Technical advancement has come at the cost of player agency. That’s the paradox at the heart of the “new” adventure genre, as typified by the universally revered output of Telltale Games. Granted, the newly implemented restrictions are meant for our benefit: How did one cope, back in the day, with all that freedom in text adventures? Yet, taking away the near-infinite space of possibility represented by a flickering underscore as it awaited your typed instruction and replacing it with an all-purpose “interact” button, covering everything and signifying nothing, feels like a step backward. The impeccably presented first episode of King’s Quest is certainly not told by an idiot, but it sometimes feels as if it treats its players as such.
In many ways, this is a game that works better as cinema, not just of a certain school or genre, but, in fact, as a specific film: King’s Quest is The Princess Bride with prompts. Even the framing device is identical, each of the narrating grandfathers recounting tales of high fantasy filled with wonder, kindness, and the occasional self-referential joke to a pre-adolescent audience of one that regularly intervenes to declare delight, express disbelief, or creatively offer their own take on proceedings. Christopher Lloyd, after losing his exaggerated early-game drawl, conjures up a believable, nuanced impression of the elderly King Graham, one whose wisdom has grown while his mischievousness has remained intact and who’s endlessly amused by his granddaughter’s somber disapproval of his insufferable puns. Crucially, for a game that relies so heavily on storytelling and characterisation, the rest of the voice-acting cast are also uniformly excellent.
Visually, it’s even better, the prettiest light-fantasy game since Don Bluth lent his talents for the original Dragon’s Lair. This new Daventry is a gorgeous kingdom, each area meticulously crafted and each of the inhabitants encountered by young Graham in the re-telling of his slow rise to kinghood drawn to evoke a certain trait: from the bureaucratic soldier barring your way to the gluttonous bridge troll bartering for food, and from the stern but reliable female blacksmith of the village to a curiously sympathetic dragon (that may still be the death of you!), all of them ooze personality.
Despite the outstanding voice acting and the wonderfully realized characters, it’s the camerawork that’s the game’s real star. On one occasion it crowds you inside the confines of a narrow cave passage before zooming out to reveal the full size of the majestic serpent raining fire on the tiny bridge that leads out of it as you emerge. On another it lingers in the background at the bottom of a small ravine allowing the player to observe the goblin army amassing behind the hero while he obliviously marches on toward a dead end. At times it hovers to your side and sheds the extra dimension turning the game, momentarily, into a 2D platformer; it charges forward, shifting from third-person to first, it rises, it swoops and pivots, imbuing the mere act of moving through the wonderfully realized world of Daventry with a sense of meaningful agency and elevating it into one of its major pleasures.
It’s just as well, because there really isn’t much depth to keep you engaged, let alone challenged, in this first episode. Puzzles are traditional inventory-based affairs made even easier by an overcompensating interface that automatically chooses the right type of interaction for each situation. You rarely pause in your progress and, when you do, it’s usually due to missing a key item or having overlooked a half-concealed passage. Thankfully, like other games with cinematic pretensions before it (another reboot, Tomb Raider, springs to mind), King’s Quest understands that it can make up for its lack of depth with range. Shooting and platforming sections provide shallow but adequate distractions and moral dilemmas in climactic moments charge your decisions with far-reaching implications, hence a significance which goes beyond mere puzzle-solving.
The Odd Gentlemen’s attempt to reboot Sierra’s iconic series as an episodic adventure is breezy. It’s gorgeous to look at and features that rarest of video-game qualities: genuinely funny writing. Unfortunately, it’s chosen to vie for the attention of the nostalgia-driven thirtysomethings by lowering its demands in order to accommodate busier schedules and shorter attention spans. Great presentation coupled with shallow gameplay means it works better as a film than a video game, and it’s still not as good as The Princess Bride. Nevertheless, one can re-watch Rob Reiner’s classic only so many times and, at a brisk length of roughly six hours, King’s Quest is still time better spent than watching those bloody Hobbits.