Just do not call it King's Quest!
First posted on 10 January 1999. Last updated on 25 February 2006.
There has been a fair amount of debate in the adventure gaming community about the direction the industry is going and what must be done in order for the adventure genre to survive in an increasingly cutthroat marketplace. In a market where any game that does not sell over 100,000 units is unlikely to recoup its development costs, publishers are forced to try and appeal to the mysterious "mass market" with their newest releases. At the Computer Game Developers' Conference last year, there is a heated debate during a session hosted by Steve Meretzky of Infocom fame that is aptly titled "Are Adventure Games Dead?". During the session, several members of the audience insist that moving to 3D graphics and a more action oriented style of play represent the only hope for the adventure genre to survive in a market dominated by titles such as Quake and Tomb Raider.
Although I wholeheartedly disagree with the above premise, it is clear that the major game publishers still making quality adventure games today (LucasArts and Sierra On-Line) have taken this issue to heart. Their latest releases, Grim Fandango and King's Quest: Mask of Eternity, both feature true 3D environments. Grim Fandango has been universally hailed as a triumph of "classic" adventure gaming in spite of its transition to a 3D world. King's Quest: Mask of Eternity, on the other hand, has been either panned or revered depending on the point of view. No matter what your opinions are on proper adventure game design, it is clear that when the major publishers move in a particular direction, the repercussions are felt throughout the industry.
What, then, are we to make of the latest game in the King's Quest series? When I first hear that the game is going to be 3D with heavy action gameplay, I resolve on the spot not to buy it or even look at it. I am a "hardcore" adventure fan born in the glory days of Infocom, and the idea of merging real-time 3D "running and shooting" with an adventure game seems heretical to me. Still, when I see the game in the store for the first time, I quickly break down and purchase it anyway. I am very glad that I do! Truth to tell, the game is a lot of fun to play! Yet, is this game truly worthy of the "King's Quest" name? For that matter, is it really an adventure game at all?
The plot, or lack thereof
In terms of plot development, King's Quest: Mask of Eternity is off to an unfortunate start. The plot is simply unworthy of the "King's Quest" name. It is laughably thin and extremely tired. The titular Mask of Eternity is apparently an all powerful artifact that is housed in the Realm of the Sun and without which life cannot exist. Lucreto, the leader of the priesthood that tends to the Mask, shatters it into pieces with a nefarious spell. This spell has the unfortunate effect of turning everyone in Daventry to stone, with the exception of our hero Connor (the player) and half of a local wizard, whose protective spell has saved him from completely turning to stone so he can provide Connor with some initial guidance. Connor must then set out on a quest to find the missing pieces of the Mask (a piece of which lands right at his feet, which is presumably why he is not turned to stone along with everyone else) and restore the artifact.
One would think that with 4 years of development time Roberta Williams can do better than "collect the pieces of an ancient artifact and reunite them to save the world from the evil sorcerer". Previous games in the series have all featured intricate and layered plots filled with rich series of twists and memorable characters. This sequel departs from that tradition entirely. Furthermore, all of the previous games in the series have dealt with King Graham and the Royal Family. Connor, the main character in this game, is just an ordinary peasant who happens to be visiting his girlfriend when the Mask blows up and a chunk of it lands at his feet. Although Graham makes a brief appearance in the intro movie and the first of the game's "dimensions" is set in Daventry, these isolated references stand as the only links to the rest of the King's Quest series.
The sights and sounds of 3D
Let it be known that the graphics, at least to me, are quite pretty. A number of critics have complained about the graphics, but quite frankly I think they look great. Even with the software rendered DirectDraw mode, the graphics look decent on screen. There are very few clippings or collision detection problems (except when jumping). All of the animations are quite smooth. The game interface allows for both a first person and third person perspective, and switching between these modes is simple and instantaneous. Camera control is also left entirely up to the player. While this interface may not be the best you have seen, it is fairly playable once you get used to it. I have never learned to fight in the third person mode. I have always had to switch! This is because the mouse is used to control both the rotation and the zoom in the third person mode, but this control is awkward because it is nearly impossible to just do one or the other. You are zooming and rotating at the same time no matter how you move the mouse. While providing the player with the freedom of a totally controllable camera is a "good" thing, doing so without implementing a workable automatic camera, on the other hand, is a "bad" thing (not to mention a copout). Nevertheless, I quickly learn to get over this hurdle and it has not impaired my enjoyment of the game since then.
