A Tale of Two Kingdoms (freeware) review
Maeldun Whiteblade, former enemy of the King of Theylinn, wakes in the night to find murder in the King's castle and barely escapes the fleeing assassin with his own life (good thing he saved the game before getting up to investigate!). But Maeldun is accused of the killing, and the fate of the kingdom now hangs in the balance, as the newly forged alliance between himself and the King that would have driven out an invading goblin horde is destroyed, allowing a malevolent influence to creep over the land. Such is the opening act of A Tale of Two Kingdoms.
The new Underground game from Dutch author Pieter "Radiant" Simoons' (Warthogs, META, Quest Fighter) large Crystal Shard team starts somewhat slowly, with a drawn-out introduction of expository text over a lazily zooming background that fills you in on the history of kingdoms and characters involved, highlighting the old battles and enmity between the King and Maeldun. Even the game proper begins cautiously, with a gratuitous puzzle to get you started (do monarchs really go around losing their sceptres in places that the cleaning servants completely miss but you can conveniently find?). However, the upside to this early pacing is that it gives you a "safe" chance to explore the controls and interface, look at every object and talk to some characters to discover what they are like. Everyone talks in olde-worlde English that is a bit corny and overdone at times, but is also treated to a healthy dollop of self-mockery when you meet a character who keeps forgetting to talk like that and owns up to it.
There is a particular mindset one needs when playing Sierra-style games that is somewhat different to most other point-and-click adventures, and A Tale of Two Kingdoms needs that Sierra mindset. For example, it took me a while to realise that I could walk beyond the edges of some screens, being used to sticking to well-marked exits in most games. You do also need to save frequently. There are only 20 save slots, and even that doesn't seem enough. Although there don't seem to be any "walking dead" situations, you can die in the game, and you may find that you've missed some side-quests necessary to earn maximum wisdom and honour (ATOTK's version of a points system) and may prevent you from encountering some of the five different endings. Fortunately, the game does auto-save for you at the beginning of each chapter and these auto-saves do not take up any of your precious 20 slots.
Hidden exits and risk-of-death aside, you may find the game much more accessible and enjoyable than the King's Quest I and II VGA remakes, the obvious comparisons for A Tale of Two Kingdoms. There are many good things about this game, not the least being its scale. The game world is vast, especially for an Underground adventure, and many characters are to be found within it. I was particularly charmed by the town, where you see many game characters and "extras" strolling around, going about their business as you might expect in a real town. This is a marked contrast to so many games that are full of abandoned villages, characters who just hang around in one spot waiting for you to come and talk to them, and huge metropolises that never actually seem to have anyone in them. This feature has been done well and thought through: if you follow an extra into a shop, you will actually see them inside the shop. The only problem I sometimes found was that there could be a bit of a people-jam outside the Blacksmith's, but this minor niggle can be solved by quickly popping in and out of the Smithy. Similarly, when out in the countryside, foxes, frogs, otters and birds play around in the background -- a wonderful touch.
Through the course of the game you encounter all kinds of puzzles and activities, from having to beat other characters at Dampiry (a board game similar to Reversi) to chase sequences to go-and-get-the-object-for-me quests. Some puzzles require you to ask another character to do things for you, though not all characters are willing, at least not until you have given them something. This feature also lets you hear other characters' descriptions of some objects, which is another nice addition. All of these tasks can lead to quite a large number of things in your inventory, so one really is encouraged to think about solutions. Simply trying everything on everything and its close cousin, the click-every-dialogue option, can lead to negative consequences. Requiring a thoughtful approach certainly avoids some of the pitfalls of other adventures, although it can be frustrating not to an easy fallback when one gets stuck.
Regardless of your gameplay background, the plot should seem familiar: wicked sorcerers, goblin invasions, assassinations and bickering rivals. The story itself is nothing particularly innovative and it can be a little hard to empathise with the large number of characters. Yet another medieval fantasy hero, yet another wise mentor-figure, and I particularly didn't "get" the hero's supposed love interest who didn't share a single moment of romance with him and seemed pretty wooden in general, even when supposedly fired up.
