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.

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