By Richard Cobbett on July 16th, 2014 at 1:00 pm.
Isn’t it just typical? You wait sixteen years for a new game that picks up where the Quest for Glory series left off, and suddenly four of them come along at once… or close enough, anyway. Hot on the trails of Heroine’s Quest, with Mage’s Initiation and the original creators’ Hero-U: Rogue To Redemption still to come, Quest for Infamy wants to take a rather less heroic approach to its mix of RPG and adventure. But do the bad guys really have more fun? Here’s Wot I Think…
Quest for Infamy is what happens when a joke gets completely out of control; the gaming equivalent of waking up one day with a headache and a fuzzy tongue to find that you actually own a pancake shop called Wholly Crepe and that this is a thing that has happened. It’s a satire of a series that had its last real hurrah back in 1993 (Quest for Glory IV, one of my favourite adventures ever), but which is closest in theme to the original, 1989’s Hero’s Quest. That makes it a riffing twenty-five years in the waiting, if not making… only to just get pipped to the post by Heroine’s Quest! Ouch…
(And, technically, Quest for Glory 4.5, but the less said about that one the better…)
Playing it though, it’s a wonder we got it at all. The words ‘labour of love’ are horribly over-used, but there’s really no other word for any adventure that dares to take on the Quest for Glory template – a hybrid of adventure and RPG that demands, just as a starting point, huge sprawling worlds, a hero with stats as well as stuff, shitty combat (it’s traditional!) and at least three paths through the game to cater for fighters, wizards and thieves – here, Brigands, Sorcerers and Rogues. Each class isn’t simply given a different weapon and special attack either, but their own stories, locations the other characters might never see, and radically different puzzle solutions. The Rogue for instance gets to join the local thieves’ guild and raid the town’s houses for goodies, while the Sorcerer spends much of the early game on a scavenger hunt for reagents to cast spells and the Brigand… does fightery things. Faced with a challenge like a thick bush blocking the path, the Sorcerer might fly over it, the Rogue set it on fire, and the Brigand simply chop the damn thing down with his bastard sword. The overall story is the same for all of them, but the distractions on the way change dramatically.
Quest for Infamy completely understands the big picture here, and the amount of work that went into it is genuinely impressive – the pathing, the animation, the sheer scale of the world; a valley that takes in two sizeable towns and stretches out through deep atmospheric woods to mountains, caves and beyond, almost all with unique, lovingly painted backgrounds instead of just filling the map with a big grid of flip-flopped trees pretending to be forest. Aside from the truly wretched voice acting and production, where half the cast sound like they’ve never been near a microphone before and a good half of what’s left should never be allowed to again, everything seems to be in place for Quest for Infamy to be both a modern successor to Quest for Glory and an indie classic in its own right. And indeed, make no mistake, it is absolutely one of the best and most ambitious adventures in quite a while, indie or otherwise, especially if you’re a fan of the original games.
So why doesn’t it work as well as it feels like it should?
One big reason is, unfortunately, its entire reason for existing – leading man Mister Roehm and his titular Quest for Infamy. This game has no more interest in exploring the less heroic side of the alignment pool than Samuel Beckett had in what Godot would say if he ever showed up. At worst, Roehm is an opportunist, starting out by bedding a Baron’s daughter in the intro but then largely limiting his roguish behaviour to being a little bit rude. Mostly, he just comes across as bored, with every situation met with little more than a shrug of “Whatever.” Become a sorcerer? Whatever. Beat up a guy? Whatever. Shift crates on the docks for cash? Whatever. Occasionally he’ll say something like “You’ll beat me up if I sleep with your daughter? Might be worth it!”, and there are a couple of moments where you can or have to be a bit of a dick, but for the most part you can’t even do anything even slightly naughty if you want to. The narrator acts like the most indecisive devil on your shoulder, constantly droning on and on about how cut-throat and ruthless you are, but stopping most attempts to actually live down to it with a “What? You can’t do that! That would be wrong!”
The overall feel is that having decided to make a game called Quest for Infamy, the team suddenly realised that cartoon villainy is usually a pretty useless way to get things done, and so dialled down first from villain to inadvertent hero to just plain antihero, to reluctant hero, and from that down to Roehm, a scoundrel so flat that his special thief ability should be sliding right under locked doors. He’s a man with no drive, no passion. He certainly wouldn’t say no to a roll in the hay with a pretty girl or the promise of treasure, but he doesn’t give the impression of a man who wants anything, except to be left alone to stooge around the world until the game of his life becomes “Bum Quest”.
