Let me just reiterate something. JGR, in general, is a learning experience. I’m past the point where I’m reviewing my beloved classics, and Static and I both are now spending more time in uncharted territory. I truly am playing the King’s Quest series for the first time, each in order, with little foreknowledge of what’s coming up (for example, I have not and will not be reading reviews for King’s Quest V). So forgive me if the following comments sound a little more irate than the previous in my own little King’s Quest review series. I honestly was expecting the games to be better by now, and not just a slightly new model off the factory line.
But first, let’s cover the achievements. At the end of King’s Quest III, King Graham’s daughter Rosella catches the ol’ adventuring hat – an unexpected twist that sets up her top billing here. A bit of revisionist history occurs in the opening cutscene of KQ4, which has the hat landing unclaimed after Graham suffers a sudden heart attack and is confined to bed. Overcome with grief, Rosella sprints from the room. As she sobs on her fathers’s throne, the ever-useful magic mirror auto-dials a call to fairy princess Genesta. She has a way to save Graham if Rosella agrees to come to her kingdom and rescue her in return. With magic…power…….fading… Rosella agrees to a blind jump to the magical island of Tamir.
The second part of this intro cutscene sets up the quest. King’s Quest IV actually gives you two main goals. The first is to find a rare fruit that can save Graham from death, but which grows only once in a hojillion centuries on a tree deep in a perilous swamp. The second is to reclaim Genesta’s magic medallion from the game’s Wicked Witch of the West-a-like, Lolotte. Without the medallion, Genesta will die and you will be stuck on Tamir. Luckily, the goals are not mutually exclusive. You can take a crack at nabbing the fruit once you have the requisite materials (about halfway through the game), which you earn while exploring the areas for Genesta’s medallion. That second task is a bit trickier though, and revolves around you playing double-agent and working to gain Lolotte’s trust. Here’s where it falls into traditional King’s Quest territory – Lolotte wants you to steal three items from three different areas around the land, with each task unlocking the next.
Also of note is that there’s a greater range of emotion here than in the previous. I mentioned in KQ1 and 2 that I had little involvement with Graham, and he seemed more like an avatar than a character. Not so here. Rosella has clear motivation, a noble goal, and a sense of personality through her actions. The cutscenes, while lengthy, tell a clear story, and the improved graphics (more on that later) give Rosella and characters true faces that can actually emote.
There’s also less of a reliance on fairytales. Snow White, The Frog Prince, and nods to The Wizard of Oz do make appearances, but original encounters of the same fairytale style are more frequent. You’ll meet Cupid and take his bow. You’ll have to capture a unicorn and a hen that lays golden eggs. You’ll spend some time in a haunted house finding items to set various ghosts to rest. There’s a couple mythological creatures, but their appearances are more like cameos. Unlike the previous, you won’t need to know about them ahead of time to solve their puzzles (like needing to know goats defeat trolls, a la the first King’s Quest).
However, any gameplay progress made in KQ3 gets tossed in the chamber pot. This game plays identically to the less-inspired mechanics in 1 and 2. Gameplay is again predominately based around wandering the countryside. Random elements return in force, and you again have to enter and leave screens multiple times to trigger critical events. If you’re confused about where to go next, chances are you’ll need to wander around until one of the screens load something new. The constant peril of KQ3 is dropped, you’re no longer sharing in the experiences of the main character (like rushing to create potions before he’s captured and your game is over), and you’re stuck having to grab any loose items and divine often unhinted uses for them later on.
Figuring out solutions is also fairly confusing. I did not have to resort to the “try everything” approach, but some actions that turned out to be valid were definitely long shots when I tried them. Sometimes you’re left in the dark; one example is an item that briefly transforms you. The screen you have to use this item on gives no prompting whatsoever that this is where it needs to be used. Instead, you pretty much have to try the item at every screen until something beneficial happens.
Sometimes the requirements are too strict – you can’t give a fisherman a critical item until he is sitting down at his table. There’s a screen where he’s fishing, some time while he’s walking, time while he’s standing in his house, and if you try to give him the item any of these times, he will act disinterested. There’s no “wait and let me sit down first” clue, instead it seems like you’re trying the wrong action.
Sometimes they defy logic – you’re supposed to get captured by Lolotte’s goons, even though it seems like a really bad idea, and the game itself even gives an “OH GOD! MONSTERS COMING!” style message. My only guess is that you’re supposed to try it for laughs and see what happens, but I certainly didn’t think I was overreacting by running away. It’s not like a Sierra Quest has any qualms about killing you.
Random enemies also return to bite you randomly in the ass. There are two ogres roaming near their house, and they have a chance of loading when you enter those screens. There’s the possibility they will enter the screen at the same time and on the same side as you, capturing you instantly. Now that seemed like a fluke, until the same thing happened four more times throughout the game. I would get blackjacked by a teleporting ogre just for walking onto a screen that wasn’t really all that close to his house to begin with. The death screen shows an EGA portrait of Roberta Williams with the suggestion “Next time, be more careful.” Sure, Roberta. I’d like to know how I’m supposed to do that. Stand in one place for the whole game?
Just like the second KQ, the game loathes you and passionately wants you to die. Stairs abound, and combine the perspective issues from KQ1 (drawing 3D spaces that the engine can’t see as 3D) with the delightful lack of automatic pathfinding. Having a numpad is a near requirement, so you can move the character up and down diagonally, but it’s still not a guarantee. If the stairs aren’t enough, how about a whale’s tongue you have to climb before you’re gassed to death? Except that you’ll randomly slip and fall off the tongue as you try to climb it. There’s no indication of how to get up there, no real trick to doing it, you just have to keep trying until you succeed.
