Thursday 29 December 2011

Game 5: King's Quest III - Adventure Line of Sight

Gwydion Journal Entry 1: "That’s it! I’ve had it with this evil wizard Mannannanan...Manannaaana...oh I can never spell his name! I feel like I’m destined for greater things than being an errand boy for an unappreciative bastard. I completed all of my chores today so as not to gain his suspicion, and as soon as he went on one of his “journeys”, I started snooping around this joint to see what I could find. I’m pretty sure he’d come after me if I just walked off into Llewdor, so I need to find some way to make sure you-know-who can’t ever find me again. During the twenty minutes he was away, I’ve managed to find all sorts items, most of which seem completely useless. At least they did before I discovered the wizard’s laboratory, including a book of spells that happen to require pretty much everything I’ve picked up. I found even more of the necessary items on my first brave venture outside and I have to say, this magic map will certainly come in handy when travelling around. Anyway, he’ll be back any second, so I better go hide all this stuff under my bed..."

After an hour and a half of playing King’s Quest III, I’ve pretty much completed the therapeutic treasure hunting that kicks off all the classic Sierra adventure games. I’ve got around 70 points out of 210 in the process, and have collected almost all the ingredients needed to cast the numerous spells found in the manual. If this rundown makes it sound like I’m breezing through the game due to my past experience with it, well I guess that’s certainly true. It has however become very clear to me that this initial part of the game would be pretty darn challenging for first time players, as it would have been for me all those years ago. There were a couple of items that I had a lot of trouble locating, even though I was pretty sure I knew exactly where they were, in particular the magic map and the key to Manannan’s cabinet.

I'm feeling quite good actually, thanks for asking!

(I try not to give too many direct spoilers in this blog, but to explain the issue here I really need to go into detail. Skip this paragraph and the next if you plan on playing the game some time.) Both of these items are found in Manannan’s bedroom, but the text parser makes finding them more challenging than it might have been. “Open the closet” and type “look in closet” and you get the response “You see voluminous velvet robes, satin slippers, peaked hats, and soft linen gowns.” Trying to retrieve any of these items results in “It’s of no use”, which it’s safe to say would send many an adventurer off looking elsewhere for required items. The solution is to “move the robes” which reveals the magic map, but given this item is not required to complete the game, I guess the developers can be forgiven for the difficulty here.

Right, well I guess there's absolutely nothing on the closet.

The brass key is a different matter however, as the game simply can’t be finished without it. I was pretty certain the key was on the top of the closet, but every time I entered “look on closet” I was met with “The closet is fashioned of ornately carved mahogany” and nothing more. Understandably I began to doubt myself and after trying various different ways to locate the key on the closet, I gave up and spent around twenty minutes scouring every other part of the house trying to find it. When that failed I went back to the bedroom and typed the command again, only to get the response “The closet is fashioned of ornately carved mahogany. There may be something metallic on its top.” It turns out you have to be standing a fair distance away from the closet when you type “look on closet”, otherwise you won’t see anything. That’s just not cool and I have to wonder how many players have simply failed to find the key, particularly given I had so much trouble despite knowing exactly where it was.

Since when did physics become so important in King's Quest?!

Anyway, after complaining about the harsh time limit that made Déjà Vu more challenging than it should have been, I’ve moved straight onto another adventure game where time plays a role. Thankfully it’s not so much a time limit this time around (although I assume you do actually need to get rid of Manannan before running out of food to give him when he’s hungry) and acts more as a timekeeper to help you keep track of how much time you have to cause mischief while Manannan is away or sleeping. If he catches you being away from the house or with any spell related items on your person he will kill you immediately, so the timer tells you when you need to get back to the house and hide your items. Of course, you’re never informed of exactly how long you have, so trial and error is the only way to figure things out. It gives King’s Quest III a unique component and after the initial confusion that it causes, works pretty well.

Let's hope that bloody cat doesn't have a way of communicating.

Otherwise it’s business as usual! The game looks and feels just like the first two, has the same positives (addictive mystery, charming fantasy setting and humorous trimmings) and negatives (climbing stairs is still a nightmare and I can’t believe that once again you have to go in and out of a particular house continuously until the occupant is either not there or asleep to progress), and as expected I’m enjoying it despite all the flaws. There’s just something so compelling and light-hearted about the King’s Quest series that makes you want to forgive it for all the pain it causes you. Well, I’m ready to head down into Manannan’s laboratory and start casting spells. I can’t really remember exactly where I’m supposed to use them all or what happens at the end of the game, but I assume I should be able to get there within another hour or two. I’ll meet you back at Daventry! If I’m not there tomorrow, just wait longer!

Many hours of my youth were wasted in this lab, trying to cast spells without the manual.

Tuesday 27 December 2011

Game 5: King's Quest III - Introduction

It's 3 out of 5 games for Sierra and I have a feeling the ratio is only going to increase in the shortterm.

Déjà Vu was a challenging and fresh experience for me, but the fifth game on the list takes me back to the nostalgic and familiar King’s Quest series. This time it’s the third game in the series, King’s Quest III: To Heir is Human, which was released in 1986. It’s the last King’s Quest game that I’ve played (and completed) previously, with around a decade passing between first playing the game as a young boy and completing it as an adult. The holdup wasn’t due to it being extraordinarily difficult, although it is quite a challenging adventure game. Instead, it was caused by Sierra’s sneaky copy protection scheme, which in hindsight caused me to waste many hours of my childhood trying to achieve the impossible. You see King’s Quest III was the first Sierra game that required information that was only available in the manual, and since I was playing a pirated copy (The Adventure Gamer does not encourage pirating games, but let’s just say I played just about every Amiga game ever made as a kid), I didn’t have this available to me. After purchasing the game many years later I was eventually able to make sense of my original failure.