Did Quest for Glory have a deep backstory? Of course not. But the thing about a guy wanting to be a hero is that it’s a worthy enough ambition to stand alone. Here, the lack of motivation is a problem. Roehm needed at least some larger goal, if only to fill time before the story proper kicked off – like say, wanting to stealing the king’s crown and become the most infamous outlaw in the world, only to find himself in a bigger plot that forces him to be a better man. Or, maybe, he arrives in town, gets rolled by the corrupt sheriff and decide that ho, he’ll show him a real villain! Something. Anything! It’s not until the third, final act that anything happens to make him give a crap about anything except leaving town, and about twenty minutes later the end credits are rolling. Talk about a waste of a premise that promised wine, wenches and wild adventures on the wrong side of the tracks.
As if trying to compensate, the rest of the game bends over backwards to try and put some edge back into things, from characters randomly saying things like “You’re a bit of a bastard” and the indecisive narrator declaring things like “You have no desire to be polite”, despite Roehm typically being smart enough to be exactly that to avoid getting into unnecessary trouble, but it doesn’t work. At all. It’s just a childish, out of place throw-in, like when Roehm randomly pisses on a rug, or the narrator lovingly describes a beautiful location and casually tacks on “Then you fart.”
Also deeply eye-rolling are most of the female characters, from the bartender whose cleavage the adverts seem to consider an honorary main character, to the two actual female leads both showing up in skimpy bikinis and cloaks that neither fit the tone of the rest of the game or the rest of the world (which is played very straight, aside from a few thrown in puns) nor ever actually get around to the ‘satire’ thing that Quest for Infamy seems convinced it’s doing simply by having mentioning it. Volaris, chilly captain of the city guard, is especially bad, not just for her chainmail bikini and the lack of a joke or the context to make it work, but for the fact that even her own troops at least get bathing suits.
All this stuff achieves is to be juvenile, desperate, and worst of all, not funny – Quest for Infamy trying to act like a bad boy with nothing to back it up except occasionally saying ‘bollocks’ and sometimes showing boobs. Gracious! Fetch the smelling salts! Or, indeed, not. Sigh. Disappointing.
So, that’s one issue – not that Quest for Infamy’s stories and puzzles are bad in themselves, but that they mostly wouldn’t have been that out of place in an actual Quest for Glory game and the bits that aren’t are typically no better integrated here. Lest we forget, we are talking about a series that gave Thieves the ability to fund themselves by robbing both old ladies and the Sheriff, and still call themselves heroes. Running out of steam about as early is such a waste of infamous potential; the chance to take something like the intro, where Roehm is caught with the local Baron’s daughter, and turn it into a sequence where he has to sneak naked back through town for instance, or must meet a prisoner in the dungeon by causing trouble and getting himself arrested, or work with brigands and outcasts instead of them being the usual enemies in the woods. So many opportunities.
Ignoring the infamy side though, the design is usually solid and often excellent. It nails, mostly, what made Quest for Glory work – that feel of being able to explore a world, albeit one without as much of a defining sense of place as both that series’ world-spanning later games, as well as populating it with opportunities to use class skills, minor RPG elements like the need to eat and buy rations, hunts for monsters and treasure, and multiple solutions to problems, some offering the chance to earn irrelevant Infamy points and others the scope for common sense/less dramatic solutions than burning down a tree to get a feather. It’s a very impressive world, a little short on hotspots at times, but a place that feels rooted and breathing and alive, with excellent spot effects and gorgeous scenery that massively improves on the bland Quest for Glory forest mazes of old.
While the voices can be painful, the conversation writing and plotting is also pretty good. Roehm’s lack of drive aside, he’s an amiable travel companion who snarks without really being mean to anyone who doesn’t deserve it, and the people of the valley lovingly written even if they are only there to sell potions or be a foil. Roehm tends to approach people in a sensible enough way; he’s civil and friendly and with enough roguish charm to bring people to his side even if they should know better, and Quest for Infamy makes good use of that… even if again, it rarely involves anything the Hero of Spielburg wouldn’t have done, unless you count going around with a beard that looks like a chin covered with gravy. The Narrator too is, despite a few wincingly awful descriptions now and again, exactly what the game needed, carrying the action with an infectious enthusiasm.
Early on especially, another cool part is how much takes place on a daily basis – a town execution on the first day, a group of cultists visiting town on the second, the nearby city of Tyr being locked off early on due to some internal problems but then opening up again once they’ve been dealt with, without any need to solve a puzzle or otherwise sneak in. While these events do completely drop off after the first in-game week, and more’s the pity, they’re more than enough to help breathe life into the valley while learning the lay of the land and give the impression that the NPCs have more to their lives than standing around and waiting for Mr. Roehm to bless them with his presence.
