While I thought that the first installment of Sierra and developer The Old Gentlemen’s episodic King’s Quest reboot offered a good time for adventure game fans, the following episode made some big stumbles. While both were a bit too open-ended for their own good, the second episode’s gloomy environments and ultimately hollow gimmick made it something of a slog. As a result, I was unsure whether the remaining outing would help the series regain its footing.
So, I’m happy to report that not only is the third chapter, Once Upon A Climb, a major step in the right direction, but I’m actually pleasantly surprised to say that it’s probably one of my favorite gaming experiences of the year so far. It retains the best aspects of its predecessors and incorporates a very well done and meaningful new element. Better yet, it directly addresses my main recurring issue, and streamlines the experience without sacrificing the core elements of a great adventure game.
The main framing device of the elderly King Graham recounting adventures to his granddaughter continues, though it’s less prominent here than in past installments. The flashback that takes up the majority of the game takes place a few years after the second episode, with the scrawny, younger Graham maturing into a more muscular and dashing figure, a change that returning characters humorously observe at some points. While things are peaceful, Graham has come to realize that ruling the kingdom on his own feels unfulfilling, and the lonely desire for a queen takes priority.
Thankfully, Graham’s magic mirror alerts him that a nearby tower has a captive princess within who is destined to be his true love. However, when Graham scales the tower, he ends up with several major hitches in his plan. As it turns out, there are actually two princesses contained within named Vee and Neese, and neither is willing to marry him on the spot. The tower also has a curse placed on it that makes it impossible for anyone who enters it to leave unless they’ve found true love, and another occupant is making it very difficult for Graham and his new acquaintances to work on that.
The rest of the episode consists of Graham, Vee, and Neese interacting with each other in their prison, as well as during brief quests that allow them to temporarily leave the tower for supplies. In each segment, Graham will mostly interact with one or both princesses, with the player deciding what he does and says to them, as well as seeing how each girl reacts to each decision.
If that and the fact that we don’t see the face of old Graham’s wife until the very end didn’t tip you off, the story doesn’t have a preset regarding who Graham ultimately chooses to court. It doesn’t come down to players making a manual choice at the end, either. About 3/4 through the episode, it became obvious that the game tallied my choices together, as things started to get more intimate with one princess and stayed that way until the end.
Both Vee and Neese are entertaining and likable characters, with their own unique quirks. Vee is an intellectual, loving puzzles and tactical methods over brute force, and Neese, while far from a ditz, is more adventurous and gentle in comparison. While I leaned towards one over the other due to how I found her closer to Graham’s personality, my choices said otherwise, as I ironically ended up with the other at the end.
This ended up presenting the first time I wished I could replay some portions or an entire episode of King’s Quest, but as far as I can tell, the farthest the game would let me restart was from the beginning of Chapter 2.
This doesn’t stop the episode’s story from being very enjoyable and well-written, though. Besides Graham and both girls having many funny moments, we start getting hints at some interesting plot threads that the remaining two episodes will doubtlessly focus on. I also liked the approach taken with the episode’s antagonist, who turned out to be a far more sympathetic and nuanced character than I initially assumed.
One of the big changes here that really benefits the game is how its structure is far more streamlined and episodic. You generally only get one or two environments to explore at a time, switching to another set once you’ve solved puzzles or interacted with characters to the point that the story must continue. The aimlessness and repetition of exploring the larger environments of the first two episodes is basically gone, and I’m perfectly fine with that.
This approach, along with the choice mechanic, may sound similar to modern Telltale games, but Once Upon A Climb never loses track of its classic adventure roots and delivers inventory and environmental puzzles that are clever without feeling unfair.
The opening puzzle, for example, has Graham walk through a row of plants several times, as each environment represents the time period of previous episodes, resulting in players having to experiment with past versions of the plants to make them grow a specific way in the future and solve a problem. Others rely less on brainteasing and more on character interaction, like when Graham and the princesses play a card game that relies on how well they know each other’s opinions.
This is the first adventure game in ages that I beat without having to look up any hints online, but the puzzles never feel overly easy. It hits a near-perfect balance in that regard. At around 2 and a half hours, the play time is shorter than previous episodes as a result, but it’s hard to complain when the experience is far more enjoyable.
The presentation here has seen some improvements as well. This is the first King’s Quest episode where I took notice of some very nice background songs, and there are clever cinematic moments, like having players control each shot of an opening montage where Graham goes through various areas on his way to the tower. There were no technical hitches to be found, either.
The only big gripe I have with the episode is that, since there are situations where Graham can die and players must start the section over, I found myself having to skip through the same lines and brief cutscenes every time. A section where Graham and Neese collaborate on building a vehicle is very reliant on trial and error, and no matter how hard I pressed the event skipping shoulder button, I had to hear her say the same recording of “My turn!” a good twenty times before I figured things out. I’ll also say that the climactic action scene that wraps things up goes on too long for its own good, but that was less of a problem in comparison.
Once Upon A Climb makes up for its predecessors’ mistakes and then some. It packs a great amount of cleverness, charm, and personality into its writing, pacing and gameplay, and has left me more excited for the remaining episodes of King’s Quest than either of the previous chapters. It’s possible that the last two parts will make big mistakes and disappoint, but this outing has made me realize that the series has the potential to turn out great, rather than just good.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game, which was provided to us.
King’s Quest: Chapter 3 – Once Upon A Climb eliminates many of its predecessor's issues, packs in clever, meaningful mechanics and writing, and is the best part of the reboot so far.