(Cue battle victory music.)
Here we are! Less than twenty years after the series started, I have finally beaten the Quest for Glory saga! "Dragon Fire" has long been the most mysterious and unknown quantity in the series. Expectations were high from me, but so were fears... I had a lot invested in this tale, and badly wanted everyone involved to wrap things up in a satisfying manner.
QFGV almost wasn't. The first four games built up a devoted and relatively large following, but the series was always kind of an oddball within the Sierra franchise, which had traditionally eschewed RPGs and, by the mid-90s, had determined that traditional adventure games were on their way out. The Coles had originally envisioned the series as a four-game entry, but "Wages of War" was not included in that calculation... ever since the first entry, they had carefully included references to beautiful Silmaria by the the sea, so it was only fitting that they try and end the series there. After attempted cancellation and years in the wilderness, the combined efforts of fans writing thousands of letters to the Sierra executives' offices caused them to relent, and at last Dragon Fire was funded, created, and released.
So how did they do? I'd have to give this entry a qualified "good." In some respects, it's the best game of the series. In other respects, one of the worst. It has a slightly schizophrenic quality that will be especially pronounced to long-term fans: it often doesn't feel like a Quest for Glory game at all, but at the same time, it is fully a part of that universe and contains flashes of intense QFGoodness.
By the time this game came out, the adventure game genre had been officially declared dead, and so it should come as little surprise that the gameplay had some drastic changes. Most importantly, for the first time it was not using the SCI/AGI engine. Now, you can line up Hero's Quest and Shadows of Darkness side by side, and declare that they look and feel utterly different, but still, there is a steady continuity between those two, as their underlying platforms gradually evolved from the same codebase. Similarities in tone and sensibility were thanks to the continued involvement of Lori and Corey, but similarities in feel and strategy were thanks to the classic Sierra engine.
So, right off the bat, the interface announces you're in a different world now. You start the game floating in a cheerfully three-dimensional space. Sprites are gone forever. The icon system of III and IV are now as obsolete as the typing system of I and II; you now use a single cursor to interact with the world. It is a bit clunky, though I think I like it more than the multiple-icon interface... modern games would be even more streamlined, while this still has some awkward touches. For example, you right-click to toggle between the "use" and the "view" mode, then left-click to use or look at an item; a better system, which was freakin' used in QFG2 for crying out loud, was to left-click to use or walk, and right-click to look at an object.
The new engine also allows far better graphics than have ever been seen in a previous QFG, though at the same time, it looks pretty awful compared to contemporary games, and hasn't aged as well as the classic sprite-based games. Still, the particle effects in particular look nice, and I can imagine how amazingly revolutionary they would have seemed when this game first came out.
One particularly odd change is conversation. In a way, it's like a throwback to III's portraits after IV's full-screen dialog. But, again, we're looking at models now instead of sprites. This can feel particularly jarring when you are speaking with characters from previous entries in the game; they have the same name as before, and talk about the same thing, but don't look anything like the people we knew. As with all the QFG menu-based conversations, I wasn't too happy with how dialog works gameplay-wise... it's always in your interest to select every possible conversation topic and exhaust every chat, which means that talking with people becomes just another rote click-through exercise instead of a thoughtful part of gameplay. At least the voice-overs are better than in Shadows. They aren't great, but do a fine job. Weirdly, there were one or two moments that abruptly caught my attention from the little exposure I'd had when my college roommate was playing through this game: In particular, the part where some(one/thing) says "Don't I.... get a yummy bribe?"
The other strong feeling of earned deja vu came from the music in the game, which I felt like I knew intimately. I suppose that this might have also come from eavesdropping on the game, but the memory feels way too intense for that. Perhaps I picked up the game's soundtrack at some point and listened to it ad nauseam? I don't think it's in my collection, but that does seem like the sort of thing I easily might have done... I've always been the kind of gamer who would purchase a game's ancillary materials if I wanted to play the game but didn't have the computing power to run it.
Anyways: the music! I think that this was the first game without Mark Seibert getting a credit, but the music was wonderful. The tunes are catchy and evocative without ever becoming annoying; they set you in a time and place, whispering at the possibilities of exploration. My favorite was probably the theme for Silmaria at night. I thought that the way they worked in the classic QFG theme was wonderful, especially the flute arrangement you can hear near the fountain.
