King's Quest Gives a Classic Adventure Series the Royal Reboot

King's Quest Gives a Classic Adventure Series the Royal Reboot

Developer The Odd Gentlemen keeps Sierra's storybook charm intact, all while making the experience much friendlier than its inspiration.

When it comes to classic adventure games, you're either in the Sierra camp, or the LucasArts one. And, most likely, your loyalty is based solely on which of these developers' games you encountered first.

As for me, I had a pretty late start: 1996—a year when upper-lower-middle-class families like my own could finally afford a PC. I picked up The Curse of Monkey Island, devoured it, and soon made my way through every remaining LucasArts adventure. When I'd finally explored the entirety of their catalog, Sierra was next on my plate, offering dozens of unplayed games waiting for me to dive right in. Having been trained in the School of LucasArts Logic, though, I couldn't possibly have prepared myself for the traditionally antagonistic game design of Sierra. Their adventures punished me for experimenting, killed me without warning, and left me wandering aimlessly for hours on end. LucasArts games had their tough puzzles, but Sierra's seemed to hate me from minute one.

It's funny, then, that King's Quest 2015 largely follows the Telltale formula: a big, cuddly teddy bear compared to classic Sierra's snarling hellbeast. If you've followed Telltale's work over the years, you should probably know what to expect: streamlined puzzles, QTE-based action scenes, and a general user-friendliness that eliminates some of the biggest issues of the adventure game genre. Rather than create their own Telltale-style game, developer The Odd Gentlemen expands on this time-tested structure, making this new version of King's Quest feel like a real evolution of the adventure genre, rather than just another Moral Consequence Simulator. (Telltale will remember that.)

Like its inspiration, King's Quest plays out like an interactive fairytale—but this time around, things aren't so on the nose. The framing device involves an old King Graham (played by Christopher Lloyd) telling the stories of his past, with his young granddaughter Gwendolyn as his captive audience; when things get too corny, or the dialogue grows too thick with Dad Jokes—another Sierra tradition—she's always the first to raise a stink. These two characters mostly serve as the narrators throughout, with Graham quickly correcting any player "deaths," and Gwendolyn mostly serving as a commentary on newcomers to the adventure genre (or just "those dern kids")—she's always surprised when it's revealed King Graham didn't use violence to his past problems.

This framing device exists to do more than just frame things, though. Occasionally, Graham's fantasy-themed adventures return once again to the present, with the choices he made in the past (or how he chose to remember them) now taking an effect on the development of his granddaughter and her own story. It's a nice touch that gives these narrators a purpose outside of simply moving the story along—and if you think I completely missed this device's ties to The Princess Bride, don't worry. With the hiring of Wallace Shawn as a voice actor, King's Quest isn't shy about revealing its various inspirations.

Where King's Quest improves the most on Telltale's formula can be found in its relatively grand sense of scope. You won't be roaming across Skyrim-sized environments or anything like that, but after some initial puzzles, the world of Daventry opens itself up to young Graham, with plenty of places to explore and puzzles to solve—and since a good deal of these puzzles rely on each other, figuring one out typically leads you closer to solving another. After several seasons of Telltale games locking me into small environments featuring no exploration, scant puzzles, and tons of dialogue, wandering around the hills and forests of Daventry felt somewhat liberating. And it helps that this new King's Quest looks absolutely gorgeous; its graphics feel engineered for the sake of last gen consoles, but the various tricks involving the blending of 2D and 3D art compensate for any technical shortcomings. (Seriously, 2D animated fire puts any of your fancy-pants particle effects to shame.)

I honestly expected the worst from King's Quest's QTE scenes, since this style of play has mostly worn out its welcome—so I was pleasantly surprised to see these segments play out as more than an excuse to get your thumbs moving. And King's Quest isn't afraid to switch between many types of activities and perspectives in its action scenes: While escaping from a deadly dragon in the beginning, you shoot down hanging obstacles with your bow from the first person, steer your raft around debris in the third-person, then jam on the circle button to desperately paddle away from said dragon. It's a much more thoughtful approach than simply button-mashing your way through yet another fight scene, and King's Quest even expands on QTE action with some light stealth, climbing, and platforming action. As adventure games go, it's not afraid to get its hands dirty.

We only have the first of five chapters now, but what I've played of this new King's Quest has really won me over. That's quite a feat, seeing as I had no real love for the series before, and the few jokes that feel like references managed to fly right over my head. If anything, King's Quest adds up to a great alternative to Telltale, especially if you've been waiting for them to innovate within the rigid formula they've used for several years—or at least upgrade their technology to make these improvements possible. Thanks to Kickstarter and other crowdfunding platforms, old-school adventure games aren't going anywhere, but with King's Quest, it's refreshing to see this genre can change with the times.

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