Platform: PlayStation 4
King's Quest - Episode 1 Review
A promising start for the adventure game reboot
The last time a King’s Quest game was released, Bill Clinton was president of the United States, Justin Bieber hadn’t started kindergarten, and games like Halo, World of Warcraft, or Assassin’s Creed were but a twinkle in the eyes of their respective developers. With the recent success of adventure games, it seems the also-recently-revived publisher Sierra has felt it is time to resurrect the King’s Quest series and dress it up for a contemporary audience with a choice-based narrative, quicktime events, and an episodic release schedule. These features seem like a pretty safe play from Sierra’s parent company, Activision Blizzard, who are known for their generic homogenized ideas rather than bold, new initiatives. Yet, despite my cynicism, the first episode of King’s Quest was one of my favorite adventure experiences of the year, bridging the gap between the old school adventure game King’s Quest was so long ago and what the genre has become during the franchise’s seventeen year hiatus.
One of the ways this King’s Quest differs from the original series is in its narrative-heavy structure. There’s more of an arc to the story told by the game’s developer, The Odd Gentlemen, and the first episode is impressively as much a standalone tale as it is tied into the episodic series promised. The majority of the gameplay is narrated (somewhat unreliably) by an aging King Graham, sitting in his bed, finally succumbing to old age. Spending what we would assume are his final days visiting with his granddaughter Gwendolyn, Graham tells her a story which he has never told her before: the story of how he became king.
As you play through the game, old King Graham and his granddaughter will pop in, narrating events or correcting you when you’ve steered the story off-course (by dying, for example). The storyline of the series’ first episode, A Knight to Remember, follows a much younger Graham who has just arrived in Daventry and is entering a tournament to win his knighthood and possibly become heir to the throne. It’s all a bit contrived and occasionally the whole thing quakes under video game cliches, but there’s a heart-felt tone to the plot which rescues it whenever the writing threatens to go off the rails.
When King’s Quest is at its best, there is some surprising emotional depth to the narrative; Graham isn’t the fantasy hero like those we’ve come to know in Dragon Age or The Witcher, and his victories are less about strength and more about personality. As Graham passes the many tests required to win the tournament and become a knight, he proves the age-old adage that true heroism comes from the heart.
But heart isn’t quite enough on its own. King’s Quest also requires a bit of brains. Unlike other episodic franchises such as those from Telltale Games, this is a more complex adventure game; the answer isn’t always dangled in front of your face and puzzles will take more than ten minutes to solve. But it’s also not quite as confounding as some of the more old-school adventure games we’ve seen this year like Grim Fandango or Broken Age. Instead, King's Quest finds a solid middle ground which prevents you from becoming hopelessly stuck and mindlessly unchallenged.
A big part of this puzzle-filled world are the characters which populate it, and it’s quite the delightful cast The Odd Gentlemen have assembled. They’re mostly stock personalities, but the way you as the player interact with them to craft your story is what makes them work. There are not as many dialogue options as you might expect and the game even takes a moment to mock the “So-and-so will remember that” gameplay which has become prevalent in Telltale games, but there are other choices which can affect your game and change the way Graham is perceived by the people of Daventry. These interactions are as much part of the puzzling in King’s Quest as the items you pick up and use. It’s hinted that these relationships and choices may have larger effects in later episodes, but we’ll have to wait and see.
These characters and adventure gameplay wouldn’t work without the whimsical nature of King’s Quest. The color palate is warm and filled with golden-hued colors designed to make the world of Daventry feel safe and fun. It’s not without its share of dark caves and dangerous monsters, but King’s Quest consistently goes out of its way to remind you that this world is supposed to be light-hearted. The jokes don’t always land, the visual gags can miss the mark, but the fun that The Odd Gentlemen are having with Graham’s cooky world is impossible to miss. It’s all accented by the grandiose score that conveys the epic scale, goofy nature, and underlying depth for which King’s Quest is constantly striving.
The game isn’t without its share of faults. I suffered nagging framerate issues throughout my time with the game. There were animation issues, sound editing problems. And last, but definitely not least, some of the scripted action sequences don’t control well. You’ll be trying to guide Graham across a bridge or get him to climb a series of stones and he’ll simply stay put, not registering your commands.
These flaws might have been a bigger annoyance if it wasn't for the surprisingly long play time. Double the price of episodes in other franchises, King’s Quest: A Knight to Remember clocks in at around 4-5 hours, giving you more content than we’ve seen elsewhere. The additional length helps add some weight to the episode. The game might not be as satisfying as a stand-alone product, but it comes closer than any other episodic offering before it.
King’s Quest is revamped for a new generation of adventure game fans, but feels in touch with its roots more so than I expected. I enjoyed the pacing and found myself lost in the world of Daventry and its goofy characters. The smart levity of King’s Quest is very much welcomed at a time when sword and sorcery fantasy has often become too serious or unapologetically stupid. It’s the right game at the right time for both fantasy and adventure game genres. It has its fair share of Disney-esque sap, but carves out enough time for jokes and puzzles that it doesn’t pound you over the head with the tone. King’s Quest won me over and I’m excited to see more from The Odd Gentlemen and Graham.