We've sure come a long way since King's Quest haven't we!
I have to admit that I assumed The Black Cauldron would be a fairly leisurely adventure game, especially given it was targeted at children and so much effort went into making sure the interface was clean and simple. Well, either I’ve just got used to ripping through games I’ve already played before, or this game is really quite challenging. I’ve played for two hours and have racked up 70 points out of the possible 230, but it certainly hasn’t been easy going. I’m actually beginning to wonder whether reading the books or watching the movie prior to playing would result in the game making more sense. There are a few unexplained things happening and I’m being forced to take options that I otherwise wouldn’t, just to fit in with the way the game wants me to play. Linearity is fine for story driven adventure games, but The Black Cauldron is confusing in that the at times counterintuitive path it wants you to take is not forced, and certainly not very clear. I’ll give you a rundown of my first session of play to give you an idea of what I’m talking about.
I would be such a Great Hero that it would demand capital letters
The beginning is all pretty straight forward. Talk to Dallben, pick up all the food and water and feed Hen Wen. From there I was given the quest and sent on my way with Hen Wen in tow. I was then attacked by flying creatures called gwythaint’s on almost every screen. If I let one catch us, it takes Hen Wen away, leaving me wondering whether or not I was supposed to let that happen. If I leave the screen and come back, as I was required to do in numerous similar instances during all the other Sierra games, the creature would no longer be there, and I’d be free to explore with Hen Wen safe next to me. I decided to hang on to Hen Wen as long as I could, in case there was something I was supposed to do with her, staying close to the edge of screens for safety. Pretty quickly I’d covered every screen I could get to and had very little to show for it. I’d pulled a dagger out of a tree and a lute out of a hole, but was already at the point where there wasn’t much else to try. It didn’t help that the game doesn’t seem to award you for finding items the way Sierra games normally do, so I was stuck on a very depressing 5 points which I got for feeding Hen Wen.
Oh wow! It's an evil gwythaint! Hey there, the pig is over here! Come fetch! I didn't want her anyway!
At this point there were three things I was left wondering about. Firstly, it appeared that I could climb up the mountains, but kept being told that Hen Wen wasn’t able to. Secondly, on a particular screen I was continually informed that there was something small moving around just out of view, but no matter what I did I couldn’t find anything. Finally, I could see on the map that there was a house in the south west, but I could not find any way of getting to it. I had no choice but to let Hen Wen be captured to see whether that opened up any further game options to me, despite how counter-intuitive that seemed to my quest of protecting the pig. Well waddaya know, as soon as Hen Wen was out of the way, the small creature that had been scurrying about came into view demanding food. I gave him an apple and was informed that “Gurgi now Taran’s friend for life”. Unfortunately, as nice as it is to have Gurgi’s friendship, I don’t seem to be able to get any information out of him and he doesn’t follow me when I leave the screen. He does appear from time to time on other screens, but I’ve not yet found a use for him. As an aside, I’ve been playing a tune on the lute on every screen I enter to see whether that does anything, but so far it’s achieved nothing.
I'll be your friend to the end!
So, with nothing else to do and still not being able to find a way to get to the hidden house, I set about trying to climb the mountain, which I was eventually able to do after struggling to find a path through the rocks. I have to tell you I was pretty shocked to find the Horned King’s castle perched at the top of the mountain. I figured I was setting off on some big adventure that would take me through various locations before I reached the big bad dude, but he was in actuality around six screens away from my house! There I was confronted with a moat filled with alligators and no option but to try to cross it. I eventually made it but not before dying around half a dozen times as they all made a rapid beeline towards me. It’s at this point that I found a bug in the game that hindered my progress. While scaling the wall I was told that “since you’ve removed the vines covering the window, you could climb in the window.” After spending a few minutes attempting to enter the window that I’d apparently made accessible, I tried using my knife on it and was told “this dagger easily cuts through these vines”. It was only then that I was able to enter, so I can only think this is a bug.
You're kidding! The Horned King is my nextdoor neighbour!?
I’ve only spent five minutes in the castle, but already I’ve run into the same confusing counterintuitive plot progression. I entered a room, only to be chased by some sort of guard. Instead of running out of the room the way I normally would, I decided to let him catch me to see what would happen. He dumped me in a cell where I uncovered “a beautiful young girl” called Princess Eilonwy. So once again the game rewards me for doing what in every other Sierra game would result in instant death and the plot progresses only after I choose to be captured. Going back to my comment about the game making more sense to a fan of the books or movie, I assume Hen Wen gets stolen away by a gwythaint and Taran finds Princess Eilonwy in the castle prison cell in the actual story, so these decisions would most likely seem pretty obvious. To me, they go against my instincts and adventure game experience, making the game feel very forced and unsatisfying at this point. Oh, and I haven’t yet mentioned the thing that has really frustrated me about The Black Cauldron.
If you show me your magic bauble, I'll show you mine.
Just as I had to do for my character in Below the Root, I have to manage Taran’s consumption throughout The Black Cauldron. Every time he’s thirsty, I have to give him water and every time he’s hungry, I have to give him food. You pick up a loaf of bread and a bottle of water when you set off on your journey and this is probably enough to get you by long enough to find more, but given I’ve been spending a lot of time exploring screens and trying to figure out what to do next, I’m running out pretty quickly, resulting in death. I’m now at the point where I’m in the Horned King’s castle with Princess Eilonwy, trying to find a way out of the tunnels beneath the prison cell, but I keep dying of starvation. I don’t think I have any choice but to start the game again and get back to where I am as quickly as possible now I know what to do. Food management in Below the Root wasn’t that bad because there were stacks of places you could procure more, but that doesn’t appear to be the case in The Black Cauldron unless I’m missing something (which is very possible). I still have a bad taste in my mouth after having to restart Déjà Vu over and over again (hence the name I guess) due to the harsh time limit (and nearly had to do the same thing for money management reasons), so I’d hate to think that I’ll be doing that again for The Black Cauldron.
Thanks for the tip. Maybe next time you can let me drink the water that I'm standing next to!
I guess the final thing to mention before I start over and get back into it is the interface. As I’ve mentioned previously, The Black Cauldron does away with the text parser found in games like King’s Quest and Space Quest. Instead the player uses function keys to USE something (F4), DO something (F6) or LOOK at something (F8). To USE something, you first need to select it from the inventory by pressing F3 and then ENTER on the specific item. As an example, you fill the water flask by pressing F3, scrolling down to Water Flask and pressing ENTER, then pressing F4 to use it. You drink from the Water Flask by pressing F3, scrolling down to Water and pressing ENTER, then pressing F4. That probably makes it seem confusing but it’s really quite simple. I guess there are positives and negatives to having such a limited interface. On the positive side, you don’t have to figure out what command you’re supposed to type or what it actually is you’re looking at. You simply enter a screen, walk around to anything that looks notable and press F8 to look at it or F6 to do something with it. On the negative side, if there’s something on the other side of the screen that you can’t get to, you have no way of requesting information about it. You just can’t say “look at candle”, so you just have to trust that the candle is not relevant. I wish I could trust the game that much!
You want me to do what?! After what happened to King Graham?