If that’s not enough, how about a completely black cave where the only things visible are your character and the shadows of the foreground. As you walk to the light at the end of the cave, there’s a hole in the floor you can’t see that kills you when you fall in. You’re supposed to place a board over it, but YOU CAN’T SEE THE HOLE. The solution to this puzzle is literally to die, reload, then inch forward typing “place board” until you make it. You never see the goddamn hole. And again, the only death advice is “Next time, be more careful!” Oh, fuck off, Roberta. They should just change the death screen to this.
King’s Quest IV gets some points for having a female lead; something a bit more radical for the time. The story goes that Roberta was concerned that male gamers wouldn’t identify with a blonde, female heroine they weren’t supposed to fuck. I think she avoided this well, and I’ve already talked about how Rosella as a character is “Graham + a lot more.” But if avoiding sexism was the goal, maybe they shouldn’t have made the game so astoundingly girly. You have to save your ailing daddy. There’s ponies and dolphins and flowers and fairy princesses. The cutscene with Rosella and Genesta looks like dueling Barbies. And then the real kicker – one of the puzzle solutions is to walk into the dirty house of seven male dwarves and clean it. No bullshit. To win the game, you have to walk into a filthy house, see that it’s filthy, type “clean,” and watch in-game animations as Rosella makes the bed, washes the dishes, prepares dinner, and sweeps the fucking kitchen. After that one I was waiting for the puzzle where she enters the home of the reclusive male ogre and decorates.
But let’s not forget the true star of the show, and perhaps the reason they stuck with familiar, established gameplay (there is such a thing as too much innovation at once) – the graphics and sound. Both make clear leaps over the previous titles in the series, and definitely take the Sierra games (and arguably all computer games) to the next level.
Graphically, we’re on the new Sierra Creative Interpreter. SCI brings full EGA support and doubles the resolution to 320×200. It’s still limited to 16 simultaneous colors, but the increased resolution allows for shading. Aside from the obvious increase in detail of faces and trees, you now have shadows and the suggestions of more than 16 colors by interspersing two colors in close proximity. Throwing out the alphabet soup and my tech-lite explanation, what it comes down to is an easily visible boost in the artwork and some great animation. The improved resolution also allows small details or clues to be seen (like a glint of an item in the scenery).
The charm of previous King’s Quest locations remains, with plenty of peaceful and idyllic meadows and streams. There is a somewhat revolutionary day-to-night cycle, but this isn’t as striking as it sounds. At a key point in the plot, or after an extremely generous time limit, night will fall and open new locations. Every screen has a new “nighttime” look, but this is really just replacing the sky with stars and the colors with darker tones. Nothing fundamental about the screens change or get added.
On the audio side, you’ve got music. With the proper hardware, you’ll have a full orchestra supporting Rosella’s adventure at key points, composed by TV and film professional William Goldstein. Now sound cards were still pretty much a novelty, certainly didn’t come with any computers, and catered to a select group of users rather than the broad audience of today. There were two major methods out there, and King’s Quest offers support for both.
The first is the Roland MT-32. The story goes that Ken Williams met a Roland rep at a trade show, saw the obvious benefits of a partnership, and told Roberta – who I’m sure had a little geek fit that her games could now be fully scored. And indeed, what you get with an MT-32 is quite impressive, even to this day. Instruments sound real because the musical notes are derived from a library of actual instrument recordings. Sure, it still has a digital, synthesized tinge to it, but the advantage is clear. Listening to available demonstrations, it actually reminded me of the crystal-clear synth music on Sega CD games like Final Fight (probably derived from similar equipment).
The catch of course was price. The MT-32 was a prosumer MIDI device for music creation, that was also able to play completed tracks Sierra provided. Playing game music is really using only a third of the box’s capabilities, which limits its value to someone who is not a musician. It wasn’t cheap either – Sierra had a distribution license and sold them for $500 USD a pop. That would have been a daunting investment when this was the only game that supported it, and no guarantee that Sierra or anyone else would score for it in the future.
The other option was the Adlib card for a much more reasonable $150-200 range. Naturally, the quality wasn’t as impressive, but it was more affordable and thus became the standard (Sound Blaster cards would be completely compatible with Adlib). This is the squelchy, beepy MIDI you’re probably used to from older games. It’s still a step above silence, and far beyond anything the PC speaker could produce. Either one would have been impressive to audiences of the time, and whatever your setup, the music supports the game and mood skillfully. It is still limited, and the majority of the game rolls by without sound effects or background themes. When they do appear, it’s in the intro, for specific events, or a shameless little demo (like Rosella playing a flute or a pipe organ). But even then, hey, the games have music now.
Ultimately, the best way to describe this is “King’s Quest Plus.” If you enjoyed King’s Quest I and II, you’re going to have that style, plus a legitimate character, plus an emotional story, plus expanded puzzles with multiple steps, plus significantly improved visuals and audio. If you were looking for something more involved than fairy tale item hunts, or along the lines of King’s Quest III, you’ll be disappointed. This game resorts to the same wander-around gameplay and cheap deaths as the first two. Some areas seem so intentionally confusing as to require you to find a walkthrough (or have paid for a Sierra hint book, natch) and I can’t imagine trying to play without taking frequent advantage of the built-in save system. Worthy addition to the series, but the series itself remains flawed.
Gorgeous graphics, beautiful music, more developed characters, better storytelling.
Pretty much the same old King’s Quest gameplay in another (somewhat) new setting.