This first episode feels very much like a throat-clearing -- a small developer showing what they can do before they deliver a larger, deeper episode.
The Silver LiningPublisher: Phoenix Online Entertainment
Developer: Phoenix Online Entertainment
Release Date: 2010-07-10
The King’s Quest series truly belongs to another era of games. While pointedly humorous, ironic adventure games are still running strong (thanks mostly to Telltale), the serious adventure game as pioneered and perfected by King’s Quest is a thing of the past. The only companies that try to make them these days are independent publishers like Wadjet Eye Games. It’s not surprising then that the new episodic King’s Quest game comes from a completely independent company. Phoenix Online Entertainment clashed with Activision (who bought up the rights to King’s Quest when they bought Sierra) to bring the series back in this form, and now we can play the fruits of their labor.
This first episode, “What Was Decreed Must Be,” feels very spare. It’s short and small (featuring only a handful of areas to explore), and the player’s character, ex-King Graham, can only talk to a handful of characters. It feels very much like a throat-clearing -- a small developer showing what they can do before they deliver a larger, deeper episode.
For an amateur designed game, The Silver Lining is impressive. You won’t see any text bubbles here. Every single line of dialogue is voiced, whether it’s the series’ (by now) trademark omnipresent narrator or the conversations between characters. Likewise, it’s entirely in 3D, and while it has a large number of rough edges, it still manages to convey the bright, mysterious world of the Emerald Isles to me.
Despite being surprisingly three-dimensional, The Silver Lining definitely isn’t easy on the eyes. There are a wealth of animations (often in 3D adventure games like this, a character putting something in his pocket looks exactly like a character putting on clothes or shaking hands), but they’re almost all jerky or stiff. Characters move and walk in a truly robotic fashion, and the texture of the world is often blurry.
Again, I’m actually quite impressed by all of this. The team behind the game didn’t have hundreds of thousands of dollars to throw at The Silver Lining. I’m glad that the game exists as it is. What I have trouble getting past are the bland voice actors. Graham and his family are all rather stiff and unfeeling, which is strange, considering that two of their number are placed under an unbreakable sleeping curse a few minutes into the game’s first cutscene. Graham sounds worried by this predicament, but the rest of the cast sounds relatively unexcited.
Similarly, the narrator’s voice is bland and grating. The narrator is actually the voice actor who spends the most time talking. When I tried to open a locked door or steal from a dog-guard, Graham never let out a peep. Instead, the narrator would pipe up, mocking me for even thinking that I could use a mysterious cloak with a boulder or for trying to steal from people. There are actually an impressive number of responses to all interactions. Most of them are item and situation-specific. The narrator gave a different response depending on whether I was trying to give money to a guard, boat captain, or inanimate object. It’s too bad that the actor and script behind the narrator weren’t a bit less shrill and a bit more memorable. Thinking back on my brief half hour with the episode, all I can remember is the ludicrous moment when the narrator plugs her own website as part of a response to player activities.
The Silver Lining fails at creating an inviting atmosphere, thanks to its just-adequate voice work, but it’s even more off putting once one actually controls Graham. Pathfinding is nonexistent: if you click on a far-off exit, Graham will often trundle in place, stuck on a tiny bit of world that he could have easily walked around. It’s also difficult to appreciate the lines and lines of narrative dialogue (which really do describe everything in detail impressively) when you have to sit still to listen to those lines. It’s impossible to walk somewhere else while listening to the description of a doomsayer in the marketplace. As soon as Graham moves an inch, the narrator shuts up. This means that if players want to hear all of the dialogue recorded for each item (and really, this is the best that the episode has to offer), they must sit and listen and then sit and listen some more.
The Silver Lining is obviously a difficult game to love (so far), but it’s also a free, community-produced game. I have to respect the incredible amount of unpaid effort that went into this game. This doesn’t mean that I think that The Silver Lining is shaping up well. There’s hardly one puzzle in the whole of the episode, the controls and interface are clumsy, and the world is a chore to interact with. If the second episode can feature actual gameplay and puzzles, it’ll be a big step in the right direction. Even if the narrator and characters get on your nerves, this is still a game worth exploring. It’s free, and it breathes just a bit of new life into a venerable, justly loved franchise.