I really could have used this information when I was about 11!

After the success of King’s Quest I and II, Roberta Williams understandably got a very similar team of developers together to produce the third game in the series. One notable change was that Al Lowe stepped up from only handling music on King’s Quest II to a Lead Programmer on King’s Quest III. The experience he gained on this project undoubtedly gave him the knowledge and confidence to produce the Leisure Suit Larry series a year later, but that’s another story. Speaking of stories, the game moves away from Daventry and the exploits of King Graham and instead takes place in the land of Llewdor. A nasty wizard named Manannan has been kidnapping young males from surrounding areas to become his slaves. He gets these boys to do his bidding, but as soon as they show any sort of reluctance or signs of rebellion, he simply kills them. He soon realised that all of his captives would dream of freedom by the time they reached manhood and so any that made it to their eighteenth birthday would be turned to ash regardless. Manannan’s latest slave goes by the name Gwydion, a seventeen year old from Daventry, and it’s the players task to escape from the wizard and find a way home.

Manannan do dooo do do do, Manannan do do do do...

Interestingly, the apparent departure from Daventry and absence of King Graham led many critics and fans of the series to immediately criticise Roberta for ignoring the series’ history. How those fans must have wanted to swallow their words if they ever played the game through to completion, as there’s actually a very strong connection. There’s no doubt though that the shift would be off-putting for anyone coming in with expectations based on the story and characters of the first two games. Once again I’ll be playing through the original game, albeit the slightly improved version that uses the AGI V3 engine that was released in 1987, and not either of the unofficial fan remakes that are out there. If my recent experiences with King’s Quest I and II are anything to go by, I imagine a lot of the part III is still holding residence in my brain along with the theme song for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the names of all the streets of Monopoly. I recall the first part of the game being based in real time and having to do things at certain times, so we’ll see how much my foggy memories can help me out with that. It’s time to kick some wizard butt!

The original box artwork for King's Quest III

Friday 23 December 2011

Game 4: Déjà Vu - Final Rating

You’ve probably gathered by now that Déjà Vu is unlikely to head the leader board after getting the PISSED treatment. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy the game at all, only that technical aspects get in the way of what was otherwise an entertaining and absorbing experience. Let’s see how much these negatives affect the final rating.

Puzzles and Solvability
This is actually a difficult aspect of Déjà Vu to rate. On the one hand, the puzzles are really quite logical and the use of well known detective techniques often does the trick. For example, finding a notepad and rubbing pencil across it to see what was written on the last sheet removed, or shooting the lock on a cabinet when no key is available. Most of the game revolves around following one clue to the next one, trying to find a cure to your condition while gradually piecing together the story while you’re at it. Unfortunately, as logical and enjoyable as the puzzles might be, the unnecessarily ruthless time limit, the clunky interface and the poor graphics hinder your progress, making what might be fairly straightforward tasks rather difficult. Since most of those elements have their own rating in the PISSED system, I won’t be too harsh on this one. I’m going with 5.

Locked hey!? Well we'll see about that! BAM!!!

Interface and Inventory
There’s absolutely no doubt that Déjà Vu was groundbreaking in its use of both interface and inventory, but any praise it should get for its achievements is negated by just how clunky it is. I'll start with inventory. Being able to drag and drop items from the game environment into an inventory was novel, as was the ability to select multiple items at once (coins for example) and “operate” them all at once. However, the limited space within each container, whether it be a basket, a wallet, a jacket, or anything else you pick up along the way, means you have to hold items within items within items, resulting in multiple inventories with no easy way to move objects between them or view everything at once. I found it frustrating early on and the games tendency to give you items that you don’t actually require (you don’t know that of course) makes things get ugly very quickly.

Déjà Vu - For those occasions when one crappy inventory isn't enough!

Déjà Vu was also the first PC graphic adventure game to have a first person viewpoint, after Sierra’s Quest games had to this point used a third person perspective.  Being in first person was ideal for this game, as it allowed all attention to focus on finding items and clues in the otherwise static environment. The point and click control was also pioneering, but as I mentioned in an earlier post, needed quite a bit of work before it would become the norm for the genre at large.  I struggled all the way through the game with the counter intuitive order of having to click the action you wanted prior to the item to want to act upon. I should however take back my criticism around the text parser as it turns out it’s only needed when telling cab drivers addresses or entering combinations into safes and cabinets. Other than these moments, which make total sense, I was never required to type a specific command to someone to gain otherwise unknown information. All up, while the game was unquestionably pioneering in all aspects of this category, I have to give it a 3.

The first person viewpoint means you focus on investigation, which is exactly what is needed.

