Ah, King’s Quest. It’s a wonder that more games haven’t followed the model of this prolific and beloved series and waited until the sixth installment to do anything that justifies being prolific and beloved. It’s no secret that I’m not enamored with the series: King’s Quest I: Quest for Anything Whatsoever to Do, King’s Quest II: Romancing the “Reload” Button, King’s Quest III: So You Want to Be a Housemaid, King’s Quest IV: The Errors of Rosella, and King’s Quest V: Absence Makes the Heart Go “Bleeauugghh” are, at best, decently entertaining, and at worst, exactly what their names suggest. You’d think I’d’ve learned my lesson by now, but as a scholar of old games, a fan of Sierra-style of adventure games, and a player who accidentally developed a passing interest in the exploits of Daventry’s royal family, there was no getting around subjecting myself to another installment sooner or later.
…is the complete opposite of how I explain the masochistic sorcery that’s spurred me on.
I can criticize the first five games until the goat I accidentally let out of the pasture in KQI comes home, but I can be equally forthcoming with praise if I think a game has earned it. I poke fun at King’s Quest for its bizarre aversion to science fiction and other genres I prefer over fantasy, and for the earlier installments’ creative interpretations of “graphics”, but my real complaints have always been with the gameplay: a rampant lack of clear direction, misleading and deficient feedback, outrageous puzzle solutions, and troublesome interfaces have always been at the heart of my disappointment and frustration with the series. Fix all those problems, and you’d almost certainly have a King’s Quest that I genuinely enjoyed, no matter how many spaceships it didn’t have.
Let it be known far and wide: King’s Quest VI fixes all those problems (spaceships notwithstanding), and it’s one of the best adventure games I’ve ever played. Top-notch 256-color graphics, streamlined point-and-click interface, full voice acting, mostly unremarkable but satisfactory music and sound effects, plenty of ways to die and dead-end the game in an unwinnable scenario…come to think of it, it’s just like King’s Quest V, at least on the surface. Under the surface, where greatness often lurks (or vicious piranhas, in the case of a lake filled with vicious piranhas, which I have no intention of talking about), KQVI improves on its predecessor so much that it might as well be a different game. Which it is. Let me try this again.
Hey, cut me some slack! It’s called “longwinded exposition”. I’m getting to the review.
From start to finish, there is a magnificent sense of storytelling: This is not a string of puzzles held together by a loose story thread, or a series of cutscenes padded by random challenges on either side. The story unfolds a bit differently depending on how many puzzles you solve, and how you solve them. Nearly every obstacle you overcome paints a clearer picture of the culture and history of the realm you’re visiting, the villainy at work there, and the characters involved. It’s not an adventure game so much as an interactive story that merely plays like an adventure game, and I think that’s what the King’s Quest series was trying to be all along. This time, it finally works.
The adventure begins as the lovestruck Prince Alexander of Daventry (from King’s Quest III) finds himself unceremoniously shipwrecked on the Isle of the Crown, home to Princess Cassima of King’s Quest V (from King’s Quest V), whom he hopes to woo. It’s only a matter of moments before he wanders into the ocean and is dragged away by the tide, never to be heard from again. Wait, you probably want the version of the story where I don’t try to kill off the hero at every opportunity. It isn’t long before Alexander discovers that the kingdom is in worse shape than a 16-time Bratwurst-Eating Champion who has never exercised. Everyone is feuding, everything is in disrepair, the royal family is not 100% alive, Princess Cassima has apparently forgotten about Alexander and is preparing to wed the royal vizier, and if our hero is out for the maximum possible point score, he might just set everything straight. In the version I’m not allowing myself to tell you, Alexander also manages to get eaten by a door.
Because I promised my readers the version of the story where I wasn’t eaten by a door, Lord Death.
KQVI features a superb variety of puzzles and challenges that, in a departure from the norm, were designed with the intent of someone actually solving them. Whether you’re under attack by a powerful genie, confronted with a cryptic riddle, honing your aggressive gardening skills, playing matchmaker for the ugliest man on the planet, or attempting to outwit a band of gnomes with unevenly distributed senses, you are never required to read the developers’ minds to solve a puzzle. The game makes every effort to balance a sense of challenge with a sense of fairness: clues are abundant, both in-game and in the worthwhile instruction manual (which is cleverly styled as a traveler’s guide to the Green Isles), but, as with Pokémon, you need to stay sharp and be thorough to catch ’em all.
Posing in front of fountains for pretty screenshots might also help, but I’m not sure.
Even the unwinnable scenarios you can create by doing things incorrectly or out of order are mitigated by the game’s surprisingly high level of player-friendliness. Go ahead, eat the breath mint! You’ll find another one in the dish if you still need one. Wasted all your money on a paintbrush you can’t use anywhere? Trade it back to the seller at no charge for a mechanical nightingale, which is far more useful than it has any right to be! Did the lettuce melt in your pants? Of course it did. Now you have wet pants. The game wants you to take chances and experiment with different puzzle solutions, and it often facilitates that by taking away potentially misleading items and options when they’re no longer necessary, and giving you ample warning before a point of no return. Dead-ending the game is not so much an arbitrary punishment for a lack of omniscience as it is a logical conclusion to a story about a heroic fool who rushes in, literally, where angels fear to tread.
