A first chapter fit for a king.
The King's Quest series is an important part of video game history, but struggled to modernize when things went to 3D and the series bounced between dead end revival attempts for seventeen years. In the end, that's probably for the best, because I can't see how anyone else could have done better than The Odd Gentleman. This small studio has created an utterly glorious episodic "next generation" of King's Quest that stands on its own as a game while still being loyal -- and clearly loving -- to the original.
King's Quest: Chapter 1 - A Knight To Remember picks up with King Graham of Daventry -- the protagonist of the original King's Quest -- as an old man, telling stories to his granddaughter Gwendolyn, and these stories are the playable segments of the game. The family tie is actually important to King's Quest, since various family members have served as playable characters throughout the series. If you don't care about this backstory or the homage elements of the game, skip the following paragraph.
Gwendolyn is the daughter of Alexander -- the protagonist of King's Quest III and VI -- and Cassima -- of King's Quest V and VI -- and she's come to her grandfather for advice regarding an upcoming dueling contest against her cousin Gart -- whom I assume is Rosella's son based on the blonde hair and the prominent rose pin on his cloak. Queen Valanice also makes a brief appearance as well. These characters are far from the only homages to past games. Tapestries line the walls that are reproductions of the box art for King's Quest IV and VI. The village is a recreation of the town from King's Quest V. Graham's signature method of falling on his tukus is on display multiple times, and numerous trees, river bends, rocks and hills are lovingly adapted from previous games. Llewdor, the setting of King's Quest III, is referenced, as is the magic fruit from King's Quest IV, and I'm pretty sure that Mrs. Hobblepot is based on the shoemaker's wife from King's Quest V. There are also trolls, bees, wolves, goats and a dragon which appear in various part games.
And of course, there are the notorious puns. Oh the puns. They're delightfully terrible -- and I mean terrible in the absolute best way -- and the game knows it. The dialogue is an example of the balance The Odd Gentlemen struck in resurrecting this franchise: for longtime fans, it feels sufficiently familiar, but it's completely accessible for new players as well, and doesn't require a knowledge of the old games to enjoy. A Knight to Remember doesn't just bring back King's Quest. It innovates as a game in some pretty great ways as well.
For instance, it doesn't attempt to look retro, but it also doesn't strive for ultra realistic graphics. Instead, it utilizes a distinct and beautiful painted look over 3D characters that perfectly suits the whimsical, very silly story... think the art style of The Darkness or The Walking Dead given the fairy tale treatment. Fans of Monty Python's Holy Grail and The Princess Bride will likely also love what's on offer here, since the homages are thoroughly obvious, most notably in your interactions with Manny, a small, wily knight voiced by Wallace Shawn who is a clear reference to Vizzini, his character in The Princess Bride. Of course, Shawn's voice acting is spot on, as is the entire cast's. Christopher Lloyd, Zelda Williams, Tom Kenny and company all do great work in their various characters. There really are no stand outs, since everyone's performance is amazing, although Richard White's "Whisper can do it!" seems to be Chapter 1's most quotable line.
The music is equally good. It builds drama and excitement, as well as humor, without getting in the way. Ambient sounds are equally at home in the quirky, stylized environment. Technically, the only flaws in the game are some issues with Graham's billowing cloak, and occasional character rendering bugs that require restarts to correct, and some frame rate issues that happen whenever a certain wagon starts moving. The game's frequent autosave points mean you never lose very much progress, however, so these issues are minor. They're frustrating, though, since collectively they're the single flaw in this otherwise perfectly-executed product.
- DO NOT cheat and watch solution videos. The fumbling to figure it out is part of the fun. Try everything, because there are laughs in the process. DO look up the trophies you can earn, because some of them are hilarious.
- There is no "bad end," so don't stress about your choices. Have fun with the various options.
- Keep an eye out for climbing ledges in areas that seem impassible.
- When dealing with the guards, distress is your friend.
- if you make a hatchet out of crossing the river, you can get roped into a solution.
- Once you get past the creepy woods, there are two paths: East and South. The South branch may be difficult to see.
- Deal with the trolls and any knights that go missing before attempting the feats of strength and speed.
- There's a tree next to the troll door. It can be a bit hard to see.
Getting back to what's good, the graphics and sound achievements are tied together by a very clever mix of action, adventure, and RPG game elements that create a unique, highly-enjoyable gameplay experience. The puzzles are clever but not difficult, and the gameplay is structured in modules that branch to allow you choice in how you solve certain puzzles without giving you the impression that the game is shutting doors on you when you choose a specific path. In my first play-through, I primarily chose the "compassion" route, but I still got to interact with the bravery and cleverness characters. They just expressed hilarious disappointment with my chosen alignment. You can change your approach midway, of course. There are no artificial quest lock outs and there doesn't seem to be any firm reward for sticking with one approach. Your choices do impact Gwendolyn's reactions, the midpoint cut scenes, and her approach to the duel with Gart. These things change notably based on the way you play. This, of course, leads to quite a bit of replay value as you try the different paths. You're rewarded with some jokes for making different choices, and the way the playable story unfolds also changes in some subtle but really cool ways.
Even dying is fun, as opposed to frustrating, since there's often a pun or one-liner joke that comes with it. In fact, I ended up getting myself killed more than I had to just to see what happened. Since the story is told in flashbacks, they're not actually deaths at all. They're just deviations in Graham's narrative to mess with his granddaughter. In this spirit, there are moments all through the game that encourage you to defy what you're supposed to do, similar to the experience of playing The Stanley Parable. Seriously, whenever the game tells you to leave something alone, poke it again. The results are usually really funny.
While the strength of the game is definitely the interactive story, there's enough action involved that I wouldn't call it a walking novel. While you're playing as Graham, it's rare that control is completely taken away from you for long, and there are opportunities to shoot goblins, stare down wolves, race through an obstacle course, and there's even a boss fight of sorts scattered among puzzles. The story and gameplay elements blend together nicely for a satisfying experience as a game, not just an interactive story.
How long the first chapter takes you to play depends entirely on how you solve the puzzles, how much optional exploration you do, and how many times you replay it. My first play-through took somewhere between four to six hours, and I took my time. Subsequent replay sessions took less time, but I replayed the game four times, so I have no complaints about value for money. Some early moments in the game take on a totally different meaning during a second play-through, and I liked seeing how things changed based on the different choices. There are also some very funny trophies you can earn by mucking around through alternate play-throughs.
King's Quest's crowning achievement (hey, I'm allowed to pun too!) is that it surpasses the expectations of modern gamers and incorporates modern game design. Through a story-within-a-story structure that is actually relevant to gameplay, the player controls Graham's narration of his tales to his granddaughter, which is a great usage of a device that hasn't always worked for past games. In some ways this tale-telling simulates the way us old timers have been saying "back in my day, we had to type commands to play video games... and there was this game called King's Quest that made us want to." King's Quest isn't just our game anymore. It's everyone's game. And I'm good with that.
This game was reviewed on PS4 using a code provided by Activision.
Images courtesy of Sierra Entertainment.