Story and Setting
The story of Déjà Vu is typical of 1940s based hard-boiled detective novels and movies with amnesia thrown in to add to the intrigue. I admit that I’m not particularly excited by that type of thing, but can appreciate a well told mystery from time to time. There is a decent plot to be found here, but the reasonably non linear way that the story is revealed can lead to serious confusion. That being said, if you consider that the character you’re playing is utterly confused by the situation he finds himself in, having to piece together what the hell is going on for the majority of the game makes total sense. I admit I had to read over all the notes, diaries and invoices I’d collected quite a few times before things started to make any sort of sense, but I was only given the freedom to do that once the time limit was removed three quarters through. It’s a 6 from me.

Rather fittingly, I couldn't put all the pieces together until my character got his memory back.

Sound and Graphics
Where to start!? I don’t know whether the sound is not playing correctly through DOSBox or whether it’s just awful, but the majority of the effects sound like a combination of a toilet flushing and speaker feedback. Thankfully there’s not much of it, so I eventually listened to music instead. The graphics fair better, but DOS users got the raw end of the deal quite frankly. Comparing the sickly blues and pinks of the DOS version to the colourful Amiga, NES and C64 versions, it’s clear that the technical limitations of the PC at the time got in the way of the game’s vision. This is a little surprising however, given that the DOS port wasn’t created until 1987, at which point I would have thought things would have moved on from four coloured CGA. I have no choice here other than to give the game a lowly 2 for Sound and Graphics.

Even death looked attractive in the Windows 3.1 version!

Environment and Atmosphere
1941 Chicago isn’t exactly entirely reproduced for this noir mystery, but at least the environment feels gritty and downright dangerous. From filthy toilet cubicles and sewers right through to grand estates and swanky apartments, it all fits the time and the tale. The language found throughout the game also adds a great deal of atmosphere, with many of the text based clues given that gangster American flair, and I have to admit that the time limit I’ve whinged about certainly gives the whole thing a level of urgency that wouldn’t be there otherwise. If only the graphics and sound could have been more effective, this category would have been given a higher rating. As it is, I’ll have to settle for a 5.

The new paint job didn't attract the buyers Mr Sternwood expected.

Dialogue and Acting
While we’re still a long way from two-way conversations, not to mention acting, being introduced to adventure games, the genre itself evolved out of interactive fiction where description is everything. Déjà Vu plays very much like interactive fiction, only with a basic graphic interface that allows you to manipulate objects rather than typing in commands. There’s a lot of text to read as can be seen by checking out the screenshots in this blog, and for the most part it’s really very good. I’ve mentioned the graphic descriptions used for the various ways you can die and how they sit on the fence between vulgar and humorous, but the majority of the writing fits the tone, is of professional quality, and uses humour to great effect. This would have the be one of the games strongest points, so I’m giving it a 6.

It's hard not to smile at quality lines like this one.

So it's a 45 for Déjà Vu, which is the lowest score so far. That seems fitting to be honest as I definitely enjoyed the other three games more, despite the groundbreaking features. I only hope that there's some improvement in the graphics, sound and interface for the other ICOM adventures, particularly as I'll be playing Uninvited in around five games time. The supernatural theme of that game seems more up my alley, so I still hold some hope of getting something positive out of it.

Thursday 22 December 2011

Game 4: Déjà Vu - Won!

I’ve conquered Déjà Vu, but not without facing numerous frustrating moments of having no idea what it was I was meant to do next. Normally when getting stuck in adventure games, finding that next item / solution / clue means everything else falls into place, at least for a while. Not the case with Déjà Vu I’m afraid. I’d finally figure out how to gain entrance to a particular area, only for the feelings of excitement and triumph to dissipate once the items I subsequently discovered there really didn’t seem all that useful in progressing elsewhere. Thankfully I was able to cure my brain-cell melting condition once I gained access to Doctor Brodies’ office, meaning I no longer had a time limit to worry about. Once that element of the game was removed, I was able to spend as much time as I wanted organising my inventory and fully investigating every single area in the game. So much of the game is solved by examining everything and applying detective techniques, so feeling rushed isn't conducive to success.

A E F M C I P't tell me...T...L?

Unfortunately, the time limit challenge was merely replaced by a monetary one, and I spent the last couple of hours of the game getting a taxi to a location (and therefore spending another three quarters) to see if there was anything I’d missed there, only to reload back to the taxi if I didn’t find anything. I’d hoped that I would be able to go back to the casino and win another bunch of quarters, but my efforts only resulted in lost money. In the end I finished with no quarters left and I’d given the last two taxi drivers twenty dollar notes to find they gave no change! Let’s just say that I was more than a little relieved to finish the game at this point as having to start again just to manage my funds better on the way through was not very appealing. Some would say that modern adventure games are too easy, with no way of dying and no way of getting in a position where the game is not able to be completed, but playing an old game where both of these are regular occurrences clearly shows why the genre had to evolve the way it did.

A $19.25 tip for a 75 cent trip! You bastard!

One unexpected positive to come out of the game was the way getting my memory back played out. Immediately after stopping the degradation of my brain functions, memories started to come back to me fairly rapidly. Some of these memories were just random events from my childhood, but others reveal pieces of what happened leading up to me being captured and drugged. Not only that, but re-examining items in my inventory uncovered new information that I simply couldn’t remember while affected by the drugs. It’s a plot revealing technique that would only work in a game based around amnesia obviously, but I have to say it was a pretty satisfying one. The only downside to the way it’s handled in Déjà Vu is that the piecemeal way the story is revealed left me confused and at times feeling pretty stupid. It eventually all came together, but I generally struggled to figure out what role each character had played in the plot and how on earth I came to be involved in the first place. I actually thought I might have been the killer for a while! Finding a note here or there merely added to the confusion, but I guess that’s the sign of a good puzzle based thriller rather than a bad one.

