Ah, King’s Quest. Where others see a classic, prolific adventure game series that’s a fond part of their childhoods, I see sprawling overworlds with barely any guidance about where to go, completely unrelated puzzles that you solve more because you can than because there’s any obvious need, and—blowing a perfect opportunity to feature spaceships and robotic hippos—mashups of everything you’ve ever seen in traditional fantasy and folklore. If it weren’t for AGD Interactive’s point-and-click remakes of the first three King’s Quest games, I don’t know that I ever would have made it through more than one game in the series—least of all King’s Quest III: So You Want to Be a Housemaid.
KQIII casts you as a wretched servant boy in the house of the evil wizard Manannan (like “banana,” spelled horribly wrong), who appears out of nowhere every few minutes to kill you. I think this is actually the point of the game. Screw Up and Die might be a better name for it. That could be said of any Sierra game, really, but KQIII takes it to the extreme.
Every. Single. Screen.
“Feed the chickens!” Manannan will say. By the time you find the chickens, he will be so impatient that he shows up suddenly and turns you into a pile of ashes. “Sweep the fireplace!” he will say, ironically conjuring up images of you, yourself, being recently turned into the kind of ashes you’ve been commanded to sweep. Not knowing where the fireplace is, you will walk into his study by accident, and he will immediately fry you for invading his privacy. “Empty my chamberpot!” he will say. You will find his chamberpot, panic under the pressure of being watched and timed under penalty of death, and get killed for nervously typing EMPTY CHAMBERPOP by mistake.
Eventually, you will find yourself with a few seconds of reprieve from his demands, at which point you will start to piece together exactly what you’re supposed to do in this game that doesn’t involve dying. You will compulsively pick up everything you find. You will spend too long arguing with the text parser over what that blob over there is, and what to do with it. Then Manannan will arrive to murder you for parading around the house with forbidden magic in your pockets. You will have been murdered for possession of cat fur and a spoon. Exasperated, you will quit the game and switch to something better, like Barely Floating.
Or, perhaps, a VGA remake of the game.
Pretend it’s a rippling dream sequence. Cue the choir of angels.
After spending ten minutes with the original KQIII, I knew my only shot at beating the game—forget enjoying it—was to try the remake. AGDI’s remakes of KQI-II replaced an unreliable text parser with a streamlined point-and-click interface, added more plot and full voice acting, revamped most of the locations and challenges, and transformed the originals’ stunning MS Paint backgrounds into actual graphics. The basic structure and feel of the games were left intact, but the glossy shine was usually enough to distract me from how little I really care for the source material.
I mean, that plant in the corner of the menu keeps growing as the game progresses—how cool is that!?
Well, I’m pleased to report that KQIII Redux is every bit as polished as the KQI-II remakes, and far more player-friendly than the original KQIII. That is, if you’re using a walkthrough, or have at least read the manual. Otherwise, it’s an unmitigated disaster.
Every. Single. Screen.
Sierra games—and fangames based on Sierra games—are notorious for allowing the player to put him or herself into an “unwinnable scenario.” My failure to clog a toilet in Police Quest III precluded the option to not get gunned down in a crack house later on. That kind of thing. There’s never any indication that you’ve doomed the people of Xenon to the horrors of a rapidly cooling planet; either you’ll have that “DUH!” realization when you hit a dead end, or be totally clueless as to why it’s suddenly impossible to proceed. Apply that constant threat of an unwinnable scenario to an open-ended world with nebulous goals and a panic-inducing timer, and it’s almost guaranteed you’ll irreparably louse something up at least once or twice and need to restart.
Now, if you have any idea of what you’re getting into, KQIII can be a very tense, very rewarding experience where you feign obedience to the wizard, sneak around the house whenever he takes a nap, go into town to pick up supplies whenever he announces he’s going to a Journey concert (or maybe just “a journey”), and slowly piece together everything you need for a magic-driven escape plan, being careful to conceal any evidence of your treachery. Without any guidance, KQIII plays out similarly to the scenario described above: repeated failure because Manannan is seriously on your case today, and barely gives you enough time to look at, talk to, and pick up everything in a room before busting you for playing this like it’s an adventure game.
