Time once again for our weekly adventure, as we continue our survey of Roberta Williams' classic 3-D adventure series, playing through King's Quest V: Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder.
The game was Sierra's first major release to feature VGA graphics, allowing rich, painted backgrounds. The original diskette version was soon updated to become Sierra's second CD-ROM multimedia effort, following a smaller-scale VGA remake of Roberta Williams' children's title, Mixed-Up Mother Goose. KQV required some new technology - MUMG used a CD Redbook soundtrack, but KQ5 had too much dialogue and narration to fit on a single audio CD, so the content was compressed to a lower sample rate and played through a sound card, with the SCI engine upgraded to treat digitized playback separately from the music hardware.
Unfortunately, the technology is promising but the execution is weak. Bandwidth and hence audio compression is tight, with less than 100 MB of space for more than five hours of sound -- dialogue is noisy, hissy, and messy-sounding throughout. And the voice acting is far from great -- most of the characters are performed by in-house Sierra staff, and few of the amateur actors are really able to inhabit their characters. Most of the dialogue sounds "read-y," and there are some odd pauses, as though only one take was permitted and the performers were caught still familiarizing themselves with their lines. Josh Mandel does a capable job as King Graham, and there are some interesting voices in the cast -- but it would take Lucasarts' professionally-acted LOOM to demonstrate the real potential of voice acting in adventure games Here, it still feels like a novelty that doesn't greatly enhance the experience.
The move to VGA also has its drawbacks -- the painted backgrounds look lovely, but at VGA resolution the pixel boundaries are thrown into jarring relief whenever a character walks behind an object. The VGA palette allowed 256 colors, so the engine devotes 128 variable colors to the backgrounds and 128 fixed colors to sprites. It's a reasonable compromise, but there is consequently some graininess and color banding in the backgrounds, while the sprites take on a bright, cartoonish appearance. And as CPU speed and memory size were not necessarily up to the task of moving twice the graphics data around compared to EGA, sprite size and detail is actually reduced compared to the earlier Sierra games. There's a new "detail" slider on the options screen to match the incidental animation to the PC's capabilities, but the new look often literally distances the player from the action, with the voices in many scenes seeming much bigger than the tiny characters.
The game also introduces a mouse-driven, icon-based interface, doing away with the text parser altogether. Heresy it may be, but I can't say that it completely ruins the experience -- most of the King's Quest puzzles are simple, and taking an object and clicking on a location or character does the trick with less frustration and fuss than keyboard entry sometimes required. It also has the effect of taking a lot of hypothetical solutions off the table, and making the experience more visual -- spotting a glint or an alcove in the background is often the only way to discover a useful item. But it does make the design less flexible, and the lengthy voice-over narration of each and every bit of "look" description gets old fast. It would be a while before "talkie", mouse-driven adventures found their footing as something more distinct from text-based interactive fiction.
I played through both the VGA and CD-ROM releases of King's Quest V back in the day, enjoying the novelty of the new technology, and was looking forward to tackling it again for this post. But I have to say I didn't enjoy revisiting the game as much as I wanted to -- the design once again recalls the very early King's Quest titles, with a large exploratory first act filled with random puzzles, leading to a more-or-less linear road to the finale. Twenty years later, it's easy to see that while the technology was dramatically improving, Sierra's approach to game design was stagnating during this period of transition.
The story concerns King Graham's attempt to rescue his castle and family after they are spirited away by the evil wizard Mordack, in retribution for Alexander's escape from his brother Manannan way back in King's Quest III. From here on in, I'll be discussing the game in detail, and am likely to give away many puzzles and plot points. So if you wish to enjoy the game fresh, I urge you to go play it before continuing.
****** SPOILERS AHEAD! ********
Roberta Williams' fairy-tale dialogue often sounds corny and awkward spoken aloud. Crispin the magician rambles on for quite a while as the game gets underway, then abruptly commands, "Here, eat this!" as he confers upon Graham the magical ability to communicate with animals. At another point, Graham exclaims, "Drat! My sled is broken!" Nobody talks like these characters do, and unimportant conversations sometimes go on for far too long-- Graham's exchange with a pie merchant is particularly unnecessary.
