Sierra and The Odd Gentlemen’s King’s Quest reboot has had perhaps one of the most stretched-out episodic release schedules in gaming history (the first episode was released last summer, and there’s still one more yet to come). Making things stranger is the rather varied approaches to gameplay and structure each installment has taken, resulting in a fairly uneven average quality.
I found the last episode’s more focused and character-driven setup to result in the most enjoyable experience yet, but the latest installment — Snow Place Like Home — mixes things up once again, and not in a way that works very well from either a storytelling or variety standpoint. What makes this even more frustrating is that the moments that do work, which mainly come in the first and last acts, are some of the best parts of the series yet. This results in an episode that, while still worth playing, feels more uneven than it needed to.
As the elderly King Graham continues to recall his many adventures to his granddaughter Gwendolyn, the story follows Graham and whichever queen the player ended up with in Episode 3 as they tend to a pair of newborn twins. Unfortunately, an old enemy invades their castle hoping to make Graham suffer, and carries out their plan by kidnapping one of the babies in hopes of raising them to destroy the kingdom. After 18 years of fruitless searching, Graham is just about ready to give up hope of ever seeing Prince Alexander again, but is shocked when the now-grown child returns independently, having escaped his captors and wanting to reunite with his lost parents.
The royal family plans to celebrate their son’s return with a vacation to a nearby tropical area, but are puzzled upon arrival to find it coated in snow and ice. While Graham initially believes it to be a new look for their hotel, he and Alexander are soon separated from the queen and princess, and an imposing sphinx commands them to make their way through a puzzle-filled labyrinth to save the others and escape. Graham hopes to use this opportunity to help Alexander hone his puzzle-solving skills, but it quickly becomes apparent that the two take differing approaches to situations, leading to gradual friction that plays into the episode’s conclusion.
Up until this point, King’s Quest has presented a primarily lighthearted story with slight elements of darker, more emotional material. Snow Place Like Home certainly doesn’t skimp on the humor, and even offers some of the series’ funniest moments, like Graham having his biggest rapidfire geeking-out over a contraption yet, and a returning ally saying he avoided getting married due to it being the number one cause of divorce. Yet from the setup of Graham paralyzed by a spell and helplessly watching his son being abducted, to a genuinely good twist and tragic payoff regarding the cause of the ice spell, there’s a feeling of long-lasting tragedy to many plot points, even if the way characters respond to them is often comical.
Even the modern-day framing story feels more solemn, with a good portion dedicated to growing tensions between Graham’s descendants, and a final scene that confirms a sad suspicion I’ve had since the series’ beginning and leaves you itching to see the finale. What keeps a lot of this from feeling too heavy and jarring is how we still get lots of good quips from characters, which are also integrated well, with one exception. The saddest part of the episode ends up shifting rather abruptly to the last puzzle, where the characters go back to acting nonchalant and lighthearted, only to go back to solemn and sad in the epilogue. It’s odd to say the least.
While many elements regarding the story are for the better, the same can’t be said for a lot of the gameplay. The opening portion has some fun moments, including making a puzzle out of soothing a crying baby, an interactive staring contest, and attempting to best the royal family with a game during a road trip. Once Graham enters the labyrinth where roughly two thirds of the three-hour episode are set, most narrative connections and variety are tossed aside in favor of a series of block puzzles. While each room offers a different gimmick from the last, the recurring goal is to end up being able to walk over a perfectly connected line of marked blocks so as not to be killed when opening a door.
People who enjoy these kinds of puzzles will probably have a good time, and I actually did at first, thanks in part to Alexander tagging along and the puzzles hitting a sweet spot in terms of difficulty. Graham goes solo for the latter half, though, and some of those puzzles become more frustrating than fun. A lack of variation in the icy environments caused me to draw unfavorable comparisons to the second episode’s dreary cave aesthetic, too.
On the technical side, while I had no issues with the PS4 version breaking its 60FPS framerate, I encountered a pretty severe glitch with Graham getting stuck in an icy railing at one point that required me to reload the last autosave. Visually, though the icy aesthetic gets tiring, the environments do look nice overall. Character animation and voice acting also remain solid, particularly Lorraine Toussaint of Orange is the New Black fame as the manipulative sphinx.
It feels like The Odd Gentlemen have purposefully set out to approach the design of each episode of King’s Quest differently, and while this is likely due to wanting to keep things feeling fresh, it’s given the game a case of identity crisis for me at this point. Episode 1 felt like a conventional, old-school adventure game, Episode 2 added an unnecessary and ultimately pointless survival mechanic, Episode 3 felt closer to a Telltale game in terms of linearity and focus on story, and Episode 4 feels more like they’re appealing to the Professor Layton crowd (there’s even a matchstick puzzle at the end).
Maybe this approach will indeed appeal to others, but looking at King’s Quest as a whole so far, it’s resulted in a somewhat unfocused feeling for me. It probably would have been best to stick to either the first or third episode’s format and both expand on and refine it rather than continually deviate. Because of this, it’s anyone’s guess how exactly the fifth and final episode will play, but on the positive side, I can say that I’m genuinely intrigued how its story will play out.
All signs point to it wrapping up the present day storyline with the elderly Graham, and judging by the increased emphasis on his granddaughter and the tease of a final threat from the duo who have become the series’ overall villains, I’m willing to sit through flawed gameplay if it can keep the good storytelling constant. Snow Place Like Home is definitely not going to appeal to everyone who liked the previous episode, but its high points still make it worth playing for those interested in the rest of the story.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game.
King's Quest: Chapter 4 - Snow Place Like Home packs some of the best storytelling in the series so far, but a bizarre and repetitive structure for the majority of its length holds it back from greatness.