The most obvious change to the game might be its shift in combat. Every previous game has done combat as a one-on-one battle, with you facing off against an opponent in a match determined by tactics and reaction time. In Dragon Fire, all combat takes place on the main game screen, and it is a completely different and fully infuriating (at least for me) system. Basically, think of an incredibly crummy interpretation of Diablo's combat. There might be twenty enemies on the screen, but only two of them at a time will be doing anything. I usually ended up fighting by clicking on them a whole lot. You can theoretically fight using the keyboard, which I would have preferred, but you need to be EXACTLY within range and facing in EXACTLY the correct direction in order to make your blows land, which I could never get right. Honestly, combat has never been the high point of any QFG, but it felt especially mindless and annoying in this iteration, and is probably foremost on my list of reasons why this doesn't feel like a "real" Quest for Glory game.
Very broadly speaking, the story is enjoyable, with a few specific complaints that I'll address in the spoiler section below. By now I've come to recognize the hallmarks of a typical QFG plot. The final villain is always unknown at the start of the game; the hero must gradually earn the trust and respect of whatever peaceful civilized community he has entered; from the second game onward, the villain always wants to unleash some ancient terrible evil upon the world. So it isn't exactly groundbreaking, but it's fairly well done and entertaining.
In case anyone wants to play the game, I figured I'd share some of the details and pain of getting it to work.
The game actually plays pretty well in Windows using Compatibility Mode; I selected Windows 98. The problem, though, is that the CD installer does NOT work well in 64 bit Vista. So, you have a couple of options here. One is to install on another OS and just copy the files over. The other is to use Microsoft Virtual PC, install Windows 98 on it, and then map a network drive to your game folder on Vista. Install your game there. You may be tempted to play the game within Virtual PC as well. If that works for you, by all means go for it, but whenever I tried that the game was pretty choppy, with particularly stuttered audio.
Before you start playing the game, be SURE to install the version 1.2 patch. This game was very buggy on release, and the patch fixes the most severe gameplay bugs. Again, the patch installer doesn't work on Windows Vista 64 bit, so try one of the above alternatives to fix it.
At first glance, it seems impossible to import your QFGIV character. The README reveals that in order for this to work, you must manually copy your exported character file into the QFGV directory. Yes, that's right: the technology for importing is worse in QFGV than it was in QFGII. Welcome to the brave new world!
Now, the most critical point of all. About 95% of the way through the game, you'll run across a situation that, on modern hardware and a modern OS, will freeze the game. You'll see the window and your character's status bars, and can move around the cursor, but the hourglass will show and nothing will ever happen. I spent half of a Sunday trying to figure this out. At least in my situation, it was due to the software configuration of my computer. QFGV shipped with Quicktime 3; we are now on something like Quicktime 7 in the real world. At this point 95% of the way through the game, it tries to play a Quicktime movie for an in-game cut scene. Something goes wrong, and everything breaks. After a lot of trial and error, I found a work-around. You need to use Microsoft Virtual PC as described above if you haven't previously installed it. Try installing using the "Typical" instead of the "Full" option (I'm not sure if this is necessary, but is one of the things I had changed.) Install Quicktime 3 off the disc. Now, make sure that the QFGV Play disc is recognized by Windows 98 as being in the main CD drive. In my case, I had been using a virtual CD drive, and I couldn't find a way to make Virtual PC treat it correctly, so I had to switch to a physical CD that I inserted.
Once all those things are in place, I'd recommend playing the game in Vista (or XP or whatever) right until the point shortly before the game freezes. Save your game. Put in the CD. Boot Microsoft Virtual PC for Windows 98. Load that game. Watch the cutscene. Save your game. Switch back to Vista/XP. Keep playing, but be aware that you'll need to switch back to 98 again in about 10 minutes or so, so be ready to do the same thing again. On a related note, at least on my computer, the game would crash on Vista if I had the CD in my drive, so I had to eject it before starting on Vista.
One quick way to check and see if you'll need to worry about this situation is to try and play the Introduction video. If you see this video when you launch the game or when clicking on "Introduction" from the main menu, then you should be in good shape and won't need to worry. If not, then I'd suggest taking whatever steps necessary now to set things up right; otherwise, you run the risk of investing a dozen or more hours into this game and then finding that, on the brink of victory, you cannot beat it.
Oh, and a side note: even though you should see if the Introduction video plays, you might not want to actually watch it before starting the game. It actually gives away a lot of plot; it's more of a preview than a true introduction. It's worth watching towards the end, but if you want to be surprised, give it a pass early on.
While we're on the topic of bugs: despite the gameplay fixes in Patch 1.2, the game still will sometimes crash on you. Fortunately this is rare; unfortunately, it is extremely common in the endgame, which uses a lot of sound and particle effects not found elsewhere in the game. As is true with all Sierra games, save early and save often. In the final battle, I accumulated something like twenty separate save files as I wore down my opponent's health.
Also, be aware that save games sometimes become corrupt - in my experience, roughly one in twenty saves or so. You won't notice this has happened until you try to load the game, at which point it crashes. To minimize the pain, save in a variety of slots, and don't go too long between saves.
