Thursday, May 23, 2013

King's Quest VI - Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow (Real Review)

If you’ve read all the way through this review series you may have noticed I’m not as giving as most people expect with what’s generally considered one of the greatest of all adventure game franchises. Think of me what you will for that, and I’m sure you have. But this…this one was awesome.

In the course of rescuing his family from the evil wizard Mordack, King Graham befriended the beautiful Princess Cassima, who Mordack had enslaved. Some time after the ordeal, Prince Valiant Alexander finds himself unable to forget the dark-tressed maiden. Unfortunately her homeland of the Green Isles is so far away nobody in Daventry knows where it is. But like in every single even-numbered game in the series up to now, the plot device mirror strikes once again, and after seeing a vision of Cassima against the night sky he tries to sail there navigating via the stars he saw.

Eventually he does reach the Green Isles, but in the process finds out about the treacherous shoals that are why they get and send so few visitors. And on top of that, the kingdom isn’t so welcoming. Cassima’s parents died while she was Mordack’s captive, and none of the islands are talking to each other anymore under the rule of the vizier Abdul Alhazred. Again as Paw points out, this was the author of the Necronomicon, the authoritative book on black magic in Lovecraft’s stories. Hence, obviously evil. That and well, the fact that he’s a grand vizier.

Well, there was Quest for Glory II...

Since the game doesn’t give Alexander the option to go home (AND WHY SHOULD IT???) of course he starts poking his nose into the web of deceit and double-dealing the vizier’s woven in his quest for power.

Let’s get the presentational aspects out of the way. Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow looks at least as nice as Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder, but this is also the first game in the series where, to quote another review I saw of it once, I later looked back on it and didn’t think "I remember playing that" so much as "I remember being there." Like I wasn’t in a tiny microcosm with a diversity of improbable geographical features right next to each other. Like in, well, a videogame. Each of the Green Isles is vastly different from the others, but it works better than in previous games because, accordingly with the setting being a cluster of islands, each is contained in its own little space. You won’t be in front of a dark forest on one screen then two skareen lengths west you’ll be in a desert.

While this also means each area’s smaller than any given area in the previous game, each area also feels more alive. As if they concentrated more effort into each area rather than spreading themselves thinner over the whole game. The settings are more vibrant and the characters you meet feel more like actual characters instead of a font of potential clues or items once properly satisfied. The setting had become strong enough that for the first time in the series I didn’t feel like I was playing a game, I was on an adventure. 

Like in the last game, a version later came out that had full voices. As with the last game it has multiple characters assigned to each actor, but this time they went ahead and got actual professional actors. Like Robbie Benson, Townsend Coleman, Don Messick, Linda Gary of He-Man fame, and Tony Jay. Tony, truly the world is a darker place without you.

Even if all your good-guy roles I can think of are giant anthropomorphic animals...

In terms of features, the game introduces one that would’ve helped its predecessor but lost one of the good ideas the predecessor had. The voiced version gives you the option of having voiced dialogue or switching back to the original textboxes if you’d prefer. With that dialogue being provided by seasoned talent this time and as a result the number of stupid-sounding lines being down from the last game, I usually kept the voices on unless I was sending gifts to Cassima so I could listen to that “Girl in the Tower” song without somebody talking over it.

On the other hand, in Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder the game would tell you if you were about to watch a long cutscene and give you the option to skip it. Here that option’s gone, and there are a few times it’s sorely missed. The worst offender is when you go to the Isle of the Sacred Mountain and get to the top of the cliff. The winged people who live there arrest you, then because of some prophecy shove you in a trap-filled labyrinth until you save their princess (voiced by Russi Taylor??) from a minotaur.

This being an adventure game of the old school, you can’t back out once you’re in, meaning you’d better have everything you need before you climb the cliff. If not, you not only have to reload your game and look around for everything you missed, you have to click through all that dialogue again when you come back. And if you missed something again, you’re probably going to just give up and check a walkthrough if you didn’t do that the first time. And that’s assuming you’ve been using more than one slot and didn’t save after entering the maze.

The biggest new future, though, is the game offers two different paths to victory. The idea of a single puzzle having more than one solution goes all the way back to the first game. In fact, back in the day Sierra was kind of notorious for giving you a direct if violent option but giving you a higher score if you could think of a gentler one. But this was the first time the game actually gave you more than one nice little set of goals to reach the victorious ending.

Ultimately your goal is of course to get into the palace and save the princess from the wicked Vizier. This is obvious from the minute you meet him. But about halfway through the game you have the option of sneaking into the palace right away, or questing for further advantages with the help of a little magic you pick up along the way. The second option can lead to you getting not just all the puzzle points but also a much more complete and satisfying ending depending on if you accomplished certain tasks and just how thoroughly you unraveled the villain’s schemes.

Honestly, until I was partway through the longer path I didn’t even know there was an easier way to win the game. And since I was playing the most satisfying game in the series, even at the tender age of twelve I didn’t want to cheat myself of the full experience. Originally I just thought because there was a spellbook in the game, you were supposed to use it; that’s what you had to do the last time you played this character.