When the 8-foot-tall wingy dudes are afraid of the dark, you should be, too.
That being said, the game is not without its frustrations. Sure, let’s manually climb the Cliffs of Logic by clicking the Walk icon on every step of the multi-screen staircase. Finding the right spot to click on the crusty sailor is one of the hardest puzzles in the game, thanks to Alexander standing in your way like a nitwit. One puzzle requires you to have solved it before walking onto the screen where it’s unexpectedly sprung on you in a cutscene, leaving you helpless to start solving it or even reload to try again until you’re dead a few minutes later. Avoiding detection in the castle is less like Metal Gear Solid and more like Why Am I Getting Caught Here This Makes No Sense, with a dash of I Think I Glitched the Guard Into Staying at His Post Forever and a hint of Oh, So That’s the Item that Crashes the Game. These are minor issues in the grand scheme of a series that has asked you to climb an invisibly slippery whale tongue and throw a bridle at a snake, but that doesn’t make them any less aggravating.
At least the writers recognized the absurdity of some of the challenges of yore; the Pawn Shoppe is filled to the brim with ridiculous items that would’ve been perfect a few sequels ago. It’s like the beach resort in Space Quest: Vohaul Strikes Back all over again.
These infractions aside, the gameplay is every bit as well-crafted as the writing, which is very much in line with what we’ve come to expect from King’s Quest—that is, mostly serious unless there’s an irresistible pun—but it gets the message across with more of a flourish. This gives the characters and (via their descriptions) the locations more depth and personality than ever before. For better or for worse, the professional voice acting makes additional contributions to that department.
The cast includes the likes of Robby Benson (Beast, Beauty and the Beast), Neil Ross (Codex Narrator, Mass Effect), and Russi Taylor (Minnie Mouse, Anything That’s Ever Featured Minnie Mouse Since, Like, 1988), who relieve almost everyone who provided voices for KQV (that one voice they provided for KQV before going back to drawing backgrounds or composing music, King’s Quest V). Still, I only got as far as the second screen before turning off the voice acting entirely. The narrator abandons the usual second-person form of address and speaks about what Alexander is doing, and it gets old quickly to hear “Alexander looks at this…” and “Alexander can’t do that…” and “Alexander has no need to carry around large rocks,” which is a bald-faced lie, and you know it. I occasionally restored the voice acting to hear what I was missing, but chatty vines and insomniac oysters sound as grating as you might expect them to, and the narrator seemed almost annoyed anytime I clicked on something.
Maybe not, but you don’t need to be so condescending about it.
The rest of the audio averages out to be unobtrusive. A few fun sound effects; a few obnoxious ones. A few disproportionally awesome music tracks (if you’re using the right soundfont for the game’s MIDI files); a few distractingly melodic or familiar tunes, such as the wedding march, which I initially misspelled as “weeding march”, and the ow-stop-shoving-the-’90s-in-my-ears “Girl in the Tower” ending theme. Everything else blends into the background, and that’s as good a place as any to segue into the art and animation quality, which are on par with anything in KQV. The new 3D cutscenes—which were darn impressive at the time, and now are merely charmingly vintage—add some interest, but I miss the more dramatic visual contrasts between the last game’s locations. Both this game and its predecessor are a feast for the eyes, though KQV is the kind of feast where I’d go back for seconds, and KQVI is the kind of feast I mostly attend for the conversation. Put succinctly, the puzzles and the story are the most compelling parts of the game, and everything else has the courtesy not to get in their way.
Unlike Alexander here, who didn’t have the courtesy to get out of the way of the arrow that statue just fired. Some people are so inconsiderate.
Whereas most adventure games are good for one, maybe two playthroughs, KQVI packs enough replay value to double or triple those numbers. There’s a short path and a long path to the ending, each offering different challenges, and a fair number of puzzles that are either optional or have multiple solutions (most of which result in death, but still). Cutting corners results in a slapdash adventure that culminates in a hollow victory; playing the part of the clever, determined, romantic hero results in a full, rich adventure with a satisfying amount of closure. It’s Mass Effect on a much smaller scale—how you go about saving the galaxy can have subtle and significant repercussions later on. Except instead of the galaxy, it’s a few dinky islands, and there are still no spaceships.
And Grumpy Tomato makes a lousy substitute for Joker.
The control you can exert over the story, the craftsmanship of the puzzles and writing, the easy-to-use interface, the agreeable aesthetics, and the meaningful continuity with the games that came before it (particularly KQIII and KQV) make KQVI one of the most enjoyable and immersive adventure games I’ve ever played. The game got me genuinely invested in the characters and their world, encouraged me to play to the end without ever resorting to a walkthrough, and seldom pulled any shenanigans that took me out of the moment. After all those hours spent falling from beanstalks and cleaning Manannan’s chamberpot and being chased by trolls I couldn’t see, I’ve finally found a King’s Quest game that lives up to the lofty reputation of the series, and the suffering I endured to get this far makes the game all the sweeter.
“You should check it out, mate.” …is the kind of lowbrow pun you might expect to end a Quest for Glory review. Fortunately, this is King’s Quest; we have standards. Have a good Knight, everyone.