The lands or dimensions themselves vary in both appearance and terrain. The Kingdom of Daventry, where you begin the game, is all grassy hills and blue lakes. In contrast, the Dimension of Death is dark with an Egyptian like burial motif. Later dimensions include a frozen land of ice and snow and a barren realm of lava and lakes of fire. There are also an underground region populated by gnomes, a swamp region with some formidable monsters, and the Temple of the Mask of Eternity. Load times between dimensions are quite lengthy, but since you make these transitions only infrequently after completing each dimension, it is not that much of a bother. I think there should be an option for a full install. In other words, if I have the hard drive space to burn, then give me the option to burn it! Interestingly, the time it takes to save or restore a game gets shorter and shorter as you get closer and closer to the end of the game, rather than getting longer as you may expect.
Both the music and sound effects are put into good use. The music really fits well with the overall tone and theme of the various lands. The voice acting is not amazing but is certainly quite acceptable. The main character's voice (Connor) is pleasing, which is especially important since the dialog itself leaves a lot to be desired. The atmosphere is extremely well done, and the eerie tone of the game is set perfectly by the music and sound effects. The use of multi-channel audio is also quite nifty. I especially like a particular effect near the very end of the game. While standing in a room filled with the stone statues of the Archons, you can hear their voices whispering in horror and terror from their imprisonment. This effect is very creepy! It also has the added benefit of providing a few clues to the puzzles in the Temple of the Mask of Eternity.
Some players have reported a lot of bugs in this game. The stability of the game depends almost entirely on the choice of video card. If you have a supported card, you should experience relatively bug free gameplay. Otherwise, beware! Sierra On-Line has already released several patches to correct a few bugs that can keep you from finishing the game. The game even ships with a handy "AutoUpdate" utility that can query the Sierra FTP server to acquire the latest patches automatically. I have only one major complaint about the production of this game. It has to do with truth in advertising. The game box clearly states that Direct3D is supported, but in reality you want to play only in either DirectDraw or 3Dfx mode. The Direct3D mode is extremely poorly implemented. On a PII-266 with 128 MB of RAM and a supported STB video card, the Direct3D mode is completely unplayable. It is clear that this game is not developed with Direct3D in mind. Support is obviously shoved in at the last minute so that the publisher can put the buzzword on the box. I find this false advertising insulting. When the help file says that "as we add support for additional 3D features, like object shadows, we will release patches to the game" you know the product is shipped too soon. Planning to patch is a poor practice. Although you may come to expect this from Sierra On-Line, it is still highly annoying. This annoyance aside, I find the production values of the game to be very high. If you have a 3Dfx card or the horsepower for the DirectDraw mode, you should be very satisfied.
Not your father's King's Quest!
What exactly is this beast called "Mask of Eternity"? In my opinion, the game should have never been given the "King's Quest" name. It does not relate in any meaningful way to the rest of the series except from a marketing standpoint. Sierra On-Line should have done themselves and their customers a favor by marketing this game on its own merits, thus saving all the King's Quest fans from a substantial disappointment while establishing a new adventure game series in the process.
The plot, if I may call it such, is extremely linear and much more linear so than in any of the previous games in the series. While the main quest is fairly involved, with a number of "dimensions" to explore and a variety of puzzles to solve, it is still very much a "point A to point B to point C" affair. At almost no time in the game have I ever wandered around without a definite idea of exactly what I need to do next. There are a couple of optional "side" quests which do not have to be completed but which provide added bonuses (more experience, gold, or special items). Specifically, the player can find a special magic sword, help a unicorn in distress, free a trapped girl from the Dimension of Death, and collect the reagents for 3 magical spells that enhance combat abilities. Although the game touts much of its ability to teleport between dimensions via the magic map and implies from it some degree of non-linearity, I find the need to do so only once in the entire game.
