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King's Quest revival captures the charm and whimsy of the classic series

When Activision's newly resurrected Sierra label announced a revival of the King's Quest series late last year, I was too cautious to be optimistic. As a long-time fan of this classic adventure game series, I've been conditioned to expect the worst.

After all, there hasn't been a new King's Quest game since 1998's terrible King's Quest: Mask of Eternity. At multiple points in the last decade, fresh entries have been rumored or even openly announced, but none have come to fruition.

Most recently, the ever-popular Telltale Games, creators of beloved episodic series like The Walking Dead, were announced to be handling a reboot. That one was confirmed canceled in 2013.

All this is to say that I went into my first appointment seeing indie developer The Odd Gentlemen's take on King's Quest with more than just the regular dose of journalistic skepticism. I was downright cynical; I expected a disaster at worst, a mediocre thing that could never live up to the series I grew up with at best.

I was completely, wildly wrong.

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Dragon tales

If there's an immediately obvious note that The Odd Gentlemen got right about King's Quest, it's the general tone of the series. Though they tell unique stories, the King's Quest narratives always felt ephemeral and timeless in some sense. They implemented various bits of fairy tales and mythologies to create something warmly recognizable, even as it was sharply unique.

To match this feeling, The Odd Gentlemen's version of King's Quest is presented as a story literally being told. King Graham, one of the primary characters from throughout the series, has grown into an old man. No longer able to go on adventures, he instead creates fanciful retellings of his past glories for his granddaughter, Gwendolyn.

"We print out 3D models on paper, physically paint them and then scan them back in"

"Each story that he tells, the player gets to shape," says creative director Matt Korba. "They can tell a story of compassion or a story of wisdom or a story of bravery. And that affects Gwendolyn."

The gameplay for each story will actually focus around controlling Graham in his imaginative stories. But along side that, each chapter of the game will feature Gwendolyn encountering her own problems outside of the storytelling. Her reactions to those problems will be influenced by the kind of story you told — a smart idea that goes a step beyond the "[Character] will remember that" branching storytelling that's become so popular from Telltale Games.

In the GDC demo, Korba begins by showing the tutorial story. In this tale, a young, spindly Graham is exploring a dangerous cave in search of a magical mirror. Fans of the series will recognize this as a clear nod to King's Quest 1, although Korba notes that no prior knowledge of the series is required to play this new entry. He also says that post-tutorial stories will be fully original tales, not just tidbits pulled from or inspired by previous games.

The demo is based off a pre-alpha build which has temporary assets in many spots, but what's there already looks wonderful. This is thanks in part to The Odd Gentlemen's distinctive hand-painted art style for the game.

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"We're actually physically painting them," says Korba. "We print out 3D models on paper, physically paint them and then scan them back in."

As Korba leads me through the cave, he clues me in on how the team is playing with time via its clever storytelling mechanic. This won't be the only time players (as Graham) enter this creepy cavern.

"We're doing a lot of setup in this first part," he says. "You're going to revisit this cave. We're going to jump back in time and visit this same cave earlier. You'll understand later why certain things in the cave look the way they do."

As he progresses, it's clear to see why players will be left wondering about that stuff. The cave is full of oddities: a skeleton crushed by massive beds, arrows embedded in a long-dead target, strange deathtraps swinging from stalactites.

At one point, Korba encounters King's Quest's first simplistic puzzle. Two switches stand before Graham. One of them is next to one of the aforementioned crushed skeletons. The other is clean. "Which should I pull?" Korba asks me.

I choose the switch that doesn't have a dead body next to it. Korba tells me I made the right choice but hits the other switch anyway just to show me what happens. As soon as Graham pulls the switch, a bed comes flying at him from off-screen, smashing him against the wall.

"I was just checking to see if you were awake"

It wouldn't be a King's Quest game without sudden and surprising deaths, but The Odd Gentlemen opt for silly, cartoon-style endings rather than anything violent. Those deaths will also be a lot less frustrating than the progress-consuming fatalities of yore. After all, Graham is telling a story, and Gwendolyn isn't about to sit through him repeating himself over and over again.

In this case, the death leads to a fun quip from the much older Graham telling the story: "And that's what would have happened if I pulled the left switch. But since I'm here telling this story, you must know I pulled the other one."

Korba says the team is having a lot of fun with death sequences, both in terms of animating them and coming up with unique lines for Graham for each one. As he progresses through the cave, Graham comes across a massive but sleepy dragon. At one point, Korba makes the choice to walk directly up to the dragon, waking him up. The dragon devours Graham in a single bite.

This time, Gwendolyn interrupts: "You marched right into a ferocious dragon's mouth?!"

"I was just checking to see if you were awake," Graham replies.

The new kid

Dragons and dangerous caverns are all well and good, but King's Quest's heart really shows in its use of other characters. Jumping past the tutorial section, Korba shows me the next story. This one is the tale of how Graham became a knight.

In order to become a knight, Graham is forced to compete in a tournament with four other candidates. And rather than introducing these opponents via lengthy dialogue — or worse, not at all — the game features a series of puzzles that showcase each other potential knight upstaging Graham.

The quandary is this: Graham and the other candidates must find a way to cross a deep ravine. The first would-be knight is a talented archer. He ties a rope to an arrow, shoots it across and shimmies to the other side. Then he tosses the arrow back across to Graham, challenging him to follow.

In a brilliant move, the Odd Gentlemen place control into the hands of the player here. They're able to carefully aim their shot and tap a button to fire the arrow. And then ... the arrow only goes a few feet forward before plummeting into the ravine. Graham's skinny arms were no match for his opponent.

It's so rare to be put into the shoes of a character who can't always win

In another sequence, Graham decides to try chopping down a huge tree using a hilariously tiny axe. After a few moments of hard work, one of the other candidates asks him to step aside. This big, beefy knight has a much larger axe and makes short work of the tree, knocking it over as a makeshift bridge. He hops over to the other side, but naturally the tree collapses afterward, leaving Graham still stranded.

What King's Quest is getting across here is both how Graham is a non-traditional hero and how he (and the player) will need to use smarts rather than strength to succeed. It's so rare to be put into the shoes of a character who can't always win; it's a refreshing twist.

Best of all, these funny scenes are all presented with minimal dialogue. Korba says part of that is due to the voice-over work for the game not being done yet. But as is, the story is told completely through visuals and Disney-style musical cues. I hope the dialogue stays minimal here.

Whatever changes await in the final release, I'm incredibly excited to see more of King's Quest. That's more than I could have said prior to GDC.

King's Quest will be released as an episodic series beginning later this year. No release date for the debut episode has been announced yet, but Korba says news on that as well as some big voice actor announcements will be coming soon.