Review: King’s Quest (2015-2016)

It was a great day for Roberta Williams fans when Sierra announced that they were relaunching her flagship adventure game series, King’s Quest. As you all know, I’m a big fan of the classic King’s Quest games, which I reviewed here and here, and I was excited to return to the world of Daventry. But does the new King’s Quest recapture the magic of the original series, or is it just another disappointing reboot? Let’s find out.

Overview

The new King’s Quest is very much a modern adventure game in the model pioneered by Telltale Games: It’s divided into five bite-sized chapters and the gameplay is a mix of point-and-click exploration, dialogue trees, and a few quick-time events. If you’re a fan of Tales from the Borderlands or The Wolf Among Us, you’ll feel right at home here.

In this series, an ailing King Graham is recounting his adventures to his granddaughter Gwendolyn. This clever framing device explains a lot of adventure-game logic. If the characters are silly caricatures and the puzzle solutions implausibly far-fetched, that’s because they’re being recounted by an exaggerating storyteller. When you die, Graham simply says “That’s not what happened” and moves on. If you try to use an item in the wrong place, the characters will dismiss the attempt as not seriously meant. I enjoyed the framing story, which has a more realistic tone ends up as an emotionally resonant exploration of the end of a long life.

The main conceit of the game is that Graham must choose one of three paths as a ruler, embodied by three NPC villagers: Strength, wisdom, and compassion. All can win the game, but in drastically different ways, and Gwendolyn changes her behavior based on what Graham has modeled for her. It’s an intriguing mechanic that makes your choices feel meaningful and lends the first chapter in particular a replayability that the original games lacked. But these options taper off as the series progresses. This makes logical sense because Graham is becoming more set in his chosen path, but the result is that later chapters feel progressively more linear and I had the ongoing impression that I was making bad choices that lost friends and left Graham alienated.

The puzzles are extremely easy. I was never seriously stuck, whereas the original series had me constantly scrambling for a walkthrough. But this isn’t really a flaw. While old-school adventure games treated extreme difficulty as a virtue, the fact is that it was an extremely frustrating experience for most of us. Easy puzzles make for a relaxing experience that a wider range of players can enjoy, and they allow the game to establish a narrative flow that doesn’t grind to a halt because it took you a week to figure out that Rumpelstiltskin’s name backwards is Ifnkovhgroghprm. (I challenge you to figure out why without Googling.)

Daventry still mostly looks like generic medieval Europe, but with a few refreshing touches of weirdness, like a cave full of stolen mattresses and guinea pig creatures instead of horses. And there’s plenty for long-time fans to appreciate: Fairy tale elements, many homages to the original games, and of course, bad puns.

The weakest point of the series is the graphics. The attempt to create a Borderlands-like cartoon aesthetic isn’t entirely successful. Sometimes it just looks weird. The animation, especially of background animals, is lacking, and there are render errors like Graham’s cape passing through his body that I just don’t expect to see in a modern game. The number of people in full-head masks or helmets left me wondering if they didn’t have the animation budget for more faces. The sound design and voice acting are great, though.

Chapter 1: A Knight to Remember

In the game’s first installment, a naive young Graham arrives at Daventry with hopes of winning a competition for a place on the king’s court. He must face off against several entertainingly silly competitors: a fast-talking narcissist, a gentle giant with a squirrel sidekick, a stoic foreigner who doesn’t speak English, and a diminutive trickster voiced by Wallace Shawn.

This is the lightest and fluffiest chapter, most similar in tone to King’s Quest VII. Fans of the earlier games may be turned off by the sometimes forced humor and exaggerated characters (the merchant is especially grating). But it’s a lot of fun. Even the most one-note characters are mostly likeable. Graham himself is a wimpy, overenthusiastic dweeb, a refreshing change from the generic hero of the original games. It’s also the longest and most expansive chapter, with a big map, lots of characters, and an abundance of player choice. Be sure to explore around and get your Wedzel Wolf patch.

Two parts of this chapter tripped me up. First, if you fail any of the events in the competition, NPCs will intervene to give you another chance. This makes it feel like everyone else is fixing the competition in your favor and cheapens your eventual victory; when the last competitor refuses to accept defeat and demands a rematch, it’s hard not to notice that that’s what you’ve been doing all along. Second, there’s a character death followed by Graham predictably wanting to quit the competition and needing to be talked back into it, all of which feels cheap and unearned. The result is that this chapter doesn’t quite feel committed to its own light tone.

I enjoyed this chapter on the first play-through and would happily dive back in to see what happens if I take a different route.

Chapter 2: Rubble Without a Cause

Graham is king now, and when he and the townspeople get captured by goblins, he must escape. That’s the whole conceit of this short chapter.

And oh boy, is this one a tonal mess. One minute the piggyback-riding guards Kyle and Larry are declaring it Opposite Day. The next minute you’re forced to choose whether to save a sick pregnant woman or an adorable guinea pig unicorn. Aside from the emotional whiplash, it’s hard to invest because the characters barely had any development to begin with, hence the need to rely on cuteness or pregnancy in a bid for sympathy.

Most of the elements that worked well in the first chapter aren’t nearly so effective here. Since all the characters seem ready to kill a few goblins to escape, the bravery/wisdom/compassion trifecta feels like a superficial choice between potions, weapons, and food. While the choices in the first game felt like a fun exploration, these felt like frustrating trial and error and left me constantly convinced that I was making the wrong choices. The game makes it clear that you can’t save everyone, but since it’s nonobvious how many people you can save, I spent a lot of time doing arithmetic in an attempt to figure out if there was a better option.

