The last time we checked in with Alexander, prince of Daventry and heir to the throne, he’d just been freed from the clutches of the evil wizard Mordack, along with the rest of his family and a pretty girl named Cassima. King’s Quest VI opens to reveal the forlorn prince sitting by his parents’ thrones, his head in his hands, pondering his lot in life. In the cutscene that follows, we learn that the young prince is plagued by an age-old problem: he’s in love. Alexander has been haunted by his memory of Cassima ever since they parted at Mordack’s castle. Just then, he happens to glance into the magic mirror his father recovered during the very first King’s Quest adventure. Through the enchanted glass he sees a beautiful woman trapped in a tower, waiting for rescue. It’s Cassima, and she’s calling his name! Inspired by the vision, Alexander sets out on a ship to travel to the Land of the Green Isles and get the girl.
If this sounds suspiciously familiar, that’s because it’s almost identical to the opening of King’s Quest II, one generation later. Thankfully, this is where the similarities end. King’s Quest VI: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow is anything but a rehash of its predecessors; in fact, after a decade of trying, it’s the game Sierra finally got almost completely right.
I say this because Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow is the only KQ game to strike a perfect balance between engaging puzzles and an enthralling, well-crafted story. Puzzles were always abundant in the KQ games (although they did mature considerably as the series evolved), but story was ever problematic. The very early KQ games had skeletal stories tacked on as an afterthought, and although the later ones took story more seriously, these often felt awkward and contrived. In King’s Quest VI, story is finally given the spotlight it deserves, with all those devices that make a story satisfying: setup, plot and character development, tension, and a heightened climax and satisfying conclusion.
This probably has something to do with long-time King’s Quest designer Roberta Williams teaming up with a newcomer named Jane Jensen for this installment in the venerable series. Roberta Williams was a designer; Jane Jensen, a writer. It was Roberta’s first shared credit on a KQ game, and in the opinions of many who cite KQVI as the best in the series (myself included), this partnership is the reason the game is so damn good.
The game opens with Alexander stranded on the shore of the Isle of the Crown, his ship wrecked against the rocks and his crew nowhere to be found. Lucky for him, he has landed on the same island where Cassima is being held. Unlucky for him, Abdul Alhazred, the vizier who took control of the throne while Cassima was Mordack’s hostage, won’t let Alexander see her. Thwarted in his quest before it has barely begun, Alexander goes to the town square and learns from the locals of a recent unrest that has spread across the land. Now Alexander must right wrongs throughout the Land of the Green Isles, to procure the ammunition and alliances he needs to rescue Cassima and bring down the evil vizier.
King’s Quest VI gets off to a bit of a slow start, with a lot of yammering between characters as the plot is established. This speaks to the game’s extensive backstory—there’s a lot of meat on the bones—but I think it’s also a side effect of the growing pains designers were still experiencing as they transitioned away from text-only games. The rhythm of the written word doesn’t always make for good dialogue, and when King’s Quest VI came out in 1992, even the best designers were still finding their footing when it came to writing for the talkies. Once Alexander figures out how to travel from island to island, though, the exposition takes a back seat and things start to really get good.
The Isle of the Crown is one of several islands that make up the Land of the Green Isles, along with the Isle of Wonder, the Isle of the Beast, and the Isle of the Sacred Mountain. Each island has a distinct visual and cultural influence. The Isle of the Crown’s buildings and inhabitants look like they’re out of Arabian Nights. The Isle of Wonder has an Alice in Wonderland feel, with a strange landscape and two chessboard queens who bicker over who’s in really in charge. The Isle of the Beast is a dark, forested land scattered with magical barriers, and the Isle of the Sacred Mountain is modeled after classic Greek and Roman mythology. (There are a few other locations in the game, with equally distinct atmospheres, but I don’t want to give them away!) The islands’ visual differences and the ease with which Alexander can travel between them makes the world feel large and diverse, but with the exception of the Isle of Wonder, which has several puzzles based on the island’s topsy-turvy logic, the gameplay on each of these islands is fairly similar. It’s not a huge complaint because there are plenty of story-supporting puzzles all the way through, but I do think the challenges could have been tailored to the environments a bit more.
King’s Quest VI has a point-and-click, icon-driven interface and traditional adventure gameplay, with conversations between characters playing a major role. The gameplay requires traveling between the islands to complete a number of small quests, with the ultimate goal of sneaking into Cassima’s castle to rescue her. As usual, many of the puzzles involve using collected items to befriend or appease other characters. There are also a few logic puzzles, and a set of challenges based on the text in the extensive manual, "Guidebook to the Green Isles," that accompanies the game—an organic form of copy protection, and an eternal source of frustration for people who obtain second-hand copies with the guidebook missing.
Timed puzzles and death scenarios are alive and well in King’s Quest VI, along with a handful of situations where you’re allowed to progress without something you need and have no way to go back and get it. None of this should come as a shock, since these annoyances have been present in every King’s Quest game leading up to this one, but with as many leaps forward as KQVI made in storytelling, I was almost surprised when I encountered them. Fortunately the timed puzzles are few and far between, and if you hit a dead-end, you can usually pick up the item you missed without a ton of backtracking, assuming you have been saving your game frequently (KQVI is more forgiving than some of the earlier games this way). On the plus side, the game has a few optional puzzles that have no detrimental effect if overlooked, but enrich the story if you discover them. Most of these involve getting Cassima’s attention, and if you’re a sucker for sappy love stories like I am, then you’ll want to seek them out.Continued on the next page...