“Using the HAND icon again, are we? Well, this oughta teach you!”
To the player’s advantage are the helpful cues of the ever-ticking game clock (which changes colors to indicate how long until Manannan’s next appearance), the luxury of saving anywhere (assuming you save responsibly; otherwise you’re manufacturing your own unwinnable scenario), the ability to crank up the game speed (which makes your character move faster but doesn’t affect the speed of the clock), an item providing on-demand fast travel to multiple locations (where were you in Morrowind!?), and the fact that time freezes while you’re reading a text box or saving your game (which is self-explanatory, but I feel the need to continue the trend of parentheses after everything).
For impatient gamers such as myself, there’s a way to hasten Manannan’s return if you’ve done all you can safely do without him around. The point-and-click interface eliminates any guesswork involved in interacting with your environment, and is a boon to anyone who didn’t sign up for Manannan Teaches Typing. By its nature, the game still demands quicker thinking and more advance planning than most other adventure games, but the daunting challenge of surviving for longer than two minutes seems more manageable when you realize the game isn’t entirely out to get you.
Just mostly out to get you.
Working against the player, however—aside from a teleporting wizard who’ll blow you up at the first sign of lard in your pants (I wish I were kidding)—is the inventory screen. Any item Manannan doesn’t want you to have is highlighted by a magical glow, which you’ll think is brilliant until you’ve got 40+ plus items, can only see 12 of them on the screen at a time, and are scrolling through row after row of objects whose most immediately identifiable characteristic is that same overbearing glow around them.
At a glance, you might not be able to tell the jar of toadstool powder apart from the jar of saffron, or the jar of rose essence, or the jar of nightshade juice, or the jar of fish oil, or the jar of toad spittle…which is especially problematic when hurriedly and precisely combining items to create magic spells in Manannan’s secret laboratory. Slow down to scrutinize your inventory, and Manannan might catch up with you; mix the wrong ingredient, and the spell blows up in your face, killing you immediately.
And let’s not even talk about the number of times I mixed up the “Choose” and “Interact With” icons
and turned myself into a giant fly.
Spellmaking accounts for 35 of the 210 points in this game, so roughly 17% of the puzzle-solving. It took me around 2½ hours to beat the game, dying and reloading notwithstanding; supposing the math works out to be anything close to reality, that means I spent about 25 minutes successfully combining ingredients into spells, and probably just as much time combining ingredients into instant death. I get nervous enough following a recipe when I make a batch of soup; this game gives you, like, eight of them to make. Manannan clam chowder, anyone?
The other 83% of the challenges are actually quite varied; over the course of the game, you’ll need to break into a library, open a secret passage by pulling the right combination of levers, sneak past a bandit or two, eavesdrop on a group of mangy pirates, pick the wings off a fly, put a bunch of animal pictures in order to solve a riddle, and outwit a yeti. There’s an annoying reliance on “leave the screen and come right back” as part of the puzzle solutions, but otherwise, KQIII Redux is surprisingly light on the kind of moon logic that characterizes so many adventure games.
Like, to get those items on the shelf, you pay the shopkeeper. With money.
I’m about to threaten him with a mutton chop anyhow.
It helps that there are multiple solutions to some of the puzzles, and that you aren’t MacGyvering all of your inventory items into bizarre contraptions well outside their job descriptions—when you pick up the mixing bowl, you will use it as a mixing bowl, not a makeshift steering wheel or anti-mind-control helmet. Once you understand how to appease and avoid Manannan, KQIII Redux opens up into a very solid adventure game…but that initial hurdle might be too high for some players, especially without assistance.
However, puzzles alone do not an adventure game make. KQIII Redux tells a story that’s accessible to first-timers—the hero has lived his whole life confined in a mansion, after all, so he doesn’t know much more about the game world than you do (aside from where the chicken coop is, doofus). At the same time, this is the third installment in a larger storyline (the “III” in the title gives it away), so it helps to be at least a little familiar with the King’s Quest series before you dive in.
