Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Spottiness Ahead!

FYI, my postings here are going to be less frequent for the next several months.  I've taken on a couple of theatre projects that are going to eat up more than my available free time, and it's a busy time of year on top of that.  But rest assured I will be back, I have some games in the pipeline that I haven't written up yet and several more I am eager to tackle.  Thank you for your patience.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Quick Impressions: King's Quest 2015 - Episode 1

I've been remiss in my regular blogging duties this week due to a hectic schedule, but this gives me an opportunity to introduce an occasional look at more recent adventure games.  My regular Adventure of the Week posts operate under a self-imposed five year embargo -- yes, I know there are walkthroughs a-plenty out there, but I like to let a game ferment and grow some historical context before I write about it in spoiler-filled detail.  But I do play more current adventure games, and I'd like to use this space to write about those now and then.  And... for a change there will be...

***** NO SPOILERS AHEAD! *****

This past week I've been playing the new King's Quest game, the first of five planned episodes being released by Activision's revival of the classic Sierra label as an "indie" channel.  The season pass on Steam currently retails at $39.99, a bit more than the $25-$30 range other publishers have conditioned us to expect.

First, let me say that I'm glad to see something KQ-related finally come to market after a long dry spell, fan projects and the abortive Telltale Games take on Roberta Williams' classic franchise notwithstanding.  It's a healthy sign of revival for the adventure game genre, in that a large mainstream publisher is taking a gamble on a title like this. 

Second, I should point out that I'm not a huge fan of the series -- I've played KQ I-VII and written about them here, but I've always regarded the series as a bit contrived and less dramatic than it wants to be.  With tongue firmly in cheek, I also question its sense of morality, as Graham and his progeny seem to feel no compunction at all about pushing old women into ovens and such when the plot calls for it; they're unfailingly polite and deferential to everyone else, but witches and non-human creatures are often cruelly dispatched without a moment's thought.

As I write this, I'm only about 4 hours into this first episode -- apparently the budget does allow for a little more content than the three hours or so I usually get out of an episodic release -- but I have to say I'm enjoying it quite a bit.  It's definitely not designed as a point-and-click game -- I'm playing with an Xbox 360 controller, which provides direct control of our hero and works well for the mild action sequences and Dragon's Lair-style events that come up once in a while.  That said, there's no parser and interactions with inventory objects are very simple -- we just stand near something that an object can be used on, open inventory, and select objects until something at least responds, often with a groan-inducing pun if it doesn't apply.  Sometimes no response is produced at all, but I can't say that's a bad thing.

I like the structure of the story -- an aging King Graham (voiced by Christopher Lloyd) shares tales of his life and exploits with his granddaughter, Gwendolyn, allowing for plenty of "I would have died IF I had done that" instant recoveries and first-person-from-a-distance narration.  This convention flows better than the clunky popups and frequent die-and-restore cycles of the vintage King's Quest games.

And I like the artwork a lot -- the three-dimensional environments often call the pioneering painterly style of King's Quest V to mind, and the character models, while a little chunky up close, fit the quality voice acting nicely.  Animation is lively and often subtle, and while there are little glitches and priority breaks here and there they never seem all that important somehow.  And the effects animation is really well done -- flames and flowing water look great, but not overly realistic, without the pasted-on, memory-constrained look that the vintage Sierra titles often suffered from when trying to look dramatic.

The gameplay is, if anything, a little too reminiscent of the vintage series.  I'm currently doing quite a bit of backtracking and experimenting, and a little fast-travel or parser-quick navigation would be handy, but that's always been a problem in these animated adventure games if you ask me.  So we do spend quite a bit of time watching young Graham's gangly walking animation, steering him from place to place as we try to figure out what to try with the latest object we've acquired.  Dialogue interactions do occur, and are generally informative and/or entertaining, but dialogue doesn't drive the story as directly as in many other modern adventures.  For the most part, we have to figure out where to use the thing on the other thing, with the occasional hint thrown our way by another character or future Graham, and the old-school mechanics are fine with me.

All in all, I think the Odd Gentlemen and Activision have done the right thing in bringing King's Quest back.  The style is a workable hybrid of the modern choice-driven and classic animated adventure games, and I'm enjoying the story and the puzzles, many of which call the earlier titles to mind without seeming like direct copies.  I expect I'll write about this game in more detail some day; for the moment, let me just say that the 2015 King's Quest is proving very worthwhile -- a bit of nostalgia, a lot of genuinely fresh fun.  And I'm glad there are still death animations, with the added bonus of quick recoveries.