King’s Quest II: Romancing the Throne review
The last time we checked in with Graham, the hero of Sierra's first King's Quest game, he'd recovered the three lost treasures and ascended to the throne as Daventry's new king. Accompanied by a verse of Greensleeves on the internal PC speaker, King's Quest II opens to reveal the forlorn king sitting in this very throne, his head nearly engulfed by his massive crown, pondering his lot in life. In the cutscene that follows, we learn that the new king is plagued by an age-old problem: he needs a wife. Graham's lonely, and he wants an heir, but none of the women in Daventry suit his fancy. Just then, he happens to glance into the magic mirror he recovered during his first quest. Through the enchanted glass he sees a beautiful woman trapped in a quartz tower, waiting to be rescued. Inspired by the vision, King Graham removes his heavy crown, dons his trademark feathered cap, and sets out to the neighboring land of Kolyma to get the girl.
Released in 1985, King's Quest II: Romancing the Throne is a sequel in every sense of the word. It uses the same engine and 16-color graphics as its predecessor, as well as the same simple interface, music, and sound effects. The plot is a bit more focused, but the gameplay is suspiciously familiar. Using the keyboard's arrow keys and a text parser to control King Graham, the player must explore the landscape, interact with a hodge-podge of characters ranging from Little Red Riding Hood to Count Dracula, and elude capture by a hag, an enchanter, and another of those annoying little dwarfs in a Santa hat. At least this time around, Graham gets to go antiquing! (His future wife would be so proud.)
Kolyma's landscape bears a striking resemblance to Daventry's. There are trees and hollow logs, ponds where Graham risks drowning in a foot of water if you don't type "swim" fast enough, a few caves, and a couple of rickety staircases. The artwork for these locales is so similar to Daventry's, you'll swear it was borrowed from the first installment. But Kolyma also has some unique landmarks, including an ocean where waves splash against the rocks, a poisonous swamp flanked by thorny brambles, an antique shop with very strange hours, and a funky alternate reality where the water is purple, the sand blue, and the sky pink.
As Graham makes his way across Kolyma, he learns the damsel in distress is trapped in a magical realm that can only be accessed through a door requiring three keys. These keys aren't just lying around, either—Graham must literally search high and low for them. As he does, he also stumbles across several pieces of gem-encrusted jewelry. Apparently Kolyma, like Daventry, has some inhabitants who prefer to hide priceless items under rocks and inside holes than to lock them in a safe deposit box. Finding this treasure is optional, but it beefs up your score and gives Graham some nice trinkets to pass on to his fiancée. Treasure can be used to solve certain puzzles, but since this costs you points, trading away treasure is always the least desirable solution.
Even though KQII is in many ways a clone of the first game, it's evident that Roberta Williams, the game's designer, had begun to take new risks with story and structure. Unlike King's Quest I, the sequel features goal-sensitive events (the antique shop remains closed until you've performed a specific action, characters don't show up until the story is ready for you to meet them, et cetera). It's still a simple plot, but these triggered events show an evolution from KQI's open-ended treasure hunt to the more linear, story-driven model still widely used in adventure games today. Even within this framework, though, KQII's plot is a patchwork of random characters and tasks. The bulk of the gameplay involves fetching items and trading them for other items, sometimes with results that don't make much sense. Add to this that the characters and things that happen in Kolyma don't seem to have anything to do with one another—almost as if each screen of the landscape is its own self-contained country—and you end up with a very disjointed, confusing world. What is Little Red Riding Hood's grandmother's connection to Count Dracula? We never find out.
Like most Sierra games of the eighties, King's Quest II features an array of possible deaths, so save your game often. I've learned to accept death as a fact of life in these old games, but KQII has one especially nasty twist that goes above and beyond the call of duty. The game only lets you access a critical area a finite number of times, and gives you no indication that this is the case until it's too late. This cruel setup more or less ensures that new players will have to start over near the beginning of the game at some point. I won't spoil the surprise for those masochists who want to learn the hard way, but if you hope to avoid it, do a little research before you start playing.
In many ways, King's Quest II is a rehash of the first game, but its small improvements and tentative innovations foreshadow the advances Sierra went on to pioneer over the next decade. If you liked the first KQ game or are interested in the history of the genre, you'll probably enjoy King's Quest II. If the game's age or simplicity turns you off, though, download AGD Interactive's remake instead. In addition to updated VGA graphics, a point & click interface, and digital music and voice acting, this amateur remake also features a well-written, expanded storyline constructed from the same premise and plot elements as the original. The remake's story provides reasonable explanations for most of KQII's confusing elements and improves upon the gameplay by integrating logic puzzles, more dialogue, and a short (and skippable) arcade sequence. It's worth playing them back to back, if only to see how faithful AGDI's updated version is to the story and spirit of Roberta Williams' original.
King's Quest II is about as basic a game as they come. Still, replaying it helped me forget for a little while about the corporate mess Sierra turned into and instead recall the simplicity of the company's past. The folksy, family-oriented essence that went on to define Sierra as a company emerges at several points, including in an Easter egg that plugs the newest Space Quest game, and in a personal message from Roberta and Ken (her husband, and Sierra's then-CEO) that displays if you die. This "our family is your family" feel is especially obvious as the final cutscene draws to an end. Just before the credits roll, KQII closes with a humble request from the developers: "If you have enjoyed this game, please ask your dealer about the availability of King's Quest III—To heir is human, to really foul things up takes a computer." Oh, the innocence.
If you enjoyed the first game in the series you'll probably like King's Quest II. But unless you're open to a very rudimentary playing experience, you're better off downloading AGD Interactive's remake (an excellent game in its own right), or skipping ahead to one of the later, more advanced games in the series.