The game uses close-up character portraits for many dialogue sequences, with good lip-synching for the time -- it's a small but worthy innovation that does bring the characters to life.
Graham's companion Cedric the owl is perhaps the most annoying character ever to appear in an adventure game. His voice is high-pitched and grating, and he doesn't do much that's useful -- occasionally he urges Graham on if he dawdles too long in one place, but mostly he panics and warns Graham of danger unnecessarily, or too late to prevent Graham's death. After he nearly dies toward the end of the game, the characters go on about their business for quite a while before remembering his lifeless body on the floor, and I can't say as I blame them. If, as I contend, Roberta Williams is the George Lucas of adventure games, then Cedric is her Jar-Jar Binks.
That isn't to say that there aren't plenty of other irritating characters to meet and deal with. There's an ostensibly heterosexual prince bereft of his lady love, who warns of yet another evil witch who transforms Graham into a frog on sight with no opportunity for escape or defensive action. There's a poisonous snake, a frequent villain in Roberta's games, who can only be scared off with a tambourine Graham must go to ridiculous lengths to obtain. Ants and bees and a rat must be appeased to win their assistance, even though Graham offers only temporary "solutions" to their harassment by a dog, a bear and a cat, respectively. A purportedly German toymaker doesn't pronounce German words very accurately; a shoemaker complains of poverty and his wife says business hasn't been good, but he has no shoes on hand to sell, so SOMEBODY must be buying. A portly, complaint-spouting customer in the tailor shop looks a lot like Ken Williams, which at least provides some entertainment while we deal with the snooty elfin proprietor.
At least King's Quest V's map isn't quite as sparse as the earliest KQ games -- it's still very N/S/E/W in its layout, but there's a lot more visual variety and almost every room has something interesting to do in it. And the mazes are improved -- the desert to the west can be navigated, with enough oases to keep Graham alive as he explores, and there's a 3-D maze in the wizard Mordack's castle that provides a new mapping challenge.
There's some fun incidental animation here and there -- if Graham wanders too close to the ant hill, he has to brush the insects off, dancing in a comical fashion that's ruined only by Cedric's subsequent lame joke.
The puzzles follow Roberta's usual pattern -- find something of value, help someone out or trade it for something more germane to Graham's quest. The gnomes have a fancy marionette, a Gypsy fortune-teller offers advice in exchange for a gold coin, a weeping willow is a transformed princess, a bake house has pies for sale. There are also dangerous situations to which Graham MUST subject himself in order to complete the game -- getting knocked out by thugs, and entering a bandit treasure store, for example -- that readily supply fatal dead-ends if not handled correctly.
There are also navigational puzzles, although the mouse interface now has decent auto-pathing and Graham can find his way around fairly complicated obstacles. The game still allows the player to direct Graham off of cliff edges, though, and there are several trial-and-error movement puzzles with fatal consequences for wrong steps.
A trivia note: King Graham visits the Village of Serenia, the setting of Ms. Williams's Wizard and the Princess/Adventure in Serenia adventure game back in the day. It's much more populated now, and Graham can actually visit three shops, whereas the town itself was window dressing in the older game.
There is a haystack, in which Graham must of course find a needle. Searching it directly is unproductive, but if he has assisted the ants, King Antony and his troops will show up and sift through the stack on his behalf. They sing a little song while they work, and it's pleasant enough, but I have no idea how they manage to whistle with those rigid mandibular mouth-parts.
After the bear is sent away by tossing it a fish, Queen Bee-atrice appears. She sounds like Zelda Rubinstein (Poltergeist) and allows Graham to take a piece of honeycomb -- he wraps it in a protective piece of cloth that materializes from nowhere. I guess someone felt that having him carry a glob of honey and beeswax around in his pocket was even less realistic, or perhaps he tears it discreetly from his garments and is too polite to mention the player's failure to provide him with an alternative.
