The Odd Gentlemen gave themselves an unenviable task when they accepted Activision’s offer to develop a new King’s Quest game for their resurrected Sierra Entertainment brand. To resurrect a three decade old fantasy franchise that predominately played out its instalments in a genre of gaming – point and click adventure – which no longer draws mass appeal. To please long term fans of the series who have been waiting for 17 years since the last – King’s Quest: Mask of Eternity – a 3D game of such poor quality that some do not count it as part of the series – and who were initially sceptical when it was announced that the new game would also be in 3D. To draw in younger fans who are unfamiliar with the lore, and who are new to adventure gaming.
In spite of these challenges, The Odd Gentlemen have triumphed. Whilst King’s Quest includes many nods to the continuity of the series, it transcends its predecessors. Full of engaging scenery, characters and puzzles, all wrapped up in an art style that is beautifully stylised, the game avoids the tweeness of previous instalments, whilst remaining true to their sensibilities. The first of five episodes, A Knight to Remember, sees an aged King Graham – the central protagonist of the earlier games – reminiscing to his granddaughter Gwendolyn about his earliest exploits as a young adventurer seeking to become a knight in the court of King Edward of Daventry. Delivering an above average play time, it leaves this reviewer impatiently waiting for details of further instalments.
I first encountered the King’s Quest series after winning a magazine competition prize of a bundle of games for the then nascent CD-ROM format. Most of the games were throwaway titles, but among the twenty or so were two made by Sierra Online – Space Quest IV: Roger Wilco and the Time Rippers and Kings Quest V: Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder. The former was completed relatively quickly; however, the latter became a burden I carried for nearly a year. As an eight year old with no internet, and no money to call premium phone hint lines, my only recourse when I got stuck was to attempt to combine all of my inventory items until eventually, a solution presented itself. From that point on, I was hooked on Sierra, Lucasarts, and any other company making adventure games.
Kings Quest V was first released in 1990, and was just one of the many revolutionary milestones that Sierra made in the PC games market in its 20 year history: Mystery House, released in 1980, was the first computer game with graphics. Kings Quest I, released four years later, was the first animated adventure game. Kings Quest V was one of first computer games to use VGA (256 colour graphics) and the first computer game to include full voice acting. Though it had its flaws – the game had numerous dead ends, and the voiceover cast was made up of Sierra employees – the game is considered a classic for the huge forward strides it took in multimedia capability, and because it laid the plot foundations for King’s Quest VI, considered to be the best instalment of the series.
Having said that, as Sierra’s flagship series, Kings Quest often suffered from the company’s desire to be at the forefront of innovation as new technology was introduced. As a consequence, the games – King’s Quest VI aside – were never that well written or designed. Most notorious were the dead ends, where a player could do something that could make the game unwinnable, a tactic often included deliberately to extend play time without doing any extra work. Sierra were often mocked by other companies for being somehow neglectful in this respect – most notably by Lucasarts, who refused to include unwinnable scenarios in their games – however, this is a tad unfair. Dead ends had been part of gaming all the way back to the earliest Infocom text adventures.
There are a number of areas in which the new game excels. Firstly they have hired an exceptional voice cast: joining Christopher Lloyd and Josh Keaton as Old and Young Graham respectively is a cast of veteran voice-over artists who bring the secondary characters to life with humour and energy. Keaton is particularly impressive, bringing a enthusiasm to his delivery that complements the witty dialogue. Also along for the ride is Wallace Shawn (Rex from Toy Story) and Tom Kenny (Spongebob Squarepants). Their voices are instantly recognisable, but work very well with their characters. No one could accuse Activision on scrimping on the budget of this title!
This can also be said of the gameworld. When episodic gaming first took off – one thinks of Telltale’s Sam and Max: Freelance Police titles, the episodes repeatedly took place within the same half a dozen screens. With King’s Quest, The Odd Gentlemen have created a compelling game world: in the original series, Daventry was portrayed as a rather lonely looking castle surrounded by wilderness. In the re-imagining, Daventry is now a bustling walled city with a large fairytale castle at its centre. It cannot be overstated just how wondrous the hand-painted graphics and animation are: some of the vistas will make you yearn to live in Daventry. If The Odd Gentlemen can avoid reusing locations in future episodes, then their achievement will be all the more impressive.
King’s Quest has not been without its detractors. In some instances, their criticisms may be legitimate. It is odd for a game to be released these days without a built in hint system, and the save game feature is a little inflexible. However, some could be accused of nostalgia blindness. King’s Quest games have always included fantasy tropes such as Little Red Riding Hood, the Three Bears, Dracula, and Rumplestiltskin – in fact, series designer Roberta Williams used to keep a list of the tropes she had used, to ensure that she did not use them more than once. To state that the plotting of this title is too “immature” is therefore wide of the mark. The very fact that in this episode Graham is a young man means that he is naturally going to be more flamboyant and enthusiastic than the middle aged Graham of the later titles in the original series.
On that point, we already know that future episodes will depict Graham at various points in his life story. Beyond that, we know little of what will be covered in future episodes. This reviewer hopes that further gaps in the original lore will be resolved – in particular the fate of the evil “Black Cloak Society” which was introduced in King’s Quest V and Kings Quest VI but was dropped for Kings Quest VII: The Princeless Bride. But for now, be content with this stand alone episode. For £6.99, it is surely worth the experience.