And, on a related note, even though the worst gameplay bugs have been patched, it is still relatively easy to get into a situation where you can't do what you want. Usually this just means missing part of a conversation or some extra points, but sometimes can have more serious consequences, depending on your goals for the game. Again, save early and regularly. If worst comes to worst, you may need to go back several hours, but it will be better than starting again from scratch.
Oh, and one more thing: for a thief, there is an object that you may acquire sometime during the game. You will expect to receive a reward for this object. In order to get that reward at the end of the game, it must be in your backpack. It isn't enough to have gotten it, to let people know that you have it, to have it in your storage chest. Even though it's heavy, keep carrying it around, or you'll be like me and need to play through the last, incredibly buggy hour of the game TWICE.
If this sounds like a lot of work for a "fun" game - well, yeah, it is. Sadly, this is the reality of playing games from the late 90's on today's computers. Is it worth it? I thought so, but then again, I'm a die-hard fan. If you're already determined to play this game, take the above as instructions on how to avoid much of the pain; if you're wondering whether this Quest for Glory thing would be fun, I have to say that there are more productive places to put your time.
I played as a thief again. I'm not sure, but I think this might be the best thief game in the series. It's certainly the best since QFG2... after the shocking absence of anything fun to do in Wages of War, and the paltry single robbery available in Shadows of Darkness, you have a thrilling variety of targets to take on in this game. The designers took steps to enhance the role of the thief as well, bringing you two new tools: the pickpocket knife (used to pick the pockets of townsfolk) and the blackjack (a VERY satisfying weapon that you use to thunk people over the head, after sneaking up to them from behind).
My thief-related complaints are few. I think that stealth is too undervalued in this game. In their defense, it is pretty realistic - the programming obviously pays a lot of attention to line of sight, and to the level of light, so it is much easier to sneak successfully at night than during the day. Still, with a Stealth of 600, I found it impossible to ever sneak around opponents in daylight. I would think that such a master thief would be able to conceal himself and get around. More importantly, it would have made portions of the game a lot more fun for me. I did NOT become a thief so I could click five hundred times on my enemies to kill them all; I became a thief so I could do as little fighting as possible and still get around.
Disarming traps wasn't that great, although at least it was challenging, unlike in Shadows. For the harder ones, I ended up keeping a notebook and pen by the computer, and quickly sketching out the figures as they were revealed so I could recall them. Once you get the hang of it, it's fairly easy.
A lingering complaint for the series: its selection of skills feels half-baked. I was infuriated when I learned that they dropped Communication for this game. I exercised this skill constantly from its introduction in II all the way through its uselessness in IV. And then, poof! It's gone! Adding insult to injury: the main use of Communication back when it did anything in II and III was to allow you to drive harder bargains with merchants. Of course, this seems like something a thief might be good at, right? The quick-talking swindler, the flashy confidence man? The insult is that this role, of lowering bartered prices, has been shifted onto HONOR. Freaking honor! That really makes me mad... you don't get lower prices by being an honorable person, you get them by being DIShonorable. And, guess what character class is guaranteed the lowest Honor of all? That's right: the thief! So that ticked me off. The rest of my complaints are more pedestrian: as with all of these games, some skills are useless. Here it's Climbing and Acrobatics. I think my Acrobatics went up all of like 2 points throughout the game. You can practice your Climbing a little more, but the important thing is just using your rope, and it doesn't seem like you can ever fail to climb. I was a bit surprised at lock picking, too... you don't have a ton of places to practice it (as per usual, having only a handful of targets), and there's a part near the end of the game where I actually failed to pick a lock, for the first time in forever. That was fine - I just tried a few more times and got in - but still, it was a bit weird.
The puzzles in this game were OK. I found myself turning to gamefaqs more often than before; I'm not totally sure if this is because they were too hard/obtuse, or if I was just impatient to wrap things up. Some of the puzzles are quite clever; I'm thinking now of a particular door you have to open, and as a thief you must use three items to do it, the first two being relatively obvious, the third extremely non-obvious, but really clever once you realize what it's doing. Other times, it's a puzzle that makes sense in the end, but would be very hard to predict ahead of time. Like, for example, there's a part in the game where a lever snaps off in your hand when you try to pull it. I restored a game, figuring I had messed something up. Nope: the lever is SUPPOSED to break, and then you replace it with a spear, and then use the spear as a lever. I suppose this sort of makes sense, but isn't intuitive within the game.
There is a return of science from QFGIV, which I enjoyed. There are actually two scientists within the game - one you can meet by day, and the other by night. This is a thread which entered the series late, but still provides me a lot of pleasure.
