Puzzles and Solvability
This is a tough category to rate for King’s Quest IV. The game is very difficult for numerous reasons. There are quite a few possible dead ends (entering the whale without the feather or the fish, leaving the ogre’s house without the axe). There are also a few particularly nasty puzzles, with the main culprit being everything to do with the whale. Finding the whale is hard enough! Knowing you’re supposed to and then managing to get inside it is next to impossible unless you’re really lucky (I can honestly say that I don’t think I would have managed it without reader assistance). Once you are inside the whale, the outrageous tongue maze merely adds to the frustration, particularly when you remember it’s quite possible a player could be there without either of the items they need once they do get through the maze. I’m deducting one point for the whale!
Even finding the whistle on the island after exiting the whale was difficult.
Some of the other puzzles in the game come with a high difficulty too, such as fishing off the pier (making you try the same thing numerous times before it is successful is just not cool) and the waterfall puzzle (although I’ll never know how long it would have taken me to solve this one unassisted). Even ignoring the difficulty of the above, the most challenging thing for me was that certain screens could only be solved at certain times. I wasted hours at screens such as the pool and the spooky house, trying everything I could think of when in fact nothing was going to work. Certain other actions needed to take place first, yet the player can’t know that. Despite everything I’ve just said, I really enjoyed the challenge that King’s Quest IV offered, and unlike some of the other games I’ve really criticised for being close to unsolvable (the ICOM games in particular), everything in King’s Quest IV makes total sense. Apart from the whale puzzle, I managed to avoid all the dead ends and solve everything thrown at me eventually, so it was far from unsolvable. I just had to persevere and learn the rules of the game, which are a bit different to the ones that came before it.
I spent quite a bit of time on certain screens where nothing ever happened!
Interface and Inventory
Despite the new SCI engine being used for the game, the parser doesn’t appear any different to other recent Sierra attempts. In fact, the most suitable comparison would be Gold Rush! Typing “look” tells you pretty much everything you need to know about a location. If an item isn’t mentioned in the basic location description, there’s a high chance that it plays no role in any solution. This isn’t the case in every instance, but the exceptions are normally pretty damn obvious. On the downside, just as with Gold Rush, there are very few interesting or humorous descriptions to be found for items that are not of great importance, with most requests met with the defaults such as “you don’t need it” and “I do not understand the word grass”.
Typing "look" usually gives you enough information to get by
Movement is handled pretty well, but strangely Sierra still hasn’t managed to remove the difficulty their simulated 3D perspective gives to climbing stairs or walking across thin objects. Just as in Gold Rush, there are times where the game takes over control temporarily to move Rosella from point to point (this is totally welcome in my books), but there are other times where the player is forced to manoeuvre up spiral staircases through sections where the protagonist is not even visible. I died numerous times in the game either climbing up or down stairs or trying to cross something (such as the board to reach the fruit tree in the swamp). I could always slow down the speed of the game to make these sections easier, but I long for games where movement is not a concern so I can focus on solving puzzles.
It's hard enough when you can see yourself!
The inventory is expectedly adequate, but it seemed a small step backwards not to be able to request a description of each item I’d collected. Typing “look at pouch” just brought up a picture of the pouch with no description, stopping me from gaining any clues from item investigation. There are also times where you cannot get to your inventory, and they’re normally the times you really need to, such as when a bulldog is running at you. I get the idea that you wouldn’t have time in that instance to go through your items to find something of use, but this is an adventure game, and chances are you need to apply a unique item to each situation as it occurs. So, I’ve covered in detail the slight flaws that have been carried over to, or in some cases created in, Sierra’s new engine, but I should point out that in the overall scheme of things, King’s Quest IV feels extremely polished and professional. I’m merely nit-picking issues of little consequence in a perfectly usable and well established system. I guess I just expected more from SCI.
I don't really understand why I couldn't see my inventory at certain times.
