Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Game Review: A Tale of Two Kingdoms

A Tale of Two Kingdoms is another example of "games by gamers" - a freeware adventure game modeled after the sort of old-school types I've mentioned before (ie: Sierra's Quest line). Of course, unlike its contemporaries at AGD Interactive (all of which I've enjoyed), "A Tale of Two Kingdoms" isn't a modern remake: Crystal Shard built this game from scratch. On the one hand, that's an impressive accomplishment given how smoothly the game looks and plays. On the other hand, there are more than a few bumps along the way.

Let's start with the good stuff: the game world is beautifully designed, with visually stunning artwork. The "overworld" is a bit small due to the story premise (more on that in a bit), but there's an advantage to that because you don't have to travel far when you go from point to point - and, of course, this being an adventure game, you do quite a bit of legwork in the course of your progress. The music deserves special mention, as the soundtrack has some truly lovely themes that add a lot of atmosphere.

The story starts out well enough: the prologue details how King Vortigern, ruler of Theylinn, conquered the southern kingdom of Qualinem only to be overthrown and forced into retreat by mercenaries under the command of Maeldun Whiteblade and his lover Branwyn. Unfortunately, both kingdoms - weakened by the prolonged conflict - are now threatened by a goblin invasion, forcing Vortigern to invite Maeldun and his troops to Theylinn as a precursor to an alliance. Obviously, neither side is particularly happy about the circumstances. And then an assassination sends things spiraling out of control.

So far, so good. But things take an awkward turn halfway through, with the introduction of the faeries and their kingdom of Thierna na Oge. Most of the political subplot gets shunted aside while an unnamed villain pops up out of nowhere and starts messing with you. The game's multiple-choice system also presents a specific problem - oh, it's hardly the first game, or even the first adventure game, to have more than one play-through route, but what usually happens in those cases is you get a complete, intact narrative regardless of which path actually plays itself out (ie: the "Silent Hill" serise). But "A Tale of Two Kingdoms" doesn't really do this, partly because very little attention is called to the possibility of random events - one side-quest, for example, relies on you knowing when a specific character isn't present at their usual location... but if you stumble on a different puzzle first and solve it, you'll never be able to complete the former. It's very easy - too easy - to get to the end of the game with huge chunks of the story missing (such as the identity of the assassin). Which means that if you want anything even remotely resembling a coherent story, you need a walkthrough. And that's... kind of a drag. Especially since even the best ending has what TV Tropes would call a We Will Meet Again moment.

So... yeah. It looks lovely, and it plays well, and that says a lot about these talented individuals at Crystal Shard. But "A Tale of Two Kingdoms" doesn't make the most of what it's got, particularly in the story department.