The dialog is... well, just say that the dialog does not get in the way of the game. Since there is not really much of a plot to speak of, I guess the fact that the dialog is quite poor does not matter much. I do not object to "olde englysh" dialog, but I do object to dialog that sounds like it has been written for a dime store novel. I am ready to puke each time I hear Connor swearing that he shall release anyone else from the terrible curse, or pledge his life to restore the good people of Daventry to their normal lives, all the while conveniently "borrowing" all of their gold and worldly possessions from them! Some of the references in the game are just downright goofy. It is pretty hard to take a scene seriously when the protagonist is going on at length about "The Feather of Truth" or "The Golden Ladle". What is next? The sparkling Ginsu Knife of Purity? In all fairness, previous games in the series have had their share of whimsical and silly references in them as well. Perhaps it is because the overall tone of this sequel is so dark and ominous that any object with a whimsical reference appears out of character with the rest of the game.
On the plus side, the way the designers have used the 3D engine to derive in-game cut scenes is quite spectacular. The various camera angles and effects are always well chosen and used to good effect. The team definitely has milked every last drop of coolness out of the engine and it pays off. The in-game cut scenes add a lot to the plot and provide additional stories about the quest, while being quite entertaining despite the lackluster dialog. All in all, the plot and dialog are serviceable and nothing more. They do not get in the way of the game, but they certainly do not live up to the standards of the rest of the series.
Ultima: King's Quest?
At first blush, one may say that King's Quest: Mask of Eternity is not an adventure game, at least not in the traditional sense. It is certainly like nothing ever done by Infocom, with its blend of action, adventure, and role-playing elements. Or is it? Beyond Zork features a lot of combat, adds the concept of an auto-map and character "level", and even does away with the traditional "score" by replacing it with experience points that are gained for both defeating enemies and solving puzzles. King's Quest: Mask of Eternity uses the same formula. The sum total of the role-playing elements consists of a red bar for your hit points, a green bar for your experience and puzzle solving points, and a numeric indicator for your level. Improving your level causes your hit points to rise and presumably improves your performance in combat, although the actual numbers themselves are not shown.
Combat itself is an extremely simple affair, consisting merely of drawing your missile or melee weapon and left clicking repeatedly on the foe of your choice until it dies. There is little in the way of strategy. In fact, you cannot even defend yourself. Although your character can wear armor and carry a shield, these items simply reduce the damage you take from enemy blows. The strategy is solely to equip your missile weapon and blast away at the monsters as they shamble toward you, then whip out the melee weapon and slash away until the critters are all dead. If you run low on hit points, the game provides a more than ample array of healing items (mushrooms and potions). There are also potions to temporarily enhance your combat abilities, as well as potions that allow you to become invisible or to see invisible objects (the Potions of Reveal are needed to solve several puzzles in the game and are rarely found).
Given these shortcomings, I find the combat to be quite easy. Heck, you do not even have to worry about running out of ammo for your missile weapons, so it is easy enough to just rapid-fire your crossbow while backing away from anything that looks remotely hostile. There are a few enemies who are immune to missile fire, however, so you occasionally have to wade in with the sword swinging. I have only died 3-4 times from combat in the entire game, mostly in the Swamp. Near the end of the game Connor acquires the "ultimate" weapon and armor and becomes pretty much invincible. Thus, the final battle with the evil sorcerer is laughably easy.
Combat features a bit of gore and blood, something that has yet to be present in the series until now. It seems quite tame to me, especially in comparison to most of the other 3D games on the market nowadays. However, parents have complained that they no longer feel safe buying this game to play as a family because of the addition of carnage and death. It is certainly true that past games from the series have always been upbeat and light in tone, whereas this game is definitely dark and oppressive. Although not a trivial change from the games of days gone by, the overall impact on gameplay from the role-playing elements is small enough to be negligible.
Mario: King's Quest?
What about the action or so-called "Tomb Raider" element? I am pleased to say that this game bridges the gap between 3D shooter and adventure, at least to a noticable extent. My fear that the adventure elements may be lost in an orgy of fighting, climbing, and jumping is unfounded. This game is still an adventure game at heart. In fact, playing this game has given me hope that perhaps Gabriel Knight III: Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned (which is also be based on a 3D engine called G-Engine) may not disappoint adventure game enthusiasts. If titles such as this one help broaden the fan base for adventure games, I am all for it.
