In the first of many clever references to its predecessors in the Zork series, Grand Inquisitor opens with a bald foppish dictator banning the use of magic throughout the Great Underground Empire. For gamers who plodded through the rather tedious Return to Zork and oddly humorless Zork Nemesis, the plot device is an obvious metaphor for what has happened to the longest-running series (20 years!) in computer gaming. Zork's signature wit and absurdity seemed to have been lost in the jump from text to graphic adventuring. Well, the magic may be gone from the land, but it has not vanished from the game. Grand Inquisitor is the best graphical Zork yet, and one of the most consistently entertaining adventures of the year.
Of course, your job is to usurp the technocratic Grand Inquisitor and his repressive anti-magic policies. After a brief visit to Port Foozle, you locate the GUE (Great Underground Empire) and spend much of the game hunting down the three lost artifacts (the Coconut of Quendor, the Skull of Yoruk, and the Cube of Foundation) that will restore magic to Zork. All that remains of last year's Nemesis title is the basic gaming interface. Full motion video sequences punctuate your movement among static, prettily drawn settings. The "Z-Vision" device is here again, letting you spin 360 degrees in place at various locations for a more involving view of the terrain. Very handy menus of usable objects and magic spells appear at the top of the screen, and a good inventory screen lets you examine and combine the many found objects and learned spells along the way.
While the basic item-gathering and puzzle-solving of Grand Inquisitor is far from innovative, the triumph of the game is its seamless, witty execution. Enemies of the Inquisitor are "totemized," squished and consigned to spend eternity in steel reinforced hockey pucks. One such resistor, a wiseass Dungeon Master, is sealed within a lantern and accompanies you through much of the journey. He blurts asides to most of your unsuccessful actions: "Ooh! That's gotta hurt." And these snide characterizations form the real charm of the game. A two-headed Cerebus blocks you at Hell's door, mocking your standard attempts to get by. "Go ahead, dig into the old inventory. Something's gotta work!" A pair of talking torches, one grumpy and the other neurotic, refuses to be picked up or to work properly in certain situations. Thankfully, and unlike most "humorous" computer adventures, the scripting is genuinely funny and well acted. The old television actors' homes got emptied out for this one, but to very good effect. Dirk Benedict (A-Team, Battlestar Galactica) plays a TV action hero whose brio gets him into scrapes with the Inquisitor, which we follow in cutscenes throughout. Michael McKean of SNL, Spinal Tap, and Laverne and Shirley (Lenny) plays the DM with just the right amount of irony. Squiggy (David Lander) does a short cameo as the voice of a torch as well. Real old-timers like Marty Ingels and Rip Taylor take their comic turns as well in a nicely cast, well-written game that keeps the puzzle-solving light and fun.
The puzzles themselves are familiar Zorkisms. How do you retrieve the Coconut of Quendor from the soft palate of that sleeping dragon with some combination of inflatable toys, a gold tooth, and a bicycle pump? What exactly is the use of a magic spell that makes the color purple invisible? Of course, you will need to figure out how to make the Totemizer machine work in your favor and decipher a cryptic map of prison cells in order to free poor Dirk Benedict - the usual reverse engineering tasks of the computer adventurer. They are not tiresome or gratuitous, however. Grand Inquisitor succeeds in keeping the obstacles solvable and sensible (in a Zorky kind of way) within the fictional world.
The weaknesses are few and forgivable. The game world feels too small and short-lived. Much of the hunting and gathering involves fewer than a dozen major areas, like the GUE University, the Dungeon Master's house, and the Monastery. Brief hops into Hades and Port Foozle are fun too, but I wished for greater vistas to explore. It all ends in about 15 hours of playtime. And the only irritating part of the gameplay comes from the Z-Vision spinning panorama. The cursor changes to a directional pointer when you face a new open area to explore, but some of these places are so close together that you can overlook an essential little niche too easily. You should scan the entire screen carefully and look for changes in the cursor that indicate smaller nooks or different viewing angles on the same scene. Finally, there is a beta version of a linked, two-player mode, via Net or modem. The second player is purported to take a kibitzing role, merely pointing to areas or items that the main adventurer might try. While I got the Java-based add-on to connect easily enough to the Net, there wasn't a playmate to be found there, and probably for good reason. Just on the face of it, this feels like a silly stab at the mutliplayer craze.
Compact and unspectacular as it is, Zork: Grand Inquisitor is a model of adventure gaming as good entertainment. Many of the genre's conventions (FMV, item hunting, absurdist humor) get polished to a high sheen here. It is funny and reflexive without being geeky or pointlessly ironic. The third-string actors exploit their comic trademarks to good effect. Real attention is paid to the pacing of the whole affair, so there are no overly quiet dead zones of tedious activity. And the puzzles are fun to solve rather than gratuitous brain-teasing exercises.
All in all, you are made to feel a part of a playful jaunt through a silly world. Truly, the lads and lasses at Activision have succeeded in restoring the magic to Zork, and in doing so have provided us with a good baseline for measuring competent design in the genre.