to use the sword, but he can be kind of a daydreamer and had put the bridle over it while sticking the sword through his belt. Thus he threw it over the snake to his own surprise as much as its. I’ve never designed a game with lots of elaborate puzzles, but if it’s turned into passive entertainment and the only reason the author can come up with for the character arriving at the correct answer is he achieved success totally by accident, it occurs to me something’s wrong with the train of thought leading up to that puzzle.

From the mouth of Peter Spear himself: Of course, he had forgotten about the bridle he stupidly had draped over the sword’s hilt. It is through mistakes such as these that dynasties change. But not this time.

At times it also feels like the designers were purposefully trying to punish you, or at least inconvenience you. During the quest for the third key you visit a castle and you’re expected to climb three different staircases, one of which is optional, two of which are not and must be traversed twice. And there isn’t a handrail to be found in the entire place. If it’s so easy to fall off (and it is. Oh, it is), why the heck not?

Game designers hate you. Deal with it.

Once you reach the final area of the game, a text box pops up when you reach a screen with a crucial item to point it out to you. Given all the psychedelic colors on display, thinking the player might need this mentioned wasn’t a bad idea, but it doesn’t redeem the crazy logic you’re expected to have come up with to have made it that far.

At least the fact that nobody’s supposed to get up the tower and save the maiden explains why it’s so easy to fall off the stairs that time…

About the only thing that makes Romancing the Throne slightly memorable in a positive light is traces of the humor that defined most other well-known adventure games manifest in a few ways besides bad puns.

In a way that’s a strike against the game, since the story elements feel half done. Yeah, who cared about videogame plots in the 80’s, but this isn’t a game where you’re just shooting or beating up anything in sight. You interact with every aspect of a colorful world and are expected to get through problems with your brain instead of your trigger finger. For example, if you play this you’ll probably think it’s weird you never do anything about Hagatha, who’s presented like she’s the prime evildoer, and the only original baddie to be given an identity. If they were willing to put in humorous little touches that ultimately serve no purpose, why not little touches that could’ve improved the plot or atmosphere?

Maybe there’s a reason why AGD rebuilt the whole game from the ground up in 2002, rather than just re-releasing it with a mouse-driven interface like they did with Quest for the Crown.

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