The game provides 2 distinct gameplay perspectives—first person and third person mode. My initial impression is that it is a waste of time to provide a first person perspective simply to satisfy the "Doom" cravings of the masses. Instead, I find that I use both perspectives at different times in the game, and that both have their advantages. I tend to explore in the third person mode because I like being able to see my character in his surroundings. On the other hand, it is much easier to fight in the first person perspective since it actually provides a much greater sense of immediacy to those slashing claws and flying crossbow missiles. I like having both modes, and I hope this feature is kept for future games using the 3Space engine.
The world of King's Quest: Mask of Eternity is true 3D in all respects. Connor can climb up and down a variety of surfaces in addition to jumping and running. The designers have thoughtfully provided a grappling hook for getting up and down walls and cliffs. They have even more thoughtfully provided a handy indicator that pops up in the lower corner of the screen to indicate when Connor can use the hook to ascend or descend to another level. This is a seamless and non-intrusive way of handling the issue of climbing, and I find it to be a very welcome addition to the game. I say that the grappling hook wins the award for "best feature ever seen in a 3D game". Thankfully, there is no hanging from cliffs or dangling from ropes. Connor can only climb when the icon appears and he is always successful. This feature definitely shows that moving to 3D can open up some new vistas that have not been explored in other adventure games. When I am scaling the back of a tower, a high cliff, or a castle wall, I really get a feeling of immersion into the game world.
Nevertheless, there are some aspects to the action sequences that I do not find enjoyable in the least. Many gamers may recall the outcry that takes place when Origin introduces jumping and climbing into Ultima VIII: Pagan. "Mario the Avatar", as it is called, is soundly trashed by fans and critics because it is poorly implemented, totally non-intuitive, and results in frequent death of the player mainly due to the presence of lengthy sequences that require precision timing and near miraculous control of the character. It seems that Sierra On-Line has paid little or no attention to these past complaints. There are several areas in the game where the player must execute a perfect series of jumps or die. I must have had to restore my game more than 25 times just to get past a certain jump in the Barren Region. These "jump or die" areas of the game have driven me insane. The user interface is simply not good enough to support "Mario: King's Quest". Fortunately, the designers have been merciful when it comes to the puzzles involving jumping between grids of small platforms. At least for here, the player does not have to set up every tiny jump exactly right. Yet, there are other areas, such as the Barren Region, where a misstep drops you right into the "lava o'instant immolation". This is very irritating! Just because you have a nifty jumping feature does not mean you have to abuse the player with it. Having to repeatedly restore the game severely breaks the suspension of disbelief I need to become fully immersed in the world of King's Quest.
I am fully aware that King's Quest: Mask of Eternity is not trying to be a Tomb Raider clone. It tries to be, and is, an adventure game and not an action game at heart. However, the introduction of action elements necessitates an effort on the designers' part to provide a control system which makes it possible for the player to complete the action elements without having to fight the interface. When it comes to fighting in combat, the game has provided an acceptable control system. When it comes to jumping, however, the game has failed miserably. How come Connor gets more height out of a back flip than he does out of a forward jump? I end up back flipping all over the place because it is too hard to line up the broad jumps going forward.
What about the game?
Rest assured that there are some actual adventure elements present in this game. The puzzles are obviously adapted to the new medium of 3D, and there actually are fewer puzzles involving pushing boxes, tripping switches, and pulling levers than I have expected. There are also a fair number of good old-fashioned adventure style puzzles in the game, including a couple of extremely subtle stumpers that are truly worth the price of admission. Even the puzzles that take advantage of the 3D engine are well done for the most part; I never feel like I am running around a maze looking for the next key. Although there are a lot fewer puzzles than one expects to find in a King's Quest game, I find the puzzles to be mostly good though mostly too easy.
