Chapter 3 - Once Upon a Climb
Flashing back to the Graham we met in Chapters 1 and 2 with a “catch-up” narration by the elderly king, King’s Quest: Chapter 3 – Once Upon a Climb goes on to show the young man settled into his royal role and gaining in maturity. Lately he’s been walking with a swagger; his conversation is more measured and confident, and he holds himself proudly. He’s handsome and buff, having apparently spent hours at the Daventry Gym in an attempt to be a better king. Or, at least, to look like one.
The dark, desperate hours in Rubble Without a Cause ‘s goblin kingdom are but a fading memory, and this new episode revives the lighthearted atmosphere of A Knight to Remember. The kingdom and Graham are getting along swimmingly except for one not-so-minor detail: Graham’s subjects would like him to find a princess, marry her, and produce an heir. Graham isn’t opposed to the idea, but an implementation strategy is clearly lacking. The magic mirror (acquired in Chapter 1) hastens the matter by revealing that the woman fated to be Graham’s wife is trapped at the top of a tower, waiting to be rescued. Our hero, who loves adventure, is not at all averse to adventuring for the sake of love, so off he goes to the Enchanted Isles to meet his future queen.
Various hindrances litter his path, of course – including scaling the tower which, from a distance, looks like a curvy, crooked stone snake. Since random steps appear on the exterior as Graham approaches, climbing the tower is almost child’s play for any rock-jock. But when he makes it to the top, Graham discovers the real obstacle to his courtship plans: two princesses are there, both trapped. And both are prospective mates. Which one is Graham’s true love? Only time (and player choices) will tell. In effect, gamers are hornswoggled into the role of King Graham’s matchmaker.
The two potential queens exhibit characteristics that are similar to Graham’s. For instance, one princess is fond of puns and puzzles; the other craves challenging adventure quests and indulges in “uncontrollable outbursts of excitement.” It seems that, from the minute you meet these two ladies, everything you have Graham do or say – and the order in which he does or says it – could potentially sway the decision one way or the other. This is slightly unnerving, but also rather delightful.
The truth is, when you reach the chapter’s ending Graham will have fallen in love, but how the choice is made isn’t exactly apparent. I used different selections and decisions for my second playthrough, and still ended up with the same princess. The final screen does give a hint as to what’s most important; maybe I should have taken it more to heart.
Gameplay is varied and of easy-to-medium difficulty, involving such contraptions as tone patterns on a lute, sliding blocks, and a log-and-debris construction challenge. The initial puzzle, which cleverly exploits the passage of time between the three episodes so far, is particularly satisfying. You will also test your reflexes while shooting a bow and arrow, clear a path as you fall down a hill, dance formally to a QTE-directed rhythm, and even indulge in a brief stealth sequence. Plus there are many choices to consider – among them, which princess to talk to and when, which conversational options to select, which items to pick up first, which objects to save from falling when the tower totters, and which shop to enter. At one point the game gives you the chance to lower a bridge via a tricky rotation puzzle or, instead, opt for an absurdly easy test of your strength.
There’s also an interesting social card game, meant to reveal character, which you play with the two princesses called “Moral Quarrel.” Here you read outrageous storybook scenarios, select one of two possibilities for resolving the situation, and then find out how the princesses would have answered. You can pick what you (personally) would do in each given scenario, revealing which princess is most like YOU. Or you can choose as you think Graham would, showing which princess is most like HIM. Of course, there are surprises along the way.
It’s possible to die on occasion, but you are returned to a location close to where you slipped up. I repeatedly entered the sweet hereafter during the final tower-climbing-and-leaping extravaganza, mostly because it’s prolonged, requires fast reflexes, and the autosave points are further apart than in earlier action sequences. At first I used the keyboard controls (I was able to play Chapter 2 entirely with the keyboard, so I had gotten into the habit), and I found that the spacebar wasn’t always responsive during leaping. The “enter” key was more reliable, but when I finally wised up and switched to a controller, I beat the frosty tower spectacular on the third go-round. Overall, it took me six hours to finish Chapter 3, one hour of which was spent scaling (well, mostly flubbing) the final tower. I made it through the second playthrough in two and a half hours.
Though Once Upon a Climb contains traditional puzzles and mostly easy action challenges, the episode is essentially story-focused. One indication of this: the sheer amount of time spent on close-ups of the characters’ faces as they chat, argue, or react to events. It becomes patently clear that Graham is in over his head, and is probably better able to handle a fire-breathing dragon or a goblin army than two lovely young women in a rustic and intimate space. There are also clever villains lurking, one close-at-hand, and others preparing to unleash their knavery from afar. Characters from previous chapters resurface at unexpected moments. The story unfolds entertainingly, switching seamlessly between well-animated cutscenes, dialogs, and sensibly-integrated gameplay. Backstory revelations come at unforeseen moments and are highly rewarding. By the end, I realized that this is the closest I’ve come to the sensation of “playing” an animated movie.
The zestful writing and skillful voice-overs are continuing strengths for the series. Warning: you will once again find yourself in egregious pun territory. Rousing instrumentals, swelling romantic strings, and manic stomping music are attuned to the game’s various settings and plot diversions. Occasionally a tune recalls the soundtrack from previous popular songs: a little bit of rumba nonsense evokes Man of La Mancha, for instance, and there’s a nostalgic return to the “Girl in the Tower” music from King’s Quest VI.
The graphics are gorgeous. The lovely watercolor skies crowning Daventry make a return, as do the rocky cliffs, shadow-reflective streams, and thick woodlands. The medieval tower interior includes a large fireplace, collections of books, an easel painting of a giant avocado, and elaborate draperies (color-coded to match the princesses’ differing tastes). Picturesque sunsets turn the sky gold and the mountains purple. Graham finds a temporary portal leading out of the tower, so you will briefly visit the town of Daventry, a tropical beach, and the threatening forest of Avalon. Landscape scenes are enlivened by rippling waves, birds on the wing, struggling frogs and mischievous squirrels.
In many ways, this is my favorite King’s Quest chapter so far. The personalities of the two princesses are an intriguing contrast and the tension between the people trapped together – and the ugly force keeping them there – is expertly maintained. Watching Graham handle this odd situation, with the pun-filled dialogs that result, had me chuckling. The puzzles suit the story, and the timed sequences, though too frequent for my personal taste, are manageable – especially once I’d gone back to using the controller. The ending is a heart-in-mouth dénouement, followed by a hint of the forces to be reckoned with later on. Once Upon a Climb is an ascent to remember. Can it be topped in Chapter 4?Continued on the next page...