Platforms: Xbox One, Xbox 360, PS4, PS3, PC,
We played on: PS4
Yesterday I played King’s Quest episode 1, named A Knight to Remember, the first part of an adventure game about Graham the young knight. It’s a great game for kids—probably one of the best I’ve played in a while.
King’s Quest is based on the original King’s Quest series from Sierra. The original games were designed by Roberta Williams and are considered classics from the golden era of adventure games. The first King’s Quest was released in 1984—five years before I was born—and the last game before this year was in 1998. I haven’t played a single one of the originals, so I won’t be comparing the new game to its elders, but my understanding is that it is a loving addition to the franchise.
The episode begins with Graham, a spindly teenager who wears a Robin Hood-like cap with a feather in it and a nice long flowing cape. (The cape animation is quite lovely.) Graham descends into a well that seems to be filled with dilapidated bedding. He then makes his way through an underground cavern inhabited by a dragon. An elderly man (voiced by Christopher Lloyd) narrates his adventure, with a young girl interrupting every now and then to make comments. What we’re seeing—and playing—is a story that Graham is telling his granddaughter, long after the fact. The two are clearly close and comfortable with one another, and she’s heard the story before.
The narration is a bit reminiscent both of Bastion and of the shadow-puppet show in Contrast, but what it reminded me of most is my own mom reading bedtime stories to my siblings and me when we were kids. It’s exciting, but never too scary, because the grandfather is always there to guide you along. When Graham tiptoes through piles of crunchy skeletons, the comical look on his face distracts from a situation that could be pretty horrifying. When he “dies”—by getting squished by a mattress, for instance—it’s a Wile E. Coyote kind of death. And grandfather Graham is always there to elaborate with much gusto: “And that’s what would’ve happened if I’d pulled the left switch! But since I’m here, telling this story, you know that I pulled the right one.”
The game does a good job of teaching you how to play, as well. The mechanics are simple. Graham will jump and climb on his own, and there’s no camera control, though there is definitely some degree of hand-eye coordination involved. Young players who haven’t mastered the controller yet will probably need help in parts where speed is of the essence.
King’s Quest is an adventure game in much the same way that Broken Age is—you collect items, some of them seemingly useless, until you figure out how to use them. For example (slight spoilers!), Graham has to distract some guards. He has a tree with a beehive in it, a rushing river, an important piece of knowledge (that the guards can leave their post only if someone is in peril) and a complete inability to swim. For the first part of the episode the puzzles are fairly straightforward. Later on, they get more complicated, but I’ll get to that in a moment.
Another gameplay element is based on choice. It isn’t quite Telltale or BioWare, but there are consequences to your actions, and players have gotten different endings to the episode based on those actions. Presumably those consequences will carry over into the next entries in the series. However, it is worth mentioning—for young players’ sakes—that Graham won’t ever end up “bad,” according to Matt Korba, the game’s creative director. He’ll be a hero no matter what path you choose.
One of the things I’m enjoying most about this game is that it’s telling the story from an unusual angle. You, in fact, are telling the story. You’re playing young Graham, of course, and going on adventures like any other hopeful knight, but technically you aren’t young Graham—you’re older Graham. You’re playing a grandfather who may or may not be relating these events in the way they actually happened.
Gwendolyn, your granddaughter, is somewhere between 8 and 11, and she’s entering the annual fencing tournament for the first time. She’s nervous about it, especially since her cousin—an older boy—will be competing against her. She’s also worried about you, because you’re ailing. You’re an old man, after all. She’s looking to you not just for exciting stories, but for advice and direction. You may not have much longer to give it to her. The game, at its heart, is about the choices Graham is making in the telling of his stories—what wisdom he is passing down to his granddaughter. When you, as the player, must choose to hurt the dragon or free it, you must be cognizant of what values you want to impart to Gwendolyn. It’s a different way of encountering a story and one I think parents can appreciate.
There’s only one thing that’s really stopping me from putting King’s Quest on my list of all-time favorite games, and that’s the lack of hints. I’m bad at puzzles. I’m impatient, and I get bored easily, and if I have to run around through environments on repeat more than a few times—there’s no in-game map, either—I get very, very frustrated. There are a lot of players who don’t mind these things (and plenty who are better puzzle-solvers than I am, certainly), and I recognize that difficult-to-solve puzzles are one of the mainstays of King’s Quest as a franchise.
I’m a young’un and have no nostalgia for this type of adventure gaming, however. If I sound bitter, it’s because I was truly enjoying King’s Quest before I got irretrievably stuck—and there were no hints to help me get past the block. I was on my own. I’m going to have to wait for a third-party walkthrough before I can pick up the game again. And the annoying thing about walkthroughs is that they aren’t the well-tailored hints to get you moving in the right direction that I’m looking for. I love them, but it does feel pretty unsatisfying to “win” because somebody told you the answer.
I still recommend this game for kids, but the lack of hints means that if you get frustrated you won’t get un-frustrated. Not a good equation for impatient young ones. Have a walkthrough on hand if you, too, are bad at puzzle games, and find your own way to give your kids hints without spoiling the answers.
Admittedly, the no-hint problem is a pretty big one, since I can’t finish the game without outside help. But aside from that sticking point, I had a lot of fun with King’s Quest. It’s definitely got a sense of humor, one that kids and adults can appreciate. But it doesn’t sacrifice its heart in favor of jokes. And it does have a lot of heart. The graphics are beautiful, and I didn’t notice the loading screen times being particularly bad (apparently they’re a bit tedious on Xbox One; I played it on PS4). The voice acting is wonderful. It’s rated E10+ for fantasy violence, but the violence is not the focus, and when it is, it’s meaningful. The game wants you to question it.
If there’s one thing I would liken playing King’s Quest to, it would be my mom reading us “The Hobbit” when we were kids. There were some scary parts, and I never felt talked down to, and the dragon probably would eat you if you didn’t watch out. But it was okay, because Mom was telling it, and you know at some point somebody will make a really awful pun and everything will turn out all right.