I liked the multilevel layout of the goblins’ cave, which is much easier to navigate than the sprawling, confusing layouts of a lot of video game dungeons. But the graphics are dark and murky and often venture into “What am I looking at?” territory. There are some nice moments, like a climax that revolves around storytelling rather than action, but overall, this chapter was a slog.

Did I mention that whoever you don’t save will guilt trip you about it for the rest of the series?

Chapter 3: Once Upon a Climb

While the first two chapters create entirely new events in Graham’s life, this is the first chapter that rewrites the events of one of the original games. Thankfully, it’s the weakest game in the series, King’s Quest II. In this chapter, when Graham climbs the tower to save the princess, he instead finds two princesses: the intellectual, sporty Vee and the romantic, artistic Neece. As they work out a way to escape, he must also decide which princess to marry.

This premise has the potential to feel creepy, like Graham is picking a girl off a menu, but in practice, it’s well-executed and feels quite natural. The two princesses have distinctive personalities and interests, and over the course of the game you spend a lot of time getting to know them and doing things together, offering many opportunities for in-game choices. There’s no specific moment when you pick; whichever girl you spend more time with and share more common interests with will eventually become interested in you and reveal their full name to be Valanice, Graham’s wife in the original series.

Here King’s Quest finally hit the tone I wanted, fun without being goofy and emotionally solid without being a downer. I liked both princesses as characters. The villain gets treated with sympathy. The plot has a nice moral about self-love, and it builds to a fun, action-packed climax with a Frozen-esque ending. The only part where I wasn’t on board was an odd, dull early scene where a lonely Graham has a banquet by himself, which didn’t seem to add much.

This fun, immersive chapter was the high point of the series for me.

Chapter 4: Snow Place Like Home

This chapter opens with Graham and Valanice’s son Alexander being kidnapped, the backstory of King’s Quest III. When Alexander escapes and returns home 18 years later, Graham arranges a family vacation to get to know his son better, only for the whole family to get trapped in a puzzle-filled ice palace operated by an enigmatic sphinx. Graham and Alexander must work together to escape, but first Graham must accept that his son isn’t the person Graham has been imagining all these years.

King’s Quest III leaves the beginning of this chapter with a distinct lack of elbow room. While the kidnapping scene is effective, it loses all its punch by skipping straight to Alexander’s eventual return. Players who haven’t played King’s Quest III will quite justifiably feel like they’ve skipped a story, and probably a more interesting one. Additionally, the attempts to weave together both the ongoing storyline of the series and the plots of the original games lead to convoluted storytelling, including a character who changes form no fewer than five times.

Compared to the earlier chapters, this is an extremely linear puzzler that doesn’t involve almost any open exploration or player choice.  The puzzles are fun, but as the central focus, presented as deliberately designed challenges, their easiness becomes a problem. The entire game feels like the first warm-up stages of a more difficult puzzler like Portal, giving you a few puzzles of one type and then moving on to something different before providing you with a real challenge.

The visuals and characters flesh out this chapter and make up for its shortcomings. Alexander is a sullen teenager who realistically doesn’t immediately mesh with the family he’s never known, and Graham’s unsuccessful attempts to connect with him provide emotional underpinning. The sphinx is the only truly arresting visual design in the series. It provides a GLaDOS-like running commentary of your progress and served as a more dangerous-seeming villain than we’ve seen previously.

Overall, the puzzles and the likability of the characters made me enjoy this chapter, but your opinion may vary depending on how you feel about puzzle games.

Chapter 5: The Good Knight

In this chapter, as Graham’s condition deteriorates, his memory becomes disjointed and he struggles to recount his last story. He must allow someone else to take up his mantle in order for the adventure to continue.

I had mixed feelings while playing this short chapter. On a technical level, it’s clever and often spectacular. Graham’s memory lapses become a storytelling device, changing the details of a scene to allow you to proceed. Blank patches and abrupt changes give the chapter the surreal feeling. At one point, the game lapses momentarily into the visual style of the original King’s Quest games. Throughout it all, it builds thematically to an emotional and satisfying ending.

On the other hand, odd storytelling choices kept me from investing fully. Graham’s last adventure is supposed to feel disjointed, but it also feels arbitrary: He literally just walks out the door in search of an adventure. What he does encounter—a burned-out town empty of inhabitants—presents a glum picture that contradicts the later assertion that Daventry prospered under him. A bizarre sequence where he embellishes his earlier stories with nonsense details while Gwendolyn begs him to stop, combined with the eventual resolution, gives the impression that it doesn’t matter whether the stories were true or not, which I don’t think was meant to be the game’s message.

I had a hard time connecting with this chapter, especially at the beginning, but it carried the characters to such a strong conclusion that it left me with a positive feeling about the series overall.

I have to admit that King’s Quest is a less ambitious achievement than some of the other games in the genre. It’s not working with as rich a source material as Borderlands or Back to the Future, and it doesn’t have a lot of noteworthy mechanics or eye-catching visuals. It’s very much a back-to-the-fundamentals game that will appeal to longtime adventure game fans who will appreciate its old-school feel, silly humor, and many homages. But the likeable characters, resonant themes, and enjoyable, straightforward gameplay also make it a great chance for non-gamers to get their feet wet. Check it out and remember to always seek adventure.

2 Comments


  1. Aw, Chapter Five actually sounds pretty sad, and a good send off to ol’ Graham!

    Does Rosella ever get a chance in the game?


  2. Not very much, disappointingly. She gets a couple of scenes in chapter 4 but it’s mostly pretty dude-centric.

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