After much to-and-fro, King's Quest tribute game The Silver Lining from Phoenix Online Studios has not only been granted a release by IP holders Activision, but the first episode is out now. A completely fan-made project, and completely free, it's been eight years in creation. I've finished the first chapter, so here's Wot I Think.
Clearly being a free amateur project, my expectations were appropriately placed. Interestingly, it both exceeded and fell short of them. Oh, and talking of falling short, I should mention right away that it's extremely brief. We're assured that further chapters will be longer, but this one won't last more than an hour. In fact, skipping cutscenes and dialogue... 9 minutes 50 seconds. Of course that's skipping the entire point of playing, but it indicates how little there is to actually do in the game.
What is immediately noticeable is the level of detail. The graphics are an odd mix of some very impressive scenes with reflective floors, working mirrors, and the like, and oddly blocky, extremely dated textures and character models. Oh, and it's in 3D, which is no small feat for an am-adventure project. There's also a really impressive number of detailed animations for specific actions - further signs of care going in - although they aren't especially good animations. But it's the detail in the writing that is most impressive.
Traditionally Sierra were always far better than LucasArts at making sure there was a description for nearly every visible object in the game, along with alternative comments for when you did something stupid, like spoke to a log. Phoenix Online have taken this and run with it, offering not just descriptions but detailed stories for almost anything you can click on. Look at a vase in the halls of the castle and you won't hear, "It's a vase." You'll instead hear a tale about the Queen when she was young, playing in these hallways. Look at the floor and rather than being dismissed you'll likely listen to lines and lines about how King Graham feels about the situation he's in - his son and daughter-in-law's wedding being interrupted by a mysterious, cloaked figure, who has put the pair into an undisturbable sleep.
Conversations are equally verbose, and the volume of silly responses for silly actions is enough that you'll likely give up trying before you'll hear them repeat. And extraordinarily for such a project, it's all voice acted. And even more extraordinarily, it's voiced extremely well. There's only a couple of amateur-sounding characters in there, the rest sounding more professional than some contemporary commercial adventures.
The real weakness in this script is - beyond some of the descriptions being just too much information when you just wanted to know if it could be picked up - far too many arch meta references to the fact you're playing a game. Sure, this has been a theme in adventures since the 80s, but it doesn't work here for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the tone is far too serious. The game isn't playing for laughs. Graham's son is in dire trouble, a terrible evil is attacking the world, and everyone in the area seems to detest humans. His family are distraught, hope is lost - this isn't a comedy adventure. So being told to visit an actor's website isn't really appropriate. And that would be the second part. It's all very well to have a character wryly complain about the obtuse nature of adventures. It's quite another to have the narrator start plugging things, no matter how much of a joke is made of it. They seemed to be taking this project extremely seriously, and aiming for a sombre tone - it's absolutely eradicated by content like that.
Another gripe regarding the dialogue is the lack of an ability to carry on playing as it chatters away. If I'm going to be told the life history of a character because I looked at a mirror, I want to be able to walk to the next destination at the same time. But unfortunately clicking either to move, or even to right click to change the cursor icon, will skip that line of dialogue. And yes, of course dialogue should be skippable. But it would be very nice to walk about.
It would also be nice to walk about without walking into things. There's a weird lack of pathfinding, meaning it's far too easy to get stuck behind a pillar and run on the spot. It unfortunately makes things feel unfinished.
Beyond this, it's very hard to comment much further. (Oh, apart from to giggle at King Graham's hilariously silly walk animation.) Other than giving someone an object from your inventory, there's nothing even approaching a puzzle in this first chapter. In fact, the second half is almost entirely cutscenes. While these guys aren't making money from this, and so they don't need to worry about people wanting to invest in the rest of the series, it still seems a shame that they've spent so much time introducing the story, but forgotten to introduce any depth of game.
The story focuses on trying to discover who the mysterious stranger is, what has happened to the young couple, and then learning of a need to enter dream worlds in later chapters. It's much in keeping with later King's Quest games, although certainly far less twee. It's quite fun to be back in a world where dog-people officiating marriage ceremonies isn't considered strange, and of course there's a woman with green skin. It's just the way of things.
That there are such impressive cutscenes, huge amounts of dialogue, and piles of love poured in, is a remarkable achievement. The team deserve enormous congratulations. It's likely to be a decent new entry in the King's Quest series, that knows the history of the franchise extremely well, and intends to add to it with passion. Hopefully they have written much more puzzle content for later chapters, because combined with a promising plot that could make for an enjoyable run.
The Silver Lining is free, and available now from here.