After an incredible series of twists and turns during development, the official sequel to one of the most popular role-playing games ever, 1993's Betrayal at Krondor, has finally arrived. Unlike last year's Betrayal in Antara, which was very similar in style, if not in quality, to Betrayal at Krondor, the official sequel is a very different game from its predecessor. Gamers who were desperately seeking a "Betrayal at Krondor 2," a game that essentially just replicated the original game, may be disappointed by developer PyroTechnix's design decision to make Return to Krondor a third-person-perspective game that is considerably briefer and even more linear and story-driven than its predecessor. Judged on its own merits, however, Return to Krondor is an enjoyable adventure/role-playing game hybrid notable for its outstanding graphics and immersive, if brief, storyline.
Return to Krondor, like Betrayal at Krondor, is set in author Raymond E. Feist's swords-and-sorcery world of Midkemia. Both games provide strongly story-driven experiences, as evidenced by the fact that they are divided into "chapters," during which the plot is advanced in a very linear, predetermined fashion. Similarly, both games require you to use preset characters, each possessing a fully developed, distinctive personality, and determine party membership solely in response to plot developments over which you have no control. But while Betrayal at Krondor allowed you to develop your character in a variety of ways while exploring a vast gaming world and undertaking numerous subquests, Return to Krondor offers much more restrictive gameplay. Each chapter in Return to Krondor is set in a very discrete, confining geographic area (one room, in the case of two of the chapters), and most chapters have no subquests at all, forcing you to focus solely on your primary quest objectives. The handful of available subquests are all interesting and do an excellent job at drawing you deeper into Krondor's world, and the main storyline is consistently compelling. In fact, you are likely to race through the already brief game because the lure of advancing the storyline by proceeding directly to the next key objective is difficult to resist. Still, even if you want to stop and savor the game's surroundings, your ancillary activities are primarily limited to opening doors in Krondor to encounter random human enemies or, in the sole chapter set in the not-so-vast wilderness, hopping along from territory to territory looking for random, mostly human, enemies to engage. The linearity of Return to Krondor will alienate role-playing game fans who prefer more open-ended experiences such as those offered by the Fallout games, but the strength of Return to Krondor's main storyline will certainly appeal to adventure game fans and other gamers wanting to play an often-compelling "interactive movie."
Set directly in the city of Krondor and its nearby surroundings, Return to Krondor's main plot involves retrieving an immensely powerful artifact, the Tear of the Gods, after it was relegated to a watery grave by an ambitious pirate, Bear. Bear has been carving a grisly path of destruction throughout the world of Midkemia as he has sought to capture the power of the Tear of the Gods to achieve his nefarious ends. To hastily save the day, a not-so-unlikely band of heroes is formed, consisting of a reformed master thief, an exotic court mage, a vengeful member of the city guard, a priest hailing from the temple that previously maintained the lost artifact, and finally, a reluctant guildsman who has been known to hurl a spell or two upon occasion. Each of the characters has a preset, distinctive, and colorful personality and background that are revealed and explored throughout the course of the game. Almost all of the conversations in the game are voice-acted, and generally the acting is excellent, certainly more professional in quality than you typically see in an adventure or role-playing game. Unlike some role-playing games, which feature hundreds of monstrous enemy types, most of your opponents in Return to Krondor are malevolent humans. The lack of inhuman monsters in Return to Krondor is actually one of the game's strengths, as it does a remarkable job of giving you a sense of empathy with your character as you encounter each mysterious new monster. While the typical AD&D or Might and Magic game often devolves into a creature fest, with a long procession of equally undeveloped critters scampering over to your characters in order to be chopped to pieces, in Return to Krondor each monster feels unique and plausible within the context of the gaming world.
While Betrayal at Krondor was primarily a first-person-perspective game, Return to Krondor opts for a stylish, but occasionally disorienting, variety of third-person perspectives. Unlike the suddenly abundant third-person-perspective games using a "trailing camera," in Return to Krondor the camera angles are stationary in each scene, although you can choose from a variety of camera views in most key encounter areas in the game. As you move your party through the gaming world, using either directional keys or by simply mouse-clicking on a targeted location, you prompt automatic shifts in the game's camera perspective. The frequently shifting camera perspectives is often disorienting, since clicking on a location at the top of your screen regularly results in your characters actually moving towards the bottom of the screen after an involuntary camera switch. In the vast majority of outdoor locations, you can't readily switch back to a previous perspective, making it easy to initially lose orientation as you suddenly view the gaming world from a different angle. Veterans of the Alone in the Dark series or similar games are likely to adapt quicker to Krondor's new environment, but most gamers will require a lengthier-than-usual period of time to adapt to the game's controls. All of the characters in the game are represented by texture-mapped polygons, and PyroTechnix's proprietary graphics engine supports most modern 3D accelerators through Direct3D. The differences between the Direct3D version of the game and the proprietary "True 3D" software version are minor, which is a compliment to the software version rather than a critique of the hardware-accelerated version. The lush background scenery in the game is often truly beautiful, and the characters are rendered in great detail, with distinctive faces (complete with lip-synching mouths) and appearances that change to reflect their equipped armor and weaponry. Scripted cutscenes are plentiful and do an excellent job of keeping you immersed in the gaming world while advancing the plot and further developing the personalities of characters in the game. There are also a number of video cutscenes sprinkled throughout the game, and they do an equally proficient job of rewarding you for your achievements while maintaining a consistent style of presentation. Return to Krondor's graphics and well-written storyline constantly made the game a delight to watch, even though I frequently desired more interactive gameplay.
