Sunday, February 3, 2013

Zork 4 - Conquest at Quendor

Usually, it’s painfully obvious when it’s time to put a series down. This series was no exception.

During a baseball game, our heroes Bill and June find themselves snatched up by a giant “hand-cloud” and deposited in a musty dungeon in Zork. Apparently by the hand of Grawl, a warlock whose curse they undid in the previous book (but who was only actually seen if he killed them). In the process of saving them, Syovar’s seriously wounded by Grawl. And right before he was set to negotiate peace between two hostile neighbors.
And it seems that was the whole goal of the cat-snake thing on the cover, some kind of demon/spirit/whatever named Jeearr, who thrives on chaos and death. Not that our heroes are totally out of options: if the kids can find the legendary Helm of Zork, which can turn anyone into anyone and resist even the strongest attempts at magical unmasking, someone could go to the peace talks in Syovar’s place.

The plot isn’t that good or bad compared to the rest of the series or even fantasy gamebooks to come out of the 80’s in general, but its use of a certain plot device is. Jeearr pops in and out all the time throughout the search for the Helm, rattling off a dumb little poem that will tell Bivotar and Juranda what to do. Like the first time you see him, Bivotar gets stung by a scorpion. There’s a box of scorpion sting antidote right there, but it’s locked (and clearly marked as being fragile). Jeearr helpfully informs you “Bivotar will be dead soon, unless he finds the silver spoon.” You have two options, looking through some straw for a solution or busting the box open with a rock. Guess which one’s right.

And it goes on like this. You’re confronted by a giant dog. “You will always be a winner if you give a puppy dog his dinner.” So we should throw the handy hunk of meat to the dog, or try to sneak past the giant, angry guard dog? When the kids ask their friends about Jeearr and why he’d do this, nobody’s sure, but “Perhaps it hopes to confuse you.” Look, you know why the Riddler’s the joke of Batman’s rogues gallery? Yeah, you do. Because he sabotages his own career. And that’s the villain we’re given to finish out the series. The riddles aren’t even that…riddle-y. They’re just the answer set in rhyme.

I know a lot of people complain about the insane logic needed to solve puzzles in 80’s adventure games, but having the answers whispered right in your ear is even worse. And these books have that feature where you can track back to the decision where you died and try again already.

Looks like it's time to try again. Again.

And while I’ve never shut up about how the other books in the series had inane choices at the beginning about whether you should go on the adventure or not, this one has inane choices at the end.

When you set out to find the Helm of Zork, you’re given a magic bead that’ll teleport you back to Syovar’s castle when you break it. Okay. You’ve found the Helm. The tower you’re in’s about to collapse. You’re asked whether you want to teleport back. Knowing that if you stay you’ll die, and having found the magic item this whole quest was about. Yes, let’s stay.

Then once you get back safely, it turns out Syovar’s taken a turn for the worse while you were gone. The royal alchemists have come up with an experimental treatment that could save him, or it could kill him itself. The thing is, if he doesn’t get some kind of miracle cure--and this is the only one available--he’ll definitely die. Why’s that even a decision? The author might as well ask if you want full victory or pyrrhic victory instead.

Don't you guys look inordinately proud of yourselves.

And on top of all that, the cheater trap’s supposed to put you in an infinite loop but you actually get to continue on with the adventure.

The puzzles and the writing are about the same as they were in the books leading up to this, but dragged way the heck down by the rest of the creative decisions listed above.

Yes, it was definitely time to put this one to bed.