Police Quest 3: The Kindred review

Police Quest 3
Police Quest 3
The Good:
  • Great soundtrack
  • Digitized graphics are impressive
  • Still gets many elements of policework and investigation very right
The Bad:
  • Terrible storytelling that alternates between confusion and deadly boredom
  • Writing is thin at best, and often unacceptably bland
  • Dull background graphics
Our Verdict: If for some reason you have never played Police Quest 3, play it only as a completist’s resolution to the brilliant second game. If you played it and remember it fondly, move on and preserve those memories.

I have to be honest about writing the review for Sierra’s Police Quest 3: The Kindred – I’ve been putting it off for a long time. I suppose I could successfully excuse it as an attempt to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the game’s 1991 release, but in reality, this is not a review I’ve been looking forward to, because it represents a conflicting intersection of a series that I dearly love and cherish and the actual quality of the product—or lack thereof, for The Kindred is simply a disappointment that even nostalgia can’t completely wash away.

Police Quest 3, a product of Sierra On-Line’s SCI1 era (so named for the VGA-driven interface that was the successor to AGI and SCI0), follows the story of Detective Sonny Bonds one year after the events of The Vengeance. Sonny and his once-kidnapped fiancée Marie are married and Sonny has been promoted to the new position of Detective Sergeant. This means supervisor privileges, so you’re now the guy giving the briefing rather than listening to it. This is just part of the police minutiae that you undertake, which is not a criticism, because policework is what the series is all about. It’s fairly light on puzzles and heavy on following instructions, as your duties include such tasks as dealing with a citizen complaint against one of your subordinates, responding to a disturbance at the park, patrolling the highway for speeders and other ne’er-do-wells, and hauling multiple suspects to jail.

The policework itself is mostly well-designed, but a notably famous exception is the driving interface, requiring very quick and frequent clicks to stop and/or turn. You haven’t played Police Quest 3 until you’ve driven straight into the river immediately after leaving the station, for lack of understanding how quickly you must click to successfully turn. It’s too bad that the guy who came up with PQ2’s driving interface (consisting of typing “drive to ______” and pressing Enter) was not around to make some sense of this. Of course, there are no complaints about Sierra’s legendarily effective SCI1 interface in all of its Walk-Eye-Hand-Talk glory.

The events of the game’s first day segue into a transfer to the Homicide detective role from The Vengeance. This should have provided a real heightened sense of pursuit and anxiety; instead, we get the dramatic equivalent of running in place for four game days, until a climactic sixth day takes Sonny into the heart of a murderous cult that lacks scruples, compassion, or any type of coherent background story other than the terrible, paper-thin attempt to tie the villain’s story to that of the first two games. To say The Kindred fails at storytelling is a healthy understatement.

In many ways, the game is a reflection of the turmoil of its development, which saw series creator Jim Walls leave under controversial and negative circumstances with the game substantially unfinished, leaving others to complete it—in hurried fashion, by all accounts. None of this has ever been officially confirmed, but Mark Crowe is credited as the Director (Jim Walls himself receives modest fifth billing as “Designer”). Either way, the game reeks of being rushed out the door, with short lines of stilted dialogue substituting for legitimate conversation, and only the most cursory of environmental descriptions.

The ultimate insult, and most obvious byproduct of rushed design, is the game’s final moment—the absolute pinnacle of Sierra-style deaths in all their infamy. I won’t give any details away for those who haven’t played, but suffice to say that the climax concludes one of two ways: your death or your rescue. Either way ends the game. The “good ending” is triggered by performing a series of related events throughout the course of the game, any one of which is easy to miss and not repeatable—and the entire series will fail to trigger if you issue a warning rather than a ticket to someone driving slow in the fast lane on the very first day of the game. Try to comprehend that as a reasonable design decision, and imagine having to deal with that problem in an era before walkthroughs.

Compounding the problem of this horrid finale is how silly the framework of it actually is—the dramatic turning point is not only out of left field, it is from a different stadium’s left field; an important character wildly turns on a dime, suddenly and for no good reason, and then the issue is dispensed with one way or another based on whether you did something you’ll never know you were supposed to. Then the game ends. It’s just unfair. The overall storyline, although it touches on some impressively dark themes in the later stages as you uncover the cult’s murderous ways, is really so underwhelming and anti-climactic that Peter Scisco famously added many significant elements that don’t exist in the game in his novelization for The Police Quest Casebook—recognizing that the actual plot of The Kindred, in this form, would make a pretty terrible novel.

The game’s limited strengths are definitely on the technical side, but visually it’s a mixed bag. Although admittedly an early game in the SCI1 life cycle, it is still very difficult to describe the majority of Police Quest 3’s background graphics as anything other than dull and unimpressive. There is an obvious lack of graphical detail and an overwhelming amount of grey blandness. One need only look at Quest for Glory III or even the VGA remake of Police Quest 1, among close contemporaries, to know how much better and more detailed Sierra’s games of this era usually looked. This is a strange juxtaposition to the excellent use of digitized characters, both in the dialogue portraits (mind you, it’s hard to take the police psychiatrist seriously when he’s obviously Corey Cole) and other impressively detailed close-up scenes. This was the first Sierra game to really make use of this technology in the VGA era and it looks great, which highlights where the graphical resources were focused and successfully distracts from the blandness of many backgrounds.

Other than the great character graphics, the game’s brightest spot is the music. While its presence is more sparse than it could be, what is here is a really cool MIDI-era cop show soundtrack with all the requisite synth-driven dark jazz, composed by the master of such music in the late 1980s, Jan Hammer (Miami Vice). The introductory sequence music is one of the great Sierra MIDI classics.

The Kindred also benefits from one very important fact: it is really fun to be a cop. It was even more fun when it was still a novel concept--before the world had even heard of Law & Order, never mind played a glut of its spinoff games. There is a definite satisfaction to solving crime, stopping criminals, locking up bad guys, and saving the innocent. The reward is that much better when it feels authentic, and for all the failings in dialogue and descriptive text, this game still gets the details of a police procedural absolutely correct. It isn’t a cheap shot if you die by approaching the car you pulled over from the back rather than the front—rather, it’s completely consistent with the game’s intent of real-life policework.

That’s why this series is cherished by so many people: it strikes the sweet spot that puts us in the role of a cool real-life occupation. I never wanted to actually be Roger Wilco or Gabriel Knight—and surely not Larry Laffer—but I really wanted to live Sonny Bonds’ life, and the game design gets credit for that, for creating a real police authenticity. That’s probably the biggest contribution of Jim Walls, who brought 15 years of California Highway Patrol experience (and absolutely no practical game design understanding) to his designer role.

I hope I am clear with my conflict. My heart dearly loves this game, and I remember vividly my teenage fascination with police detective work (and Jan Hammer’s music), a nostalgia that guarantees I never get tired of replaying it (the only games in my life I’ve played through more are its two predecessors). And yet I have to acknowledge that it is littered with flawed logic, bad design decisions, thin-to-awful writing, and lackluster story and scenery. The case can easily be made that Police Quest 3 is a bad game and a 2-star rating is generous—I won’t go that far, but it surely ranks as one of Sierra’s most tremendous underachievements, and a game that should be approached with the requisite caution of a Highway Patrol officer unless you have a very sturdy built-in nostalgia cushion already in place.

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