Saturday, July 9, 2011

PC: The Quest for Glory-series

It’s the Quest for friggin Glory, a memorable roleplaying game of impressive caliber that I’ve wanted to review for ages. Just to understand where I’m coming from with this, when I say ‘ages’ it goes all way back to sixth grade. Back then we made a school-paper in which yours truly wrote up an absolutely horrible review of the 4th game in the series, while the other guys went for Warcraft 2 and Command & Conquer. Me, I stuck to the unknown and mysterious game known only as shadows of darkness. My main problem was that this took place during the good old days of floppy disks, in which said 1.44 megabyte decided to give up on me, just one hour before printing. Naturally, this resulted in a hastily written abstract that didn’t give the game half the credit it deserved. If you were one of our readers, I apologize. I’m well aware that it didn’t really shine as much the massive review of Warcraft 2.
Now, time has come for revenge.
It has been several year since then, and its hardly no exaggeration that people are as oblivious as ever to this awesome series of games, from a time in which everything was better, harder and actually challenged you just a tiny bit. Whereas Sierra has conjured up several well-known games that are still remembered, Quest for Glory somehow keeps fading in memory, compared to King’s Quest or Space Quest. The reason keeps eluding me.
Perhaps it is because QFG was in many ways a bit different from what we were used to the run of the mill adventure game back then. Basically we’re dealing with a series of games of which the first was released in 1989 under the title “Quest for Glory 1: So you want to be a hero?”. Surely, back then we weren’t expecting graphical achievements on the same heights as Oblivion. Truth to be told, it was pretty damn EGA-ugly.

The basic premise is as we know it from titles such as Monkey Island & Sam and Max; Point and click. You navigate your avatar through various landscapes in which you are expected to confront different puzzles and bring order to chaos by such useful tools as ‘Pick up’ ‘Look at’ and ‘Use’. It’s a very basic concept that for a lengthy period only saw minor variety, such as in Kyrandia in which you simply clicked on stuff to see what happened. The common denominator was the possibility to interact with a unique world, touched with magic and exciting personages. Thrilling action was often left at the entrance, and combat was extremely rare, and often just shown in cut-scenes.

The QFG-series took a peculiar step, by combining the laws of the roleplaying games with the narrative approach of the adventure-conventions. In a strange way, suddenly you were not only developing the story, but also your main character by advancing his strength, nimbleness and intellectual capacities for magic.
Story wise all five games are quite similar. You take on the role of an ambitious young and quite anonymous hero, who wishes to create a name for himself in the world. Luckily, this is often what the world needs, whether the duchess is missing, democracies are challenged, demonic powers break loose by Lovecraftian magic, or simply preventing a Trojan war. In other words; There is a whole world of quests to see.
Meeting these challenges, however, is not only about combining an exploding cigar with a gun-lighter. QFG is a narration of epic proportions, in which you get to decide what tools you wish to work with as the story goes on. Your primary limitation is that the hero has to be male, and from there on you get to decide whether he excels as a fighter with physical prowess, a mage who bends the reality to his will, or a dexterous thief you never saw coming. The direction of your choosing has a severe impact on the story, puzzles and persons you get to interact with.

Thus you also get to distribute stat-points. In the classical sense of the word this is a series of attributes with respective numerical values representing your mastery. Going from 0 to 100, you get to decide between general aspects such as strength or stamina and the more specialized as climbing and communicative skills. Though some of these were of significantly lower value than the rest, it represents the kind of playing you prefer, although your stats become progressively irrelevant as the story develops. They do get to make some comeback in the fifth installment, but around the fourth game they’re largely irrelevant.
During the games you have plenty of opportunities (and in some instances, you’re expected to) for practicing. If you wanted to become a better thrower you’d simply go out in the forest, pick up a truckload of stones and click like a maniac till either you are the hero dropped dead from exhaustion. While the idea isn’t bad, and maybe one of the earliest examples of grinding, only a small minority likely bothered to actually improve all skills to 100.
Of course I did, but then again there was only so much fun you could have with a 486-DX2.
Combat also became important, no matter which class you chose. Naturally the fighter was all about being a powerhouse and clash into the monsters at any given chance, which could actually be quite challenging, especially during the first two games. As you progressed through the series, your spells and muscles would improve, and fights became more or less a walkover. Monsters varied quite significantly from the classical beings (goblins, brigands, wraiths) to the downright weird (killer-rabbits, giant pear-shaped, bouncing oozes and so on). If you were feeling particularly brave, you could set out at night and be a man. Because the really bad stuff came out at nighttime.
So, the hero and the story progressed hand in hand. Often you were given a gentle push in order to remind you that it was time to push on and stop training. Other times you regrettably remembered that you were playing a Sierra-game, especially when you managed to skip something that was apparently very important. This often caused you to either die or bug the game, effectively making it incompleteable. In fact there were a lot of ways to die in this series, which once again reminds you of the prime importance of save games when you’re dealing with Sierra.
Once a game was over you had the chance to save your hero on a floppy and use him in the next game. In this way the story felt way more coherent, and naturally the idea was that you’d stick to your character throughout the entire series. If you did particularly well, you were even able to unlock a fourth class; The Paladin. This holy warrior was achieved by completing a series of puzzles by a very specific way, and back in the days without this was truly a challenge worth your time. I still remember when my fighter finally made it and was made paladin by the end of the second game
But let’s not linger here, and instead have a look at the games, one by one.

