Adventure games are the nostalgia machines of the gaming world. Everybody’s got a key title, be it an Infocom, a Sierra, a LucasArts, or a Telltale that gets them misty-eyed. Old-school adventure games fit a familiar formula: clever writing, lovingly-rendered environments and esoteric item puzzles. Back in the genre’s heyday, the king of adventure developers was Sierra Entertainment, and its crown jewel King’s Quest.
But today’s gaming world is vastly different to that of the ‘80s and ‘90s, both creatively and economically. Adventure games have been increasingly driven out by faster, flashier experiences. Even adventure itself has moved on since Sierra’s glory days. Graphical improvements and cinematic narratives have fundamentally changed the genre, with Telltale Games leading the charge. So it’s with some bravery that Sierra and The Odd Gentlemen release a new King’s Quest - titled, in keeping with today’s sequel titling conventions, King’s Quest.
This first episode, “A Knight To Remember,” cold-opens on our hero exploring a dragon’s cave in search of a magic mirror. For an altogether too-lengthy period, we don’t have any idea who this guy is or why we should care about his adventure. But soon enough, that’s revealed as a prologue to the main story, told by Christopher Lloyd as a much-older version of our guy, Graham.
The main story’s nothing special - a kid enters “knight auditions” for the King’s court - but the subplots are where the fun’s at. There’s a dwarven snake-oil salesman; a trio of pastry-craving bridge trolls (whose backs are themselves the bridges) on strike for softer foot-soldier boots; and a huge knight who hides his knitting and a pet squirrel inside his armour. Wallace Shawn’s character, meanwhile, is full of the familiar Wallace Shawn zing. Unfortunately, it happens to be the exact same Wallace Shawn zing we saw in The Princess Bride - right down to the inclusion of a battle of wits involving drugged goblets. It’s a lazy reference in a game otherwise filled with fun, original characters. I laughed a lot at the character design and voice acting, and I don’t laugh at anything anymore.
The Princess Bride references don’t end at “inconceivable” jokes. Lloyd’s spirited narration is, functionally, a direct copy of Peter Falk’s. He’s a grandfather telling a story to his granddaughter - who, like Fred Savage, frequently interjects. The writers didn’t even try anything new with the device. There’s a point where the kid briefly takes over the story that could have provided an unreliable-narrator twist, like in the underrated Call of Juarez: Gunslinger, but instead the narration slumps back into its creaky routine. And though the granddaughter does get her own story, sadly, it’s made up solely of cutscenes.
The main game is interactive, though, featuring a complex web of interlocking items and characters that hearken back to the happy, confused frustration of point-and-click old days. But some sequences are painfully repetitive, and some just don’t make any sense. A stealth section where a bell will awaken a dragon, for example, has the same dragon snoozing through an enormous rockslide. The rest of the game is made up of quick-time events. Amusing, whimsical quick-time events, but quick-time events nonetheless.
But the worst thing about King’s Quest is its basic design flaws. Useable objects are indicated by an icon in the corner of the screen, meaning you end up running around looking at the icon rather than the environment. Level design is bizarrely inconsistent. Doors sometimes require a button-press to open, but at other times open just by walking up to them; environment tableaus indicate that you can walk offscreen when you can’t; camera changes frequently seem to come just a few beats too late. And every word of dialogue is unskippable, even when you’ve heard it several times already. Individually these are no big deal, but collectively they add up to an infuriating experience. It’s not a great idea to put self-aware jokes about annoying adventure game tropes if it also includes those tropes.
Strangely, “A Knight To Remember” feels like a complete piece in and of itself, despite being the first of five episodes. That’s only one of the many ways in which this new King’s Quest conflicts with itself. It’s a game that wants to be modern but also pay homage to its roots, and doesn’t quite carve out its own niche as a result. It lacks the cleverness of the games and movies it draws from, and as a game, it’s simply annoying to play at times.
But despite it all, there’s a charm to King’s Quest’s character work and puzzle design that just balances out its irritating elements. If The Odd Gentlemen can sort out the game’s mechanical issues in future episodes, they might well produce something quite delightful.