The desert to the west contains a bandit hideout that's quite dangerous. Graham needs to hide behind rocks or he will be killed by the bandits on horseback; after watching them open the temple with a magical staff, Graham must sneak into their camp and steal it. THEN he must get into the temple, breaking the staff in the process, and grab TWO critical items quickly before the door closes up again. I replayed this section several times before getting everything right. And of course, rubbing the brass bottle produces a ticked-off genie who permanently imprisons Graham in the bottle -- it's meant to be given to the witch so she can be disposed of.
The witch presents a challenge herself -- she appears semi-randomly in the dark forest, and I at first though I could get past her by saving and restoring. But she always appears at the bridge in front of her house, and Graham will be transformed into a frog yet again if he doesn't have some magical protection.
A bluebird in the forest "could almost make Graham happy again, if it wasn't for his family." I don't think that's what Ms. Williams really meant to say.
Graham demonstrates once again that members of royalty, even heroic royalty, can be jerks on occasion and tend to deal with witches in an extremely prejudicial fashion. He's very sarcastic when the witch claims she owns the forest, as if such a thing could not be possible. And he certainly does not respect her property rights, casually invading and ransacking her home after she's bottled up.
Value is always extremely relative in these games, based more on what people have and want than any realistic economy. Trapped in the forest, Graham must trap an elf to escape, by tossing out emeralds and smearing some honey on the ground to snare the little man. After crawling through some underground tunnels to the land of the elves, Graham proceeds to extort a pair of valuable shoes from the little people. Why? Because he needs to give them to the shoemaker, granting the man and his wife a cushy retirement in exchange for... a cobbler's hammer. Roberta!
Similarly, the toymaker doesn't want the exquisite miniature spinning wheel Graham has found, for some unspecified reason, which means the gnomes must want it, which proves true. Graham exchanges it for the gnomes' marionette and trades that to the toymaker for the sled. Graham seems awfully anxious to have the sled, though there's no clear reason why he should at this point. Maybe it's a Charles Foster Kane thing, although that's more about Queen Valanice than I want to know.
The game's first act is open, with lots of opportunities to explore and solve puzzles, and two three-puzzle sets involving animals and merchants. I finally reached a point where it seemed I had dealt with everything except the bandits in the inn, which required rescuing the rat from the cat so it could in turn rescue Graham from the basement. Graham, of course, has to suffer through this in order to obtain some rope and a leg of lamb.
Once Graham is pimpin' in his velvet cloak and wandering through the snowy mountains, the game becomes much more linear. Graham must climb a cliff, tying his rope to a rock outcropping and not fatally to a branch; then he must jump across some small frozen steps, saving and restoring frequently, as some of them break away, plunging Graham to his doom. Oddly, the hand icon must be used to leap from one step to another -- using the walk icon is fatal, as Graham just tries to walk across thin air. Then Cedric gets kidnapped by a wolf, and while it's tempting to just let the darn bird go, Graham also gets corraled and brought to Queen Icebella, who demands he take out a troublesome Yeti before she will free him (and Cedric, curse the luck.) This is accomplished in slapstick fashion by throwing a pie in the abominable snowman's face, causing it to tumble off the cliff and raising serious questions about Queen Icebella's ruling acumen and assistance-seeking tactics. Perhaps this is why all of her subjects seem to be wolves.
King Graham specializes in temporary solutions, and in this game he's all about creatures owing him a favor. Encountering a starving eagle, he gives the creature a half-leg of lamb. What ever happened to teaching a bird to herd sheep? Later, the eagle rescues him from a Roc's nest in return.
The next leg of Graham's journey is by sea, and there's no way to tell that the boat he finds has a hole in it until he launches the unseaworthy craft and drowns. It's apparently a small breach, as it can be fixed with beeswax, which is surprising given how quickly the boat sinks if it hasn't been repaired. The sea serpent is nasty and seems aggressive, but always shows up in the same locations -- it's really just a mapping challenge to discover a safe route across the ocean to the harpies' island.