QFG 1 was released in 1989, but a (much better) VGA version with mouse support was released in 1991.


Luckily, this version has been included in the Quest for Glory-anthology, though the possibility of the EGA-version is still around for those hardcore nostalgic people that so happen to borderline masochists.
QFG 1 is likely the second best game of the series, since it does such a fine job being an introduction to the universe and style. There is a common explanation about each game representing a specific culture, which in this game is likely Germany. Not that you wouldn’t guess so, since the place is called Spielburg.
The valley is in deep trouble, in several ways. The purple witch Baba Yaga (that frankly looks like a pink pile of compost) has cursed the baron, meaning that both his son and daughter have now gone missing. Besides that a villainous group of brigands are robbing the travelers and several of the inhabitants have minor issues that need dealing with. Minor problems for them, major XP for us.
As the newly arrived you have much to see to, and the game makes sure to tell you that you’re yet green in this hero-business. Also known as ‘The level 1-syndrom’ from Dungeons and Dragons, you continuously miss with your sword, your spells fail to light a candle, and you die if a goblin farts in your direction. Additionally, your first assignments involve fetching lost possessions from trees (unless you fall and die) and barely survive a 1v1 encounter with a goblin.
But the Spielburg-valley is quite big for a game of its time and there is a lot to see if you have the patience. It’s a sad fact, but going through this entire thing again, I felt more setting and adventure than I ever did in such modern games as Storm of Zehir. The forest outside the city is full of surprises and weird creatures. Many of them are ready with advice and as you get familiar with the place, and you learn where to find the places that offer shelter from the darkness, such as the hermit’s house and the magical garden.
For the same reason, QFG 1 is not very linear.  Though some of the tasks are better solved before others, you’re very free to do so in your own timing. It’s very possible to storm right through the main story without much ado, but it’s recommendable to stay a while and see things for yourself. In fact this can be necessary since stats are of importance, and you can easily spend 45 minutes of goblin-slaying, in order to perfect your offensive stats. Likewise there are ‘Oh snap, you died!!’-moments in abundance. Some of them are logical, but annoying, such as dying from exhaustion in combat (which you easily do, initially). Others are purely illogical and lame, such as declining a dance, after which you’re killed. At the same time, if you haven’t brought the right tools for the job, you simply die around the ending of the game.

1990 was the year in which the journey continued in QFG2: Trial by fire. The geographical seat was Arabia. I must confess that I used to avoid this game with great care, particularly because Sierra never bothered to release a VGA-remake as they did with the first one. Therefore, everything was ugly, you had to type in your commands and the music was…oh God. How I ever managed to complete this for the first time is beyond me, but then again there is only so much you can do with a 486-DX2. But THEN, to my great excitement and endless amounts of gratitude, AGD Interactive released a fan made revamp of this games, in August 2008. Made by Adventure Game Studio, this game ought to have been a part of the original anthology, had it only been released then. A really great detail, is that you no longer need Dosbox or ScummVM.

