A game like this DEMANDS a full review, but I don't know where to post it.
So I'll write it now, and post it here. I'll try to keep it spoiler-light. That said, if you want absolutely everything
about the game to be a surprise, don't read on. There is also a spoiler for Full Throttle
in there, because some things are too glorious to hide behind spoiler tags.A Tale of Two Kingdoms
(v. 1.1)Publisher: Crystal Shard (Independent)
Release: 2007SUMMARY: I expected this game to be as spectacularly bad as its introduction, and it continually disappointing me by being very, very good.AToTK vs. Grim Fandango, Round One, FIGHT!A Tale of Two Kingdoms
is more fun than it has any right to be. Between a clumsy introduction, flat characters, constant and annoying death, one major side-plot that fails catastrophically, and another
major side-plot that fails more subtly, it ought to have been an ordeal.
But it's more fun than large swaths of Grim Fandango
, which is both upsetting and gratifying. Grim Fandango
is more gorgeous, more funny, more challenging, more memorable, and more quotable, full of clever moments and shining wit and ingenious set-pieces, the kind of game that theoretically converts non-adventure gamers into adventure gamers with its brilliance. So it's shocking to see A Tale of Two Kingdoms
succeed in places where Grim Fandango
fails. It's like seeing a puppy crush a Sherman tank. This is also why it is gratifying.
How is this possible? Since this is a spoiler-free review, I'll explain with reference to a hypothetical example.KQVI-Lite:
In Hypothetical Quest
(or, if you prefer, Strange Flamenco
) you meet a young boy whose dog has been captured by a giant aphid.
LucasArts version: You improvise a Giant Aphid Costume from a yellow robe, wooden legs, etc. KQVI
version: Killing the aphid requires fixing a broken flyswatter. Alternatively, you can call on the Ladybug Queen to truss up the aphid, but only if you saved her life earlier. Saving the Ladybug Queen is impossible if you traded the Ladybug Pendant for the key to the Flyswatter Shop, and you can't fix the swatter if you sacrificed it to enter the Ladybug Queen's realm. Thus, partially solving each puzzle renders both impossible, and the game unwinnable.A Tale of Two Kingdoms
version: If you won a pen in a game of quoits OR stole one, THEN used it to forge a letter and save the Friendly Local Urchin from hanging (OR broke him out of jail), AND found the Potion of Spider Transformation, you can turn the urchin into a Spider Warrior, who eats the aphid. Alternatively, if you reforged the Flyswatter of the Tuatha, you can swat the aphid and save the dog. Otherwise, the dog dies.
But! The death of the dog does not prevent you from finishing the game; you have a world to save, after all. The ending will change, possibly by the addition of a downer-scene in which you see the little boy crying for his dog, and you may be locked out of some other puzzles. But you can ALWAYS win, and there are a lot of dogs to rescue, and each one gives you a little score boost and more dog-rescuing tools.
Yes, I intend to abuse this metaphor as far as it will go.
So although AToTK
-inspired, it never makes aphid food of the player. It might tantalize with a now-unrescueable dog, and the dog-rescuing puzzle may be genuinely unfair, but it's still optional. The weakest endings may be dreary, but they are also victories on one level or another, and they point to places where improvement is possible. And when an aphid costume absolutely must be made, multiple sets of pieces are available, and if you've lost some of them, somebody will find a way to supply you with another. The more you of them you find unaided, the higher your score goes. This system, in which one's degree of success can be read in one's score and ending, allows the nastiest frustrations to be avoided.
This sounds like a cop-out, a game that lets the player refuse to play it. But it isn't, because the player always has something to aim for, and a convenient NPC is always ready to suggest exactly what that is. Yes, there are a few situations in which one can walk into danger without a needed item, but the game disables saving in these potentially nasty cases, and often autosaves immediately before. And even when the best endings are locked out, the story still has some impetus. Not only is the game always completable, it is impossible, as far as I can tell, for the player to be locked out of an ending in which good triumphs on some level
allows multiple paths to victory, and always keeps side-quests open so that there's something to do, and this is why AToTK
, played casually, with no regard for solving ALL of the puzzles, is just more fun than several sections of Grim Fandango.