It's actually quite refreshing that the character you play in Déjà Vu has some serious flaws

Another major plus is that I did get to give the “nice looking lady” the punishment she deserved, and the solution (punching her in the face!) was available to me all along. Doing so only gave me some more useless items to fill my inventory with, but it sure felt good. In the end, I’m thrilled to have finished Déjà Vu! It was the most challenging of the games on the list so far (Below the Root was not too far behind) and while there are many things I found frustrating about it (which I’ll mention in detail when I apply a PISSED rating to it tomorrow), I found myself eager to solve the mystery and put all the pieces of the puzzle together. I’m almost certain the experience would have been more agreeable had I been playing the Windows 3.1 remake, as the improved visuals and sound would not only have been easier on the senses, they would have had a positive impact on the gameplay also. Anyway, I have my certificate from The Ace Harding School of Investigation and it’s a reward I feel very satisfied to have earned.

Straight to the pool room!

Tuesday 20 December 2011

Game 4: Déjà Vu - Death Comes in Pink and Blue

I can now categorically say that Déjà Vu is a challenging game made more difficult by unreasonable time limitations. I’m gradually getting one step further before dying from whatever it is I’ve been injected with, at which point I reload (or start the game again if I think I can do things a better way) and try to get back to that point as fast as humanly possible. This harsh time limit, as well as the way the game is constantly reminding me that the cops are right on my tail, is basically causing me to rush and panic through scenes rather than investigating things properly the way I’d like to. The CGA pixel hunting is without question the main source of frustration though, as items are all but invisible in the highly pixelated shades of pink and blue. Since I last posted, I’ve gone through each screen like a fine comb, trying to find any small items that evaded my attention the first time around. I’ve found a few too which makes me wonder what else I’m still not seeing!

I might have seen the earring on the top of the toilet if it looked like an earring.

As if these aspects of the game weren’t difficult enough, death is seemingly around every corner anyway. Go too far down the street and you fall to your death at a worksite with no warning. Every time I run into the “nice looking lady”, no matter what I try to do, she shoots me point blank. This isn’t really a game that you can use careful, logical thinking, and make it through unscathed. It’s a game where you learn harsh lessons, reload, and through trial and error, make progress one step at a time. There was one other issue that I was all set to complain about, and that’s cash. I was running out of funds really quickly, and given that you need to pay cab drivers constantly, I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how I was going to get any further. Thankfully, I’ve just figured out that you can gamble at the casino and within a couple of goes on the pokies will win enough to not have to worry about it for a while.

No-one questioned the guy walking down the street with a bin filled with quarters.

Déjà Vu doesn’t appear to contain any profanity (at least I haven’t come across any yet), but it doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to descriptions and graphically recounting the many ways you can die. Sometimes it’s fairly humorous stuff such as “You’re in a swanky penthouse pad. One look, and you instantly feel that the owner of this place deserves to be shot.” Other times it borders on tasteless, with my personal favourite being “the blood begins to fill your lungs and overflow out of your mouth and nostrils. You realise with horror that you will be found dead without a proper change of underwear”. The nasty tone certainly fits the harshness of the world you’re in though, so this is not a complaint, merely an observation. I’m actually looking forward to discovering a way to pump that “nice looking lady” full of lead!

Yes, I imagine that's the first thing that will run through my mind the day I'm shot in the chest.

I’ve still got a couple of leads to go on in my next session, so I don’t have that horrible feeling that you get when you know you’re in for a frustrating time next time you press play. There are currently two doors that I haven’t been able to find keys for and I’m really hoping that a cure for my condition is behind one of them (Doctor Brodie’s office). If I can’t find a solution to the time limit problem soon, I’m likely to start using a bit of profanity of my own, so the language of my next post will probably give you the answer. It probably sounds overly pedantic, but I’m sure I’d find more enjoyment in Déjà Vu if I only had time to sort my inventory in a logical way. If I even try to put all my coins in my wallet, the game will punish me by telling me my condition has deteriorated further and I’d better do something quick before I become a vegetable. OK…a few deep breaths…I’m going to crack this bad boy!

I was kind of hoping to find a box full of keys. What am I going to do with a dead fat lady?

Monday 19 December 2011

Game 4: Déjà Vu - Amnesia and Alligators

Déjà Vu begins with the main character (the player) not remembering who they are, or how they came to be where they are currently located. In this case that location is a seedy toilet cubicle, and your character has a large bump on his head and an apparent needle mark on his arm, suggesting foul play. Strangely, you still pack a loaded .38 revolver, some cash in a wallet (that sadly doesn’t contain a license), a key with the word Office on it, and various other bits and pieces. The only indication of who you might be is the initials J.S. that appear on a few items. It’s a suitably mysterious opening to what is clearly a noir-influenced adventure game and one that immediately has you looking for any clue you can find just to figure out who you are. That quest is quickly given more urgency once you realise the clock is ticking, as your condition deteriorates fairly rapidly due to whatever drug you’ve been injected with.

Who am I? And why do I have pink and blue makeup on!?

