This week, Zero Punctuation reviews King's Quest.
Well, like a pair of stealth trousers, this was an unexpected turn-up: a retro PC adventure game franchise dredged up from the most stagnant and constipated bowels of memory to be turned into an episodic adventure game series in which your choices have lingering effects on the plot, and it isn't by Telltale Games?! If I were them, I'd start worrying about the sanctity of the cozy little niche they've made for themselves up the bumhole of other people's intellectual property. I remember hearing that Telltale Games might have been trying to get some fingers into the King's Quest pie at some point; Telltale Games are like a homeless person in a food court, sidling up to people with half-finished meals going, "Are you going to eat that?" Maybe that's why Sierra felt the time was right to, as my old elocution teacher used to say, "shit or get off the pot."
King's Quest is remembered as one of the big classic franchises from the earliest days of PC adventure gaming. Christ knows why; it was fucking awful. Set in a generic fairy-tale world designed by someone, one suspects, has never had an orgasm in their entire life, the games were somehow simultaneously vomit-from-every-orifice twee and utterly Jigsaw-Killer psychotic as they violently murdered the protagonists for walking over a blade of grass too quick. They had the air of taking one's psycho ex-girlfriend to Disneyland. I can only imagine how much more disturbing it would have been if any of the protagonists had had more personality than a dented shovel with a smiley face drawn on it.
And on that note, the new modern Sierra seems to wholly agree, because with the exception of a few place and character names and the occasional bullshit death for old times' sake that can be immediately reversed, like you kept your finger on the previous page in a Choose Your Own Adventure book, old King's Quest is the only thing that hasn't influenced new King's Quest much. It seems to have drawn the same conclusion everyone with eyeballs and at least one-third of a brain did back on the late 80s: that LucasArts did this shit so much better than them. So the first episode plays like The Secret of Mon-King's Isle-Quest, in which naive young bumbler Sir Gra-brush Threep-ham must overcome three trials in order to become a pirate, I mean knight. It also borrows from The Princess Bride in the same way that Arab terrorists borrowed the Iranian embassy that one time; as well as using the same "grandpa tells story to kid" framing device, it borrows several characters and entire scenes right down to the fucking actors involved, which probably indicates that the developers intended a sort of knowing homage, or at least that's what they told themselves as they clutched their pillows at night.
That's a ways in; as the game opens, it's more ripping off, I mean paying homage to Dragon's Lair in an action-packed prologue section taking place in a dragon's lair. You might reasonably get the impression from this section that this adventure game is doing the modern adventure game thing of not being much of an adventure game at all: relying on linear set-pieces, quick-time events and the occasional inventory puzzle that requires an item that is lying in plain sight in the very next room. Some of you may even say to yourself, "Well, at least we're not endlessly wandering through the same rooms with a bagful of garbage looking for the right thing to throw the garbage at like in most adventure games." Then the game will cough awkwardly and sidle towards the door, because don't you worry, you'll be joining the garbage collection agency soon enough when the game turns into The Secret Princess of Monkey-Bride-land.
The prologue section is there to set up a recurring three-way branching path thing, in which you can choose to solve problems through strength, through intelligence, or through compassion. So, for sake of example, if you're in a food court and Telltale Games starts bothering your girlfriend for her leftovers, you could either deck him one, cleverly distract him with a picture of some sexy intellectual property you scribbled onto a napkin, or just let him have the leftovers and maybe a free motorboat to send him on his way. The point of all this is it affects what lessons are learned by the mouthy little piranha the elderly Graham spends the game attempting to bore to death, which is as good a way to pay off pseudo-moral choice gameplay as any, I suppose, and gives us a fleeting glimpse of what it would be really like to play a child-ruining simulator. In practice, though, whichever path you want to take, all of them find common ground in the area of carting random garbage around similar rooms.
Gameplay-wise, there's not a whole lot of difference between the intelligence and the compassion solutions: you wander around the needlessly confusing world map, trying to remember if this needlessly long forest path you're on is the one that leads to the right specific area of forest, and whether I took intelligence or compassion depended largely on which garbage puzzle I figured out the solution to first. Meanwhile, the strength path locks garbage puzzles in the boot so it can ride up in the front seat with the linear action set-pieces again. Not that this is a choice of gameplay, 'cause you have to do everything on the other two paths as well before the end. And I'd say that the main problem with King's Quest is that its pick-and-mix bag was assembled with too broad a scooper.
I came into this with just a vague nostalgia for early adventure games, King's Quest. And by the end of one episode, I've had to also like Uncharted-style action sequences, a first-person shooter section out of nowhere, which evokes a game designer going pftftftft with their lips, and a competitive strategy game. I only like those when they're established with proper context, in another room far away from me that's on fire.
All in all, King's Quest 2015 is one of those games that wants to have any identity other than its own. And while that's fair enough, considering that its identity until now was Shovelface McArbitrarydeath, its attempt to occupy a point somewhere in the middle of comedy, fairy-tales, action, and drama just leaves it like a laundrette run by genies: wishy-washy. It should also have remembered that if you want to do the "naive bumbling protagonist who must strive through his failings to overcome adversity" thing, it would help if the protagonist had any adversity to face. The main reason why Graham wins the competition to become a knight is because the judges have all arbitrarily decided they want him to win, and if I were one of his opponents being told I have to beat him again because the first two times weren't for realsies, I feel like I'd be fully justified in taking this matter to an impartiality committee, which is the name I have for my big sword.
King's Quest is definitely improved upon the original, but maybe for the next episode it could strive to achieve something more ambitious than that, like walking across a room without snapping both legs off at the knee.
- King of the Ring: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- "Graham" is not a king's name, "Graham" is the name of a man who owns a van with a phone number on the side
- Another feather in my cap I think