Don't get me wrong - Grim Fandango
has a lot of fun parts. But frustrating sections drain adventure games of their fun quickly. The early segments of Grim Fandango
, as well as a few puzzles at mid-game, are particularly bad for this. Grim Fandango
, tied as it was to an extremely linear story, couldn't afford too many optional puzzles or situations. It thus became a sort of specialized torture machine whenever the player hit a stumbling block. In many ways, an adventure game is judged on its failures. What I remember most vividly about King's Quest V
are the places where it was grotesquely unfair.
Being as broad and player-friendly as AToTK
is hard. The side-quests effectively double the playable size of the game without doubling its frustration factor, but make things very hard on the designers and testers. If the player can end up holding certain items late in the game on some playthroughs, but not others, meticulous planning is required. One could
have each object solve one puzzle and one puzzle only, but that's boring and predictable, and AToTK eschews that sort of cheap trick, instead electing to increase its design burden by giving some optional objects up to three uses. I suspect that Adventure Game Player Heaven is filled with multiple-use, optional items- as is Adventure Game Designer Hell.
In spite of this complicatedness- and it was sometimes possible to see the gears whirring, in the forms of shifting event triggers - I ran into very few bugs, and generally, when I wanted to try something reasonable but game-breaking, the game explained why I couldn't. Why can't I light a lantern with a candle up on the wall? It's too high, or it's at a lousy angle, or whatever - the game explained. There were exceptions, of course; ordering other people to look at themselves or other people gave strangely uninformative messages, but in general, everything worked. In a game of this scope, this is magnificent.
The designers of AToTK
really understand the importance of attention to implementation detail. And spell-checking.
So, no matter how many arbitrary deaths AToTK
throws at you, it makes it very clear that it does not hate you, and wants you to win. And so, if you're playing to win, this is an intensely fun game. If you don't mind a bit of a downer in the ending, and aren't too picky about writing, that's all that should matter. Just play it.
Summary of Pros:
* Forgiving gameplay.
* Lots of fun things to do.
* Polished execution, at least along the main branch. On the Other Hand...
But while AToTK
dramatically outdoes the commercial classics in many ways, it fails to measure up to them in others. Yes, it's much better than the weaker sections of Grim Fandango
, but it isn't as good as the whole game
. This may have something to do with the lack of a massive budget and long experience, but there are other reasons why AToTK
sometimes fails to meet that bar.
First, the story is only engaging about half of the time. In theory, it should work better than that, since it's a stronger story than most games get. A gentle opening is interrupted by a series of tense scenes that give the hero a problem to deal with. Complications occur, little set-pieces ratchet the tension up, there's a wide-open midgame, and the whole deal is tied up neatly in the end. There are no subplots that involve searching for Six Spirit Gems to reforge the Dagger of Plottiness. There are few fetch-quests, and they're usually disguised or complicated subtly. When the hero wants to help people, it's because they have real problems to deal with, not because they've lost Random Object No. 152.
So, what's the problem?
Engaging stories demand engaging characters. Not well-written
characters - a flat character can drive a decent story, if the player's given control over that character's destiny. But the ones that the player spends the most time with should be interesting. This does not happen.
, the player has two sidekicks. Consider the more interesting one. He's pretty likeable, offering useful advice and quirky asides. One optional, totally incidental scene that does not involve the player, or, for that matter, any real action by this NPC, managed, somehow, to perfectly solidify his character for me. Yet his role in the story is minimal. He dispenses exposition, magic, and a secret that moves the story forward, and that's about it. But if he were threatened in the endgame, rather than a character I cared absolutely nothing for, it would have been two, maybe three times better (+- 5% error). This may be purely subjective; the developers clearly tried
to make the threatened character interesting, with side plots and so on. But it didn't work for me.
And I don't think this is entirely a fancy on my part, because it seems that most of the more interesting characters in the game have bit parts, while the key parts are given to boring characters. The villain is, in particular, an astounding case. The writers of AToTK
manage to do almost everything right. It is as if they assiduously followed a checklist of things to do to make an interesting villain:
A) Make sure the villain has a specific motivation.
B) Have him or her create horrible predicaments for the hero.
C) Indirectly deliver info on the villain via another character.
D) Don't let the villain fight fair. The hero should win in spite of the odds.
E) Make it possible for the player to see where the villain lives, and explore that space. This fleshes out the villain more than a speech ever could.
The writers do all of these things, and yet, incredibly, AToTK
has one of the most boring villains ever to mar a good game - and there's a LOT of competition. He/she makes Mordack look like Iago. It is as if, somewhere along the line, their villain had been transmuted from gold into lead.
