Quest for Glory II: Trial by Fire review
High above the scorching desert flutters a Magic Carpet ferrying a group of four. One is a nameless Hero who recently proved his worth in the realm of Spielburg. The others are finally returning to their homeland, glad that they are taking with them a Hero destined to save their lands from peril. And so Quest for Glory II: Trial by Fire picks up where its predecessor left off: on a journey to the desert city of Shapeir in pursuit of new adventure and new evil to defeat.
You'll soon discover that the three friends were surely right when they said that the lands were in need of a qualified Hero. Shapeir's sister city Raseir was recently overthrown by a sinister and powerful force, and within days of your arrival in the desert lands, Shapeir itself is attacked by magical Elemental creatures of Fire, Air, Earth and Water.
While Spielburg was a quiet little village, Shapeir is a vast city where random townspeople wander the streets and talkative merchants are everywhere. There are a multitude of alleys containing hundreds of houses, most of which serve no purpose other than to give the impression that the city is huge. And while in QFG1 the town of Spielburg was just one of many interesting locations in the valley, in Trial by Fire the large city contains most areas of importance. The surrounding desert hides but a handful of fairly insignificant locales, so most of the game will take place in the busy streets and plazas of the city.
The gold coins your Hero has brought with him from Spielburg turn out not to be valid currency here, so your first objective in the game is to find a money changer. In order to reach it from the inn, you'll need to navigate through the maze-like streets and alleys. Since the directions you get are rather vague, the first few moments of playing QFG2 are a slight turn off.
Luckily, with the correct money in hand, you can buy yourself a map of the city, which can take you to certain locations instantaneously by clicking on them. However, only the city's four main plazas and areas you've visited before are shown on the map, so you still need to travel through the city maze to discover new areas. Fortunately, most of these ventures are easier than the complicated search for the money changer.
Shapeir is a lovely sand-coloured city that houses a myriad of interesting places. QFG2 draws from Arabian Nights and ancient Middle-Eastern mythology, so you'll encounter typical architecture such as a Palace with onion domes. In terms of graphics, the lands of Shapeir aren't very colourful, with yellow being the predominant colour. Sometimes the 16-colour art looks a little rough around the edges, and some backgrounds get a little repetitive, as once you've seen one plaza or alley you've seen them all. While all of this is certainly acceptable from an EGA game dating from 1990, Trial by Fire disappoints somewhat when compared to So You Want To Be A Hero. Character sprites, however, are much improved in QFG2, as the people are more animated now.
Traditional characters make an appearance, such as sultans, evil viziers and harem girls, as well as wish-granting genies. Characters will sometimes use non-English words such as "Effendi" to give the impression that they're actually Arabian. Clothing stereotypes are also used to achieve this effect, so you'll see many men wearing turbans while women either wear veils or are dressed as belly dancers. These superficial concessions aside, the Middle-Eastern characters don't really feel Arabian. Instead they act and behave more like average people in a fantasy game that just happen to be dressed as Arabs.
The music helps greatly to create an Arabian mood. The MIDI compositions effectively emulate typically familiar Middle-Eastern sounds and instruments. Not all background tunes are equal in quality, but they all contribute to creating the right atmosphere.
As you begin to familiarize yourself with the city, you'll meet a variety of characters. From the silly merchant Ali Chica to the noble Liontaur Paladin Rakeesh, designers Lori and Corey Cole once again present an appealing cast to interact with. There is a greater emphasis on dialogue this time, as talking becomes more necessary and characters more responsive. You'll be performing several good deeds in QFG2, to which various people will respond by thanking you or talking about what you did. This greatly makes the game world feel more alive and reactive to your deeds.
The parser interface from the original QFG1 is still in place and functions much the same. Besides the "Ask About" command, a "Tell About" option is now present. However, with a few exceptions this mostly results in universal responses like "My, what an interesting story." Combined with the fact that it's never actually necessary (except for one side quest), it's unlikely that many gamers will make use of this option very often.
Humour again is fundamental in QFG2. Jokes and puns can be found everywhere in an otherwise very serious game, though the humour is a bit over the top on some occasions. Everything the Gnome wizard Keapon Laffin says, for instance, is in some way a pun or a play on words (as is his own name.)
One issue I have with QFG2 is the lack of originality after So You Want To Be A Hero. This is plainly evident in the characters, as there are many types we've seen before: the silly but powerful wizard that enjoys telling jokes, the muscular and arrogant fighter, the wise man that lives in solitude, the tree that harbours a woman's soul. Even some puzzles and sub-plots get recycled. For example, you once again need to collect ingredients that the local apothecary can make into a potion for you, and again there's the prophecy that foretells of a Hero to appear from the direction that you just so happen to have come from. Fortunately, this does not mean that Trial by Fire is a continuous deja vu experience, since there are many new and original elements to experience and discover as well.
One such originality is the scripted in-game entertainment. Twice a dance will be performed in the local Katta's Tail Inn, and a Poet will occasionally perform too. Similarly, on certain days an acrobat will set up a tightrope in one of the plazas, allowing you to challenge him for a few Dinars in a mini-game that tests your dexterity skill. These events occur on set dates, so it is possible to miss them if you don't show up in the right place on the right time.
