Conquests of the Longbow: The Legend of Robin Hood review
In English literature, the first mention of a character named Robin Hood dates back to the 14th century and occurs in William Langland’s allegorical poem “Piers Plowman”, in which Priest Sloth says: ”I kan [know] rymes of Robin Hood.” Who Robin Hood really was is a subject that inflames fierce debates amongst the scholars even today: the dispossessed Earl of Huntingdon who became an outlaw to some historians, a mythological numen of the forests for some anthropologists, and nothing more than a scoundrel womanizer to his detractors. Whatever the reality, over the ages Robin Hood has proved to be an endless resource for poets and artists, who drew on his legend to shape this figure into the modern hero we know today, the noble outlaw who steals from the rich to give to the poor and who fights against the injustice of the feudal system.
Such a fascinating character lends itself perfectly to being the charismatic lead for an adventure game, and that’s why Christy Marx chose him for the second installment in her Conquests series. Her first attempt, Conquests of Camelot, didn’t sell very well despite some very good reviews and a couple of prestigious awards, at least not compared to the main Sierra “Quests” series. So, to the revamp the saga, in 1992 Marx and Ken Williams decided to let King Arthur go and focus on another English legendary hero, better suited for popular appeal at the time thanks the blockbuster film Prince of Thieves. As in the first game, Marx took great care in the preparation: the bibliography in the manual cites a wide range of sources, from the medieval chivalry poems to Sir Walter Scott’s “Ivanhoe”, from popular children’s ballads about Robin Hood to encyclopedias about heraldry, archery and feminine symbols. Whilst she could have borrowed heavily from the successful film, instead she worked hard to create an original plot and round off a non-stereotypical character, close to its legendary roots but also vivid and real.
Rather than throwing players right into the midst of the action, the game takes its time to set the proper mood and introduce the characters and the most important places around Sherwood Forest. The adventure spans two weeks, and the early days will be mostly spent talking to the Merry Men – the faithful Little John, the gruff Will Scarlet, Friar Tuck and the minstrel Alan-a-dale – and learning about the fate of King Richard the Lionheart, around whom the main plot is weaved. In fact, while the King was returning from Jerusalem after the Third Crusade, disguised as a Knight Templar, Richard was captured and imprisoned by Leopold V of Austria, who claimed that the King had offended him by tearing apart his vessels after the conquest of Acre. Richard’s brother, John Lackland, saw the opportunity to seize the throne of England and, with the aid of Nottingham’s Sheriff and an order of corrupted clergymen, conspired so that the high ransom asked by Leopold would never be raised. Slowly, as the days pass, Robin Hood finds himself more and more involved in a desperate race against time to expose Prince John’s intrigues and thus save King Richard. To do so, he not only has to confront John’s henchmen but also help Queen Eleanor raise the money necessary to pay the ransom.
Christy Marx’s writing is, as always, top-notch. The story is intriguing, the plot unfolds slowly but consistently, and both locations and characters are lavishly depicted. All of Robin’s Merry Men have well-rounded, distinct personalities and their salacious mocks of each other are a pleasure to read. The ferocious portrayal of the corrupt clergy is not only historically accurate, but also a sharp example of Marx’s satirical wit. Robin himself is one of the most appealing characters to ever appear in an adventure game. Bold and noble, from time to time he shows an incisive sarcasm toward his foes as well as a courtly romanticism to his beloved Marian; he doesn’t forego the occasional sleazy wisecrack despite always being chivalrous and polite, even with his fiercest enemy, the greedy Sheriff of Nottingham. Maid Marian, who serves as Robin’s love interest, is equally distant from the stereotype of the harmless lady in distress. Whilst a departure from the main Robin Hood canon, she is depicted like a green priestess of the Forest and this choice proves to be an excellent characterization. In Conquest of Camelot, Marx had already shown her tendency towards strong female characters who draw on paganism to enhance their femininity, and this trait adds an unusual depth to Maid Marian.
Great care was also put into both the historical aspects of the game and its mythological flavour: Prince John’s schemes to obtain the throne are as accurate as Druidic beliefs about hollow trees and magical gemstones, and Marx’s thorough research is evident through the myriad of little details she interspersed in the main plot. For example, at one moment Robin find himself in a prior’s library and the player can read almost every scroll on the bookshelf. Although not vital to complete the game, the information gathered from the parchments – about the Crusades, the Knights Templar and Charlemagne, to name just a few – greatly increase the player’s feeling of immersion.
