King’s Quest III: To Heir is Human

King’s Quest III: To Heir is Human
3.5
Game Name: King's Quest III: To Heir is Human
Platforms: DOS
Publisher(s): Sierra On-Line
Developer(s): Sierra On-Line
Genre(s): Adventure
Release Date: 1986

King’s Quest revolutionized the adventure genre, freed it from its text-based limitations, and provided a standard for graphic adventures to come. King’s Quest II… didn’t really do much of anything. With King’s Quest III, we’re back to trying new things. You’re going to see a real story this time around, and despite still being firmly based on the gameplay of the previous titles, you’re going to see a game that brings back some quality and traditions of Interactive Fiction games. KQ3 is the first of the series that involves more than just navigating a stick-man around the screen and grabbing items.

You start the game gallantly and heroically… feeding chickens. You play as Gwydion, a young indentured servant to the powerful wizard Manannan. The both of you live high on a mountaintop overlooking a small town. Beyond that, you don’t know much of life that doesn’t involve sweeping the kitchen, cleaning the chamber pot, or sleeping on your hard cot and cloth pillow. You learn from the manual that Manannan has a habit of killing his servants before they reach 18 years of age, which means Gwydion’s clock is ticking. The old wizard is paranoid that you will venture into town, sneak around his wizard lab, find his books, learn magic, and use it to defeat him. Naturally, you do exactly that

The first thing you may notice is that this setup has nothing at all to do with King Graham and Daventry. How can this properly be called a King’s Quest? The answer is that it’s one of many steps Roberta Williams has taken here to create a story worth telling, instead of a basic graphical scavenger hunt. KQ3 does something special with its plot, something that you won’t expect if you’re coming in cold, but that you can probably figure out with a modicum of thought. And to be honest, Daventry’s royal family hasn’t done anything for me so far. I understand that some initial buyers were confused and upset, thought that some unrelated plot was using the established King’s Quest name to get easy money. But I have no issue with King’s Quest III starting a new character and a new plotline, and wouldn’t have minded a bit if they’d stayed with that.

At its heart, the gameplay remains exactly the same as the previous two adventures. You march your character slowly around indoor and outdoor settings, using the text parser to search for items you can add to your inventory. Except here, you’re given some drama and a clear reason for every one of your actions. Your search is also made a little easier. Your primary goal is to learn the magic spells that will free you. These require you to find the requisite ingredients for potions or whatnot. Every spell is listed in the manual, essentially giving you a grocery list of items you need to find and collect to beat the game.

I found this a much more enjoyable system than wandering around picking up whatever loose items you come across – here you know ahead of time what you’re looking for, and can actually go to sensible locations to find it. Need mud? Go to the river. Can’t pick up the mud alone? Look for something to scoop and store it with. It’s much more logical, much less frustrating, and allows you much more freedom to put yourself in the situation, instead of trying to figure out what the designer wants you to do.

Manannan will dog your ass for the first part of the game.

Manannan will dog your ass for the first part of the game.

Granted, figuring out the specifics will still be a challenge. You’ll still have to search high and low to find more esoteric items like nightshade juice and fly wings, but knowing what you’re expected to find is still a great relief. You’ll still have some trouble figuring out the exact phrase the parser is looking for, and there are disastrous results in store for anyone who mistypes a single step when casting the spells. Still, since you’re making the initial ones under duress, I think it lends to the situation of Gwydion hurriedly dumping roots into a mortar while looking frantically over his shoulder.

I keep talking about tension and drama, and it comes in the form of surprise visits from Manannan. Being a wizard, he has the ability to teleport around at will. He’ll suddenly appear inside a room in the house to stare at you or give you a new chore to perform. Don’t do them speedily and you’ll be locked inside your room. This does well to set up the relationship between the two characters, and help put you in the abusive situation of always being watched by a paranoid oppressor. But the major threat his appearances provide is to make sure you’re not progressing in the plot, and kill you if you are.