There are a number of possible reasons for the weakness of the villain. The connection between the villain and the mystery plot is never fully solidified during the main, mandatory plotline, so, in many playthroughs, the villain seems to rise out of nowhere. I suspect that fiddling more with the mystery plot would address this, but I'm reluctant to do this - more on that below. And even when the villain appears, he/she has absolutely nothing of interest to say. So, scratch one villain.
But what about the Loyal Sidekick, the one who can fight and helps you solve puzzles at key points and so on? Surely that character is even cooler
than the one who delivers exposition and clues? Surely the character who is closely connected with the hero through past exploits, who swaps banter with him in the opening, who is set up to be important
, who acts as a surrogate PC in at least one scene, and (SPOILER)
is interesting, right?
No, for that would defy the First Law of AToTK Writing: "The more important a piece of writing is, the less likely it is to be good." Until the endgame, your Loyal Sidekick is a glorified treasure chest. During the endgame, there is a slight improvement, but given all the things this character could
say or do to respond to what happens, said character seems like a poseable mannequin.
But the side characters? Some of them are wonderful. They have little flashes of wit and character and good writing, and though the dialogue often ranges from bland to blander, there's just enough spice there to keep interest up. They aren't fighting the First Law, after all, so they can be cool.
If you are skeptical of the First Law, consider the introduction. The opening chapters neatly and effectively drop the hero into the intrigue, but the damage has already been done. The intro text is horrendous. It wants badly to be Epic, Dark, and Mythic, which is unfortunate in a game whose TITLE is Grand and Epic, but whose content is not. Everything that's cool in this game works on the level of individuals, not opposing armies, and everything that's fun
works on the level of a fairy tale - personal, whimsical, silly, and a little spooky. Apparently, like scripting contextually-defined conversation topics for a major sidekick, writing a good intro is harder than it looks.
Another case of the First Law in action: the mystery plot. Mysteries are hard to get right, and AToTK
doesn't. To the credit of the designers, the Exposition NPC mentioned above never claims that solving the mystery is a critical priority, and one can get a highly satisfactory ending without ever figuring it out. But the framing of the plot makes figuring out this mystery crucial on the level of the story
, if not the actual gameplay, so everybody will want to solve it, I think. Alas, only astounding luck and dogged, even pointless, persistence can make that possible. After trying repeatedly and eventually reading a spoiler, I gave up and just got on with the main plot.
I do not think that this means I can't meaningfully review the game; a player who failed to solve a King's Quest V
puzzle due to lack of dead fish would have something very
meaningful to say about it.
The physical clues offered are horribly weak and semirelevant, or even misleading, and a few must be gathered under circumstances where a sane protagonist would be better off concentrating on other things. They are all red herrings. (If the developers wish to correct me on this, I hope they will. I found maybe three physical objects that could be construed as clues, which seems low for a game of this scope, but I solved quite a few little side-quests.) These clues are not obtained by actually investigating the mystery. The conversational clues are apparently better, as the culprit says something revealing, but these are easy to miss. I cannot say any more for fear of spoilers, but the way in which the player is asked to demonstrate knowledge of the solution unsatisfactory; the player is hit with a menu like a freight train.The Dagger of Amon Ra
used a similar mechanism to resolve its mystery, and relied on the acquisition of tiny, often nearly-unnoticeable clues for its resolution - but its solution was reasonable once the right clues were acquired. Perhaps I'm hopelessly dense, but, judging by the response on the Hints Thread for AToTK
, this is not true. As far as I can tell, the mystery plot is just broken. Furthermore (and this is a mild spoiler),
What's really surprising is that the designers of AToTK
manage to slip here in spite of setting up everything needed to make a good mystery plot possible. They have NPCs that wander around and show agency, that chat amongst themselves while the hero listens in, and that have motives. There's suspense, subterfuge, and so on. It's as if a good game had been written and, at the last minute, somebody decided to change the identity of the culprit and erase a few clues. This could be remedied with a few dialogue lines, a few objects, a few more interesting responses for showing certain things to certain people - but if it was not fixed between v 1.0 and v1.1, it probably won't be fixed between v1.1 and v 1.2.
But there's still hope that these, and other, issues of writing will be addressed, and AToTK
will be the better for it. On to the other issues.
