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.Continued on the next page...