King's Quest: Mask of Eternity, the latest in the venerable series from Sierra On-Line, is a noble effort, an adventure inside an RPG wrapped in an action game. From every angle, this game is a vast, sprawling experiment that, while falling short of its goal to be all things to all players, is enjoyable and noteworthy nonetheless.
I won't go into the details about the storyline, except to say that the fundamental premise is to retrieve five pieces of a mask, reassemble them, and, in the process, defeat the forces of evil. Pretty straightforward, really, and slightly disappointing for those of us hoping for a more plot-driven adventure. Nonetheless, recovery of the mask requires a journey across great spans of space and time, through strange realms that are home to bizarre creatures and unusual characters. There's definitely an epic feel to the game, permeating and penetrating throughout, and somehow making all the searching, and fighting, and dying worthwhile.
Yes, dying. While its gameplay and graphics are clearly intended to compete with the likes of contemporary releases like Tomb Raider, the spirit of Mask of Eternity is much more ancient, closer to now-distant adventures like Zork or even Sierra's Mystery House. Which is to say - for those of you who were spared the primal days of computer gaming - that it's cruel and unforgiving and occasionally borders on the sadistic. Death awaits literally at every turn: drink the wrong potion, step in the wrong direction, pick the wrong camera angle (more on that later), and you'll find yourself on your knees, gasping for breath, and finding none.
Not that dying is all you'll be doing in Mask of Eternity. You'll be doing your fair share of killing as well. Almost everything that moves is fair game, and as the game progresses, you'll find that you have a variety of weapons at your disposal with which to dispatch your enemies. Combat is a rather rudimentary affair - there is no defensive component and attacking involves little more than clicking the mouse at regular intervals - but it adds an element of excitement and - if I can say it without sounding too ironic - "life" to the game in the sense that you must respond in real time to the challenge at hand. Combat is also important because with each victory, your character gains strength and skill (this is the game's RPG element), both of which are necessary to have more than a prayer against the later bosses in the game.
But as significant as combat is in Mask of Eternity, the balance of the game is spent using your head, not your sword. There are literally hundreds of puzzles to be solved, ranging from the relatively simple to the fiendishly complex. Many are "means" puzzles - you know exactly what you're supposed to do, and the problem is figuring out how to do it - while others involve the manipulation/combination of objects resulting in unexpected but favorable consequences. While one could argue that some of the puzzles are too tough or too obscure for the typical player, they are certainly consistent with those of previous King's Quest games and Sierra adventures in general, a fact that will no doubt please many old-school adventure gamers who have long protested the dumbing down of their favorite genre in recent years.
What may not please these hard-core adventurers is the heavy use of action-oriented puzzles throughout Mask of Eternity. Many sections of the game require more than a little dexterity to complete, and some - particularly those that involve a series of sequential jumps - may even have console gamers pulling out their hair. As mentioned previously, the frustration level in the action-oriented sequences in the game never quite gets to the point of no return, but it does come close at times. This is unfortunate, because in many cases, the problem isn't with the design of the sequences themselves, but rather with your own inability to position the camera with a satisfactory view of the action.
That's right, the player controls the camera in Mask of Eternity. You can choose from either first-person or third-person perspectives, and your choice matters, as in some cases, you can only advance if you select the proper view. In addition, when in the third-person perspective, you have total control over the angle and height of the camera and can change it almost at will. The upside is that if you find your view blocked by a tree or obscured by an enemy, you can quickly shift the perspective to something more useful. The downside is that you must do so to complete the game. By putting the control in the player's hands, the designers essentially washed their own of any responsibility for an "intelligent" camera, and if you don't take command, you will quickly fall prey to its stupidity. While offering control over the camera is a great boon for players, requiring them to master it is not. It's somewhat akin to having to edit a movie when all you want to do is watch it.
Otherwise, the graphics engine is very solid, fast, and often impressive when used with a 3D accelerator (the software-only renderer is far less attractive). It handles outdoor and indoor scenes equally well and, when combined with the very detailed character animations, offers a believable depiction of the world it portrays. The only real problem with the graphics lies in the details: There's a certain sense of barrenness throughout the game, and long stretches of look-alike terrain are common. You also see some rather pronounced pop-up in the more complex areas, which is a little distracting. And then there are the load times, which can last up to two or three minutes between realms - which is simply too long.
Fortunately, there's enough going on in the audio department to make up for any graphical missteps. Mask of Eternity has a lush, orchestral soundtrack that greatly enhances the gaming experience. The dialog, while occasionally campy in its presentation, is well written and generally well read. And the sound effects are uniformly excellent.
As you can see, Mask of Eternity is really a game of contrasts, a game that takes two steps forward, but just as quickly takes another step back. Its gameplay is enjoyable, but occasionally maddening. Its combat system is welcome, but too simple. Its camera control system is advanced, but almost to a fault. Its design attempts to attract all players, but in doing so, may just as easily alienate them.
In the final analysis, the most important thing about Mask of Eternity is that even with all its faults, it's a fun game to play. It's recommended to those who want something out of the ordinary, and who can appreciate a grand and ambitious effort. And Sierra should be applauded for trying something new, even if its reach somewhat exceeds its grasp.