King's Quest: Chapter I - A Knight to Remember Review
Reviewed on PCAlso available on Microsoft Xbox 360, Sony PlayStation 3, Sony PlayStation 4 and Microsoft Xbox One
King's Quest is a franchise that has existed almost as long as the PC has been a part of people's households. It's generally viewed as the original adventure game, created by husband-and-wife team Ken and Roberta Williams who formed the legendary games company Sierra On-Line and released a slew of classic adventure games in the '80s and '90s. Sierra also published the original Half-Life, a game which you may have heard of.
But long before that Sierra were masters of the graphic adventure (alongside LucasArts), and it's fair to credit them with a huge amount of innovation in PC gaming. The King's Quest games in particular were regarded as their flagship series and each new release would push technology into new eras. If you're a 30-something PC gamer today it's entirely likely that you grew up with Sierra's releases and struggled to solve the fiendish puzzles - often annoying your parents by calling the hint-line and racking up a huge phone bill. Sierra eventually disappeared as a company, and the Williams retired from the games industry. Outside of fan projects, King's Quest was a franchise that seemed relegated to just memories of the past.
All this history is important, because The Odd Gentlemen want to make it known that they are huge fans of the original games and set out to create something that genuinely feels true to the spirit of King's Quest. If you are of a certain age you will get a nostalgic tingle when you see the Sierra logo appear on the screen, the company newly revived as a publisher. At its heart, this new entry really is a modern adventure game (it’s episodic) and manages to mix in elements from a number of different genres to create a well-rounded and fulfilling experience. It separates itself far from the formula established by Telltale Games and is more reminiscent of what adventure games used to be, with a modern twist.
The original King's Quest games had you take on the role of King Graham of Daventry, or a member of his family. The same is true here as we once again take control of Graham, but he's certainly not the Graham you grew up with. The developers have taken a creative approach to making this game fit in alongside the existing history of the series, while also making it work for new players. It's not a complete reboot of the franchise, although it does look at things from a fresh perspective. The story is framed by an old King Graham telling his granddaughter of the heroic adventures from his past, enabling the game to jump about in time and tell stories that take place around the original games. The prologue is actually a (much more elaborate) retelling of Graham's search for the magic mirror and defeat of the dragon in the original game, while after that the story shifts to a time before King's Quest I when Graham was a teenager first attempting to become a knight.
There's a dissonance here, as the story we are presented with does not necessarily feel like it could be part of the previously established world. Fans can argue that the teenage Graham we meet here doesn't match up with the Graham we played as many years ago. The kid in this game is clumsy, excitable and a little bit silly, more along the lines of Guybrush Threepwood or Disney's Aladdin. Wasn't our King Graham a noble and stoic character? Well, honestly, not really. The Graham in the original games had no real personality at all and merely served as a tool for the player to get around the world. The first time we really got to engage with Graham was in 1990's King's Quest V, and in that game he still had as much depth as a piece of paper. The developers may have taken some liberties with their presentation, but there was nothing in place to say they couldn't. Plus, old King Graham is voiced here wonderfully by Christopher Lloyd who immediately adds an air of quality. It's not all silly, either, as the game sneakily adds some more emotional moments which took us by surprise.
A big question many fans had was whether this game would have a focus on puzzles, something which has fallen by the wayside in modern adventure games. It does, and while the solutions seem very obvious as you begin, they become more complex the further you play. This is far beyond what The Walking Dead or Tales from the Borderlands ask of you. Even the current batch of non-Telltale games such as Life Is Strange and Dreamfall Chapters don't have this much constant emphasis on solving problems. You are encouraged to explore and need to investigate your surroundings, talk to people and find objects. Sometimes you'll come across a puzzle with no obvious solution, and it will be a while further into the game before you're given the tools to solve it. It's likely you'll come across a couple of moments that really stump you and it feels very much like an old Sierra game in this respect, but still it isn’t quite the ordeal that the old games would put you through. In order to grab you, the game's opening hour is far more focused on action sequences and guiding you down a pre-set path, but after that things open up and you are allowed to set your own pace.
One thing that will make most players breathe a sigh of relief is that this new game does not punish you in the way that old Sierra games were famous for. Back then, your character could die unexpectedly at any given moment. Tried to pick up something sharp? Dead. Taken the left path instead of the right one? Dead. Accidentally sneezed? Dead. Okay, maybe not that one, but the old games really became famous for constantly giving creative death sequences with no warning to the player, so much so that they were a part of the company's identity. The developers have come up with an elegant workaround for this: the sudden death sequences are still there, and many of them quite funny, but dying doesn't mean game over. The scene cuts back to old King Graham telling the story to his granddaughter, and Graham will say something along the lines of "but of course, I didn't do something as silly as that!" and you are dropped back into the game to a point just before you died. Additionally, this new game has no dead ends or unsolvable puzzles if you forgot to do something at an earlier point, something which caused many an adventure fan of old to throw their keyboard in anger.
The old King's Quest games always sold themselves as being like animated cartoons come to life (and for the time they were released, it was generally felt that they achieved this). The new game really does live up to this tradition with a beautifully colourful art style that blends cell-shaded 3D models with hand-painted scenery. Using a fairytale, cartoon look works to its benefit as it overflows with personality and the animation feels dynamic and full of expression, adding a good amount of humour. The game controls the camera itself and it never gets in the way, while the controls are simple and intuitive as you move Graham around and then interact with things with one click (we used the Xbox 360 controller which worked perfectly) with another button to access your inventory. We also need to mention the fantastic music which has callbacks to the original themes and remains magical throughout. Excellent voice work is provided by the aforementioned Christopher Lloyd, as well as Wallace Shawn and Zelda Williams, along with a number of voice actors well established in the world of animated TV series and films.
The game is also excellent value for money. ‘A Knight to Remember’ is the first of five planned chapters to be released, we managed to get through it in six hours and it was entertaining for that entire time. We could have extended that by replaying with different choices and there were certainly secret sections which we missed out on judging from the achievements. The chapter itself feels fairly self-contained, without a huge cliffhanger ending so it’s quite satisfying. The framing story with old King Graham and his granddaughter appears to be the one which leads into the next episode and that leaves a thread which you will want to follow. We expect Chapter Two to give us a brand new tale for the most part.
There's variety throughout, with some mini-game style sections appearing towards the end, traditional puzzling, exploration, and the dreaded quick-time action sequences that require fast reflexes. These are never welcome, but they occur maybe three or four times across the entire chapter. The dialogue is fast and fun (there are a lot of puns) and you'll meet some very memorable characters, notably in the fantastic Achaka who steals the show. It’s not going to really grip you from a story point-of-view and there are no tough emotional choices but the Odd Gentlemen have created family-friendly entertainment that stands out in the current adventure game world, possibly one of the first releases in a while that successfully blends the old and the new.