King’s Quest III: To Heir Is Human review
King's Quest II closed with a wedding, a joyous homecoming, and a promising future for the humble King Graham and his beautiful bride. But all good things must come to an end, and King's Quest III takes this old adage to heart. The third game in the series adopts a darker tone than its predecessors, starting off with a bang as lightning bolts and a wizard's foreboding face are superimposed beside the opening credits. These fade to reveal a dark-haired teenager dressed in rags, gazing down upon the lush Llewdor countryside from his isolated perch atop a rocky mountain. The accompanying text boxes tell us that he is Gwydion, slave to the evil wizard Manannan. The youth has no memory of his past and no hope for a future beyond his grueling servitude. As long as the wizard lives, Gwydion will be forced to attend to him in this remote house on the mountain, with no chance of ever exploring the forbidden landscape so many miles below…
"What?" you're asking yourself. "What?! Who is this imposter, and where the hell is King Graham?"
Okay, maybe you're not quite that passionate about it. But in 1986, a lot of people were. The initial reaction to Sierra's King's Quest III: To Heir Is Human, sequel to two of the most popular computer games of the time, was one of confusion and outrage. Why had Sierra done away with King Graham, the protagonist fans had grown so fond of? Why were we being forced to follow this unfortunate orphan trapped in Llewdor's high-altitude district when we could be adventuring back home in good old Daventry? And where was that dwarf with the Santa hat we loved to hate so much?
King's Quest III does ultimately tie in to its predecessors, but back in the days before dozens of walkthroughs were mere mouse-clicks away, and even before hint books were widely available, it took months for the first players to stumble across that link. It was a well-kept secret that could never happen in today's industry. This simple premise of all not being what it seems is exactly what makes King's Quest III stand out as the first KQ game to really take risks with its story. You could even say it's the game that took the franchise to the next level.
But let's back up a few steps. By all appearances, King's Quest III is a simple game created in simple times. Although it was originally developed for multiple platforms, including Apple II, Amiga, and Mac, the version most prevalent today runs on DOS in all its 16-color glory. Like the first two KQ games, KQIII uses Sierra's AGI (Advanced Graphics Interpreter) engine, a text parser to issue commands, the keyboard's arrow keys to control Gwydion on the screen, and minimal (albeit increasingly sophisticated) music and sound effects via the internal PC speaker.
What sets King's Quest III apart is its noticeably darker storyline. Unlike the noble Graham, who set out first to save a kingdom and then to rescue a wife, Gwydion finds himself in much more meager, and dire, circumstances. His master has a habit of disposing with his slaves when they turn 18, an age Gwydion is fast approaching. The boy's immediate goal (and yours, as the player) is to win freedom from Manannan once and for all. It's not just a matter of getting out of the house and down the mountain to Llewdor, where Gwydion will be easily found. He must engineer a more permanent solution, one that involves dabbling in the very magic the evil wizard uses himself. As Gwydion gains the knowledge that will allow him to do this, and explores Llewdor collecting the items to make it possible, he happens upon the secrets to his own history and destiny that have been withheld from him all his life. Once Manannan is out of the picture, Gwydion can concentrate on realizing this fate and making his way to Daventry, where the link to the previous KQ games is finally revealed.
Easier said than done. Manannan keeps a sharp eye on Gwydion by poofing in and out of rooms in billows of smoke. He sets chores for the young man, such as sweeping the kitchen or feeding the chickens in the coop out front. If these tasks are not completed in a timely fashion Gwyidon is punished or, after a few infractions, killed. Lucky for Gwydion, now and then Manannan goes on a journey or takes a nap, giving the slave a chance to let his guard down and explore. A clock ticking away at the top of the screen helps you keep track of when the wizard will return. He shows up again after 25 minutes on the dot, and if he finds Gwydion up to something forbidden, it's curtains for you.