There are some unfortunate implementation issues though, which really get in the way of the good times. Some are small, like the fact that death is usually a cheap slap on the wrist and teleport back to the Healer, unless it’s suddenly not – dying to a giant spider in the South Woods for instance not counting, but dying to a highwayman in the same location, or forgetting to eat for a couple of days, being a drop-dead Game Over. These rarely matter much though, because you have to try to fail when you have fast teleport via a map, free meals on a daily basis, and an economy that lets you earn 100 coins in a couple of clicks in a game where health potions are practically free, and then loses interest in even that and just hands over enough cash to fill a swimming pool with the things and make Roehm invulnerable to everything save perhaps diabetes if they contain sugar. There isn’t even a cooldown on swigging them or anything else that you need money to purchase by that point. I had tens of the things when I faced the final boss. It was a less than epic duel.
But that’s ignorable quibbling. Combat sucked in Quest for Glory too, and has sucked in every single adventure game that has ever tried to have a combat system not built around telling people that they fight like a cow. A far more annoying problem is how Quest For Infamy handles its puzzles – specifically, the ones that involve the RPG side of the game rather than classic adventuring.
Part of what made Quest for Glory unlike other adventure games, and what Quest for Infamy generally does a decent job of emulating, is that solving puzzles isn’t simply about having a bag of random objects. Instead, you get tools. Lots of them, designed to cater for any problem an adventurer might encounter. If you’re a Sorcerer for instance, you have a spell called Unlock, just like in the original games. When these work, they really contribute to the feel of dealing with problems rather than solving straight-up puzzles, and there’s a sense of satisfaction that only comes from walking up to what another person might find an obstacle and dealing with it as a walking badass, thief amongst thieves or master of magic to whom such mundane rules do not apply!
Quest for Infamy only goes so far with this though. If you’re not supposed to use a skill, it all too often won’t even acknowledge that it should work; Unlock being more accurately called Unlock The Doors You’re Supposed To Use This On. Others will simply show a generic ‘nope’ or be ignored completely, much like Take Inanimate Object unless there’s an Inanimate Object you’re intended to Take with it, expensive climbing gear only works in a couple of places, and there’s only one acceptable reagent for the Sorcerer spells you have to learn regardless of how open the demands seem.
Quest for Glory of course didn’t allow free reign either, but it was usually pretty good about giving a reason why, like a locked door also being bolted on the other side. Quest for Infamy just slams down its boot, sometimes in the weirdest of ways. The Sorcerer for instance can’t cut down that bush I mentioned earlier due to it not being “your style”, despite wielding exactly the same sword and only having been a sorcerer for a week or so by this point. It’s such a needlessly petty restriction, and it doesn’t take many such slaps for the charm of the RPG elements to be washed away.
While I realise I’ve spent a lot of time picking at Quest for Infamy – and not with any pleasure – I did for the most part enjoy my time with it. It’s a brave, brave game that takes on the Quest for Glory challenge, and that the result has a few cracks is as unsurprising as most of them are forgivable. They’re disappointing, but you move on from them and there’s lots of good stuff to make up for it, including fun characters like Prospero the sorcerer trainer, the “Aha!” moments of remembering something at the other side of the map that now makes perfect sense, and plenty of moments where Roehm’s snark is exactly what the doctor ordered. It is, in most ways that count, a fine tribute to a fine series. Had it come out just a few short months ago, I suspect I’d have been raving far more effusively about it, as well as far more willing to overlook the understandable slip-ups.
Unfortunately, Quest for Infamy has the misfortune of coming in the wake of Crystal Shard’s Heroine’s Quest, which doesn’t look quite as nice or have as snappy dialogue most of the time, but does pull off the Quest for Glory adventure style far more effectively – a mix of feeling generally more confident about what it is, better implementing the tools and RPG side of things, and continuing the tradition of exploring a new type of environment and mythology. And most surprisingly of all, being free. It’s easier to cut an indie game slack when you’re not just off playing another game that managed to do the same things better with the same engine and more even more limitations – including not having had a $63,281 Kickstarter to fund its adventuring.
Be that as it may though, this is still a good crack at the Quest for Glory formula that, like Roehm, has little stomach for infamy but doesn’t do a bad job at reluctant heroism. If you remember the original games fondly, you’re almost certainly going to enjoy it, even if it doesn’t quite reach their level. If you’ve never played them, the whole set of originals can be had for ten bucks at GOG.com (with a VGA remake of the second available elsewhere). It’s impossible to recommend playing Quest for Infamy before or instead of those, but do keep it in mind for when you’re done, and enjoying the knowledge that there are, finally, more games like them both out and on the way.
Quest for Infamy is available now.