Rating: 5/10 - Nice graphics aren't enough to cover for frustrating gameplay
(My King's Quest series reviews: I: Quest for the Crown, II: Romancing the Throne, III: To Heir is Human, IV: The Perils of Rosella, V: Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder!, VI: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow, VII: The Princeless Bride)
King Graham is back for the fifth game in the series. While Graham is out on a walk, a wizard pops in and steals his castle and family. With the advice of an annoying talking owl and a unhelpful wizard, Graham sets off to save them.
Very early on in the game you acquire a companion, a talking owl. He's cute. He's cowardly. He has a ridiculous accent. His advice never really helps. He's profoundly annoying. The game would have been stronger without him. Sadly, it's not just the owl. Before the game ends, you'll meet a talking owl, rat, wolf, bee, eagle, and ant, as well as a singing colony of ants.
Graham also proves himself to be decidedly hapless hero. By the end of the game, he will be captured by a blue demon, harpies, a roc, and an ice queen.
Graphically the game makes a big leap forward. While relatively low resolution by modern standards, it has aged exceptionally well and looks good.
King's Quest V is the first game to drop the typing interface; everything is done with icons and the mouse. This works reasonably well, although the custom cursors frequently don't make it clear where on the cursor is the actual target. As a result, I spent some amount of time clicking on the wrong thing. The interface is also a bit inconsistent: to pick up items in the environment, you use the hand icon. To pick up items from your inventory you can't use the hand icon, instead you use the arrow.
The CD version, which we played, is the VGA version and is a "talkie;" there is no text, only spoken dialog by the characters or by a narrator. While this is a nice touch, it is very frustrating that you can't also get subtitles. The dialog track is uneven in volume, and sometimes the background music or sound effects drown out the dialog. The game has a single volume meter, so you can't lower the music to better hear the voices.
Going with a narrator was an interesting choice. Most modern adventure games have the protagonist voice their own comments. The narrator gives the game more of a fairy tale feelings, which works. On the down side, the narrator feels the need to narrate the most pedestrian details, including picking up of minor items and observing obvious things. The narration never varies for actions repeated several times. As a result, the narration grows tiresome.
The game is choked with serious gameplay flaws.
Seemingly safe exploration is occasionally fatal. For example, entering an inn, Graham sees three men talking. Graham refuses to talk to them, although he also refuses to explain why. If you move into the inn (and haven't completed a seemingly unrelated task), Graham dies and you lose. The only warning you get is that the men are seedy; hardly evidence that they'll outright murder you. For extra frustration: you actually need to enter this seemingly lethal situation to finish the game, but only after doing something completely unrelated (saving a rat). We discovered this hours after we'd missed the opportunity, and only discovered it from a walkthrough as we banged our heads on a much later puzzle.
At another point, simply activating with a new inventory item to experiment with it is fatal. The item in question was acquired with no other context, there are no clues that it is so inherently dangerous. Worse, you later need to use it as a trap, something that you could only foresee if you had previously used it and killed Graham off.
One particularly grueling section forces you to map a large desert. Graham can only move seven screens in the desert before he dies of dehydration. The safe locations are frequently more than three screen apart, so to map the desert you'll need to save frequently and boldly walk off to your doom. As a result, Graham only crosses the desert safely because of information gained while dying. This is stupid.
There are smaller examples where Graham needs to learn something by dying. Finding the island while sailing. Discovering that the boat has a hole and will sink. (No, examining the boat doesn't reveal the hole.) Discovering that a pair of statues shoot lighting at you.
While traipsing around in the desert, Graham finds a seemingly pointless location with a small spring and a sealed door. Only by waiting around in this non-interactive location will allow Graham to discover an essential clue. It's not a long wait, but I was busy running around and never saw it. Without witnessing this important moment, Graham was unable to move forward with this part of the game. I ended up turning to a walkthrough to learn what I had overlooked. Asking me to wait for a bit in this location (but not in one of dozens of others) is unreasonable.
In several cases, you can enter an area having some, but not all, of the required objects. The endgame is particularly rife with such situations. Similarly, you can leave an area or have a timer pass and fail to acquire an object you don't currently have a need for, but later will need. Early in the game, if you miss a one time, timed event to save a rat (an action that may be impossible if you can't stumbled across an essential item), you'll never be able to win. Later in the game, if you overlook a small object in a timed screen, you'll never be able to win. This happened to us repeatedly, and we spent a lot of time replaying old sections to get seemingly irrelevant objects we missed or accomplish seemingly irrelevant tasks. This replaying was all the more frustrating when it included non-skippable cutscenes that we had seen several times.
There are a number of single pixel but essential objects in the game, making them easy to overlook.
To take one particularly frustrating puzzle mentioned a few times above: We found an inn. Heading in is fatal; Graham gets captured and is killed. So we avoided it. We also caught a cute animation in which a cat hunts down a rat. It was cute, but didn't seem relevant, so we ignored it. Only many hours later did we discover that we were stuck and couldn't advance. Turning to a walkthough, we learn that we needed to save the rat. Saving the rat changes visiting the inn from being a fatal encounter into a required encounter. So we loaded a very, very old save and tried again. The cat/rat puzzle is random, so we bounce back and forth until it appears. Then we fail to save the rat. And fail to save the rat. We can't throw anything we have at the cat. Okay, back to the walkthrough. It turns out that we need an old boot abandoned in the desert! Graham has an inventory of suitably heavy objects, including a stick, but will only throw a boot at the cat. So, restore, and back into the desert to pick up a boot. To solve this puzzle the first time, you need to search the desert exhaustively before meeting the rat by chance. In the desert, you need to pick up an abandoned boot, an object with no obvious application. You need to throw the boot at a cat in a one-chance, timed event. You then need to enter an inn that, previously, ended the game. This is not a reasonable puzzle.
On the subject of non-obvious interactions, apparently tambourines scare away snakes. Who knew? You can also kill a yeti by throwing a cream pie in its face.
Graham continues to lack a desire for basic self-preservation. Graham has pretty good pathfinding; click on one part of the screen and he'll avoid obstacles to get there. But click too close to a cliff edge and he'll never think to stop; over he goes! "Don't click in the deadly areas" is not a fun puzzle.
Despite being great looking, KQ5 keeps the frustrating gameplay of its predecessors. A typical player will end up replaying sections of the game repeatedly, and will have to turn to walkthroughs or hint sites more than once. KQ5 is only recommended for die hard fans.
2009-12-27: Minor edits.
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