It’s a good premise, and after playing the game for just over an hour so far, it’s clear that there’s a lot more intrigue and mystery to come. After exiting the bathroom, I’ve now made the gruesome discovery of a dead body in the office block, found a room with what appears to be a restraining chair and evidence of injection materials, and followed a few loose leads that I’ve discovered on notes and cards. I’ve come up with more questions than I have answers and have died multiple times, including being shot by a mugger, blown up by a car bomb, and most surprisingly, attacked by an alligator. Successfully gaining access to new areas and finding pieces of evidence regarding who I am is really satisfying, and bit by bit I’m progressing further and further into the story. But, despite how intriguing and well crafted the plot of Déjà Vu is, there are numerous issues that are making playing this game somewhat challenging.

As if traversing the sewers wasn't bad enough, now there's frickin alligators down there!!??

First, and most obviously, the graphics are really quite crappy. Yes, they have the same four colour palette that I was subjected to in Below the Root, but given a fair amount of Déjà Vu revolves around discovering items in static images, it’s far more detrimental to the experience. Having only played the game a short period, I can’t yet tell whether or not I’m missing items through lack of visibility, but CGA pixel hunting doesn’t sound like much fun to me. Secondly, the interface is clunky as, with the inventory in particular making the collection of evidence a chore rather than a pleasure. You store objects by dragging and dropping them into the inventory, but there’s no slot system to speak of, so you can drop them anywhere you want. This means items sit on top of each other in what is a very small window, making it difficult to find what you’re after. The space restrictions are lessened by the ability to store items within other items, such as your jacket, wallet and bins, but once you’ve got items spread throughout numerous “containers”, the item sourcing problem is only exacerbated.

I really don't look forward to a time when I need to find an item quickly amongst multiple inventories.

Removing the text parser, that had been part and parcel of adventure games to this point (and into the future for companies such as Sierra), was indeed pioneering and deserving of commendation. As the first true “point and click” adventure game, Déjà Vu contains a similar interface to the one that LucasArts would use for their SCUMM based adventure games such as Maniac Mansion, Secret of Monkey Island and Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. Unfortunately they didn’t get it exactly right on their first attempt, and I’ve found myself regularly struggling to get it to do precisely what I what it to do. The main issue is that you have to click on a command (such as Examine, Open and Operate) before clicking on an item, and if you try to do it the other way around, nothing happens. I don’t know how many times I’ve selected an object on screen and, after realising it’s something I can get more details about, clicked on Examine, only to find that now I’ve merely selected Examine and need to re-click on the object. It doesn’t sound like a big thing, but it’s these sorts of things that make interfaces feel counter-intuitive.

The game is unforgiving enough without having to deal with the interface.

It’s also worth mentioning that despite ICOM taking the text parser out of adventure gaming, there are a few times during the game that I’ve had to type in what I’d like to say to a character. Fine you say, just use the skills you’ve gained through playing the likes of King’s Quest, but with no basis for knowing how the text parser might work, it’s difficult to know what language it’s looking for. It’s fine when I get in a cab and he asks me where I want to go, as giving him an address is an obvious response. But when you’re confronted with a paperboy and an empty text box, it’s hardly apparent what it is I’m supposed to say (no, “buy paper” didn’t work). This aspect of the genre would eventually be replaced by dialogue branching, with the game giving the player a few pre-defined options of things to say, and that’s something ICOM could have made excellent use of in Déjà Vu.

Um...hello? Buy paper? Do you know who I am? Can you tell me how this text parser works?

Ignoring all of these interface issues, probably my biggest concern with the game right now is the time limit. It seems that my condition deteriorates even when I’m not doing anything, and given I’m having to check every room thoroughly on my first play-through, I’m finding my character very close to death before I’ve really achieved anything at all. I’m yet to know whether there’s a point in the game where the time limit no longer applies (perhaps I can get medical attention?), but if not, Déjà Vu is either a very short game or playing it through DOSBox is causing time to pass much quicker than it should, thereby making it impossible to finish. I’m hoping the former (unless there's a cure, in which case I welcome more plot development)! Of course all of this is made much worse by the fact I’m trying to blog my experience, as my character goes downhill while I take screenshots, fill in my map, and write notes on my progress. I think I’ll be restarting Déjà Vu many times during the next few days, quickly completing everything I know of and then saving my game (with a filename starting with A,B or C of course). Only time will tell whether I’ll actually be able to complete the game, unless someone out there can at least inform me of that?

Everyone loves an antidote red herring!

Friday 16 December 2011

Game 4: Déjà Vu - Introduction

I haven't even started playing yet, but the nightmare has well and truly begun.

After rapidly playing through two games that I’d completed previously, I’m very excited to tackle something challenging. Game 4 on the list is one I’ve never played, and in fact knew very little about until today. It’s full title is Déjà Vu: A Nightmare Comes True!!, and it was developed by a company called ICOM in 1985.  ICOM  Simulations was founded in 1983 in Wheeling, Illinois, and is best known for their MacVenture series of adventure games, of which Déjà Vu is the first. As the MacVenture title suggests, the series was created initially for Macintosh computers, before being ported to numerous other platforms later. The games are the first to be considered “point and click” adventures, which is no small achievement, especially given how successful other games of the subgenre (by companies such as LucasArts) would be in the years following. There were four MacVenture games in total, being Déjà Vu (1985), Uninvited (1986), Shadowgate (1987) and Déjà Vu II: Lost in Las Vegas (1988).