QFG 2 started right after the first game, in the desert-country Shapeir. A mighty place populated by cat-people (just go with it) suffering from nasty elemental-related problem. It is now up to you to challenge, air, fire, earth and water, while attempting to recover the missing sultan and help the oppressed neighbor-city. Whereas the forest in QFG 1 was static and full of random meetings, the desert in QFG2 was endless. Naturally this was an interesting illusion, as you couldn’t just draw a map, since the screens just went on forever. Instead you had to learn combinations, such as “south, south, east, east, east = the oasis”. At the same time the entire city was like a maze of streets that you had to navigate before you could buy a map for fast travel. A physical map was included with the game, naturally in order to prevent piracy. Sadly there wasn’t that many great reasons to investigate the streets, except for a few minor surprises. Luckily, AGD addressed this with an option to simplify the entire city into one big square of streets, which made it considerably more manageable. At the same time, AGD made combat a lot more interesting and challenging, even quite complex.
Sadly, the story in QFG 2 is far more linear than its predecessor. Though some side-quests still exist and some of them have more than one solution, the structure of the game is semi-timed. In example you have three days to disperse the fire elemental, before the city is burned to the ground. You then have a small break before the earth elemental comes, and so on. If you fail, you die. As you progress further into the game, you are more or less pulled by the nose and the choices are basically only of a strategic nature.
Still, you do get to feel like a hero, especially around the final showdown. This game also introduces the recurring villain and the revamped version was surprisingly free of bugs in my case. This only proves how much we should thank and show gratitude towards the fans and people willing to do such a huge amount of work. For free, even. The game is available for download at their site.

I’ll admit that QFG3 was perhaps the game I looked most forward to try again. It was released in 1992 and carried the label “Wages of War”. Its geography was greatly inspired by Africa.
The reason for my excitement was solely because I spent a lot of time on this part of the series as a child. Now, I can’t really understand why?

The story goes a bit deeper this time, it almost becomes political. And it suits it. Besides the mystery of what really became of your archenemy ‘Ad Avis’, the drums of war now echo upon the wind. We’ve taken up residence in the distant land Tarna, in which both the local tribes and cheetah-people have had a reliquary stolen and now blame each other. Between them stand only the hero and lion-people (what’s with the cat-fetish in these games?) to enter diplomatic negotiations. Your primary task is to venture with your friend and ambassador to the first big (and I must say, quite atmospheric) city. You get a really nice feeling of peace and yet bustling trade, when you explore the bazaar, the temples and later the savannah with its distant tribal villages. Once you arrive at these, your mentor decides to leave you in charge (what a jerk) and go home to watch ‘Dancing with the stars’. Thus it’s up to you to clear out this entire mess.
The freedom is back in this game. There is a lot of it, in fact. You can spend ages travelling on the overland map, as you attempt to find a way to stop the two savage sides.

The overall story is therefore left pretty to your pace and leaves much place for small surprises as the game progresses. If you’re not using a guide or any kind of experience there is good reason to travel near and far. You only know you’ve stumbled on something if you get near it and the game zooms in, meaning you’ll likely spend lots of time rummaging through the four huge maps of Tarna. On the other hand these places are not always that obvious, and since some of them are quite vital later on, you can easily walk past them by accident.
Yet, I was surprised how quickly I completed this game, once I knew where the various quests and items were placed. A humble time of about five hours with breaks, in which I got almost all points. A sad bug in this game is that you can’t really achieve the maximum amount of points, and another more notorious version makes the game unbeatable. Again, it’s very possible to make a mistake early one that will likely get you killed as you progress on into the game later. Again, remember to save.
A final note about the combat-system; it’s not very good. It’s often enough to simply spam your strongest attacks and wait for the enemy to fall. Also, combat-related stats are of minor importance here, unless they’re abysmally bad.
My uncontested favorite in the series is QFG 4: Shadows of darkness, geographically set in Russia with mythological roots in the Slavic folklore. Spiced up with elements from H.P. Lovecraft. Seriously. What’s not to like?
There are so many things to celebrate in this game, but first and foremost; The CD-Rom version from 1994. Also known as voiceover. For the first time, QFG was brought to life, and brilliantly so, by John Rhys-Davies (also known as Gimli from LotR and Sallah from the Indiana Jones-movies).
The grand picture of this game is not so easily explained, since the hero was abducted by his arch-nemesis at the end of QFG 3, and brought to an unknown place in which QFG 4 is started. This place is a dark and damp cavern, crafted in bones. Once you get out you realize that things aren’t looking brighter on the outside. Once again you’re in a valley, surrounded by mountains and no way out. Everything in Mordavia, which is its name, is in decay and great danger  springs from a sleeping evil that a cult once tried to unleash. This placed its mark on the place, and even though the beautiful forests are sleeping in the sun, there is a constant gloom everywhere you look. Even within the city-walls where everyone has pretty much accepted the state of things.

