While the genre today continues to be infatuated with FBI agents, amateur archeologists and worldwide conspiracies, Tale of a Hero is a welcome attempt to recapture the old glories of fantasy adventures. At first glance, it seems to have what it takes to do just that, featuring a fearless, old-fashioned hero capable of defeating monsters, rescuing distressed damsels and saving kingdoms by means of his bravery, loyalty and devotion to duty. Add to that an original fairy tale land full of dozens of quirky characters, plus an initially promising plot involving a vengeful giant, and all the elements would seem to be in place for an epic fantasy quest. Unfortunately, all that glitters isn’t always gold, and Tale of a Hero not only fails to be a worthy modern champion of the fantasy genre, it isn’t a very compelling adventure in its own right, with flawed, simplistic gameplay and a blatantly clichéd story that falls well short of even its own ambitions.
It’s a pity the quality doesn’t last, because the game starts off really well. Instead of throwing the player straight into the middle of the main plot, Tale of a Hero begins with the protagonist, Olaf son of Halfard, falling down a pit. As the heir of a legendary hero from the past, the villagers have given him the seemingly simple task of getting rid of the local monster. Unluckily for Olaf, they promised him a rather innocuous beast and instead he finds himself trapped in the den of a Dolsimian, a dangerous sort of stone troll. With the aid of Smokey, a creature made (naturally) of smoke whose sole purpose is to haunt the Dolsimian, Olaf succeeds in neutralizing the monster – not by usual heroic means like slaughtering it with an enchanted sword, but by talking it into leaving the village alone and opening a business instead. The villagers aren’t very happy, of course, but it’s a fair deal: Olaf even shares part of the company and he and the Dolsimian equally divide the income.
After this playable prologue, the real adventure begins, and most of the imagination stops. While resting after the “defeat” of the monster, Olaf is visited by a witch named Pripogala, who comes to him with a message: the Ice Giant Krugell has awoken from his slumber and is now planning revenge upon Olaf, whose father once killed his brother, the Fire Dragon. Krugell has already kidnapped the princess Erea, and Olaf must save the day by seeking an ancient prophecy and a forgotten weapon, the only one capable of defeating Krugell. So, leaving the tranquility of his little home, Olaf sets off to fulfill a destiny that will take him through a reeking swamp, atop misty mountains, and deep into an underwater fish kingdom.
If you have played any fantasy adventures before, the plot inevitably sounds like a cliché. Though originality is rare in the fantasy genre, the story of Tale of a Hero contains no twists, no unusual detail, no distinctive spice of any kind. That doesn’t mean it can’t be entertaining, but only if you’re willing to overlook the banality of the premise and the predictability of its actual developments. The uninspired plot could have been saved by writing capable of enlivening these formulas with clever irony or powerful human drama, but unfortunately the script here is tacky, never really deciding between being humorous or serious, resulting in an inconsistent hodgepodge. Don’t misunderstand me: even in the darkest adventures, some comedic touches are welcomed if they help relieve the tension and enrich the atmosphere, but the problem with Tale of a Hero lies in the main narrative itself. The designers were unable to properly shape the story, failing to resolve between a lighthearted, spoof-like tone or a somber, emotional approach. What’s worse, the humor is wearisome, often relying on bad puns and daft wisecracks, while the occasional epic turn feels terribly shallow, packed with so many trivialities that it can’t help but seem insincere.
The characters fare no better, forming a cast of overused caricatures like the gossipy innkeeper, the insufferable know-it-all witch with a penchant for quips (one of which is taken straight out of King’s Quest), the down-to-earth girlfriend who criticizes her lover’s craving for adventure, and an oracle with the precious gift of the Sight. Olaf himself is nothing but a shallow avatar, and even the nameless hero of Quest for Glory showed more signs of a personality. Some of Olaf’s statements toward his fiancée seem slightly sexist, treating his “darling” like an object rather than a person. When she slams the door in his face, he has nothing better to say than, “She’s angry now, but it will be over in a day or two. Which doesn’t mean that I won’t have to softsoap her for another six months.” Luckily, this attitude is toned down later in the game, but not because of any actual character development, so don’t expect anything deep or moving even then. The only well-designed character is Smokey, who turns out to be consistently funny in an unexpected, often politically incorrect sort of way. It’s a pity that it isn’t given more time on screen, as I would have preferred to hear his bitingly sarcastic comments than the dull commentary by Olaf.
Tale of a Hero was never released in English-language markets, but the Italian version does include full English voice acting, which is a mixed bag. While it is generally well done, some roles like Masek the Innkeeper are badly directed, resulting in lines spoken with the wrong emphasis or trivial dialogues whispered like they were valuable secrets. To supplement the voiceovers, the developers have recently offered an English subtitle patch, an option not offered in the original retail release. One nice thing about the setting is that the land of Aldiara has been given a detailed background, and sometimes Olaf and the other characters refer to its rich history during the dialogues. This would have been more intriguing with a better script, but it’s nice to see that the designers took some time to create a cultural mythology. It still isn't particularly original, but it's at least peculiar enough to differentiate Aldiara from a classic Middle Earth-like world.
