Platforms: PC/Steam, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One | Developer: The Odd Gentlemen | Publisher: Sierra Entertainment | ESRB: E | Controls: Mouse/Keyboard, Controller
It’s difficult to review in isolation a single chapter of any of the many episodic games gracing digital shelves these days, and the new Kings Quest reboot is no exception. The chapter itself picks up a few years from where the first left off, with Graham having ascended to the throne of Daventry after the presumed death of the prior, childless king. Hopefully this isn’t much of a spoiler, but considering that the whole story is still framed as a flashback told by a geriatric version of Graham near the end of his own reign, I doubt it’s much of a surprise!
Briefly, most of the same conventions of the first chapter apply: comic buffoonery from Graham, heavily Telltale-inspired gameplay with the occasional (and sometimes awkward) QTE, colorful and comically exaggerated cel-shaded 3D graphics, and the above-mentioned framing device of the story being told to his grandchildren, complete with voiced narration and color commentary from the older Graham and plucky granddaughter Gwendolyn while the younger version does his thing. This is still a clever bit, especially in an era of Lets Plays with commentary as a part of our general consumption of gaming media, although there’s also a risk of the in-game commentator usurping our position in forming opinions on the content. Compared to the first chapter, the second’s narration can be heavy-handed at times, in a ‘this is how you should feel’ kind of way. That said, the voice acting is still superb, and there’s something charming about the interplay between grandfather and daughter, puns and all.
Similarities aside, the second entry has some big differences. The chapter relies less on nostalgia than the first, moving beyond the reference-heavy setting of the well-slash-dragon’s lair to a goblin den where the King is quickly imprisoned. Immediately, there’s a difference of tone in chapter two. While the first made the player choose his heroic path, the second forces them to choose among the now-familiar NPC avatars of those different virtues. Each one still embodies a certain approach (bravery/violence, compassion and wisdom/wits), but you’re not just picking your approach, you’re choosing which of these NPCs lives or dies. This definitely makes the decision feel weighty and multifaceted, as a player might consider not only their own instincts but the characters themselves. One couple is elderly, for instance, while another is younger – and expecting a child! Should this make a difference? Obviously, that kind of question is exactly the sort that life and death choices should raise, and I’ll give the game credit for making the choices hard.
Unfortunately, then it turns around and undermines the gravity of these big choices in just about every way possible. There’s mismatched comedic elements, with goblins being silly and cute and Graham being buffoonish (he even seems aware that it’s inappropriate in some scenes). Then there’s the narrator’s constant preaching about the choices you are making. Not only does he remind you of implications of each decision, he even scolds you when you get things wrong. While there’s an achievement for a perfect run that saves everyone, I’ll admit I fell way short of that on my initial playthrough and yes, I felt bad about it. Gramps rubbing salt in that wound seemed very unnecessary. And then finally, while it’s difficult to discuss without an implied spoiler (skip past to to the next section if you want), the chapter ending does a lame twist that unravels basically any meaning the story has built up to that point. It’s a real shame to see them cop out in the way they do.
Moving on to gameplay, puzzle execution is also a bit different. In chapter one, you have multiple branches that all reliably thread back together by the end. No matter what you do, you end up completing most of the same tasks, albeit in slightly different orders. In the second chapter, gameplay works on a sort of loop, where each day you’re given some precious food, can give it to an NPC to help keep them alive, and then go around exploring and using items before eventually returning to your cell to sleep to repeat the cycle. Sometimes the sleep is forced, but you can do it on your own as well. There’s good and bad here. The managing food-health levels of the different NPCs is essentially a strategic mini game, and the game definitely needs the mechanical weight of something like that. On the other hand, the typical arbitrary oddness of the puzzle solving and lack of predictability of outcomes (there are at least 2 things that one item looks like it should be able to do, but doesn’t) can quickly turn this into a frustrating mess, especially if you get stumped and sleep when you shouldn’t and the NPCs start dropping.
There’s also a feeling of scarcity here in terms of not having as much stuff in your inventory to play with at any given moment. Although this serves a goal of having mechanics reflect the narrative tone, scrounging around the prison for scraps of food and meager tools, it can render the puzzles both more simplistic and more frustrating. There was a large part of the game where I really only had one or two items at a time (or none), and could only use them in one place to move to the next section. This meant there was a lot less of the typical random “does this go here?” poking around and exploring that characterized chapter one. And since this is the only real substantive challenge the game offers, it leaves the chapter feeling thin. For all that choice is emphasized, you don’t do a great deal of it beyond picking a favorite NPC and following their route.
Ultimately, I felt less than thrilled with the second chapter. While there were some minor functionality improvements (like the skip option – I have no clue why this wasn’t retroactively patched into chapter one), it traded in the whimsy, humor, and colorful setting of the first chapter, as well as the the sense of nostalgia that guaranteed initial interest in the title, for a monotonously dark cavern and a tonally mismatched combination of humor and heavy-handed grimness. If the overall arc of the five planned chapters is almost certainly about Graham’s growth and maturation, about aging, life, death, and legacy, this was probably the place to show more growth and agency, success and failure, leaving the heaviest drama for the midpoint, either at this chapter’s close or somewhere in chapter three. The beginning of the episode showed Graham overwhelmed with the (again comedic) choices of leadership, and while there was some promise in this, it was undermined by the Sophie’s choice scenario. While offering a very literal, in-your-face decision about the lives of other people, its unavoidable and arbitrary setup saps the scenario of greater meaning, as does the unfortunate ending. I still have high hopes for what comes next, as the future-telling mirror at the chapter select screen shows a more adult-looking Graham (wearing his hat!), but I can’t imagine that at the end of the full saga, this entry will stand as much more than a footnote.
This review copy of King’s Quest – Chapter 2: Rubble Without a Cause was played on PC via Steam and was provided by the developer.