Games like Gabriel Knight 3 and The Last Express are often cited for their innovative use of real-time gameplay, but KQIII did it first. Timed blocks of gameplay—such as Manannan's journeys, and a boat ride that takes a set amount of time, no matter how quickly you achieve your objectives onboard—force King's Quest III into a longer playtime than the games that came before it, but also require a certain amount of waiting around on the player's part. For example, if you're poking around in Llewdor and notice that Manannan's due home, you have to stop what you're doing, scramble back up the mountain, and hide the items you can't be caught with (helpfully marked in the inventory by a star). Then you get to twiddle your thumbs for the five minutes or so until he leaves again. Only once he's gone can you retrieve your secret items and pick up where you left off—for the next 25 minutes, anyway. At points, this real-time setup can be tedious, but it also succeeds in making the game experience a bit more immediate for the player. Nothing gets the heart pumping like the realization that you have Manannan's magic wand in your pocket, and you might not have enough time to put it away.
King's Quest III shows an evolution toward gameplay that's more tightly integrated into the story being told. In an attempt to win Gwydion's freedom and uncover his destiny, you'll find yourself doing chores around the house for Manannan, collecting and mixing spell ingredients, casting magic spells, and making a quite a few treacherous climbs up ladders and down mountains. KQIII even features what may have been adventure gaming's first crate puzzle. Overall, the gameplay supports the story well, and it's a refreshing change from the random treasure hunts that dominated the first two games.
However, the gameplay does have frustrating aspects, made somewhat worse by the text parser and low-quality graphics. As with any text parser, you run into the problem of having to figure out how to say what you want in words the parser understands. This can be especially tedious while preparing magical spells (more on this below). On the graphical front, although the screens are by far the most detailed of the AGI games in the KQ series (especially the ship that gives Gwydion passage midway through the game), the items you can take don't always stand out from the backgrounds. In a busy screen, it's easy to miss what you need. One particular (and crucial) item is even worse than a pixel hunt—you literally can't see it. Even though I sort of remembered where it was from playing KQIII years ago, the game doesn't offer any clues and I ultimately had to consult a walkthrough.
KQIII is the first of the King's Quest series to use copy protection. Portions of the spell book Gwydion discovers in Manannan's laboratory, "The Sorcery of Old," are printed in the KQIII game manual. Gwydion must perform these spells exactly as written. This prevented people with pirated copies from progressing, with the added bonus of blurring the line between the player's experience and Gwydion's. Unfortunately, twenty years later, many people with legal copies have lost track of their manuals, and second-hand copies inevitably don't include them. Your best bet at this point is to ask for help on a community forum or scour the web before you get started with the game.
And here we come to another of KQIII's frustrations—the magic spells. You're supposed to follow the directions in the manual to the letter, space, and period, but even then, some don't work. For example, typing "Mold the dough into a cookie," as written in the game manual, yields the response "What's a mold?" (I took a lucky guess and found that Gwydion needs to "pat" the dough instead.) Even without typos, it's very easy to mess up these spells, and it's game over if you do. In a way this is nice because it conveys the high stakes of the situation, but after the third or fourth bungled attempt it starts to feel like busywork.
Between making little mistakes on these spells, tripping over Manannan's cat, and having to travel up and down the perilous mountain multiple times, I died more during my replay of KQIII than I did in the first two games. Climbs are manipulated with the arrow keys, and reducing the game's speed to "slow" did help with some of them, but I'd be lying if I said they're not annoying. And if these deaths aren't bad enough, KQIII also has several potential dead ends. As always, save your game often.
I said early in this review that KQIII took the series to the next level, and the time has come to defend that statement. People who didn't play the KQ games when they were first released are often puzzled by why this franchise is considered groundbreaking by so many adventure gamers. I'll admit, if I'd played only the first two KQ games, I'd be in that camp. They're nice little games, but they're simple, their stories are weak, and other than what they represent—Sierra's early years—there's nothing too special about them. Not so for King's Quest III. Replaying it, I felt proud of designer Roberta Williams for telling such a complex story using such primitive technology. KQIII's art, while still only 16 colors and 160x200 resolution, sports an impressive level of detail. The gameplay has evolved from the simple picking up and trading away of random items to a truly integrated network of challenges that fully support the story. But of all KQIII's innovations, the story itself stands out the most; a dark contrast to the relatively superficial quests that came before it. Twenty years later, developers are still searching for the best way to integrate challenging gameplay with a complicated, serious story. If not for King's Quest III, they may never have begun to look.