In any series, even one whose episodes are time and again impressive in most respects, there is usually a single title that stands out above the rest. For me, the highlight of Sierra's Quest for Glory series is the fourth game, Shadows of Darkness. In several important ways it transcends the limits of earlier QFG games, most notably in terms of drama and storytelling.
That Shadows is different from other QFG titles is clear from the very beginning. In the previous three games you arrived in a town with a clear idea of what was going on and a straightforward goal: take care of whatever troubles the country and be proclaimed a Hero. Shadows opens with a bit of mystery in a dark cave, without offering a clue of where you are and whose spell it was that brought you here.
After you escape the cave through a series of puzzles and visit the nearby town of Mordavia, it becomes clear that it certainly wasn't the locals who desired your presence in the Eastern-European valley. The townspeople are very distrustful of strangers and do their best to make you feel unwelcome in their midst. The fact that you came from the cave seems to add even more to their suspicions. Something bad appears to have happened there years ago that brought the valley distress and sorrow.
Despite their unfriendliness, you learn that rumours and fears abound among the villagers. Vampires, werewolves, ghosts, dark magic, undead monsters; the townspeople are afraid and superstitious about so many bogeymen from Slavic mythology that you won't know what to believe -- or what to expect. Something bad is obviously going on in Mordavia, but what exactly you’re up against remains unspoken. Shadows does not give easy answers and unfolds itself as a mystery game that carefully reveals its secrets all throughout the game. This is a welcome narrative improvement, especially compared to QFG3, where most of the plot was revealed during the introduction sequence.
Following standard adventure game customs, you explore the Slavic countryside and get acquainted with the land and its inhabitants. Eventually the opportunity will arise for the ever-aspiring Hero to do his job, as the town’s half-wit gravedigger needs to be rescued. This small act of compassion sets things in motion as the villagers start to realize that they might have judged you wrong.
This doesn't mean that everyone in Mordavia all of a sudden becomes friendly towards you. In fact, the suspicions remain but as you continue your adventures in the valley, the people in town will steadily become more open and warm. This is reflected in how the various characters greet and respond to you. The sheriff, for example, would rather see you leave sooner than later during the first few days that you are in town. He'll slowly turn around over the course of the game and in the end may even call you his friend. Such subtle changes are not only realistic, they also represent a rewarding process of character development.
In addition to the increased character depth, the town's problems are also much more intricate this time around. In previous games, the quests revolved around a certain antagonist that had to be defeated or recovering certain items. In Shadows, the challenges are much more about the characters themselves and their personal troubles. You'll find yourself solving marital disputes and restoring a man's family honour, for example. These objectives let you get much more involved with the characters than you would by solving mundane quests.
The change in focus is reflected by the dialogue system, which is more complex than in previous games. Characters are no longer limited to a single dialogue tree but now have more diverse conversation options, mostly based on recent events and the attitude that the villagers have towards you. Also, QFG4 moves away from the small dialogue portraits seen in most Sierra games of the time and instead uses full screen images that not only show characters' heads but also their upper bodies. Small animations, such as wriggling hands and moving eyes, add a bit of extra detail to these portraits.
Unfortunately, the event-triggered dialogue system can cause some confusion when two or more things happen on a single day. For example, one event caused the death of a certain character, while on the same day I went on a quest unrelated to the character's death that required me to set a building on fire. The next day, the town's gossip was about the first character's death. Not until the day after did the gossip turn to the burned down building, which was a bit odd since it had happened two days earlier.
Shadows' rich characters are brought even more to life in the CD-ROM version which was released after the original floppy version. There is a lot of narrator dialogue that is wonderfully voiced by John Rhys-Davies (of Indiana Jones and Lord of the Rings fame) whose deep voice is spot-on for the game's dark ambiance. Most of the other voice actors also do a fine job as they act convincingly and add flavour with Slavic accents where appropriate.
Unfortunately, the voice acting also introduces some sloppiness that mars the overall impression a bit, such as when the actors interpret their sentences the wrong way. On a few rare occasions, characters speak lines that should have been voiced by the narrator and vice versa. There is also one character for whom some lines appear to be voiced by different actresses. When playing the game with voices as well as the original subtitles, you'll notice that the actors sometimes appear to have taken artistic liberties by adding humorous lines of their own or slightly altering the order of their words. Despite its inconsistencies, however, the voice work is a quality addition that enhances the QFG4 experience.
The other half of the audio department, the game's music, is also vital to the atmosphere. There are basically two themes that can be discerned throughout the game. One is a metal/rock style that represents the game's horror theme. It is heard in shadowy places and during combat, and it's mostly dark and brooding, which greatly adds to Shadows feeling scary. The other theme is more warm and comfortable, and is played in the town and other places of safety in Mordavia. There are some beautiful classical compositions, and the inn’s background music is a borrowed piece from well-known composer Edvard Grieg, which flawlessly blends in with the rest of the score.
The visuals are less colourful here than in QFG3, appropriately for a game with a darker theme set in Eastern Europe. Still, the graphics are good looking in their own right, especially because of the lush detail. Background images and character portraits are hand drawn and presented in 256-colour VGA. QFG4 doesn’t stand out when it comes to animation, but rarely are character sprites ever seen standing lifelessly still. There are also some nice extra touches, such as the sheriff closing the windows of his office at dusk.
The detailed graphics make travelling around the valley a worthwhile experience, and the variety of locations ensures there are lots of places to visit and things to do. One of the complaints with QFG3 was that the land was too empty, which gave that game an unexciting and lonely feeling. In Shadows you’ll find places of interest just around every corner, not only providing people to interact with but puzzles as well. One moment you’ll find yourself in a dark swamp which can only be traversed through strength, acrobatics or magic, while the next you'll be visiting a camp of gypsies who add flavour to this land otherwise filled with sombre people.Continued on the next page...