This environment, particularly the Misty Valley where much of the adventure takes place, is brought to life by a nice graphic design. The locations display good use of color and lighting, and have many details enriching each screen. From the cozy farm where Olaf lives to a greenish, eerie bog, the locales offer a decent atmospheric variety, though they are scarcely animated. Among the different places you’ll visit, the Underwater World – with its strange, luminous plants, bright corals and arcane, tumbledown temples – is appropriately eerie and fascinating, but the Frozen Land where Krugell lives suffers from a bare design that’s overly simple and perhaps too stark.
Regrettably, the character models (which can be acceptable from long distance, but are dreadful in close-ups) do much to ruin the nice feeling from the scenery: their animations are awkward, clumsy, and often painfully slow. Sometimes the developers didn’t even bother to attempt an animation: for example, when Pripogala is casting a spell upon Olaf, the two of them remain absolutely still, with no sign – aurally or visually – of anything going on. They remain this way for a good thirty seconds, and just when I feared the game had crashed, Pripogala announced with a sigh of relief that the incantation was successful. It’s perfectly understandable that small studios have to deal with budget restraints, but the absence of animation here is sometimes taken to extremes that are a bit ridiculous.
The music accompanying Olaf’s adventures is often pleasing enough, but certain themes, repeated over and over, can become grating if you wander around the same location for a long period of time. The main orchestration is rather delightful and the trumpet tune connected with Smokey always managed to get a smile out of me. Honorable mention belongs to the catchy theme heard when Olaf uses his maps, done in a troubadour-like style that instantly suggests thoughts of old minstrels and green English landscapes. Better still, the sound effects really stand out among the best I’ve heard recently, successfully providing a suitable atmosphere to the exploration and really helping to make the game world feel more alive. All in all, while hardly state of the art technically, Tale of a Hero’s production values provide a pleasant backdrop for the game. It’s just a shame that they aren’t matched by equal quality in terms of gameplay.
In fact, the adventure is filled with a collection of nuisances that seriously hinder the gaming experience. The basic setup is decent enough, as Tale of a Hero plays from a typical third-person perspective and controlled through simple point-and-click. Unlike some games, you use the left mouse button both for examining and interacting, apart from the inventory where the right button often provides a close-up view of the selected object. Unfortunately, there is no way to know before clicking if Olaf will simply examine the object at hand or if he can do something with it. This inability to distinguish between Look and Use comes with a heavy price, because some items that previously could only be examined (not to mention those that weren’t even identified as hotspots originally) can suddenly become fully interactive without any recognizable trigger for such a change, or even anything to indicate a change has occurred. I consider this approach unfair and frustrating, not only because it makes the game’s linearity feel utterly strained, but also because it forces players into constant, extensive backtracking just to be sure you haven’t missed something you couldn’t have possibly known about.
The rigid linearity also applies to the dialogues: unless every option has been exhausted, even if the acquired information was perfectly clear before the conversation began, the game won’t let you proceed. Here’s an example that presents all these issues: when you find out that a particular mushroom is afraid of slugs (don’t ask), slugs will magically appear in a spot that was previously empty. Fair enough, but there’s nothing the player can do with these creatures. At least, not before speaking once again to the mushroom, which only then asks for protection from the slugs. Now, Olaf happens to know a creature that is searching for a new job and would be perfect for the task. But before resorting to this creature, which will undoubtedly be the player’s first choice, for no apparent reason you’ll be forced to try an old, useless (Olaf’s words) rooster first, just to hear the mushroom complaining that the bird is old and useless: like we didn’t know that! Yet only then will Olaf be able to ask the appropriate creature to step in… though again, players must remember to speak with the mushroom once more, just to be sure. This is just one example, but you will find plenty of these situations during the game, and there is no excuse for such poor design, which does nothing more than artificially lengthen a game that would otherwise be very short.
The puzzles are almost all inventory-based and they’re entirely predictable: extremely easy and straightforward, their solutions are always the most obvious, requiring very little thought at all. I wholeheartedly support integrated challenges that don’t hamper the flow of the story, but once in a while it would have been nice to rack my brain a little bit instead of Olaf always pointing out what needs to be done. The only difficulty here is finding the right objects, given their regrettable habit of appearing out of nowhere unforeseen. When confronted by a puzzle that’s giving you problems, you simply have to scour every available location in search of objects that were previously unavailable and – zap! – you will find the solution right away. There is also a tile puzzle with an amusing “solution”, but if you are a longtime adventurer, you will immediately recognize it from Zork Grand Inquisitor.
Due to the unfriendly design issues, it took me almost twelve hours to reach the end of the game – and a very half-baked ending it is, with a last-minute twist that falls flat and fails to surprise. Along the way, the only thing this title ever really managed to challenge was my patience, making it hard to recommend. Its settings may have a certain appeal to hardcore fantasy fans, but only those who don’t mind a huge amount of repetitive backtracking and can turn a blind eye to the clichéd plot, tedious writing, and excessive linearity. Tale of a Hero could also attract those feeling nostalgic for the old King’s Quest or Quest for Glory series, amongst which I count myself, but this game feels like little more than a carbon copy of those adventures, without the slightest sign of originality. Even with its pretty graphics, it’s not done nearly as well as its inspirations, ultimately making this Tale of a Hero something of a tragic one, and an adventure soon forgotten.