Manannan is a total narc and will check your pockets every time he appears. If you have any ingredient for a magic spell (helpfully marked on the inventory screen with asterisks) he’ll turn you to dust and your game will be over. He’ll frequently leave on 25-minute trips, or take similar naps, and these are the windows when you’re supposed to sneak out and grab some items. If you’re outside the house when he returns, he’ll turn you to dust and your game will be over. So, you and Gwydion must sneak around behind his back, collect items, and squirrel them away in Gwydion’s room before the wizard can catch you.

kingsquest3_4First, this brings the story to life with gameplay parameters and limitations. You’re not just reading about how Gwydion is rushed and in danger, you are rushed and in danger. Second, it offers a challenge and threat where none existed in previous King’s Quests. You’re gambling with your life each time you go out, and the longer you stay to search for items, the greater your chances of getting discovered. A treacherous path up and down the mountain makes it even more of a rush when you’ve got just minutes to spare.

These surprise guardian visits are such a simple addition to what is basically the same “roam and collect stuff” gameplay from the original games, and you stand to face a greater number of unexpected game overs, but it really makes KQ3 something noteworthy. If nothing else, I was sitting up and taking notice here far more than I ever was in the previous two, and if you’re busted then it’s just a matter of loading your last save. You did remember to save, right?

Artistically, little has changed. This is still the AGI interpreter with simple graphics and fantasy settings. Manannan’s house looks unique to this game, with designed rooms and colorful decorations. The town and its buildings have a slightly different style to them as well. Many of the outdoor areas share the painful “sameness” present in all the previous games, though you do get some new desert areas (with a rushing waterfall one screen away…). You don’t spend quite as much time outside in this game, but trees and meadows still make up a majority of the screens, and they’re still the series’ weakest areas. Some new PC speaker effects show up, most especially for the spells and their effects, but sound remains limited and primitive.

The game also continues to rely a little too much on its artwork. “Look” commands give some text clues, but many screens still expect you to see an item within them and start inquiring about it. I’m sorry, but I’m not seeing the collection of three pixels not separated from the background as a knife hanging in a rack. Without text clues to tell you that there’s a knife in the room, you’re going to have to be eagle-eyed or lucky. Or go into a room and start typing names of themed items you need while hoping for the best. I quickly got tired of seeing “You can’t see it.” or “What’s a ____?”

Don’t worry, there were still some fairy tales left over from the previous two games.

The interface remains the same with the exception of adding an optional timer along the status bar. You can use this to watch patterns in Manannan’s departures and arrivals. The original release has him sticking to a pretty regular, regimented schedule, making it much easier to figure out how long you can stay out. In the new WinXP King’s Quest Collection, they seem to have randomized this a bit. His times did not match those listed in a walkthrough I picked up, and didn’t match across different games. You’ll still get the windows, you just won’t be able to track and anticipate them with absolute confidence. I kind of like this. I supposed the proliferation of walkthroughs in the Internet-based world made the timing of his journeys a little too obvious, which drifted away from the whole idea of rushing around before he came back and caught you. Making this less predictable brings the whole point of having this feature back into focus.

I see King’s Quest III as the start of the maturity of the series. The storybook lands and interactive fairy tale adventures of the first two are somewhat charming, but this is the first time Roberta and crew actually put a story together. Having it reinforced by gameplay mechanics is a master stroke. While it doesn’t try to be bigger than its technology can handle, it’s admittedly an early and limited engine that gets more frustrating as greater pressures get put on you. Arguing with the parser over semantics when you’re minutes away from a game over can easily sour just about anyone. It’s also going to take a few months of saving and loading to beat it without outside help. Still, moving the focus away from the graphics and back onto the story and game is unquestionably a great step for this series.

 

The Good

Time limits add some thrills to an otherwise stale formula. Knowing the items you’re to find makes the search a little less frustrating. Has a real story this time.

The Bad

Parser is still stubborn. Still a little too reliant on having the player “see” items inside the undetailed graphics. Still basically the same item hunt as the last two.

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