King’s Quest V: Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder review
What do fairy tale themes, fetch quests, an assortment of sudden deaths, and an escape from an evil wizard have in common? If you said a King's Quest game you'd be right, but can you guess which one? How about if I throw in hand-painted graphics, a point-and-click interface, and a talking owl that's gone down in infamy as one of adventure gaming's most despised sidekicks?
(Okay, we all know I'm talking about King's Quest V since that's the title of this review, but thanks for humoring me.)
Upon its release in 1990, King's Quest V: Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder had a lot to live up to. As the first in the series--and one of Sierra's first games, period--to forego the text parser for point-and-click interaction, it's a drastically different game than the ones that came before it. The graphics also received a facelift, with 256 color, hand-painted backgrounds, close-up dialogue portraits, and more overall detail than in any previous King's Quest installment. The game was initially released on floppy disks for DOS, Amiga, and Mac, and it even made its way onto the NES, although with significantly scaled-down graphics. In 1991, KQV was revamped in both DOS and Windows versions on a CD release that included voice acting—another milestone for a Sierra title.
KQV puts King Graham back in the saddle as the protagonist after a two-game hiatus, this time on a quest to save his family from certain death at the hands of an evil wizard. As the game opens, our hero is taking a quiet stroll through the Daventry woods, completely unaware that a baddie by the name of Mordack is currently tearing the castle out of the ground--with Graham's family still inside it--and poofing it into thin air. Lucky for Graham there was a witness to the event, a talking owl named Cedric who happens to be hanging out in a nearby tree. Being the trusting sort, Graham travels with Cedric to the land of Serenia to see Cedric's employer, Crispin, another wizard who will apparently be able to help. (Hey, there's no reason for Graham to be extra cautious before flying off to a faraway country with a complete stranger. It's not like his entire family and castle just got torn out of the ground by an evil wizard or anything.)
It turns out Crispin can't help after all and he's actually on his way out of town, so all he does is toss the king a broken wand, offer a little crusty advice, and push Graham out the door to get started on his quest. "What should we do first?" Cedric asks, to which Graham responds, "Hey, let's go explore the town!" Not exactly the reaction I would have expected from a guy whose entire family and castle were just torn out of the ground by an evil wizard, but hey, Graham's done this sort of thing before. Apparently he knows something I don't.
I'll get this out of the way now: Cedric is a really awkward addition to this game. I don't hate him as passionately as some of the fans out there, but I understand the sentiment. With his vest and monocle, he's dressed like a character out of a children's book, which doesn't jive with the story being told or serve the series' mainly adult audience. He's constantly providing what's supposed to serve as comic relief at moments where it's not really called for, and his presence rarely moves the story forward. Presumably Cedric was included in the game for reasons that seemed very important to the designers at the time, but in retrospect, King's Quest V probably would have been a better game without him.
KQV has a significantly improved look and feel compared to previous games in the series. Let's start with the point-and-click interface. The action icons are stored on a bar at the top of the screen that displays when you move your cursor over it and hides when you move your cursor away from it. (In addition to selecting the action you want from the icon bar, you can also cycle through them with the right mouse button.) The original disk version of King's Quest V has a more complicated selection of icons with some redundancies (most notably, two different walk icons that do essentially the same thing). The CD version's interface is streamlined, with just six icons (walk, look, talk, use, inventory, and options). When you click an icon, your cursor takes the shape of that icon, and you can then make the action happen by clicking the cursor somewhere on the screen.
The game's other big upgrade is its highly detailed, hand-painted graphics. Even by today's standards, the graphics are gorgeous. Ambient animations, such as running water, gratuitous passersby in the town, and smoke coming out of chimneys, can be controlled by a "detail" slider in the options menu to make the experience even more immersive. In addition to providing added detail, the paintings often make use of perspective in a way Sierra games never had before this, with scenes shown from varying distances and angles, such as close-ups of characters having a conversation, or a top-down view of a cliff as Graham climbs up.
Unfortunately, the storytelling techniques didn't improve to match the graphics and interface. As usual, the plot borrows heavily from fairy tales and other common lore, and the gameplay is still of the classic fetch quest and inventory collection/combination variety King's Quest is known for. Help someone, get something in return that just happens to be something you can trade to someone for something in return... it's a very well balanced universe. True to his roots, Graham just loves to pick up seemingly useless items. (Not one, but two dead fish find their way into your inventory in this game!) In the end, most of the inventory-based puzzles make some kind of sense, but a few are just brutal, not because they're clever, but because they're completely random.
Structurally, KQV is pretty similar to King's Quest III, but the sense of urgency that was front and center in the third game has been greatly diluted here. A lot of time is spent in the first (central) location doing seemingly arbitrary tasks, followed by a no-turning-back-now journey to where you need to go, and a showdown when you get there. A lot less time would be spent in that first area if not for the artificial obstacles preventing you from moving forward. Specifically, the path to the mountains, which Graham needs to cross to find his family, is blocked by a poisonous snake. Graham ends up doing a ton of legwork in Serenia to get the item he needs to make the snake move, but as it turns out, none of this work was critical for obtaining that item. The game just won't let you have it until you've done a whole lot of busywork. This section of the game would have been more satisfying if each task in Serenia built on the one before it, culminating with Graham outsmarting the snake and making his way into the mountains. The story and gameplay sync up better once Graham gets past that stupid snake and on the true path to find his family, but since the part in Serenia is easily half the game, it makes me wonder why it had to be set up that way. It's like reading 200 pages of a novel before it starts getting good... why bother?