In a really complete adventure game, when the player was stuck, the detail and dialogue are fun enough to experience that frustration is allayed. AToTK
has mixed success in this regard. You can't just wander around and look around at things and expect to be entertained for too long, because the descriptions and scenes are only sometimes interesting. The world is superficially engaging, but is, on closer inspection, hammered out of recycled bits and pieces; a castle looks like a Fantasy Castle is supposed to look, with little clear regard for function. Grim Fandango
's Rubacava may have been a frustrating place to spend hours in, but at least it was Rubacava.
The town fares a bit better than most locations, as it's bustling and filled with people you can eavesdrop on, but the effect isn't as good as it could be. Maybe it's the surreal randomness of the wandering of the NPCs that does it. Maybe it's the architectural dullness of the houses, or the distanced viewpoint, or something like that. One tiny village in a corner of the map, with only two enterable dwellings, somehow manages to feel more convincing than the main town. I can't explain this; maybe it's the detailed art inside one of the homes, or something like that.
It should be noted that very few commercial or amateur graphic adventures really nail this, which is a shame, so AToTK
probably shouldn't be held to a high standard in that regard - not until we all pony up $50 per download. But it's still sort of unfortunate.Conclusion (or, It's Good, Honest!):
The difficulty about writing a review like this is that it's easy to explain what DIDN'T work without resorting to spoilers, but it's hard to explain what did. I've given a sort of general design justification for why AToTK
is fun, but it ultimately comes down to specifics. It comes down to the concerted efforts the design team made to keep the world well-modeled - yes, a lot of it is generic, but it's still pretty good if you aren't wandering the same few screens in frustration. What really makes it work, I suppose, is that reasonable actions have reasonable responses, that there ARE some characters whom one can care about a little bit, even if they are minor, that the gameworld keeps changing in little, unexpected ways, that things are always happening, that you can get through much of the game without ever feeling like you've seen all of it... these things are hard to get across without spoiler specifics.
I guess you'll just have to take my word for it. Although the writing of A Tale of Two Kingdoms
really does merit the hatchet job above, although some puzzles are a bit unfair (but optional), although there are strange and unexpected slipups, all of this is overwhelmed by the creators' consistent design competence, ambition, and dedication to making a fun game. As long as you don't try to do EVERYTHING, there's a good chance you'll like it.Pros
: In many ways, AToTK embodies good adventure game design. If you want to have fun, and can handle a few slightly underclued puzzles, go for it.Cons
: In many ways, AToTK embodies bad adventure game writing. Also, there are unfair and tetchy bits, so if you want to do everything... please, don't.
Given the effectiveness of the apparent design philosophy of AToTK
("Okay, let's try to make a game that does not hate its player and in fact wants good things to happen to the player"), why isn't this approach used more often? For one thing, it is very hard to pull off. It demands obsessive playtesting and more design effort than might even be possible on a commercial game. It may force sacrifices on the level of storytelling and character development. It means writing scads of puzzles that some players will never see, which requires real self-discipline.
Now, it's been tried. King's Quest VI
boasted an Easy Path and a Hard Path, with mixed success. It suffered from some severe game-wrecking situations - see the hypothetical Ladybug Queen case above. But Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis
had three paths, none
of which were too frustrating, and was also quite possibly the most intensely fun adventure game of all time, so there's hope.
But it's not the design problems that stymied this approach in commercial games. This type of design makes the game faster to complete - and a short play time was a deadly sin in a commercial adventure game. Nobody wants to pay $50 for a game that they finish in two days. One can replay, of course, but replaying is repetitive even in the best case, i.e., A Tale of Two Kingdoms
or Quest for Glory
As a result, in adventure games, a long ordeal is somehow seen as preferable to a short thrill ride. In its day, Full Throttle
garnered endless complaints about its cutscenes and its short effective play time, apparently because a game in which, in the final playable sequence, the hero crawls on a speeding truck while said truck is CHASED BY AN AIRPLANE THAT SMASHES INTO IT AND DRAGS UNTIL IT IS HANGING OFF OF A CLIFF, FORCING THE HERO TO SEND THE VILLAIN PLUMMETING TO HIS DOOM AND ESCAPE BEFORE PLANE AND TRUCK FALL OFF THE CLIFF AND EXPLODE
could apparently be improved with the addition of a maze, or perhaps a cutesy bit with mailing tubes.
Amateur developers are finally changing this, and we are finally getting good adventure games, but it's taken a long time. If somebody could just combine the polish, wit, and style of Grim Fandango
with the common sense and player-friendliness of AToTK
, we'd have something really incredible.