That’s not what I meant by “dive in.”
Over the course of the game, you’ll unravel the mystery of the hero’s past, get a sense of how horrible this wizard really is, become somewhat involved in the lives of the people around you, and ultimately do something legitimately heroic. There’s a series of Return of the King-worthy fake-outs, where the game looks like it’s about to end…but then doesn’t.
I would’ve been content with the hero escaping to the far-off land of Find Out Next Game, but KQIII Redux just keeps going, packing half the story into the last section, and starting some new plot threads that it doesn’t fully resolve. This makes the dénouement feel almost more like a demo for KQIV than a proper ending to game you’ve been playing. Moreover, the conclusion is weakened somewhat by a suspiciously substantial deus ex machina. Overall, the story has some memorable moments and some nice twists and turns, but of all the places where the story appears to come to a close, the real ending is the one that leaves you wanting more.
Not to mention some more puzzles leading up to it.
Two dozen screens, and the solution to most of them is, “walk to the next screen.”
Story and gameplay are the meat of KQIII, but it’s time we talk about the graphical and audio potatoes. AGDI has faithfully recreated in thrilling VGA colors all three of the screens from the original KQIII that I saw before giving up. The art style is in line with what Sierra utilized in the ’90s, and consistent with AGDI’s previous remakes—that is to say, it’s clean, detailed, and realistic (or as realistic as three-headed dragons and anthropomorphic bears get).
Aside from the death jingle, which sounds like the ending to the theme from Inspector Gadget, the music isn’t terribly memorable. That’s not to say it’s bad; everything is appropriately atmospheric, though the creepy lab music definitely gets to you after a while. Sound effects are functional, and the game is fully voice-acted…though I admit I shut this feature off after about five minutes. What I heard sounded great, but voice acting in a game like this is perhaps best saved for a second playthrough after you know what you’re doing; on a first playthrough, it’s a one-way ticket to nutville when the only lines you hear are Manannan saying you’ve failed him for the last time, and the narrator incessantly reminding you that you can’t whack people with a broom.
The irony is that the broom, like the mixing bowl, is used…as a broom.
I don’t know if it’s funny or sad that you are still doing chores this late in the game.
That segues nicely to REPLAY VALUE! With multiple solutions to some puzzles, the freedom to do most things in any order you please, a timer that might influence your strategy differently every time, and plenty of optional points that might not be gained on a first playthrough, KQIII Redux offers more replay value than your average adventure game. On top of that, you are given awards at the end of the game based on your performance, much like GoldenEye for the N64 gives you the “Longest Innings” and “Most Dishonorable” awards for being a jerk in multiplayer. There’s the Scatterbrain award for leaving drawers and cabinets open everywhere; the Problem Child award for continually annoying Manannan with things he’ll almost kill you for; the Blue Hedgehog award for beating the game in record time…not only are these fun to receive, but many of them encourage you to try a new playing style, discovering some easily overlooked (and often entertaining) material along the way.
So…let’s see here. Talked about gameplay, story, graphics, audio, replay value…guess that just leaves all those “Manannan” puns I never got a chance to use.
Doot dooo do doo doot. Mannananmah. Doot do do doo.
All right, fine, I’ll stop. Read the manual, consult a walkthrough, or go in blind if you’re not afraid of pain. Once you figure out how to stay alive, King’s Quest III Redux is a familiar-yet-different experience that’s got something to offer to anyone who doesn’t mind a little more risk-taking and reloading in their adventure games. Best of all, it’s free to download (along with the remakes of KQI and KQII), so you really have no excuse for not being turned into a pile of ashes right now. Props and kudos to AGD Interactive for transforming a game I couldn’t stand into a game I’m merely not enamored with. King’s Quest isn’t exactly my cup of forbidden salt water, but AGDI got me to play three of ’em, and darned if that isn’t worth a recommendation.
That final Mannananmah joke was great!
The Internet tells me that the spellmaking challenge in this game (at least, in the original) was impossible on purpose. They wanted to make sure that only people with the manual could solve it.