Worse than the insipid gameplay are the completely unforgiving dead-ends. Replaying KQV made me so grateful that adventure game designers eventually figured out that making players read their minds is not fun. If the game requires the player to do tasks in a certain order but allows you (even encourages you) to do them out of order, that's just not fair. It happens in KQV, more than once. In my reviews of the earlier King's Quest games, I was willing to forgive the dead-ends as conventions of an evolving gameplay style, but now that we've reached the fifth game in this series, I won't make that concession anymore. These dead-ends are examples of bad puzzle design, pure and simple.
KQV has a number of cinematic cutscenes that give the story a little boost. In general, pretty graphics don't equal a good story, but the ability to present portions of the story through dynamic and visually pleasing cinematics is one thing KQV has going for it. In the CD version, these scenes are preempted by a disclaimer explaining that the movie may contain important clues and you should check your inventory if you decide to skip it. (Way to ruin the mood!) I tend to consider cinematic cutscenes a reward, so it's strange to think anyone would want to skip them, particularly on the first playthrough when the clues presented in the cutscenes would be important. The disk version does not offer this option, which makes me wonder if it was added to the later release based on customer complaints.
Another of KQV's highlights is its orchestrated soundtrack. The game has some really pretty music (my favorites are Graham's theme, the oasis music in the desert, and Cassima's theme which is introduced near the end). I'm still humming these tunes a week later.
And now for one of the biggest controversies: the voices. The cast is made up of Sierra employees, and you can tell. Cedric sounds like a bad imitation of Miss Piggy, King Graham is surprisingly devoid of emotion for someone whose family is in mortal danger, and the third-person narrator sounds like he's reading his lines from a script that has coffee spilled all over it. The lines are almost impossible to skip, and clicking or pressing Enter in an attempt to skip a line often results in queuing it up so it plays over and over. The worst part is, you can't toggle the voice on and off, or even turn subtitles on. These are mainly superficial issues, however, and considering that KQV is one of Sierra's first experiments in voiceover, I'm willing to look past them. (Note that I originally played the text-only version of the game. If the talkie is the only version you experience, the voice acting may be a bigger problem for you.)
More interesting to me is the awkward role of the game's omniscient third-person narrator. Voice acting in games has gradually changed the role of the narrator, and KQV is one of the first games to prove why this had to happen. It used to be that a third-person narrator described most of the action, scenery, and anything else that needed to be explained, and the player character only jumped in when he had to speak to someone. This is how it works in King's Quest V, and it's fine when you're playing the non-talkie version, but in the talkie it's jarring when the third person narrator starts telling you what's happening to Graham, especially since much of the narration describes things that are already obvious on screen. For example, if you click the hand cursor on a cow penned up in the outskirts of town, the narrator says "Secure within a small pen, a spotted cow quietly chews her cud." Thanks, I can see that.
This may be one of the biggest examples of KQV's growing pains. In earlier games this sort of narration would have been necessary, but with the details already so visually obvious here, the narration is often superfluous. I think the narration would have worked better if it were provided by Graham and included personal observations that supported and even progressed the story. ("Hey, that cow reminds me of the pet cow Rosella has back home. I sure hope I can find my family!")
The CD talkie version of King's Quest V is the easiest to find these days (either standalone or in one of the King's Quest collections), but I prefer the non-talkie disk version that was released first. The dialogue and narration work better as text than as spoken lines, and I'm partial to the dialogue portraits in the disk version, which are drawn in a slightly different style. One downside to the disk version is the copy protection, which consists of magic symbols that pop up a few times mid-game. The player must decipher the symbols using the manual before being allowed to proceed. These are not at all integrated with the game the way the spells in KQIII were, and several of the symbols are so similar to one another that it's easy to identify them incorrectly. The copy protection was removed from the CD version because at the time, no one could conceive of people pirating something as large as a CD.
Having just played Dreamfall about a month ago, I replay KQV and think "Wow, how far we've come." Even so, King's Quest V was a huge technical accomplishment for its time. The improved graphics, the point-and-click interface, and even the less-than-stellar voiceover represented a big leap from the adventure games of yesterday to those of today. It's a shame the storytelling didn't also evolve, because if it had, the game would be a winner all around. As it stands, Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder is a worthwhile stop on the King's Quest fan's walking tour through the series, but it's a fairly annoying game on its own merits. Never fear, though, because with King's Quest VI still ahead of us, the best is yet to come.
A step forward in graphics and interface; a step backward in story and character development. Play it if you're a King's Quest fan, but if you're just looking for a good point-and-click game, skip ahead to KQVI, which is so much better.