King's Quest: Rubble Without a Cause review

Game Info
Box Art N/A
Platform 360, PS3, Win, PS4, Xbox One
Publisher Sierra
Developer The Odd Gentlemen
Release Date Dec 16, 2015

King's Quest brings back the adventure game series created by Roberta Williams in the 1980s. Published under the old Sierra name, this revival by developer The Odd Gentlemen takes the form of an episodic adventure game.

The new King's Quest begins before all the other games in the franchise, casting the player as frequent series protagonist Graham in his youth as he starts down the path to becoming a knight. The game is framed as a story that an elderly, bedridden King Graham is telling to his granddaughter Gwendolyn. The way you play King's Quest determines the tale Graham tells, which affects the advice he gives to Gwendolyn.

The Odd Gentlemen's King's Quest is split into five chapters. In the spirit of the various paths available to players, editor-at-large Justin McElroy and senior reporter Samit Sarkar engage in a back-and-forth discussion of the second chapter, "Rubble Without a Cause."

Justin McElroy

Nearly five months after the release of the promising if frustrating first chapter of King's Quest, we've finally gotten our hands on the second chapter, "Rubble Without a Cause." Was it worth the wait? Did it make good on the potential of its predecessor?

In a word: No.

King's Quest Chapter 2 screenshot 09 1920

In the present day, an ailing King Graham (Christopher Lloyd) continues to relate his life's story to his granddaughter Gwendolyn. He picks up the story soon after his past self was appointed king. Overwhelmed by the stress of the job, Graham heads out for a stroll and is almost immediately kidnapped by goblins. The story of the newly minted king's escape from goblin captivity takes the rest of the chapter to relate.

OK: Good news first. The goblin lair is far easier to navigate than the kingdom of Daventry. Even better, it's not plagued by obnoxious 20-second loads. That may sound inconsequential, but pacing was my single biggest issue with Chapter One, so it's a big deal.

The bad news is practically everything else. The episode doesn't really introduce any good new characters. The puzzles are direct to the point of boredom. The first chapter's humor, which was only smirk-inducing to begin with, is even more flat.

The episode has some glaring structural issues, too. It's split into cyclical days of captivity, so the player can get a bit closer to escaping each day. But you can't dawdle, as goblins have captured the people of Daventry (all characters you'll remember from Chapter One) and are, well, starving them to death. As in "A Knight to Remember," there are multiple ways to approach several problems in "Rubble Without a Cause," but this time there's certainly a right and wrong path, the latter of which comes with some dire consequences.

It's an intriguing premise, but — and I have to choose my words carefully so as to avoid spoilers — it's executed so poorly that it saps nearly all the fun from the final product.

Samit, am I being too harsh?

King's Quest Chapter 2 baker crop right 480

Samit Sarkar

No, I don't think you are.

In "Rubble Without a Cause," it feels like developer The Odd Gentlemen is trying way too hard to tell a dark second chapter of its five-episode story, and it's a poor decision all around. King's Quest's present-day framing device already lent a funereal feel to the tale, and in Chapter One, the studio smartly leavened that sadness with the goofy, lighthearted tone of the rest of the episode. King Graham still speaks to his grandchildren with terrible puns in Chapter Two, but aside from that, the yarn that he spins is so depressing that I'm surprised the kids stick around to hear all of it.

King's Quest Chapter 2 Graham crop left 480

Yes, it is possible to escape the goblin prison with a happy ending for all involved, but there's a significant chance that by the time you figure out how the overarching puzzle in "Rubble Without a Cause" is designed, you will have locked yourself out of that ending. I don't generally have a problem with that premise in a puzzle game: the idea of demanding that the player get everything right on the first try. My problem is that the specifics of its implementation in "Rubble Without a Cause" seem entirely wrong for King's Quest.

"Rubble Without a Cause" amounts to The Odd Gentlemen pulling a cruel prank on players. It's really difficult to discuss this without venturing into spoiler territory. I'll just say that the episode made me feel increasingly terrible about myself and the life-and-death decisions I was making as king of Daventry. Then, a late and unexplained plot turn (and even using that phrase is being generous) changed all that. The goblins' reasoning for the kidnappings and subsequent starvation seemed like a bunch of nonsense to me as well.

This desperate situation not only saps the humor from King's Quest; it makes it feel out of place altogether. The Merchant of Miracles is an absurd character in this setting, still yukking it up in his corner of the goblins' dungeon even though (as far as I can tell) he's stuck down there just like everybody else. Hey, buddy: How about you make an exception to your gold coin requirement in this case, since, y'know, I'm the damn king of Daventry and all its townspeople are currently starving to death?

I think I would've actively hated "Rubble Without a Cause" if The Odd Gentlemen hadn't at least improved the load times from Chapter One, and added the ability to skip repeated actions and dialogue. Even then, my playthrough on Xbox One was hampered by more than a few instances of stuttering.

Wrap Up:

'Rubble Without a Cause' is a step backward for King's Quest

Justin: The optimist in me wants to think this is a misstep, but even if we see a big improvement in the next episode, I’m not sure it'll be enough to keep me invested in this series. "A Knight to Remember" was flawed but showed a lot of promise — promise that is almost entirely squandered by "Rubble Without A Cause."

At least if it takes five months for the third chapter to come to light, the wait won't seem agonizing in the slightest.

King's Quest: Rubble Without a Cause was reviewed using Xbox One download codes provided by Sierra. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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