Unfortunately, the originality of the level design appears to fade out as you get closer and closer to the end of the game. Both the Kingdom of Daventry and the Dimension of Death are richly detailed lands with a lot going on. The Swamp and the Underground Realm of the Gnomes are also very good. The Barren Region is not so hot (pun intended)! The Frozen Reaches has a lot of fighting but not much puzzle solving. While the endgame is thematically good with the 3 Precepts and the associated symbolism, the gameplay is not very exciting. Again, there is a lot of fighting but not much puzzle solving. Does Lucreto really sit in the altar room twiddling his thumbs while Connor races through the Temple of the Mask of Eternity? I do not think so. The final showdown is anything but climactic. The ending is insultingly short and not at all worth the effort.
The game is obviously pushed to market to hit the Christmas season. Sierra On-Line probably denies this, but I think it is quite obvious. Both the intro and endgame movies are only about 20 seconds long and convey no meaningful information whatsoever. Obviously, there is little to no time or budget left for these. A pity! I am very disappointed by the ending of the game. It is not a suitable reward even for the hours of work (or play) I have spent on this game. All of the previous games in the series have very detailed setups and rewarding endgame sequences. I cannot honestly believe that Williams believes that she has provided the same level of reward as in the previous titles. This has to be a marketing decision. Some critics may say, "Of course the game was pushed to market to hit the Christmas season. Every game is pushed to market to hit the Christmas season." Here exactly lies the problem. How many thousands of games are released each year? What percentages of these are released at Christmas? How many tens of them actually make money? Gamers rather wait for a polished product than see the development team forcing to shove the game out the door without the extra spit and polish that makes it truly shine. In the case of a big company like Sierra On-Line and a big franchise like King's Quest, good sales are assured no matter what time of year the game is released.
To all the readers of this article who think that I must hate this game based on what I have just written, I can only say the following,
"Yes, the plot is more or less nonexistent. Yes, the dialog is trite and repetitive. Yes, there are almost no characters for you to interact with. Yes, they have added combat and other action elements to an adventure game. If this game is to be compared to other titles from King's Quest or another adventure series, it may even fare worse. Indeed, this game is a bizarre composition of elements and ideas from a variety of genres and sources..."
Yet, when all these elements come together in a game such as King's Quest: Mask of Eternity, what you get is a game that is just a lot of fun! It is definitely a "just one more hour" kind of gaming experience. My 25 hours of play time consists entirely of 1 hour of "let us see what this game looks like" session followed by 2 12-hour monster marathon gaming sessions. I have since gone back and played through some of the areas again in order to catch some of the Easter Eggs. I do not play bad games for 12 hours at a stretch. My constitution is not up to the strain! This game has some intangible element of excitement and energy that are hard to define. The game is definitely a lot of fun, no matter what you may think about its genre bending elements or its lack of relationship to the history of King's Quest.
To put this game in the context of the other games in the King's Quest series, I have to say that I have enjoyed it more than all of the other titles in the series with 2 exceptions. These exceptions are King's Quest III: To Heir is Human (my all-time favorite) and King's Quest VI: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow. It may not be a better adventure game than the remaining titles, but it is as much as or more fun than any of those titles. It is better in all aspects than King's Quest V: Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder!. Still, I must maintain that comparing this game to the other games of the series is not really valid since this game is so dramatically different and is really not thematically related to the earlier titles. All in all, this is a very enjoyable game that attempts to do a lot of new and interesting things with the adventure genre. I hope that the negative aspects I have pointed out do not outweigh the positive ones I have highlighted. I unabashedly recommend this game to all adventure game fans. The bottom line is whether or not the game has kept me in front of the computer—it certainly has done that! The mere fact that I have spent several hours writing and rewriting this article is proof enough that the game is compelling and enjoyable.
In summary, do not go into this game blinded by the "King's Quest" name or by the expectation from seeing the "adventure" label, the "role-playing" label, or the "3D action" label on the box. There is something here for all adventure gamers as well as for the casual role-playing and action gamers. There is a bit of Lara Croft and a bit of Super Mario hidden here as well. Treat this game on its own merits and you shall find it to be an enjoyable, albeit brief, gaming experience.
Just do not call it King's Quest, or else I have to hit you with my magic mirror!