Likewise, events of more importance take place on set days. QFG1 was a non-linear game in which you got to complete quests at your own leisure, but here that concept has been abandoned. While the game gives you total freedom to go where you wish, certain tasks have to be completed before a set day. This mainly concerns the four magical Elementals that plague the city in turn.
The first Elemental sent to threaten Shapeir is the Fire Elemental, a man-sized creature consisting entirely of flames which burn all that come near. After its arrival, you have until the end of the next day to capture it or else the city will be destroyed, meaning game over for you. There's a major problem that comes with this premise, and it's not that two days is too short a time to succeed. In fact, it simply requires a puzzle that most gamers will have figured out within ten minutes, and you'll literally be back before breakfast. However, since the second Elemental isn't scheduled to arrive for several more days, you're left with a lot of extra time waiting for things to happen. If you're the kind of gamer that enjoys honing your character's skills and fighting monsters in the desert, you'll be able to bide your time easily enough. If not, you might just find yourself skipping time by sleeping through an entire uneventful day.
Other than a few side quests, the main interest in going out into the desert is to fight monsters. Combat has been upgraded a bit in QFG2, as the nine numerical keys now offer different combat actions, with attacking, defending and dodging now all have three variants. Fighting in Trial by Fire is still as rudimentary as in QFG1, however, as the best approach to defeating monsters is still to strike at your enemy as quickly as possible.
Most of the game's other obstacles are overcome by solving puzzles in a typical adventure game fashion. Trial by Fire is still not as puzzle-heavy as other adventures but requires much more use of your wits than the first game. QFG2 offers more complex inventory puzzles, and although various puzzles again concern the use of your skills, I found myself succeeding at skill puzzles much more quickly than in QFG1. Additionally, the nuisance of stat-building can be toned down in certain situations by lowering the arcade difficulty setting, which is a new feature.
Since RPG elements are less frequent in this instalment, Trial by Fire seems more like a traditional adventure and less of a hybrid than other games in the series. It also offers more subplots for each of the three character classes (Fighter, Magic User and Thief). The Magic User, for example, gets to become initiated as a Wizard by completing a series of puzzles that require the casting of various spells. Though not the most difficult puzzles in the game, these tests are certainly the most enjoyable.
One particular subplot designed for the Fighter is becoming a Paladin, a champion of good, justice and honor that is basically a new character class. Only those Heroes that have stopped at nothing to perform good and noble deeds throughout the game will be declared a Paladin when the game is over. It's not easy to become a Paladin, so getting this bonus at the end makes finishing the game all the more satisfying.
After all the main objectives and side quests have been completed, you'll join a caravan travelling to the city now under the control of an evil regime. The designers clearly took the term "sister city" quite literally, giving Raseir a similar appearance to Shapeir, though more run down due to the evil government. Except for some areas that are prohibited, the city's layout is also identical. The first few people you encounter are far from hospitable, which is a prelude to what's to come as QFG2 takes a dark turn which makes the game much more interesting than the sometimes boring cuddliness of Shapeir.
Unfortunately, events in Raseir also happen only at set times, and here there is no way to sleep away the extra time, nor is there much of anything to do. The day and a half you're in the city is spent mostly waiting for the next event to happen. While the events themselves are fine examples of storytelling, the experience is spoiled by having to wander around aimlessly between them. Since QFG2 is clearly divided into two segments that both suffer from a confining linearity, the pacing would be better if both cities were made available at the same time. It would have been nice to explore the dark setting of the terrorized Raseir while actually having something meaningful to do.
After your second day in Raseir, things will finally start moving, and the endgame is lengthy, challenging and exciting. Players will enjoy a series of situations requiring puzzle solving to proceed. As the plot unfolds, you'll get to play in some scenes reminiscent of the well known Aladdin story, ultimately claiming the title of Hero once again.
Like its predecessor, QFG2 tries to look at the adventure genre in new ways. It is less of an RPG hybrid overall, placing lower importance on combat and skill building. On the other hand, it tries to provide total freedom of exploration while at the same time being linear in nature, which is a mix that doesn't work that effectively. Because of this, Trial by Fire becomes somewhat boring if you don't willingly avail yourself of the RPG elements, so the effect is ultimately not much different.
If you're wondering where to find a copy of the game or how to get it to run on a modern system, luckily a VGA remake of QFG2 is currently being developed by AGDI, the same independent team responsible for the first two King's Quest remakes. AGDI was kind enough to provide us with the current alpha version of their game to compare with the original, though they asked us to keep some of the changes under wraps for now. What we can say is that besides greatly improving on the original's EGA graphics, the remake offers a number of other enhancements that make Trial by Fire a more pleasing game. The combat system, to name one aspect, will be more intelligent and challenging, while other elements that some adventure gamers would consider nuisances have been eliminated altogether, including the text parser. The story remains unaltered, but the improvements in such key areas should make it more appealing not only to gamers new to the series, but appreciated by long time fans.
Whichever version you play, in Quest for Glory II: Trial by Fire you'll find yourself in a richly detailed world that's uncommon in adventure games. And though its pace is uneven and the atmosphere doesn't always feel authentically Middle Eastern, the game still manages to create an appealing story and setting that maintain their appeal so many years after release. Ultimately, it fails to surpass its own predecessor, but Trial by Fire is still a satisfactory sequel that fans of the first game should enjoy.