It’s no secret that I enjoyed the debut of King’s Quest a few months ago. The lighthearted romp through new-yet-familiar territory represented a wonderful modernization of the venerable adventure game series. Imagine my surprise when Rubble Without a Cause delivers a deeper, more complex experience that packs a surprising punch while maintaining a family friendly demeanor.
*slight spoilers to follow*
Chapter 2 opens by giving players more insight into the ailing health of the old King Graham. Scared awake by a storm in the middle of the night, Graham’s granddaughter, Gwendolyn, runs to her grandfather’s room to find him struggling with his infirmity. Soon a storytelling session ensues, painting a portrait of a newly crowned King Graham overwhelmed with the weight of leadership as he is thrust into a life or death scenario where his subjects depend on his success for their protection. Taken prisoner by a goblin raiding party, Graham needs his wits to deliver old friends from the clutches of the enemy. This is a far cry from the coming-of-age adventure that comprised the majority of Chapter 1.
I would have been perfectly content with more of the same from The Odd Gentlemen, but clearly the studio wasn’t content with a rehash. While Chapter 1 focused on exploration and reestablishing the Kingdom of Daventry after the series’ long absence, Chapter 2 goes hard into puzzle-solving and testing the relationships created in the previous chapter. Not only that, but the tone becomes slightly more serious. While there are still plenty of puns and witty lines, lives are put at stake. As a prisoner, Graham needs to keep his subjects alive and well while searching for a way to free them from captivity. Rubble Without a Cause brings with it a slight biting edge to the humor that was absent in the first installment.
The added emphasis on puzzles adds to the depth of the King’s Quest experience. It feels like a slightly better bridging of traditional King’s Quest with modern adventure gaming than what was achieved in Chapter 1. While there were puzzles in the first chapter, they weren’t particularly difficult. However, I’ll confess to finding myself stumped at least twice during my time with Chapter 2. There are few things as puzzling as finding yourself with a chair, chopsticks, a pea, and no idea what you should do with them. This different approach to adventure gaming sacrifices some of the flowing transitions popularized by Telltale Games, but introduces more gameplay decisions. The way you solve the different conundrums presented to the player result in different outcomes. That idea might seem intuitive, but in practice it leads to a varied experience that’s actually pretty neat.
King Graham makes progress through the dungeon over the course of several days. In addition to solving puzzles, players have to monitor the health of their subjects. If a subject’s health reaches zero they will definitely remember how their king didn’t look out for them. At one point in my playthrough I made a mistake. That mistake resulted in a sick, pregnant woman being carted off by the goblins to an unknown fate. I felt awful and, of course, attempted to reload my save. That’s when I realized that King’s Quest doesn’t allow for reloading to previous saves. King’s Quest autosaves every time Graham moves to a new screen. There is no rewinding, no do-over. From a user friendly perspective it would be nice to have a rewind feature of some sort, if only so players who want to replay certain chapters don’t have to start from the complete beginning. However, I appreciate King’s Quest as a harsh mistress. It forced me to come to terms with the consequences of my own poor decision making. That tied in really well with the thematics of the chapter; how leaders aren’t always perfect and must live with the weight of their decisions. Not being able to go back forces players into the same position as Graham and I think that’s a good thing, albeit frustrating.
If I could suggest a change to Chapter 3, it would be a more obscure choices. The Odd Gentlemen have really made a great amalgamation of new and old with King’s Quest, but I think that the first two episodes have been overly obvious about the various paths open to players. It usually comes down to a choice between one of three paths: Bravery, cunning, and compassion. Level layouts and some really on-the-nose dialogue have often been overly telling rather than allowing the decisions to speak for themselves. It’s not a knock against what Chapter 2 offers, as it easily improves on this over Chapter 1, but King’s Quest can do even better. A bit of murkiness to the decision making process would go a long way.
The animation in Chapter 2 remains absolutely gorgeous. Almost every screenshot looks like it could be a painting. Watching everything in motion and seeing the still frames during some cutscenes makes me ache for a King’s Quest film with this aesthetic. There were a few technical issues with the version I played; occasional frame stuttering when entering new areas, lighting effects not appearing properly, etc. However, these were rare and didn’t detract from my overall experience.
Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by the number of great soundtracks that have been released this year, but I wanted more from the soundscape in Rubble Without a Cause. It felt a bit empty and lacked a signature King’s Quest flavor of its own that wasn’t borrowed from the previous chapter. The production schedule for King’s Quest must be ridiculously intensive, but hopefully future episodes can have the same care and attention paid to the soundtrack as the visuals, voice acting, and writing.
King’s Quest Chapter 2 drastically increases my faith in The Odd Gentlemen as a studio that can do justice to the legendary Sierra property while bringing its gameplay into line with modern adventure games. It demonstrates that they’re committed to pushing their design and storytelling further with each episode rather than with every adventure series. Most importantly, Rubble Without a Cause brings back crucial gameplay elements that Telltale’s brand of adventures have lacked. If The Odd Gentlemen continue to push the envelope of episodic games, King’s Quest might be able to push the entire genre in new and exciting directions.
King’s Quest Chapter 2 – Rubble Without a Cause was reviewed on Xbox One and is available now for PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, and PC.