The original Macintosh version of the game

There are actually two versions of Déjà Vu released for PC. The first one was developed for DOS in 1987, while the second was developed for Windows 3.1 in 1991. The screenshots I’ve seen leave no doubt that the 1991 version is far prettier to look at, but since this blog follows the development of adventure games chronologically, it makes much more sense for me to play to DOS version. Unfortunately, from what I can see, the one I’ll be playing looks to be the ugliest of all the ports, but you get that. I’ve also read that the new graphics produced for the 1991 version don’t always adhere to the matching text descriptions (which were left unchanged), resulting in some confusion for players. Just as with Below the Root, I found Déjà Vu very quickly by Googling “déjà vu dosbox download”. I’ve also found the manual in text form here, although it’s clearly meant for the original Macintosh version.

The much prettier Windows 3.1 version which I will unfortunately not be playing.

Before I begin writing any posts for a game, I obviously want to make sure I’m going to be able to successfully play it. I’d had so little trouble running the first three games on the list that it actually came as a surprise when I ran into problems testing Déjà Vu. I’ve been using the latest version of DOSBox, which is version 0.74, up until now. I start games in it by dragging the game executable and dropping it on the DOSBox shortcut on my desktop, and this has worked fine for the likes of Below the Root. I started Déjà Vu using the same technique and everything looked great. I could even play the game successfully for a while, but ran into trouble the moment I tried to save my progress. Clicking Save brought up a screen asking me whether I wanted to save to the A: drive, or a different path, but whatever I clicked the game would simply lock up. After Googling the issue, I came across others having the same problem, and then discovered that the game only works in DOSBox 0.60.

The DOS version box cover.

So, I downloaded DOSBox 0.60, started the game and tried to save. If I tried to save the game to the A: drive, I’d get a Stack Overflow error, so I tried to change the path to the E: drive (my memory stick that contains the game files), only for the game to freeze up again. It was then that I read on a website that the game files need to be stored on the C drive for the game to work properly. I moved the Déjà Vu folder to the C drive, started up the game again, and this time I was able to save my game successfully. Unfortunately, as soon as I tried to restore, I received a message that there were no files available to restore. I could see my save file in the Déjà Vu game folder, but the game wouldn’t recognise it. After an hour of messing around and trying to run the game various different ways, I saved my game with the name “crap” and found I could restore it. A little while later I figured out that the restore process is only looking at the first file in the game folder. If that file happens to be a save file then it’s available to restore (a throwback to dedicated save game floppy disks I guess). Since my save files are appearing in the game folder, anything beginning alphabetically after DEJAGAME.D simply wasn’t being picked up. So, the game works fine once you know to use DOSBox 0.60, have the game folder on the C drive, and save your games beginning with A, B or C. I’m ready to go now!

Never have I been so happy to see crap!

Tuesday 13 December 2011

Game 3: King's Quest II - Final Rating

It’s time to apply the PISSED rating system again, this time to King’s Quest II: Romancing the Throne. I’ll say straight off that I’d be surprised if it doesn’t rate higher than the first game, but I’m still getting  used to this system and am not really sure what to expect. Time will tell whether the scores it produces match my general feeling towards games. Right, let’s do this...

Puzzles and Solvability
The puzzles in King’s Quest II are once again based around discovering items that are loosely hidden around the place and then figuring out how to apply them to certain situations. Where things are different this time around is that the game is more linear, and as a result there are far less opportunities (if any!) to get stuck in a location without any way to pass it. If you’ve made it into the mountains, then you must already have the oil lamp, which is all that’s needed to progress. If you’ve got to the tower where Valanice is located, then you must have at least one way to pass the lion, whether it’s through brains or brawn. With this in mind, there are multiple solutions for many of the puzzles in the game. In all of these cases, the path you choose makes no difference to the outcome of the game, but it does affect the points you receive for it.

Opening sections of the game after completing a certain task was a big step in adventure gaming!

Interestingly, the more violent the solution you perform, the less points you receive for it, which from what I’ve seen so far, is a feature of the series as a whole (I haven’t played past part III). There’s one particular puzzle that I managed to solve the non-violent way without having any real clue as to how I could have figured it out without purposely trying not to be violent. I knew that killing the snake with the sword would probably not achieve maximum points, so I tried throwing the bridle at it (the only other item I received in that area). Without going into too much detail, it worked! This doesn’t rate highly on my solvable scale and is probably the only case in the game of a puzzle solution that isn’t particularly logical (the boatman puzzle could almost fit here I guess). All up, there are definite improvements in the way puzzles are handled, that not only made part II better than part I, but also made their way into the genre as a whole. It’s a 7!

In respect of Chris de Burgh, I ain't paying you until you get me to the other side.

Interface and Inventory
The inventory works the same way it did in King’s Quest I, which is easy to use, so no qualms there. The interface is also very similar; with the two changes I mentioned in an earlier post (the new more suitable speed option and the ability to get a summary of your surroundings by typing “look”) being the obvious improvements. The issues with the parser limitations are still there, as is the immense difficulty in climbing stairs due to the simulated depth perspective giving you absolutely no room for error. Thankfully there are fewer sections that require dexterity, so this latter frustration isn’t as much of an issue. Overall, I feel it’s appropriate to give Interface and Inventory two points more than last time, making it a 5.