As for puzzles, for the most part they’re not bad at all, especially compared to Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder’s. A few headscratchers seem inevitable, though. As I mentioned, in the longer path through the game you need to find a spellbook, but since you don’t have any money you need to find an equally rare book to trade for it instead. If you’re the type to play this kind of game you’re probably investigative enough to want to read the rare book before handing it over, but all the game calls attention to is one missing page and the fragments of the border pattern you can make out.

See though, the rare book is a book of riddles, and you can find a scrap of that missing page nearby. Specifically, the answer to the riddle. Later on in the game you do use the answer, but it feels really weird that the scrap of paper with the answer’s supposed to be a clue when nothing about the riddle itself is given by the book. You’re confronted with a riddle, and the piece of paper from a riddle book with an answer is supposed to be the answer, was apparently the thought process behind that whole puzzle. I can't help but notice that the novelized version of this game in The King's Quest Companion actually says the riddle was still in the book, and only the answer was missing.

If I have one big regret about this game it’s that the final showdown with the villain isn’t as satisfying as it was with Mordack, even getting to hear I’d accomplished everything to get the complete ending afterward. Still and all, this is without a doubt where the King’s Quest series peaked. Too bad that also means it’s all downhill from here.

But talking about what’s wrong with The Princeless Bride puts me in kind of an awkward position. For now, this is probably the end of the King’s Quest articles. I’m sure that sound was the internet’s heart breaking.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

King’s Quest V – Absences Makes the Heart Go Yonder (Real Review)

Ah, the jump to point and click, where you explored the world of an adventure with a mouse and a list of verbs or icons instead of arrow keys and your uncertain command of touch typing. Although whether the stories and puzzles made any more sense is up for debate.

We rejoin the royal family of Daventry, finding King Graham hale and hearty after Rosella delivered the magical fruit after her own adventure. If they aren’t prepared to go looking for trouble, though, trouble’s happy to come find them. While Graham’s out on his morning walk the evil wizard Mordack makes the entire castle disappear. When Graham gets back all he finds is a bumbling talking owl who relates the story to the wayward monarch and provides him with a bit of magic dust to fly to the far-off land where the owl’s master lives in hope of securing some help.

The bozo can't even stay in his stupid tree while he's talking to you.

Unfortunately while Cedric’s master, Crispin, proves to be a wizard too, he’s pretty far past his prime and not much help against a baddie as powerful as Mordack. All he can do is give Graham a spell to talk to animals, one of his worn out magic wands, and the company of Cedric on Graham’s quest.

And there you are, left in the land of Serenia with no inventory, no clue why Mordack would have a beef with you and no plan for how you’re going to get to him and save your family. But there’s a menacing desert and forbidding forest nearby where it’d probably be a good place for an adventure game character to stick his nose looking for the means to take on evil wizards.

Once again the presentational aspects of the game are a huge leap forward from the previous. We’ve moved away from the 8-bits of old and into lush hand-drawn environs, and, assuming you had a proper sound system (which I never did on my first computer), the potential for actual sound effects. And later, actual voiced lines! Not very good actual voiced lines, but at the time the novelty made up for some of it. Unless you’d already played The Manhole to death like some of us…

In terms of actual gameplay, though, things really haven’t changed an awful lot. The tiny universes of the original games are still present, with a vast desert, an overgrown forest, and a town with a rushing river nearby all within about two minutes’ walk of each other. At least things have progressed to the point where they’re willing and able to show that Serenia’s inhabited, unlike Tamir, Kolyma and Daventry itself based on what we saw of it in the first game. Hey, maybe they couldn’t have had a graphic adventure with a full village in the first couple games, but they still could’ve had a screen with huts and the stock message that you can’t get in because everybody’s locked themselves in their houses because of the evil rampant in the land.

And for as vibrant as the new technology allowed the world to be, this is very much the “use everything on everything else to proceed” kind of adventure game that non-fans are always harping on. Most of the puzzles from earlier games may not have been great, but they usually made some basic amount of sense if you looked back on them, especially if you were up on your fairytales.

Personally I thought the game started out okay on the puzzle front. Giving a bear a fish and a dog a stick were pretty obvious. The stuff in the desert was pretty much just a matter of finding all the major areas and piecing together the relevant information. Even if it was kind of tedious and involved lots of dying to make a complete map. But after getting to talk the fortune teller and finding out why Mordack would wanna start something with you, things got weird.

Because it’s about then that you’re likely to find a cat running past you trying to catch a mouse. Unless you throw an old shoe at the cat (which you’ll have to have exhaustively explored the desert to find), it’ll catch the mouse, which won’t be grateful to you and won’t save you when a bunch of cutthroats kidnap you and tie you up in a basement.

Looking back I can see why I’d be expected to save a mouse from a cat. The hero helping the powerless is a typical theme. But you’re expected to process all this, think of throwing that shoe, and then take action all in a split second. The game doesn’t do much to let you know you did anything wrong if the mouse is caught, either. Nothing like, “Graham hears the mouse’s dying screams in words he understands thanks to Crispin’s spell. He stands there dumbfounded as the cat trots away with its catch, realizing what he allowed to take place.” Just the cat catches the mouse and leaves.