This feeling is also heightened by the graphic design. From the warm and cosy Merry Men’s camp, where each in-game day begins and ends, to the ghostly Fens Monastery surrounded by a foggy swamp, the VGA graphics really shine and the animations add a nice touch of realism: the water flows gently, the fog swirls eerily and the birds fly from branch to branch. Late in the game, when Robin has a chance to visit Nottingham’s Great Fair, the city’s streets, otherwise empty, come alive with acrobats, fakirs, beggars, scholars and fortune tellers. Another nice feature involves the character portraits shown during dialogue, which display a good range of facial expressions and cover the lack of voice acting pretty well. As for the music, each location has a distinct theme that appropriately matches the visual design. The main theme, inspired by medieval English troubadours, is so pleasant to listen to that it can stick in the player’s mind long after, though some others are perhaps too similar and none of them are really memorable.
Unlike its predecessor, Longbow is based on the enhanced version of Sierra Creative Interpreter, known as SCI1, and thus uses Sierra’s standard point-and-click, icon-driven interface. Apart from the usual Walk, Look and Use options, there are also two customised icons designed particularly for the game: the Map icon, through which the player can instantly travel between the most important places, and the Bow icon, which allows the player to shoot arrows with Robin’s legendary archery skill. As the latter feature suggests, this means that the dreaded arcade sequences from Conquest of Camelot are present here too. Although the new mouse interface simplifies the task, these sequences can still be very tricky, because they also require the use of the keyboard and the commands are often quite unresponsive. However, they are generally better than the ones seen in the previous installment, and the Longbow Tournament is perhaps one of the most entertaining segments of the game. Besides, the arcade difficulty can be adjusted at any time during the game, even though a lower difficulty means fewer points rewarded. Some players may also be bothered by the many timed sequences that punctuate the gameplay: while some of them are easy tasks even for the most action-resistant adventurer, others may prove to be quite hard on modern computers, all but forcing players to use a slow-down utility. One sequence in particular, involving the capture of a Pixie, can be very frustrating because the little devil runs incredibly fast across the screen and it requires a quite perfect hand-eye coordination to entangle it in Robin’s net.
Physical challenges aren’t the only obstacles, as Longbow’s well balanced mixture of inventory and logic puzzles will test even the most seasoned adventurer. Returning from Conquests of Camelot, riddles will force the player to think creatively to solve them, and the Druid hand-code is a subtle and intelligent device that replaces the text parser without losing the player’s direct involvement in the solution: each phalanx represents a letter, and when presented with a question, Robin must answer by clicking the corresponding fingertip to compose the right word. The game also contains a couple of puzzles directly based upon the manual, which serves as its copy protection. However, unlike other Sierra games of the period, these puzzles never feel contrived or artificial, instead furthering the depth of the background setting and adding some actual teaching. For example, to enter the reclusive Fens’ Monastery, Robin has to prove his knowledge about gemstones: without the manual, it’s impossible to solve the puzzle, and even with it, accurate reasoning is required to interpret the difficult rhymes which hide the correct answers. This demands creative thinking, and it’s very satisfying to overcome this kind of obstacle.
I must also mention that this game presents the player with a bunch of non-linear choices that can greatly influence the final outcome. Some tasks are completely optional, like the ways to increase the ransom needed for King Richard’s release or the charity given to the poor, and even the final number of outlaws commanded by Robin or his worthiness for the regal pardon will depend on the player’s decisions. The game has no less than four different endings, from a happy and satisfying conclusion that wraps up every plot point to a grim, dark and tragic one. In this regard, not only the epic feats will count but also the little moral decisions made from the very beginning, not to mention at least two occasions where Robin must choose a plan of action between those suggested by his Merry Men, and whatever choice the player makes will influence the ending. These kinds of crossroads, never rendering the game unbeatable, surely increase Longbow’s replayability value.
Despite its minor flaws and a few unpolished aspects, Conquests of the Longbow has a great number of sure arrows in its quiver. Its arcade sequences certainly won’t be for everyone, but it has a deep and interesting story, believable and appealing characters, multi-branched plot, solid gameplay and challenging, intelligent puzzles. Although one of Sierra’s lesser known titles from that golden era of adventures, it remains a true classic and a must-have for every adventurer.
Too often forgotten in the midst of more famous Sierra series, with its captivating plot and appealing characters, this game is a true classic that deserves to be in every adventurer’s collection.