I deserve such a reward for being forced to climb another set of steps with this depth perspective.

Story and Setting
As I made clear in my introduction post for the game, it’s easy to take the piss out of the Romancing the Throne story. It’s so filled with cliché that it’s either very bad writing or a Shrek-like parody of old school fairy tales. I’m assuming the latter, and the comedy that was injected in the game, albeit seemingly as an afterthought, probably proves that well enough. It’s the item collecting and puzzle solving that drove me to continue playing and certainly not the romantic urge to find the most beautiful woman in the kingdom, who was tragically locked in a tower guarded by a lion and whom most certainly would fall in love with King Graham on first sight, who was lonely due to no other woman being up to his high standards. I guess it’s slightly more satisfying than the “find three items and become king” quest of the first game, but only just. 5.

Was it now?! Thanks for letting me know.

Sound and Graphics
The sound in King’s Quest II still suffers from the inbuilt PC speaker sound that so horribly tarnished mid eighties games, but it’s a shame as the fourteen different tunes in the game (including Green Sleeves and the theme song to Romeo & Juliet) fit the content like a glove. Sound effects are just as minimal as they were in the first game and not worth discussing. Graphics were once again created by drawing the outline of objects and then filling them with colour, so the game world has a very comparable look to the first one, apart from the pretty awfully coloured landscape that Graham is confronted with after going through the doorway at the conclusion. I think I’ll stick with a 5 here, despite the slight improvements in music selection and character illustrations.

There's a signpost up ahead, your next stop is the twilight zone!

Environment and Atmosphere
While Kolyma does wrap around from north to south, the east and west landscape boundaries somehow give the world more presence. The King’s Quest Companion stupidly tries to explain why things are the way they are as follows: “For reasons forgotten, or perhaps it was whimsy on the part of the multiverse--movement to both the north and south in this part of Kolyma eventually turned back upon itself, contained as if inside some transparent cosmic donut. East and west, one could travel at will until confronted by more physical barriers--the sea or mountains for instance--but those that journeyed far enough north of south, would always get back to where they started.” Huh?! Transparent cosmic donut!? Anyway, Kolyma is another 49+ screens of suitably enchanting landscape, objects and characters, so I’ll settle for 6 again.

King Graham would go to any length to escape the transparent cosmic donut!

Dialogue and Acting
There are very few moments in King’s Quest II where someone actually speaks to you, and when they do it’s merely to ask something of you or to thank you for giving them something. The large majority of “dialogue” is really just narrative description of your surroundings and what’s going on in Graham’s near vicinity. It’s all simple stuff, filled with cliché (as expected) and entirely one way traffic, but it gets the job done. There are no real changes to the way the original handled this stuff, so a 4 it was and a 4 it will be.

He turned you into a venomous snake? I hope he received a Darwin Award for that effort!

King’s Quest II: Romancing the Throne comes in at 53 on the PISSED rating system, which just beats Below the Root to the top of the leader board. It’s a fun game that improved upon the original, even if it only slightly pushed the evolution of the genre forwards. It’s actually quite funny reading reviews today that were written back in 1985. It’s hard to believe how advanced this game really was for the time! I’ll leave you with a couple of quotes:

“The animated graphics are simply the best we have ever seen on a home computer.” – Computer Gaming World, June 1985

“I still can’t get over the graphics. The trees, buildings, lakes and ocean are all dimensionally correct.” – Antic, May 1986

Monday 12 December 2011

Game 3: King's Quest II - Won!

My prediction that I’d complete King’s Quest II in around another hour turned out to be correct. While there were a few sections I had no recollection of and had to put some thought into, most of it was fairly straight forward and I imagine wouldn’t pose too much trouble to experienced players. Probably the two most challenging parts were getting the boatman to take me across the lake to Dracula’s castle (he signals that he wants an item, but the solution doesn’t require giving him one), and figuring out what the hell I was supposed to do once I found Valanice. I spent no less than fifteen minutes standing in the tower next to Valanice wondering what it was I was supposed to say to her or what item I was supposed to give her to finish the game! I eventually fell back on studying each item I had in my possession for clues, which turned out to reveal what was required, but I felt a bit stupid there for a while. I had a bad feeling that in all my cockiness and eagerness to complete the game quickly, I’d totally missed an important item somewhere along the way. you come here often? Um...(whistles)

I’m not sure that I’ve ever finished a Sierra game with full points, and this would have to be the closest I’ve ever got. Finishing on 183 out of 185, I really had no idea on completion where those two points were that I missed. My first thought was that maybe it was possible to cross the bridge two more times (you get 1 point every time you successfully cross it), but a quick restore proved that wasn’t the case (it collapsed with Graham still on it). I resolved to check a walkthrough to see if I could figure out what it was I missed, and it turns out the only thing I didn’t do was cover the nightingale cage when removing it from Hagatha’s cave. I didn’t actually need to do that as Hagatha wasn’t home when I came to fetch it, but apparently you can still take the cage while she’s present if you cover it to avoid the nightingale making any noise. Regardless, I’m pretty happy with 183, and feel no need to go back and complete the game with full points, particularly as I cheated by reading the walkthrough.

No wedding would be complete without everyone that's ever tried to kill you in the audience!

