Some long-dormant game franchises claw their way back from the grave and return in zombified form: their tattered clothes, peeling skin, and severed limbs render them a shade of their former greatness. With 2015's King's Quest reboot, however, developer The Odd Gentlemen has recaptured the humor and magic that have since made its predecessors so legendary, bringing the once-dead series roaring back to beautiful, vibrant life.
As famous for its charming characters and punny dialogue as it is infamous for its hare-brained "logic" puzzles and ability to box players into unwinnable situations, I doubt that many truly believed that King's Quest could make a modern comeback of any degree of quality. Factor in that, outside of Double Fine's excellent Broken Age, modern examples of the true, puzzle-driven adventure genre are thin on the ground and it becomes clear that the odds were never in The Odd Gentlemen's favor.
The Odd Gentlemen are responsible for the quirky 2010 indie puzzler The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom, a game that was defined by a charming protagonist, an inventive visual style, and outlandishly clever puzzle mechanics. Pairing the offbeat studio to Sierra's classic franchise seems obvious in retrospect.
Similar to Telltale's popular narrative-driven series like The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us, 2015's King's Quest reboot is broken up into distinct, separately released episodes, with A Knight to Remember marking the first of an eventual 5 installments. The story is framed in an extremely compelling way, as series' protagonist King Graham, aged and ailing, regales his charming granddaughter Gwendolyn with tails of his youth. These tales both reimagine events from past games and take place before and in between them.
With this debut installment, King Graham digs deep in time and tells Gwendolyn a story about long before he became King of Daventry or was even a Knight in King Edward's court. This is the story of a tournament in which Knight hopefuls from across the land gather to win not simply a Knighthood, but the potential to become the next ruler of Daventry after the heirless King Edward one day passes.
This setup is smart, giving a wonderful excuse for introducing both Graham and the player to Daventry's ridiculous citizens and hilarious rivals. Including a "very old and very judgmental" couple that runs the potions shop, literal "bridge trolls" on strike because they are tired of being actually stepped on by "the man," and a boisterous, narcissistic knight that calls himself "Whisper," the cast is virtually flawless, a constant parade of one memorable and endearing nutcase after another.
Similar to Telltales' experiences, the game gives the player ample room to express themselves, with decisions sending ripples of consequence out through the rest of the story. In addition to dialogue choices, certain major puzzles have multiple solutions and outcomes, and in the end every possible decision in the game boils down to whether Graham is telling Gwendolyn a tale about the virtues of Compassion, Bravery, or Wisdom.
In a particularly neat touch that has a mountain of potential for the series going forward, the way that you choose to act as the young Graham in the past has a huge influence on the way Gwendolyn deals with situations in the present, such as whether she will decide to confront a challenge head-on or try to make peace with a rival instead. This, along with constant Bastion-style narration in which King Graham and Gwendolyn have a comment for almost every action a player could think to take, elevates the tale from something that is simply smartly-written and well-acted to something truly special.
Comedy games are still a rarity in an industry that often treats narrative with deadly seriousness. There are plenty of funny games out there, for sure, but ones that wrap the jokes around genuinely compelling characters and a satisfying emotional arc are beyond rare. Unlike many episodic games, A Knight to Remember tells a complete story all on its own, even while hinting at Graham's future adventures. Because it doesn't lean on its later episodes, it stands proudly on its own as the most thoroughly hilarious and surprisingly heartfelt comedy that videogames have seen since Psychonauts.
At its core, A Knight to Remember stays true to its roots. You wander around an intimate, interconnected space, talking to people and scouring for clues and items to help solve the game's logic puzzles and, ultimately, progress the story. Where it differs lies in its more accessible approach. The original games were notorious for "logic" puzzles that followed anything but, and valuing trial-and-error over critical observation skills. Additionally, missing an item early in the game could lead to an unwinnable game state later on, forcing the player to start over from scratch.
Not so with the reboot! Puzzles are frequently tricky and clever, making great demands of the player's ability to pay attention to and remember even the tiniest details. Even when you're stuck, the game always stays on the right side of the line between trial-and-error and experimentation: what you need to do is always within your grasp. Whether you have the eyes to see that is a different story, though, and I got completely stumped a few times during my adventure. Thankfully, it is absolutely impossible to permanently miss anything, so any worries about horribly bungling a puzzle or missing an item and having to start over can be flushed down the toilet where they belong right now.
In addition to clever but fair puzzle design and navigating conversation, the new King's Quest contains a surprising amount of actual action. Where other episodic adventure games (again, like Telltales' body of work) wrestle control away from the player and force them into quick-time events, The Odd Gentlemen make the decision to use QTEs sparingly in favor of well-judged setpiece design. From Uncharted-esque traversal sequences to timing-critical archery sections, the developers show a laudable commitment to putting control in the player's hands whenever possible. These action sequences aren't high-stress and they are difficult to fail, but their presence as exciting pace breakers is a sparkling addition to a style of game that is conventionally light on interactivity.
King's Quest runs on a heavily-modified version of Unreal Engine 3, which means that it looks and plays well on PC, the current generation of consoles, and last-gen systems as well. The game is beautiful, its bright, cartoony visuals grounded by rich, painterly textures and Disney-quality character animation and facial expressions. Polish is frequently a problem in episodic games, but not so here. The game runs with barely a hitch and I didn't encounter a single glitch in my time with it.
The sound design is razor-sharp, delivering whimsical effects and a soaring musical score. The acting deserves nothing but praise, every single character, no mater how small, brought to life with total confidence. Special mention has to be paid to the legendary Christopher Lloyd as old King Graham. His voice takes on a richness here that I've never known it to have, thick with nostalgic warmth and deft comedic skill. One gets the impression that Lloyd had a lot of fun narrating this adventure, and that he just might enjoy a ridiculous pun as much as Graham does.
The new King's Quest doesn't seek to break the mold, but rather to refine it. Its well-designed action setpieces are a wonderful alternative to the modern adventure genre's obsession with QTEs, and the observation-based nature of its puzzles make them a pleasure to solve. The holy trinity of Compassion, Bravery, and Wisdom is the most clever morality system of recent times, making it feel like there's no "wrong" answer and it leads to a much breezier form of role-playing than its more grim-dark contemporaries.
I know I keep bringing up the elephant in the room, but Telltale really has had this region of game design all to itself for a while now. They've set the standard, and that means that it's not just their strengths that have become synonymous with the genre, but their faults as well. Defining "value" across individual episodes in an episodic series has been tricky, because even among the form's greatest games, such as this year's Life is Strange, there is a pervading sense that the final experience will always be the sum of its parts, and thus those individual parts are more difficult to pass judgment on.
Not with A Knight to Remember. As previously stated, this is not an experience that leans on its future, but rather one that revels in the here and now. It is a complete experience in its own right, with its own three act structure and satisfying narrative arc, as well as a wealth of fun puzzles to solve. It's surprising how dense it is and, to give you an idea, I finished the game in about 7 hours. This places it less in the realm of its episodic contemporaries and more in the same ballpark as games such as Until Dawn or The Order: 1886 (and for a fraction of their cost).
Should You Play It?
If you have a love for narrative-driven games of any stripe, there's no reason not to give the new King's Quest a try. I was late to the party by several months, but I've still found a game that will absolutely be in contention for my personal Game of the Year running. Its satisfying and hilarious narrative, charming characters, clever puzzles and setpieces, and outstanding presentation mark it as one of the most successful franchise reboots in the medium.
Whether its later installments can match the highs of this debut is irrelevant: A Knight to Remember stands at the top of modern adventure game design, and The Odd Gentlemen can be proud for delivering one of 2015's very best experiences.