The Legend of Kyrandia (Fables & Fiends) review
Games, as with musicians and models, seldom age gracefully. Modern adventure gamers are thrown into a deluge of orchestral scores, voiceovers, polygonal protagonists, and increasingly high-resolution graphics. Thus, it is a pleasant surprise when a classic adventure game manages to come off as quaint, not dated; refreshing, not stale. The Legend of Kyrandia does just that, and so much more.
Developed by the now defunct Westwood Studios, the game was published by Virgin Games in 1992 under the long-winded title, Fables & Fiends: The Legend of Kyrandia - Book One. It was initially released for DOS, but was ported to the Amiga and Macintosh platforms in short order. The game would eventually spawn two sequels, Hand of Fate and Malcolm's Revenge, each in the third-person point & click style of the first.
Upon starting the game, players are quickly hurtled into the fantasy world of Kyrandia, a beautiful land presently plagued by an out-of-control jester named Malcolm. The game opens with Malcolm paying a visit to Kallak, grandfather of the game's hero. The two face off in an epic struggle... well, as epic as a struggle between a powerful youth and a elderly man can be. Malcolm of course wins and leaves for some unnecessary rest and relaxation, just in time for the protagonist, Brandon, to return home and find a rather Kallak-like statue standing in the corner. Brandon is obviously not content to let his grandfather stand around all day, and sets out to learn how to de-petrify him. It is here that the story really takes off.
And take off it does, culminating in Brandon's discovery of who he really is, and a final showdown between our hero and Malcolm. The story is the work of Michael Legg and Brett Sperry who, despite being relative newcomers to the field of adventure game writing--Legg was a designer, Sperry primarily a director--manage to make the story one of the game's best aspects. The selection of a jester as the chief villain is just the start of many "ye olde fantasy plot-clichés" the game seeks to break. There is no damsel in distress among the remarkably unconventional characters of Legend of Kyrandia. As Brandon braves the dark depths of a labyrinth and the lair of Malcolm himself, along with more friendly locales like pleasant, pine-scented forests and enchanted groves, he is aided by a daft old wizard, Darm, and Darm's snarky dragon-pet, Brandywine. Also making appearances are an absent-minded bridge keeper and Brandon's slightly dense boyhood companion. There is not a single character in the game that is easily forgotten.
The dialogue is consistently amusing and jabs at conventions whenever possible. A good example is the banter between Darm and Brandywine early in the game: Darm complains of smelling cats on Brandywine's breath, and Brandywine remarks that it isn't her fault she doesn't eat knights. With such clever writing, the game is always a pleasure to read through. Yes, read through. Although a later version was released with full voiceovers, the entirety of the game's dialogue was originally presented as text. Though many gamers may prefer the updated version for obvious reasons, the text edition is just as engaging in its own right.
This is not to say the game is problem-free, however. At times puzzles cross the line from challenging to overly frustrating. The biggest offender is the labyrinth dividing Brandon's familiar stomping grounds from the wider, more magical world beyond. The labyrinth relies far too much on trial-and-error and death to be enjoyable. Fortunately, taking the time to map the labyrinth on paper during its exploration will stave off much of the tedium. Players may also experience waves of annoyance as they mix the potions needed to complete the game at the home of Zanthia, one of Kyrandia's Royal Mystics. It, too, is a puzzle driven by
trial-and-error. This is unfortunate, as most of the other puzzles in the game avoid such pitfalls and rely instead on a bit of ingenuity and logic. And inventory items. Much of the game is advanced by using inventory items with the objects on the screen. This simplicity prevents players from becoming too confused, but may frustrate veteran adventurers looking for a little more substance to their puzzles. One other annoyance in the game is the occasional pixel-hunting for items, some of which are obscured so much that they're almost impossible to find.
The game's few pains are easily forgotten, however, thanks to the wonderfully drawn scenery, pleasant new-agey music wafting through the background, and intuitive interface. The graphical quality of the game is remarkable, given that it runs smoothly on 286s and up. The ambient animations dotting the background and the fluid movements of characters all add up to a very enjoyable visual experience. The graphical style makes no attempt to strive for realism and this pays off nicely. After all, who would want to see a fairy tale that looked like regular life?
The music, despite being MIDI-based, manages to vary enough to not make one wander into the game preferences to turn it off. The tunes range from cheery to ominous and manage to fit the style established by the story and art.
The interface is relatively simple, with actions being controlled through a single-cursor, inventory manipulation system. But even here the game manages to show a little innovation, with the ability to drop items on any screen for later retrieval and the addition of a magical amulet. During the course of the game, each of the four stones in the amulet is unlocked, giving Brandon the special powers needed to complete the game. These powers range from becoming a wisp--useful for lighting up dark, death-filled labyrinths, for example--to purging poisons from Brandon's body. These powers "recharge" over time, so timing their use occasionally means game-on or game-over.
All in all, The Legend of Kyrandia is a blast to play. The writing, graphics, music, and puzzles (with the few noted exceptions) all add up to an adventure classic that stands the test of time. It periodically shows up on eBay, but as with nearly all older games it is becoming increasingly hard to find. Buy it if given the chance, as it is a great addition to any adventure gamer's library.