It's easy to get stuck along the way, as it is sometimes unclear what really needs to be done next. Quite often there are multiple solutions to puzzles, which is commendable, but many are sub-optimal solutions which will subsequently preclude you from solving another puzzle, although none should actually stop you from completing the game one way or another. I consulted a walkthrough after I finished playing the first time, and it was quite a revelation how much I had missed, since there had been no clue to these things going on at the time. For example, there is a romantic backstory between two non-player characters, but finding out about it relies on you entering a particular location when one of those characters is not there and searching the location at that point. Well, I never saw this guy anywhere else, so I never had the opportunity to search, so I never found out about this until I read the walkthrough and discovered that the very best ending was now unavailable to me. Those who prefer more linear games may dislike this, but if you've got the time and patience, it opens a huge amount of replayability, a rare commodity in today's adventures, especially amateur ones.
If the scale of A Tale of Two Kingdoms is its greatest strength, it does come with some weakness. There are oodles of descriptions offered by examining the background details, plenty of animations, lots of things to see, find, and do. But with such a vast amount to cover, the testing missed quite a few minor things and there are little niggles everywhere. An obvious example is that many times when you examine objects or talk to people, your character does so from the other side of the screen. "Examining the window closely, you find a piece of cloth" doesn't seem right when Maeldun is standing yards away from said window. Having written games in AGS myself, I know it can be a pain to code these things, but it takes the shine off the polish of this otherwise professional-looking game.
There are also a few pixel hunts, unfortunately, particularly when you don't know what you are looking for. One example requires finding a small hole in the ground, which looks more like a rock than a hole, while there are other instances of shiny things being found on the ground: they sparkle occasionally, but you really need to keep your eyes peeled for them and it helps a lot if you know that they are going to be there.
The more serious problem is that the many things that can be solved in different ways and different orders sometimes cause the logic of a situation to break down. I found that because I happened to get some holy water quite early on, I was unable to use my bottle on lots of other things I wanted to try it on, and I was unable to empty it as the game called it a waste, even when I wanted to pour the water back where I found it. Because of this, I couldn't get money very easily, which meant that I didn't get a non-player character to do something for me until very late in the game. This appeared to trigger a whole load of events that would have been more appropriate earlier on in the story and didn't quite add up. The final problem in the logic of the game is that of finding the identity of the murderer: I have found all the clues, seen most of the relevant cutscenes and read the walkthrough, and I still don't find the evidence convincing. It seems that the land of Theylinn doesn't hold to the principle of reasonable, or even vast, doubt.
It may seem that I'm dwelling on negatives, but that is mainly because they stand out against the otherwise high quality of the game. Indeed, there is much more to delight in within the realm of Theylinn. Fairies and giants, scarecrows and druids, wizards and jewels and furries and quests are all to be found in this rich fantasy world. It is also a place full of easter eggs that actually turn out to be integral parts of the game. Search every corner of every screen at every opportunity, because there are precious moments and stories hidden away and only the observant will enjoy all there is to find.
The graphics of A Tale of Two Kingdoms are also excellent. There is plenty of animation and the beautiful backgrounds are of the same standard as that of the King's Quest remakes. The many characters all have nice sprites and close-ups. The incidental characters and human and animal extras are varied and detailed. One visual blemish is a badly implemented wall-climbing animation that you see many times in the course of the game. It just looks a bit thrown together for such an oft-used animation and jars with the quality of the rest of the graphics. But such things are minor niggles that never overshadow the amount of high-quality drawing in this game.
The music is something that is excellent throughout. Nikolas Sideris has contributed to a quite a few amateur projects as a composer and his high quality work has always been fascinating. You can even play music yourself, if you acquire a flute. This is not only well done, but you can use the music in various different places for different purposes. Sound effects are not a big part of the game, though they are functional when present, and there is no voice acting, which is certainly understandable in an Underground project of this scale.
Overall, A Tale of Two Kingdoms is an impressive effort from an unpaid team and probably the largest original Underground graphical adventure game ever. If you can avoid the temptation of a walkthough, you can quite happily wander around discovering new things and examining everything in detail for hours, and the five different endings give it bucketloads of replayability. I can easily recommend that everyone give the game a try, even those less accustomed to Sierra-style games. It is free and fun and can keep you contentedly occupied. It has its share of foibles along the way, but it does far more things right than it does wrong, and I suspect that it will long be recognised as one of the must-play AGS adventures.
The 96 MB download of A Tale of Two Kingdoms and a 22 MB patch can be found at the Crystal Shard website.