Sierra make a renewed bid for the top of the adventure tree, but can they shake off their old image and compete with the likes of Lucasfilm and Delphine? They're certainly making an effort - these new releases, aimed right at hard disk owners, come with vastly improved presentation - but can the stories keep up?
King's Quest V
There are three things you really ought to know about King's Quest V. One - it looks great. Two - the plot is sickeningly cliched. Three - it's actually really jolly good. What? I've got to write some more? Oh, go on - alright then.
Never being one for plot (but to understand some of my criticisms you kinda need to know it) the quick resume goes something like this: King Graham wanders along, picking some flowers (and his nose for all I know!), whence comes forth the cry "Hey, who stole my castle?". At this point he meets an owl who explains how an evil wizard has destroyed the castle (stop laughing back there), and so (quite naturally) sprinkles King Graham with fairy dust, allowing him to fly to the land of Serenia, in order to defeat the evil wizard. Ho hum. The last time I saw a plot this original was watching the A-Team.
Sierra have pulled their socks up quite nicely for their latest batch of releases. Gone are the insufferably bad text parsers (everything is now achieved with a wonderfully simple point-and-click interface) and the drawn-by-a-three-year-old-esque graphics (backgrounds are now hand-painted, then digitised). Gone, basically, are most of the terrible bits, to be replaced by shining examples of user-friendliness, and slick presentation. King's Quest V is really up there with the best in this respect. If only they'd forsaken the crap plots too. Then Sierra would maybe, just maybe, have had a Monkey Island beater on their hands. As it is, they've got an ideal stepping stone to go on to even greater and more ambitious heights.
See The Wood For The Twee
The entire game is played via a cursor and a few pop-up icons, a system simpler even than Lucasfilm's, yet probably just as effective. Movement is simply a matter of pointing to a position on-screen, and the hero (yes, I know King Graham isn't a very heroic name) will work his own way around the scenery (much like in Monkey Island, in fact). This is much more preferably to some adventures I've seen, where the characters play dumb, and can't work out how to reach areas of the screen unless guided every bit of the way.
Actually, despite the Lucasfilm-isms of the game's exterior, King's Quest V is remarkably old-fashioned when it comes to the basic plot and the way the puzzles and locations are structured. It would be fair to say, in fact, that the actual adventure is less advanced than the ancient (but nonetheless excellent) Infocom games. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. An adventure can be quite basic so long as it's well designed and pretty logical. Thankfully, King's Quest V succeeds in this area. Simple but neat sums it up nicely.
That's not to say that King's Quest V is without faults. One thing about adventures is that overall game quality is inextricably linked to the quality of plot. King's Quest V doesn't do itself any favours here. Fairytale cliches abound, and when the package promises 'enjoyment for all the family', a bout of retching isn't too far off. The game is actually pretty small too. That's not to say that there isn't much long-term appeal in there, but in terms of actual locations and puzzles to solve, I can't help but feel reminded of 16K adventures on the Spectrum! This is obviously partly down to the use of digitised graphics in every location, but for a product which is so physically large (box size, number of disks, chest measurements), I would have expected a bigger game in there.
Roll right up for that usual Monkey Island comparison. Whereas Monkey Island felt like a totally interactive graphic affair, King's Quest V relies upon its graphic-based nature for command execution but little else. I get the feeling that most of the game (and puzzles) could have been implemented purely using text. There are a few exceptions (such as the ravine-hopping sequence and the way some of the objects are hidden in the scenery) but things feel a little too 'static'. Maybe this has something to do with the lack of cinematic trickery which made Monkey Island and Cruise For A Corpse such a delight to watch.
One other thing which I haven't really mentioned yet is the use of a hard drive. Don't even consider buying this game unless you own one. Disk access is necessary at every location, so even hard drive owners are going to spend a little time tapping their fingers.
It's nice to see Sierra getting their act together. They've trailed behind Lucasfilm and Delphine for a couple of years now, but with King's Quest V and Rise Of The Dragon they've made massive steps towards 'fully interactive entertainment' (or whatever it is the Americans call it).
The graphics, the sound and the whole presentation trip are finally up to the standard of what Amiga owners expect in 1991. My only reservations lie with the game content. Still, I must admit that despite my normal loathing of all things pretty and twee, I enjoyed King's Quest V no end.
So, hard drive owners, dive on in.
The Bottom Line
Uppers: Superb digitised landscapes, excellent presentation and a genuinely effective control system make King's Quest V easy to get into, and fun once you're there. A Sierra high point.
Downers: A hard drive is a must, and I wish Sierra would get some decent script-writers in. Lucasfilm are still running rings around them when it comes to the actual plot.
An impressive (but not quite classic) graphical adventure which meets the high standards set by recent releases. Although not essential, it could prove a handy stop-gap before the new Lucasfilm releases turn up.