Nostalgia may help attract an audience for the new series of King’s Quest games, but you don’t need to have any affection for the glory days of Sierra On-Line to appreciate the fantastic first chapter in this renewed saga. Developer The Odd Gentlemen has absolutely nailed the fairy-tale spirit of the original franchise in A Knight to Remember, the first of five planned chapters. This is more than just a walk down memory lane, however, as Roberta Williams’ iconic creation has been reimagined for modern sensibilities. Old-time fans might find it tough to deal with some of the changes here, but the new approach livens up a series that has been mothballed since Bill Clinton was in the White House, and it certainly doesn’t shy away from offering up grueling puzzles that would have been tough to crack even back in the day.
Speaking as a member of the original Sierra adventure generation and someone whose very first PC games were Police Quest and King’s Quest, I really enjoy the way that A Knight to Remember looks back as well as looks forward. The story reboots the original epic while avoiding starting completely from scratch. While the protagonist is still Graham, king of the fantasy realm of Daventry, this version of the character is a grizzled monarch brought to life by actor Christopher Lloyd. The storyline of the whole series will actually skip over the original King’s Quest games to focus on Graham before he became heir to the throne, framing the adventures in each chapter as the recollections of the elderly king telling stories of his youthful exploits to his granddaughter Gwendolyn.
This narrative device does a fantastic job of setting everything up, respecting the original King’s Quest stories (even if some of the finer details have been retconned) while also allowing Lloyd to serve as an old raconteur spinning these tales with accompanying puns and hints. Anyone who loves Lloyd (and who doesn’t? he’s Doc Brown, people!) will immediately warm to his presence, which immediately makes the game more likable. The specific story being recounted here goes back to the beginning of it all, with the future ruler arriving in Daventry as a wanderer seeking fame and fortune in a pageant being held to name a new knight to King Edward’s court.
Just as this story mixes old and new, so does the game style, which is a cross between modern episodic adventures set on a linear path and old-fashioned adventures that force players to do a lot of exploring and sleuthing. Both design styles are well represented here, too, with neither being short-changed. So while there are a lot of button-mashing action sequences (the game is equally at home with a gamepad or a keyboard-and-mouse control setup), the majority of play focuses on gathering items, carefully examining the scenery, talking to anyone and everyone, and completing many deeply traditional adventure-game quests. There is even a dash of role-playing here, courtesy of occasional choices that need to be made between the three approaches of bravery, wisdom, and compassion (which very loosely equate to the old fantasy warrior, mage, and cleric archetypes).
This means that A Knight to Remember really does offer the best of both worlds. I thought the game hit a nearly perfect balance between arcade action with button-pressing brawls and wandering around trying to solve various puzzles to bypass obstacles and move the plot forward. Nothing here was particularly easy. This isn’t a Telltale-styled episode where you can breeze through it over a (admittedly long) lunch break. I spent a good eight hours here, having an extremely tough time with both some of the arcade challenges (the rope fight with Sir Cumference toward the end of the game drove me insane, and the closing chess duel wasn’t much easier on me) and the puzzles (which at times lived up to the infamous Sierra reputation for inscrutability).
For all of its newness, the game is actually a little too traditional at times. Some of the problems require leaps in logic, and the overall organization of the final section of the game leaves something to be desired due to a lack of structure. After following a pretty linear path through the opening couple of hours, the game then opens up to a fairly huge area loaded with clues and objects and screens to explore. As a result, I felt somewhat lost, especially given that there were few if any suggestions as to which order I should have been taking to deal with all of these options.
Even when I was frustrated, it was a good kind of frustrated. I always felt that I was moving forward, however slowly. And any sort of aggravation was always mitigated by the incredible charm of this heroic fantasy. A Knight to Remember has been adroitly scripted to mirror the whimsical nature of the original games, which were more like a little girl’s fairy tales than anything out of D&D. This is reflected in the light-hearted sense of humor maintained throughout, where even the villains aren’t really so much bad guys as they are misunderstood buffoons. This is even seen in the reactions to young Graham dying, which is often rewound almost immediately by old Graham serving as the narrator, who immediately says something like he must have misremembered things. Of course he didn’t die horribly—after all, he’s sitting in bed telling this story to his granddaughter, isn’t he?
Visuals and sound build this atmosphere even farther. The graphics have been smartly crafted to resemble a slightly unrealistic animated movie. All of the usual comic-book tropes are presented, from heroes with big blue eyes to hulking enemies who tower over the good guys to vaguely anthropomorphic animals. Almost everything here has been well calculated to bring a smile to your face. Audio also hits a Hollywood tone. As already noted, the dialogue is simply stellar and the voice acting even better, led by Lloyd but also bolstered by a cast of unknowns who ably handle the range of heroes and villains. Even heroes and villains who could have--even should have--devolved into cornball stereotypes impossible for the best voice-acting to save, like an outrageously French-accented bridge troll, are somehow rescued and made into believable characters. The score perfectly accompanies the action, and the music here would not seem out of place on a big budget movie production, with lilts and accents to play up everything taking place in the game.
Like the old saying goes--the king is dead, long live the king. Even though A Knight to Remember is not the King’s Quest of yesterday, this first episode in a new franchise ensures that the heart of the original series will live on for the current generation of adventure gamers. Bring on the new exploits of King Graham.