Story and Setting
The actual plot of King’s Quest IV is not very inspired. Basically it involves Rosella travelling to Tamir to find some magic fruit to save her dying father. To be able to get back home, she also needs to recover the fairy Genesta’s talisman, which is in the hands of the evil fairy Lolotte. To recover the talisman, Rosella gains the trust of Lolotte by fetching three items for her, before stealing the talisman back and saving Genesta, King Graham and all of Tamir. Roberta Williams hasn’t really ventured all that far from the first game’s fetch three magical items that have been stolen by an evil witch to save Daventry plot. However, there are lots of stories that sound stupid when summarised that are actually enjoyable for all the minor details on the way. As usual, Roberta picked snippets from fairy tales and mythologies to create the subquests and characters of Tamir, including the ogre from Jack and the Beanstalk, the prince frog, the seven dwarfs, Cupid, Satyr and even the whale that Jonah entered in the bible. It certainly helps to have some knowledge of the original stories to solve the puzzles that are associated with these characters, but it’s not essential. I probably should give the game a 5 here, but I’m going with a 6 for being the first to have a female main protagonist.
It's the unpredictable mix of characters that makes an otherwise cliche story interesting
Sound and Graphics
While I’ve mentioned how the SCI engine failed to make any significant improvements from interface and parser points of view, it certainly did in the sound and graphics category. The visuals are substantially better than any game on the list so far, with a higher resolution, more colours and detail, and much more convincing animation. As soon as I saw Rosella swaying her way along the screen with her braids smoothly swinging from side to side, it was obvious that Sierra had once again raised the bar for graphics in the adventure genre. They did even more than that on the sound side, with King’s Quest IV being the very first game to make use of dedicated sound cards. After putting up with either PC speaker driven bleeps or bad quality digital recordings, the comparatively lush compositions are most welcome. The downside is that for the most part, the game is still silent, with effects and melodies utilised only occasionally. In fact, there are 75 different pieces of music that kick in at different times during King’s Quest IV, but none of them stick around long enough or form any sort of theme to be truly memorable. There’s no doubt that King’s Quest broke new ground in both the sound and graphics department, so I’m giving it the very first 6!
The game looks, sounds and feels classier than any before it on the list
Environment and Atmosphere
Tamir is a reasonably varied place, but it always feels like a King’s Quest land. It follows a similar grid style to previous games, with borders to the east and west and wrapping screens to the north and south. It has all the typical fields, meadows and beaches that we’ve become accustomed to, occupied by cottages, caves and streams. Where the game differs from the first three games is that it offers a creepy element, mostly through the inclusion of the haunted house in the zombie infested cemetery (within which all the action occurs during the night), but also through the groves of evil looking trees and skull shaped witches’ cave. Adding this lightweight horror to the mythological and fantastic elements that are typical for the series makes it more to my taste. I initially thought the environment was too limited in scope, but once I broke through the ocean and mountain wall barriers to screens beyond, it was more than satisfactory.
I'm sure Rosella didn't expect digging up graves in the middle of night to be on the adventurer job description
Dialogue and Acting
I don’t have much interesting stuff to say for this category. The narration and description are to the point and get the job down. There are very few attempts at humour, but then King’s Quest has never attempted to compete with the likes of Space Quest and Leisure Suit Larry. We’re still at a stage in the evolution of the genre where the protagonist has little to no voice (both literally and figuratively), so I’ll increase the rating I gave to the previous games by 1 for the simple fact that the dialogue is nowhere near as silly this time round.
The game makes limited attempts to take the language far beyond the essential
Well there you have it! King's Quest IV gets a respectable 55. That means it comes in equal with Space Quest I and third overall. To be honest, I thought it would be higher than that after my first session and lower than that after my second, but the third session evened things out and I ended up thoroughly enjoying the game despite some obvious flaws. A score of 55 means that Nicolaj wins the prediction points! I'll be changing the prediction system for the next game which means more people will have a chance to win points. That game will be Leisure Suit Larry 2, another Sierra game I've not played before. Looking forward to it, despite the many dead end warnings I've received already.