Playing through the first two games in the series back to back has really given me a chance to discern the changes and improvements that occurred between I and II. I’ve already mentioned some of the interface changes that made the game more enjoyable to play, and how the second game’s story progresses in a more linear fashion, but one of the other additions in the sequel is comedy. Admittedly, the comedy is not really found within the story itself, but through various Easter eggs and random events that surprise the player from time to time. If you visit Hagatha’s cave enough times, you’ll eventually be confronted by the bat mobile driving around, backed by the batman theme music. The developers even programmed in a few plugs for their other games that the player can stumble upon occasionally, most tellingly a full blown trailer for Space Quest that bombards a confused Graham when he peers into the hole of a rock. This blatant marketing could perhaps be seen as being in bad taste, but it’s done in such a way that it’s really quite hilarious, and doesn’t at all seem out of place in the anything goes fantastical world of King’s Quest.

Na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na,, na, na, na, na, Batman!

It should be apparent by now that I enjoyed King’s Quest II quite a bit, but the truth is a lot of the problems with the first game are still present. Given the technology used to make it was almost identical, I guess that shouldn’t be all that surprising, but it can’t be ignored. I’ll save the pros and cons for my PISSED rating post tomorrow, but I’ll leave you with one particular puzzle that should give you a good idea of just how silly things are in the King’s Quest universe. On finally unlocking all three doors and walking through to a strangely coloured new world, the player finds themselves situated next to the water, with nowhere to go. The only item available is a fishing net, so it makes sense to throw the net in the water and see what happens. Lo and behold, you catch a large golden fish, which then flops around on the ground as if dying. You can try talking to it or picking it up, but the only thing to do is throw it back in the water. The fish is so happy with you for saving it, despite the fact that you ripped it from the water in the first place, that it offers you a ride across the water. That’s like robbing someone of their possessions, giving them back to them, and then having them offer you their thanks along with the aforementioned possessions as a gift!

I assume you're a giant goldfish and have already forgotten the bit where I nearly killed you!

Saturday 10 December 2011

Game 3: King's Quest II - Graham: Treasure Hunter

There’s something extremely comforting about starting these early Sierra games. I don’t know whether it’s just my slight obsessive compulsive disorder (which is what leads me to write a blog like this in the first place) that makes going from screen to screen trying to find hidden items so enjoyable, or whether this process is something the majority of gamers are attracted to. Either way, just as with King’s Quest I, I spent the first hour of the sequel mapping out the game world and adding as many items to my inventory as possible. The creators expanded the standard playing area by only one screen, with the grid being 7 x 7 this around rather than 8 x 6. The main difference is that the game only wraps around north and south, with the west blocked off by the ocean and the east by a tall mountain range. Graham starts his journey on the beach in the west, having apparently travelled to Kolyma in an undisclosed fashion (are we supposed to assume a boat?).

King Graham steps off his hover-rock to begin his quest

There are two interface improvements that are immediately noticeable when playing the game. Firstly, an extra speed option has been added to the menu system. King’s Quest I offered Slow, Normal and Fast, with the first two being unbearably slow, while the latter was unplayably swift. King’s Quest II offers Slow, Normal, Fast and Faster, and it turns out Fast is a perfect speed to play the game without having to wait for Graham to crawl from screen to screen. The second improvement is that the player can now get a fairly detailed overview of the area they’re in by typing “look”. No longer are you required to type in “look at tree”, “look at rock”, “look at painting” etc. attempting to figure out which items on each screen are worthy of attention. If an item isn’t mentioned in the description that comes up, then chances are it’s not relevant. This undoubtedly makes the game quicker to solve for first time players, but it allows you to focus on what’s important rather than concentrating on what’s not.

So chances are I need to do something with the soup and the trunk.

Gameplay itself is very similar to the first one. Most items can be found either sitting out in the open waiting to be picked up, or hidden in fairly obvious hollows such as stumps or mailboxes. There are certain individuals that can randomly appear on particular screens that should be avoided (Hagatha the witch will grab you and put you in a stew, the Dwarf will steal your items and hide them in his home) and a fairy (filling in for the fairy godmother of the first game) that enchants you, making you immune to the aforementioned baddies for a period of time. However, there is one important change in gameplay for King’s Quest II, which is that it has linear story progression. King’s Quest I allowed the player to go anywhere they wanted, even if they didn’t have an item necessary to complete the destination, resulting in instances where the game was not solvable. In King’s Quest II, there are certain areas that only open up once you’ve completed a certain task, such as the Antique Shop, King Neptune’s underwater kingdom, and Dracula’s castle. This is a welcome change and one that would make its way into future adventure games.

Yes, that's Graham in Hagatha's stew. No, that's not supposed to happen.

I’ve played the game for just over an hour, and I’m pretty sure I’ve collected everything there is to get without reading the first inscription on the magic door that hovers near the eastern mountains. One thing I do remember from last time I played the game is that you can only cross the bridge that leads to the door a finite amount of times before it collapses, so with that in mind I decided to complete as much as I can elsewhere before going across and setting the main quest wheels in motion. There’s no doubt that King’s Quest II is a better game than the first one in almost every respect, and it reminds me of just why I loved these games so much as a young boy. Once again I remember far more from those early years than I expected to, and I figure I’ll be able to finish the game in another hour or so. Then again, anyone that plays adventure games will know how stuck you get just when things are going so well. I must admit, I’m looking forward to playing a game I’ve never played before, for the challenge as much as the new experience.

It's time to cross the bridge and get things moving.