Cedric gets injured along the way, continuing to make a burden of himself, and Graham is the subject of some disturbing speculation among the winged ladies.
Next, Graham goes back to the beach and seeks assistance from a hermit, who is hard of hearing and must be aided with a conch shell (something which apparently never occurred to the elderly beachcomber.) He patches Cedric up with a remarkably efficacious poultice, and summons Pearl the mermaid to lead Graham to Mordack's island. The hermit is kind of an interesting character, though apparently not to Roberta -- when Graham tries to thank him, saying "Mister...", he responds, "Never mind who I am!" Whatever his story is, it will not be explored in this game.
The game's climax approaches as King Graham lands on Mordack's gloomy isle. At this point, it's mostly a matter of using objects Graham has acquired in his travels and finding other handy items as needed. And again, the puzzles are somewhat arbitrary. Giving the tambourine to a monster in the maze causes it to dance and depart, leaving a hairpin behind for lock-picking purposes. Giving a locket to the scullery girl reveals that she is Princess Cassima of the Green Isles, setting up King's Quest VI. A bag of dried peas in the pantry is used to trip up a nasty blue monster temporarily, and for some reason this is the only method Graham can use to empty the bag of peas so it can be used to bag Manannan (still a cat). Graham must allow himself to be thrown into the dungeon once (ONLY) to acquire a critical piece of cheese.
Graham's interaction with Mordack is very reminiscent of the Alexander-Manannan tension in KQIII, except there's no real time pressure and the hazards are largely random. Mordack can choke Graham from a distance if Graham is so foolish as to play the organ and attract his attention, and Graham must wait in the wizard's library for him to show up and nap, so he can steal Mordack's wand and use it to recharge his own.
The recharging process is challenging, though not for the usual reasons. The game actually is quite helpful here -- the cheese must be used as a catalyst to start the reaction, but it's not clear why. Fortunately, anything else Graham tries to dump into the machine yields, "Graham hesitates. This may be the wrong thing to do." Unfortunately, there is also a game-crashing bug once we succeed in firing up the device -- poor memory management for the rather large animation overlays is prone to dumping us out to the DOS prompt:
I restored and was able to play successfully through this sequence from a clean start. I was prepared to be annoyed at Universal Vivendi for including a buggy version in the most recent King's Quest Collection, but it turns out Sierra never actually patched this bug -- they just released a save game file that takes the player past this point. So I was glad the restart allowed me to continue and finish the game properly, as the final sequence is now at hand:
Mordack shows up, zaps Cedric (hooray!), and turns into a flying insect/lizard monster. Graham can use his recharged wand to transform himself into four different shapes, and it took me some trial and error to figure out which to use for each of Mordack's countering forms. Tiger vs. flying lizard, rabbit vs. dragon, mongoose vs. cobra (in the grand adventure tradition), and rain vs. fire prove to be the successful sequence. Mordack is vanquished, and it's family reunion time, with everyone looking vaguely uncomfortable:
Of course, Crispin arrives AFTER Mordack has been extinguished, and Princess Cassima shows up primarily to impress Prince Alexander. Pleasantries ad nauseam are exchanged, along with much late-in-the-game exposition, and finally Graham remembers the owl, exclaiming, "Wait! What about Cedric? Mordack may have killed him!", to which Crispin sagely replies, "Hmmmm," before uttering a few magic words that clear everything up and restore Cedric to perfect health. Despite this setback, victory is ours:
Unlike the earlier King's Quest games, King's Quest V doesn't seem to have any optional puzzles or alternative solutions; I finished with a score of 260 out of 260 possible points. The end credits cycle repeatedly, and it's interesting to see that Roberta Williams herself voiced several characters. There's a nice closing medley of themes from the game that plays under the credits.
To be honest, I think I'm getting a little burned out on King's Quest, but it's an influential series and I intend to play through the games I have on hand. KQ VI will be the next one up for discussion here, at some point in the not-too-distant future.