There are some adventure games that stick in your heart, years after their time has faded. Titles like Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, Monkey Island, Sam & Max, Full Throttle or The Day of the Tentacle were watershed moments in the development of my gaming pedigree. But we tend to forget that even those early titles were standing on the shoulders of giants, and one of those giants is the King's Quest series.
While it probably can’t lay claim to inventing the point/click adventure genre all by itself, the iconic developer Sierra (now Vivendi) certainly proved that, with a little thought, a touch of patience, and a large dollop of storytelling, gaming could be slow, intelligent and exciting.
I was a little late to the series – not having been born yet [Now I feel old. Thanks. - Ed]. But over the years I have spent many sheepish hours trying to figure my way through its many different tricks and puzzles. I never could fully complete any of them – but I had a damn good time trying.
King's Quest has always had a little bit of fun with its narrative backdrops. And for good reason, they were mostly breaking new ground in adventure story telling. The first two instalments took place in the magical land of Daventry. In King's Quest: Quest for the Crown, the childless King Edward (who has just been scammed by a witch and a dwarf) champions a badly named prince (Sir Graham? Really?) with the quest of returning the kingdom back to its former glory. To sweeten the deal he offers the kingdom as a performance-based bonus. In King's Quest II: Romancing the Stone, newly minted King Graham gets a hankering for a missus, so he traipses off into Daventry to find a mail order Queen to rescue. Which is kind of odd, and pretty sexist – but, well, that’s fairytales for you I suppose. He finds her, defeats bad people along the way and everyone lives happily ever after. So far, so Disney.
But things took a darker turn in 1986’s King's Quest III: To Heir is Human. It may have been the turn of the decade, the art direction or the awful pun in the title – but this third chapter definitely had a nastier vibe. And it is this third bite at the magic apple that AGD Interactive has taken to with gusto.
To Heir is Human shifts the focus from Daventry to the parallel land of Llewdor. Our hero, Gywdion, is being kept as a house slave by the almost comically-evil wizard, Manannan. Poor Gywdion is taken for granted by the old coot, bearing out his days dusting, sweeping, and being kept locked in his room for the tiniest of indiscretions. The whole thing is very Joseph Fritzl.
Naturally, a strapping young lad like Gywdion is getting pretty fed up with the whole unfortunate arrangement. He decides to escape from Manannan’s clutches and return to Daventry – where Manannan had kidnapped him from years before. This sliver of the story shifts the old sorcerer from slightly creepy to pretty perverted, but whatever; its a fairytale - innuendo is par for the course.
The gameplay of the reboot is closely similar to the original. It’s a point and click adventure where you must figure out ways of progressing the story through a delicious mix of luck, lateral thinking and interaction. As an overall experience placed alongside others it’s undoubtedly slower – but that’s half of its charm. Like the pick-a-path books of old, King's Quest III is not a game with a story, it’s a story with a game.
But how well does AGD Interactive translate that narrative experience? Is this a title worth dusting off for a new generation, or should it have been left way back in 1986 along with fluro headbands and Peter Gabriel?
The answer is yes, it’s worth it. But it’s a yes with qualifications.
The most obvious improvements are right in front of your eyes. To Heir is Human has had a complete revamp of its graphics, and has been optimised for play on contemporary operating systems (thankfully doing away with ScummVM emulator frustrations). AGD have not taken to the aesthetic with a totally new brush but have definitely improved on the detail, complexity and palate of 1986’s first try. And I kind of like that. A risky visual reboot would have taken away from the charm of the King's Quest series, which has never really been about edge-of-your-seat graphical astonishment.
AGD’s offering looks like an old game on a new system. Gywdion is still a slightly chubby pixelated child, and the mise en scène is still static but interactive. To Heir is Human is like a heritage house that has had its window sills painted and its garden done, which is a compromise both purists and modernisers can accept. Additionally small story snippets have been added through updated audio and text, adding an extra piece of frill to the architraves.
But the old foundations are still there, which has both its advantages and disadvantages. The black humour and atmosphere of the original has been retained and improved on (some of the narrator’s cheeky quips are cringe inducing in that rather amusing oh-no-he-didn’t kind of way) and the core gameplay has had little done to it – aside from the frustrating text interface being replaced with the now commonly accepted mouse click options. Manannan is still the grumpy grandfather from hell, and the precious seconds you have to explore the house while he is asleep or travelling still conjure up a mix of dread and excitement that extends far beyond what we’d expect from a point and click adventure. That’s all well and good – but unfortunately old problems still lurk just under the surface.
Because the game is still incredibly, incredibly hard. The original King's Quest III got a bit of a bad rap for being a little “hardcore” [Try Space Quest VI some time - Ed.]. And, if anything, AGD’s remake has just made the challenge more difficult for everyone except the absurdly intelligent. Extra challenges have been placed on top of old ones (for example Manannan’s laboratory is now protected by a secret code) which completely eradicates the usefulness of a decent original walk-through.
In addition, the previous difficulties still gloatingly remain. Be in the wrong place at the wrong time and Manannan’s lightning fires you up like a cat in a microwave. Take a step in the wrong direction and you’re falling to your death. And death is permanent. This game plays like an elephant in a minefield – and for some that’s going to make it an experience that’s just not worth the intense mental aggravation it promises to provide. But for others, that that was the whole point of the original experience – and any smoothing of the edges would be sacrilegious to the niche in which this game fits. This is not a game with universal appeal. It’s an old school Sierra mind-bender; I see no reason to make it the gaming equivalent of kiwi cricket.
AGD’s remake of one of Sierra’s most notorious adventures is a pretty solid attempt. If this is your thing (and for some gamers out there it really, really is) then its frustrating gameplay and mandatory save-games will give you just what you want. Other gamers, perhaps those from a younger generation, might just want to view this old chestnut from afar. But even from that distance it’s quite clear that AGD Interactive have produced an admirable replication which is commendably loyal to the original – but with enough new depth to make it worth a return to Llewdor.