Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Adventure Gaming: King's Quest V

King's Quest V was a landmark game, a big step forward for the series. While the previous game had been 16-colours and a text parser interface, Sierra really pushed the boat out with this one. The new 256-colour VGA graphics allowed them to create wonderfully detailed scenes, and the CD-ROM version gave them the space to use full voice-acting.

Your lovely home, soon to be miniaturised and put in a glass bottle by an evil wizard. Typical day in the life of a King!

It certainly amazed me at the time, and it was also a continuation of a series I had followed since the beginning. The story begins with King Graham finding his castle, and family, taken by a malevolent wizard by the name of Mordack. The motives for this are initially unclear, but a visit to a gypsy woman clues you in, it all links back to a previous entry in the series: King's Quest III. In this previous game, King Graham's son Alexander escapes from the clutches of an evil wizard by turning him into a cat. This wizard-turned-cat is named Manannan, and happens to be the brother of Mordack. It is up to you, taking control of the King, to save your family and defeat Mordack!

The gypsy fortune teller, giving you all the information you need for your quest!
Reaching Mordack is no small matter, and in true adventure gaming style the journey includes everything from quaint little towns and mysterious forests to ice palaces and island lairs. Each location is beautifully painted, with amazing detail, and many areas have their own unique musical accompaniment. As usual for the series, the various places and puzzles draw from mythology and fairy tales but aren't usually just straight up copies unlike in the previous games.

Cedric. Does anything more need to be said?
For your travels you are joined by Cedric, a talking owl, who is helpful at times but is unfortunately rather an annoyance on many occasions. There is something reminiscent of the infamous "Clippy" about him, although Cedric cannot so easily be dismissed! You end up speaking with all manner of other creatures as you progress, but this is with the aid of Cedric's friend, the wizard Crispin. He gifts you a piece of white snake so that you can communicate with animals and also his old wand.

Crispin the wizard, apparently going as Gandalf for the office Halloween party.
The wand was a more major part of the game when I first played it, as it formed part of the copy protection system. Before the internet allowed games to be tethered to an external server to activate and validate, the copy protection systems of games had to be a little more creative. At various points during the older versions of King's Quest 5, there would be occasions that required the use of the magic wand. To use it, you needed to match a symbol found in the manual. Thankfully this is removed for the CD-ROM version!

The main town in the early game, filled with people, shops and an unreachable birds nest in the foreground
As is typical for the series, the initial stages of the game allow for a lot of exploration. The first section consists of a town and it's surroundings, the dark forest, the desert and of course Crispin's house, where you begin. You can initially travel to a large number of locations, but there are certain limits to the order in which you can approach the puzzles. It's a little bit of a shame that the later sections become far more linear, with King Graham passing through some wonderful locations far too briefly.

This is also a game that comes into criticism for some of its puzzles. There are certainly a few occasions where repeated deaths are necessary to figure out how to continue, but these I would consider to be part of the Sierra experience! A good example here is the problem with the inn, where the criminally-inclined innkeeper locks you in the cellar. Firstly, avoiding the encounter will get you stuck later, and secondly it requires quite a lengthy puzzle chain to have the correct items to gain your freedom.
King Graham is a little tied up at the moment.
Other puzzles do require rather odd logic to complete, for example the method by which you escape the dark forest. The dark forest is home to a wicked witch (of course), but the forest itself is tricky and upon attempting to leave you get lost. The way to escape is to pour sticky honey on the floor (in a particular location), and then tempt a hiding elf towards you. He gets stuck, you grab him, and in return for the emeralds he shows you out of the forest and gives you a perfectly made pair of shoes.
I forgot to take a picture of the forest, but here's Graham escaping via some sort of elf-made tunnel.
The puzzles themselves are often devoid of context too, with Graham happy to just randomly pick up things from the ground, help passing strangers, and generally just wander around solving problems. The greater story of the missing family and any potential time constraints have little bearing on the early game. This isn't unusual for the series though, as in true adventure game style a canny player will know that you should pick up anything that's not nailed down (and even then with the right tools...), talk to anyone and everyone (be they animal, mineral or vegetable!), and of course save the game regularly! Of course in the first game you were merely Sir Graham, and as a knight searching for stolen treasure it was your job to poke around in other people's business. When you are a stranger in a strange land though, this becomes less justifiable. For the desert in particular (a region which requires careful exploration in order to steal from desert bandits), I can't remember ever seeing a reason for visiting, except for it being an adventure game and therefore there must be something there worth taking!
Some life-giving water, in the middle of a desert.
The bandit's camp. Stealing from thieves is okay, two wrongs make a right?

