Return to Zork flashback review

Return to Zork review
Return to Zork review
The Good:
  • World is deep, original and full of hidden lore
  • Gameplay is exceptionally non-linear
  • Seemingly endless opportunities to interact with objects, characters and the environment
  • Great main theme song as timeless as it is ominous
The Bad:
  • Puzzles are nigh impossible to solve
  • Can easily become unwinnable at several points without warning
  • Graphics and animations are now understandably dated
Our Verdict:

Return to Zork is a truly unique classic with a vast reservoir of hidden lore to discover, though the graphics have not aged well and its puzzles are arguably the most difficult in point-and-click history. This is not a game that wants to be beaten, it is a game designed to beat you.

Recently Return to Zork, a game from 1993 that broke free of the series’ text adventure roots and into the realm of point-and-click FMV, celebrated its 25th anniversary. After revisiting RTZ all these years later, I still found myself awestruck when, after an elaborate whisky toasting sequence, I managed to escape the grim reality of West Shanbar through a secret trap door and ended up in a magical underground world of wizards, illumynite, enchanted forests, and darkness-dwelling grues. But while I look back on the game with fond memories, some elements have withstood the test of time better than others. Though the graphics and animations now appear dated, the game’s unique Zorkian humour remains funny, and the scope and size of its explorable world is still commendable. No amount of starry-eyed nostalgia, however, can blind me to the one vital issue afflicting Return to Zork – namely that its puzzles, while often hilarious, are not so much challenging as they are recipes for madness. To those who are interested in Zork’s place in genre history, you will find this adventure a fascinating and unique experience unlike any other, but for the vast majority of gamers just seeking an enjoyable point-and-click from the ‘90s, I cannot recommend it without significant caution.

In keeping with Zork tradition, the game begins in front of a white house. As you move to the west and open a mailbox, you find a tele-orb and receive a call from a man claiming that you have won the sweepstakes. Although this sounds like good news, the man is suddenly interrupted by an evil force and you are magically whisked off to the Valley of The Sparrows, a desolate land now plagued by killer vultures. You soon find yourself stranded near a lighthouse and a southbound road that, according to the lighthouse keeper, is “impassable, absolutely impossible to pass.” Only after finding a way to sail a river downstream will you get to West Shanbar, a town that has fallen into disrepair following the mysterious disappearance of most of its residents. Eventually you make your way to the Great Underground Empire (GUE), where you find the missing Shanbarians and learn that the realm is being corrupted and taken over by evil magic in the embodiment of the dream-stealing Morphius.

The way RTZ’s story is told is one of its most beautiful elements, and at the same time one of its greatest weaknesses. Much of the detail that fleshes out this world’s backstory requires you to read large amounts of information from file cabinets and notebooks, and to show every conceivable picture, recording and item in your inventory to every other character you meet. The more time and effort you put into RTZ, the more you will learn. The issue here is that it is possible to easily overlook many interesting aspects of the narrative, along with a large number of details that, while not vital to know, add to its believability and depth. Showing the tele-orb to one character, for example, leads to dialogue about the partnership of those who made the orb and the purpose for which it was created, whereas showing a picture of a school teacher from the upper world to a hotel receptionist in the GUE returns a fair amount of useless but interesting gossip. Rely too much on a walkthrough, as the dastardly puzzles will likely tempt you to do, and you could miss much of the concealed information designed to enrich the Zork experience.

Return to Zork has a large cast and many are instrumental in providing relevant details. The state of the GUE, past events of the Grand Diffusion, and Morphius’s rise to power are recounted through characters such as Rebecca Snoot the writer, and Moadikum Moodock the one-armed arms dealer. There are also other minor roles including trolls, a marsh-dwelling witch, and fan favourite Boos, who spawned a catchphrase with his rhetorical “Want some rye? ‘Course ya’ do!” The key plot points, however, are conveyed by your travelling companion, the wizard Trembyle, who frequently calls you on your tele-orb to regale you with the history of magic and the GUE. The villainous Morphius is probably one of the weaker characters, despite the excellent voice talent behind him. While the first encounter with Morphius reveals the pleasure he takes in terrorizing humans in their dreams, you have little other contact with him throughout the game. He is far from fearsome in your initial meeting when he appears as a floating blob-like apparition, though he does show himself to be more of a worthy opponent later on.

Although it has been re-released through digital distribution, RTZ has not been remastered and remains nearly identical to its 1993 release, with only one change. The original version came with a hard copy of the Encyclopedia Frobozzica, a large booklet full of hilarious Zorkian lore that was required to answer questions within the game on two occasions. In doing so, the book doubled as a physical copyright protection device, making it impossible to progress far if you did not have it. Now these tests have been amended to very simple questions whose answers can be found quite easily while playing. Despite the fact that it is now obsolete, this amusing Encyclopedia played a vital role in the original experience, and it is still digitally provided on some PC platforms today (GOG, but not Steam).

The FMV visuals and animation were truly incredible in their day, and I recall thinking that the graphics were the most realistic I had seen to that point. In retrospect, however, certain elements and characters sometimes appear unconvincingly superimposed on their environments, such as Mrs Peepers the school teacher, who unnecessarily dominates most of the screen within her classroom. Facial animations are also bizarre, as expressions and mouth movements appear to be superimposed from snippets of pre-recorded acting, leading to some strange, unnatural interactions. Particularly important moments of dialogue are actual FMV clips, but these are used sparingly in an effort to conserve memory, an important factor considering the systems of most gamers at the time. Despite looking somewhat dated now, some of the scenery is still somewhat charming, particularly the marsh and forest mazes which remain quite beautiful and fun to get lost in.

Players move through RTZ in first-person slideshow fashion, and doing so often results in FMV transitions between areas, lending a seamless dimension to navigation. One of the most impressive examples of this is when, with the help of the wizard Canuk, you are shrunk down to tiny size and lowered into a ship inside a glass bottle to retrieve an important item. I remember that when I first played the game in the mid ’90s, this descent into the bottle was a very special moment that felt phenomenally realistic at the time. While even this sequence now looks antiquated in comparison to modern titles, I still found my revisit down the bottleneck convincing and I give the developers credit for this creative idea.

The audio in Return to Zork is diverse, with a high quality that has aged less poorly than the visuals. The music ranges from simple midi-style tracks to the more resonant tones of the ominous main theme. All characters in the game are voiced and at times the acting is very good, while occasionally it is merely tolerable but rarely poor. Sound effects are basic and are sometimes comical representations of the actions you are performing, such as the pull whistle that is periodically played when you throw an inventory item.

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