Editor's note: In accordance with our review policy, this is an early impressions piece based on our time with the first episode of King's Quest. Our final review will be live once the series has reached its conclusion.
It's funny to think that it wasn't so long ago that the idea of "episodic games" was a weird novelty, and pretty much unique to Telltale Games. So strong is that studio's imprint on the concept that it's only recently we've seen games - such as Life is Strange - start to strike out and find their own direction.
At first, it seems this long-awaited reboot of beloved 1980s adventure series King's Quest, which was once going to be produced by Telltale, might struggle to distinguish itself. Thankfully, developer The Odd Gentlemen has something more ambitious in mind, and the end result is a delightful and worthy reinvention of a neglected classic.
We open with hapless serf Graham clambering into a well in the kingdom of Daventry. He's on the trail of a magic mirror, which is hoarded by the dragon which lives deep within the caves below. It's a rousing start to the story, but this daring expedition is presented in an entirely linear fashion, makes notable use of button-mashing arcade segments and has only a few simple puzzles.
It ends with a moral choice as you flee from the beast with your loot - do you free the dragon, leave it trapped or cripple it? There's no on-screen prompt telling you that "the dragon will remember that" but the echoes of Telltale's famous signature style are hard to ignore. The hand painted cartoon graphics, bright and beautiful as they are, underscore the similarities.
Fans may wonder if this is what adventure games have become in 2015; nicely written, linear stories with minimal brainteasing and an emphasis on the repercussions ethical quandaries. It's a fine framework, but not for every episodic game.
Not long after and A Knight to Remember, the first chapter in the revived King's Quest, opens out and all doubts disappear. It may look and play a lot like The Walking Dead or The Wolf Among Us at first, but its heart still beats with a rhythm from decades ago.
That prologue is just a taster, the tail end of a bedtime story being told by the aged King Graham to his granddaughter Gwendolyne. This is the prism through which the series will tell its various tales - with Christopher Lloyd's playful croak guiding us through stories from his family's past. In this chapter, it's the story of how he became a knight and began his journey to the throne.
The bulk of the game is centred on a tournament used to recruit new knights. Graham is very much the hero you'd expect, humble and clumsy, but honourable and decent deep down - qualities which help him defeat the cocky rivals who take their privilege for granted. We've seen this trope many times before, but it's still charmingly effective when done right, as it is here.
The tournament is used as an excuse to broaden the game world, introducing a much larger flipscreen map to explore and offering numerous puzzles and quests to tackle as you please. Contrary to what the introduction suggests, you have a lot of freedom to find your own way through the story and the puzzles are enjoyable throwbacks to the inventory puzzles of old. Thankfully, they're more logical and less obtuse than the genre used to supply.
What impresses most is how much choice you have. An early challenge is to find a replacement wheel for a stranded merchant. Wandering into the deserted town, there are several items that will fit the bill, but each requires you to steal from one of the absent townsfolk. Which one you choose, and how you face up to the crime later, will impact future chapters.
Another quest, your first proper challenge in the tournament, tasks you with retrieving the eye of a hideous beast. Again, there are multiple ways of fulfilling this order and the one you choose helps to define Graham's character. It can also lead to moments of genuine emotion, deftly delivered in a script which is mostly skewed towards goofy comedy. It walks a fine line of knowing cheesiness, without ever slipping into sarcastic irony. It pokes fun at the fantasy genre, but is clearly very much in love with it.
It's a lot like The Princess Bride in that respect, a comparison strengthened by the bedtime story framework and the presence of Wallace Shawn in the voice cast. That the game successfully strikes a similar emotional note to that beloved movie is a testament to The Odd Gentlemen's mastery of tone.
It's the element of choice that really makes the new King's Quest such an enticing proposition though. The adventure genre has long been based on a very prescriptive model of game design: here are the puzzles, here is the solution, move on to the next one. This game shakes that up, and your progress feels more organic as a result. The puzzles aren't particularly difficult in themselves - characters often explicitly tell you what they need, and what they'll give you in exchange - but the difficulty comes from remembering all the possible options, and working out which best suits your needs.
A potion might require frog's breath, and you've already found a frog but are unable to catch it. An ingredient may grow under large rocks, and you find a large rock but need to come up with a way to move it. It's a simple but pleasurable web of interconnected needs that tickles your brain without ever leaving you frustrated.
It's generous too, with smaller brainteasers squeezed in seamlessly wherever they might fit. The chapter takes a fair while to complete, but a lot of that time will be spent engaging in meaningful gameplay rather than just watching cutscenes and making conversation choices.
The only weaknesses are a sporadic fondness for instant death hazards, and an occasional reliance on more Indiana Jones action-based moments that strain at the limits of what the game can comfortably do. These are temporary annoyances rather than brick walls, however, and it's hard to be too critical of the game for trying to offer a wider range of things to do. For every perilous hop across crumbling rock pillars that irritates, or for every location that kills you if you enter unprepared, there are more enjoyable twists - such as a bow and arrow shoot-out with goblins. Restarts are quick and checkpoints forgiving, so death is never a real obstacle to progress.
So many developers have tried their hand at reviving King's Quest over the years, from Silicon Knights to the aforementioned Telltale, and it speaks highly of The Odd Gentlemen's vision that they've succeeded where so many others failed. On the evidence of this first chapter, the wit, heart and soul of classic King's Quest has survived the process wonderfully intact, but it now comes with a looser, more flexible modern design ethos that makes it feel utterly new. It's going to be very exciting seeing where they take the story over the next four instalments.
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