The game is, in this regard, rather unique, compared to its predecessors, since it’s so amazingly dark and sinister. Even though the light humor which has always been a feature of the QFG-games, is to be found, it is significantly more downplayed. Now elements such as fairies and blue rhinos are replaced with a swamp of restless dead, the spirits of dead children, mutated cultist and ceremonial sacrifices, several references to occult worship, and a female who was drowned during a rape-attempt. All in all, very atypical of Sierra, but I suppose this is related to their Phantasmagoria-days.

The stat-hell is pretty much gone, which is somehow kind of sad. At some minor points they seem significant, but a lot of them can easily be ignored all through the story. Your character is now at the point in which he can do some serious heroics and as the game progresses, especially the warrior and wizard get to feel important. The paladin, though, is the uncontested winner who get to shine through some very awesome side-quests. The thief, that even in QFG 3 could’ve used some more development doesn’t have much more to do here, besides from a single interesting quest.

Another reason why I love QFG4 is how it manages to use everything that seemed to work for the series so far. Besides the great music and voices, exploring the forest is as fun as ever, while the atmosphere from the second and third games is ever present and depressing. This is quite well done for a game so old, somehow. The plot is diffuse, initially it’s clear as mud, meaning you just have to go with it and see where it takes you. Besides a few mile-poles that has to be completed before the plot goes on, you’re again on your own. Besides bashing monster there is an unknown castle, a camp of gypsies, a haunted lake, a haunted swamp, a haunted statue (get the picture?), strange spirits of nature, a magical garden, a purple witch, an unholy church, a lonely graveyard, an old abandoned adventurers’ guild, a mad scientist and a dusty little town that isn’t particularly fond of you. And this is just the beginning.

I never really cared for the combat-system, though. Now you’re playing Street Fighter, which works okay, I suppose. It isn’t especially challenging, quickly becomes trivial and again you win by spamming the same attack over and over. Additionally there still are some stupid ways to die and some extremely annoying bugs, once again you have to make sure you complete a specific quest halfway through the game, otherwise you’ll die in the end. And even then you risk the game bugging out on you in the final moments. Remember to save often!
That being said, QFG4 will always be my favorite among them. Not only to listen to Rhys-Davies, but also because of the epic ending. Though bittersweet, it really put me in the mood to play the fifth installment of the series!

Sadly, this wasn’t really what I expected. At all.
I didn’t exactly look forward to write about this stinker, but it wouldn’t really be a review otherwise. Dragonfire was late to greet us, as we had to wait all till 1998. This time we were introduced to the Greek country of Silmaria by the wizard Erasmus, and you obviously had something to look forward to. Silmaria was often mentioned as a really bad ass place during the first games.

The king of Silmaria is dead, which has naturally brought the land to an uproar. In order to find a new candidate to the throne the Rites of Rulership have stared, in which everyone aspiring can compete. The hero is greeted by several old friends, which is really a force of the game, especially if you played all the previous installments.
Sadly, an assassin starts making short work of the competitors, and place them around the mystical dragon-pillars. Pillars that have been erected to contain a dormant dragon. It’s now up to you to reveal this plot and stop the dragon once it breaks free.
The game is meant as the concluding chapter of the series and from the grand perspective is doesn’t really do a bad job. There are several elements that bring the story to its end, such as who lives and dies and the possibility to chose a bride between the earlier female celebrities of the series. It’s a really great idea.

However, the element of classical adventure-game was always lacking for me. Whereas the other games were, in a way, adventure-games with a touch of RPG, this is an RPG with the touch of an adventure-game. Stats and equipment, for example, is much more prominent here. There is a lot more focus on the combat-aspect, and we’re not getting around the fact that this game is from around that time in which every-single-thing had to be in 3D, no matter whether it was a good idea or not. Just like modern movies, if you need a comparison.

Sadly this didn’t work for me, at all. It felt clumsy, and the keyboard interface also seemed very stupid. Why not simply just keep whatever interface you have and spice up the graphical aspect slightly. Just like, say, Monkey Island 3?
Yes, I’m looking at you:

You fail!
QFG5 is in my eyes mainly carried by its great predecessors. In its own, it’s a pretty weak game. I frankly can’t remember whether I ever faced any kind of bugs or the like.
I’d frankly rather plan any of the first four again.
This has been one long celebration to some of the greatest games in history, and yet so few people know about them. I can only say that if this has in any way tempted you to give them a try, I’ll gladly provide my happiest recommendation.  
Final Verdict: 8/10

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