I took our 5-year-old daughter to see Pixar's Inside Out a week ago. I wish we had been able to play the new King's Quest together instead. Like Inside Out, the new King's Quest is close to a perfect piece of family entertainment. Unlike Inside Out, it would be far less likely to turn a thoughtful, introspective child into a blubbering emotional ruin.
To be fair, King's Quest would probably be over my 5-year-old's head, and it has at least one moment that might be too intense or too sad for her. But this is the kind of video game I imagined we would be playing in the 21st century when I was 11 years old, a beautiful and funny interactive cartoon. It's as if The Princess Bride and Dragon's Lair had a baby that grew up to become the first episode in a five-part adventure-game series.
In the 1980s, the original King's Quest games, a long-running series from Sierra Entertainment, were literally the objects of my childhood fantasizing. We didn't own a computer that could play them and so I would only see them in glimpses while at a friend's house. So nostalgia is only a tiny piece of why I find the reimagined King's Quest, from the small studio The Odd Gentlemen, so terrific.
Having never played much King's Quest, I am unmoved by the fact that "A Knight to Remember," the first episode, involves Graham, the central character of the series, or that it begins with him capturing a magic mirror from a dragon after descending into a well, a sequence that has been reinterpreted from 1983's King's Quest. Devoted fans will surely enjoy these touches, but new players like me will be delighted, too.
The episode is structured as a story within a story, with an ageing King Graham telling tales of his derring-do to his granddaughter, Gwendolyn. The longest of these in "A Knight to Remember" is about a tournament that Graham enters to become a knight. King Graham's narration of the action is not quite Bastion-esque, but he will, when the player makes a wrong choice, say things like, "And that's what would have happened if I had pulled the left switch."
I played on PC using an Xbox One controller. The left stick moves Graham through space, the X button pulls up his inventory, and the A button directs him to interact with objects or to begin a conversation. That's about it. (There is no control of the camera with the right stick.) There are some dialogue choices in the game, but mostly you explore, collect items, and then use the items on the environment. If you select the wrong item to interact with an object, Gwendolyn might interrupt King Graham to eagerly volunteer the bad idea, saying, "And that's when you chopped down the tree full of angry bees?" I was rarely reduced to experimenting with random items, and was never stuck. This is an easy game.
Even so, there are different paths for young Graham to take with certain puzzles, and some characters will praise him for using his wits, while others prefer kindness or physical bravery.
At times, however, the story seemed to unspool with unnecessary linearity, as puzzles I discovered had to wait to be solved until I succeeded elsewhere in the game. Some of the quick-time events and twitch-based interactions are dull. The writing is superior, as is the animation and the first-rate acting, including performances by Christopher Lloyd and Wallace Shawn.
The characters are both well-written and well drawn -- or, rather, well-hand-painted, and the story managed to surprise me. There were moments in this game that I laughed out loud, and others when I was unexpectedly moved by a character's fate.
The dialogue is charming, assuming you have a high tolerance for puns like "Nobody likes a late knight." At one point, two characters say they don't read fortunes anymore because "there's no future in it."
The game loses its way, slightly, in the final sequences, with a puzzle that is close to guesswork and a final challenge that I found a little tedious. In a game this good, that's easy to forgive. With a start like "A Knight to Remember," King's Quest has a chance to become one of the very best entries in the episodic adventure-game renaissance that began with Telltale's Walking Dead series.
"A Knight to Remember," the first King's Quest episode, was released Tuesday for PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Xbox One, and Xbox 360.