A veritable King's ransom in gold (and then some), but we have what we need to better leave before we get trapped forever!
After you have pillaged the land for every possible useful item, you can finally leave the area and attempt to get to Mordack's castle. This begins with a lovely trek through the mountains, which is a relatively brief task. The snow-covered mountain trail is beautiful, as is the crystal cave (once you have used your powers of slapstick to get rid of the yeti). This is truly the most under-used location, a linear track with only a handful of puzzles. A shame, as the artists must have spent rather a long time on backgrounds which will be seen for so short a time! This is followed by another brief encounter, this time with a gigantic bird, before ending up on a beach, staring out at the sea.

Beautiful snowy mountains!

Exotic Ice Palaces!

Meet interesting people!

See the Crystal Caverns! (paid for by the Serenia tourist board)

There's not much to do on the beach, there's a crowbar to pick up (for some reason), and a partially deaf man with whom you can't communicate right now. The only thing to do is to take the boat, handily moored on the shore with nobody to claim it. The first time you take the little sail boat out, you drown because of a hole in the hull, but by this point you should be used to that! Thankfully since I know the game like the back of my hand, I know to patch it up with beeswax.
A lovely island, surely no harm can come to me here!
Now, you might think that you can sail your way straight to Mordack's castle (dead, eaten by sea monster), or perhaps you just sail in pretty much any direction (dead again, sea monster). There is only one correct path, which leads you to a rather pretty island with some pretty horrible residents. The harpies try to kill Cedric (this is a bad thing), and argue over you (also bad), but thankfully you can distract them with a song from your splendid harp (the second time it gets you out of trouble). After taking anything you spot on the ground (including a lovely conch), it's time to finally talk to that strange old man at the beach.

Harpies, looking as horrible as they sound.
Armed with the conch as a rudimentary hearing aid, the old man helps heal Cedric (this is a good thing), and enlists the help of a mermaid to guide you to Mordack's castle. Graham's sailing skills leave a lot to be desired though, and you end up crashed on the rocks just outside the castle. The music in this area, both outside and inside the castle, is brilliant. Generally it's my favourite location of the game, filled with menace and foreboding, it's exactly the sort of lair that an evil wizard should reside in.
Mordack's island lair
A rather cheerful pair of statues
Being a bold hero, King Graham has no issues with breaching the castle via the sewers (a proper maze section!), although Cedric stays outside to "keep watch", the big coward. Although the dark atmosphere and creepy music might make you think otherwise, this initial section is relatively light on ways to die (but you did remember to save, right?). Your last place of relative safety is the kitchen, where you meet the lovely Princess Cassima (who is just about your son's age, how convenient!). After a little chat, you can explore the rest of the castle.

Princess Cassima
From this point onwards, the puzzles are unforgiving and the deaths come quick. The evil wizard Mordack can appear in most areas and kill you with ease, and seemingly does this at random. Furthermore, his brother Mannanan (turned into a cat by your son), will summon his brother if he notices you. Even the furniture is watching you, and it does certainly up the tension (and the possible frustration factor). What's more, there is a random even where you can be captured by a brutish blue creature, and put in the dungeon. If you fail to get captured, you miss an item needed to finish the game.
A creepy bedroom for a thoroughly creepy man.

Mordack's wand recharging station.
The last item you need to finish the game is Mordack's wand, which you steal while he sleeps (you hide in the library for this, and hopefully read a spellbook while you wait). Mordack has a rather nifty contraption to charge his wand, and it's just what you need to put some sparkle into yours. After placing the two wands on the pedestals, only the best dungeon-mousehole-aged cheese will power the machine. The power transfers from his wand to yours, and all is set for the duel - to the death! (multiple deaths perhaps for you, but importantly one death for him).

Your family's captor, the wizard Mordack! (he seems to be a little angry)

It's at this point that Cedric wanders back in through a window, and inadvertently takes a (magical) bullet for you, redeeming himself entirely. Somehow this doesn't slow Mordack too much, and you end up in a shapeshifting battle. Each move he makes can be countered, until finally you douse his flame with a small rainstorm. Cue celebratory music, and your family is rescued (as is Cedric). Roll end credits!
Some mystical spells

Dodging the dragon's breath as a nimble rabbit.
Playing through the game again it becomes a relatively short experience, I managed to finish it in a little over two hours (128 minutes, approx.). There's probably an argument in there about game length and value for money, but for me the experience will always be well received, as it's qualities more than make up for the length. Besides, the game's length is only short because I remembered the puzzle solutions so easily. Without that memory, there are several puzzles that would have had me perplexed for hours without easy access to a hint guide or walkthrough.
Graham, back with his loving family.
The next game in the series would see Prince Alexander take up the reins again, hopefully he'll manage to avoid pissing off too many powerful wizards. It also sees the return of Princess Cassima, and is generally considered to be the high point of the series. But there are plenty of other games in my queue before that!
Game complete! With maximum points too.

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