Combat in the game is turn-based although not as tactical as typical turn-based role-playing games because you have fewer options available to your characters. Combat is always to the death (apparently there's no such thing as a well-advised retreat among the bloodthirsty Krondorians) and, with some notable exceptions, usually occurs in a relatively confined area. There are six schools of magic (four for mages, two for priests), and spells cast during combat exhibit suitably colorful and otherwise impressive effects. Mage spells can either be "quick cast" immediately, which could result in a spell failure, or "slow cast" over two turns, in which case the spell will be lost if the caster is hit prior to launching the spell. Priest spells are always successfully invoked and can be cast using spell points or, for the masochist in you, the life points of the caster. Unlike Betrayal at Krondor, combat does not occur on a separate "grid-like" combat screen. There is always a color-coded circle beneath the active character or enemy in combat, allowing you to instantly determine the relative health and spell points of that character or enemy. Unfortunately, while the lack of a clearly marked movement "grid" makes the environment more immersive, it also makes it difficult to quickly determine a character's movement range. The movement system seems inherently quirky, since you often move a character to a square erroneously color-coded as one in which your character will be unable to attack, only to find out you still have the ability to gleefully hack away at a nearby enemy. While the game's manual informs you of this color-coding quirk, such disclosure didn't alleviate my desire for a movement system that would allow me to accurately plan out my characters' moves.
Although Return to Krondor was in development for a long time, some aspects of its design (in addition to the movement system discussed above) ironically feel a bit unpolished. The graphics perspective occasionally results in enemies randomly encountered in the rooms of Krondor falling tantalizingly out of the reach of your characters. Occasionally the game would momentarily pause prior to animating a spell effect or while the mouse cursor hovered over certain interface buttons. The game's manual is less detailed than in should be in describing some aspects of gameplay, such as the nondescript combat modifiers ("heroes flurry!") that are randomly generated before every combat turn. The initial release of the game had DirectSound and other DirectX problems with some fairly standard hardware, but they've already been addressed by a patch that was quickly released by PyroTechnix.
Both of the previous Betrayal games featured complicated methods of opening treasure chests found during the course of the game. But instead of punishing gamers with the notoriously tedious "bead" puzzles of Betrayal in Antara or the riddle puzzles in Betrayal at Krondor, this time the treasure chests actually add to gameplay, rather than distract from it. A thief's task of unlocking and disarming a chest is graphically represented in Return to Krondor, albeit in a somewhat abstract manner. Gamers still not wanting to mess around with the puzzle chest can elect to have the game automatically determine whether or not the thievish Squire James is successful at opening a chest based solely upon his lock-picking and disarming skills. You'll gather hoards of treasure from defeated foes during the course of the game and unfortunately also spend a significant amount of time tediously identifying or moving that treasure from corpses to your characters' backpacks. Each individual item in the game has to be specifically assessed and moved, and your victims' bodies have to exasperatingly be searched one by one. If you insist upon diligently searching all of your dead enemies' bodies and identifying their items, you'll likely spend a good deal of your playing time doing just that. A few "identify all" or "take all" shortcuts would have made the wealth-accumulation aspects of the game much more enjoyable, even though there isn't a heck of a lot of things to spend all of your amassed money on during the course of the game.
The game's main problem, however, is clearly its brevity. Although there are a few difficulty settings and the option to make mages more or less effective at spell-casting, these alternatives are unlikely to significantly prolong the game's replayability. Most players will play through Return to Krondor in a week or two of casual gaming. Return to Krondor is certainly not a massive and open-ended role-playing game set in an expansive gaming world. With its distinctive, preset characters, scripted events, and limited geographical scope, Return to Krondor is a more linear, story-driven, and somewhat more intimate game. While Return to Krondor may not be an epic sequel to Betrayal at Krondor, its excellent graphics and immersive plot and gaming world make it an enjoyable story-driven game while it lasts.