Not all of us were Tom and Jerry fans, and there are those among us who hear the word "mangy" used to describe a cat, and feel the sympathy toward the cat. Like me. I hate Tom and Jerry! I never thought Jerry deserved to win because he was a cute little mouse.

It goes on. To escape the witch’s forest you have to catch an elf to show you the way out, and the way you do so is rather inane. How you finally clear the path the snake’s blocking. And through all of it you get to listen to Cedric tell you over and over how he’s not dumb enough to into that forest and how certain your demise is if you do…anything, really.

But not everything about this game is ridiculous or irritating. I feel like I should probably respond to a couple big knocks I keep seeing people (well, okay, Paw) make against this game that I didn’t experience when I played it.

I had no idea so many of Graham's old quests involved some serious shredding.

Number one, late into the game you’re expected to kill a yeti. By throwing a pie in his face, which makes the cumbersome beast stumble off a cliff. See, I grew up on a steady diet of slapstick comedies, and from those you learn that in a fictional setting a pie’s primary use is to slam it in somebody's face. Period. Anything else, like food, is secondary. The only difficulty I had with the pie was looking for a situation where throwing it would solve a problem instead of creating more. And really, when you’re starving in the mountains and you have the choice between a custard pie and a piece of mutton like you should if you searched thoroughly, are you going to think you’re supposed to eat the junk food??

Oh but that doesn’t count, someone protests. Devon Aidendale might have heard of the Three Stooges, but not King Graham! And I agree, in the best case the puzzles will be solved with knowledge your character would reasonably have. Seriously though, is metagaming really anything new for King’s Quest? As I said, not a few puzzles are predicated on stuff like the player’s knowledge of fairytales or info you’d only reasonably get by dying and reloading. And honestly, is hitting someone with a pie anywhere near as unintuitive as that snake-bridle thing back in the second game? Or hell, some of the other puzzles in this game? Like what you’re supposed to do to make nice with Dink or Icebella, or the thing with Mordack’s wand. I agree with “Sierra logic” for plenty of things in this game, but the pie one? No. You have my pity, Paw, for all the laughs you obviously missed out on.

Hey Mister Tambourine Monster...

Number two, and worse in the minds of many players, there’s…Cedric. The whiny, annoying, useless scaredy-owl sidekick with the grating voice. He almost always refuses to follow you into danger, and even when he does you just end up having to save his stupid feathery ass anyway. Again, my childhood. I grew up being taught a sidekick’s role in life is to fail to be funny and create bad situations for the hero to resolve. Orko, Snarf and the Wonder Twins had prepared me well, and while sure Cedric was annoying, he was nothing unexpected either. I never felt less like playing the game knowing he’d be there or found myself wishing death on the people responsible for that blight on the realm of point-and-click gaming. At least unlike the elves in The Malifestro Quest, who the book tried to present as actual companions instead of the annoying comic relief they were, saving Cedric or having to face danger on my own made me feel a little more validated as a hero when I came out the end of a quest line. Besides, when he finally does something helpful, it’s exactly what you’d hope somebody you hate would: he takes a bullet for Graham.

About his voice, yeah that was really unprofessional-sounding and often aggravating. But so was everyone else’s. That’s what happens when you get the cheapest voice talent available, including people around the office. Roberta Williams herself did a few voices, and I’d never heard of the rest of the cast.

Okay, I lied. I heard of Lori Ann Cole. Because she's the co-creator of another legendary game series.
Smaller points in respect to Paw’s review. Graham can’t break the spell on his castle despite just winning a magical duel because he knows dick-all about magic; those four spells he used to beat Mordack are the only ones he knows. And Crispin only shows up after you’ve already beaten Mordack. Where the heck was that guy? Well gee dude, maybe if you went back into his house you’d hear him tell you the people of a neighboring kingdom are already expecting him to come help with an emergency over there. What’s he going to do, tell them to screw off because the famed King Graham, previously the finest knight in the kingdom of Daventry who’s bested many an evildoer and trounced many a harrowing quest (not to mention whose children overthrew the tyrants of Llewdor and Tamir) needs the help of a broken-down old wizard? He was thinking of you and your rep, dude.

Nice of Mermaid Man to let Graham borrow the invisible boatmobile.

If you can put up with the game’s foibles long enough to actually get into Mordack’s castle it’s an appropriately creepy and moody place where death is around every corridor. And unlike previous games, you take the villain on in a direct contest of wits and magic to cap things off. No trickery and avoiding direct conflict, just good old good vs. evil. I went head-to-head with the evil wizard and I beat him. The victory was way more my own than sneaking a stupid cursed cookie into his porridge or shooting him in his sleep.

Didn't notice the squirming, mewling back in the corner? How much evil was Mordack up to just now?

Basically this game’s a retread of The Perils of Rosella: a step forward in terms of making use of its presentation options, but not so much the gameplay ones. At the very least they’d learned a couple things about improving the player’s satisfaction at the end of the exercise. That’s probably worth forgiving a few stupid puzzles. A few.