The game creators were obviously extremely cognizant of their fans, and throughout the game you get to meet people from all of the previous installments. Rakeesh has now been in almost as many games as you have. Erasmus and Fenris are here and back to their old selves (though, of course, they don't LOOK anything like they did in the first game). Just as cool is the way they finally show a lot of what they've been talking about in previous games. Every game before now shipped with a game manual presented as a "Famous Adventurer's Correspondence School" guide. Well, in this game, you get to meet the Famous Adventurer himself. Also, every game since the first has talked about dragons, and the original Hero's Quest/QFG even had a dragon on the box cover; it's always been a bit of a tease, but now you get to see a dragon for real. These touches feel well executed, at least to me, a final "thank you" from the game's creators to its fans.
One new innovation that I LOVED was the romance aspect. Your hero has been kind of James Bond-ish up until now, meeting and kissing attractive women throughout several games, but finally you get to choose, pursue, woo and marry the woman of your dreams. Now, I don't want to get expectations too high. This isn't as cool or well-done as the romance system in Baldur's Gate 2. And you are limited in your choice - there are just four possible brides for you out there, some of whom you won't encounter until towards the end. Still, it's really fun and adds another level to the game... figuring out who will give you the time of day, puzzling out which gifts will warm their heart, and continuing to pursue them.
(One quick note of caution: if you are the thief, and want to wed the girl from the bar, you'll need to move relatively quickly. I found out too late that the task she sets you on once you propose is impossible to complete after the guards have been moved.)
The pace of the game is a little odd. It's completely wide-open early on: you have freedom to move anywhere on the main island, can fight a lot of monsters, do a bunch of puzzles. Once you actually start the first Rite, things switch over to a more traditional QFG-ish time-based system, with events happening in sequence. Now, a quick note: while you are theoretically competing against other contestants, and are regularly exhorted to move quickly, as far as I can tell you will never run out of time on any Rite, and no other challenger will beat you (unless you explicitly permit them to do so). So, take your time. This is especially true if you are hoping for maximum points. Every time a new Rite starts, talk with everyone in Silmaria. Think of everything you can do related to your current Rite.
I liked the point system in this game. Points have been in every game since the first, generally offering a maximum of 500, and have been very visible as you play. Here, you are rewarded with a special chiming noise whenever you earn points, but they are much less visible to track. The maximum is 1000, but I think it's actually possible to get more than that; it's just capped at 1000 even if you go over. This is a huge gift to obsessive-compulsive gamers everywhere. No, you do not need to play the game again from the beginning just because you forgot to make the thief sign to the Cloaked Man on the third day.
This game also adds "Deeds", which are textual descriptions of the things you did to earn points. This, to me, is a more satisfying way to review your achievements. In a great touch, at the end of the game you can see a list of all the Deeds that you did NOT accomplish; this gives a great opportunity to identify things to do on later replays, or determine whether it's worth playing through again. Each character class has its own set of Deeds, though, so as a thief I only saw the missing Deeds for my own class.
One hypothetical about romance: what would a wide-open playing field have looked like? I think Nawar is supposed to be the thief's match, but she's kind of... small-time, you know what I mean? I opted for Elsa, personally - sure, she looks goody-goody now, but she knows the thief sign, used to lead an army of brigands, and can be surprisingly deceptive in her dealings with Minos. In an ideal world, though... I can imagine the thief connecting with Dinarzad from Shapier, and between them expanding the Thieves' Guild into that famously closed city, building an empire of wealth and trickery. Also, I'm a little bummed that you apparently cannot woo Erana if you're a thief. This is playing against type, I know, but that's the fun! You're supposed to be this sneaky guy who nobody knows is a rascal. If you could even fool Erana - well, that would be incredibly entertaining.
In keeping with the "best thieving game of the series" theme: the Chief Thief contest and the apprehension of the Blackbird were hugely entertaining for me. I love role-playing, and this was role-playing at its best. I really enjoy feeling like you're part of an organization, and climbing to the top of that organization at the peak of the series was a delight. I thought Ferrari made a great adversary, frankly much better than the real villain.
And that brings us to my greatest criticism of the game. I think that Minos is the weakest, least satisfying villain of the series. And that takes some doing, given the confusing and lackluster demon lord thing from Wages of War. First of all, there's no art to it. From the very first time he opens his mouth, you're supposed to be thinking, "Oh, this guy is the Big Bad!" Everyone talks about how clever he is, but anyone with an ounce of sense would have invested the time in not sounding like an evil mastermind. Even before that, though, the game's "Introduction" video clearly shows Minos ordering the assassination of King Justinian. So, even though most of the game is supposed to be solving the mystery of who killed Justinian, it's really over before the beginning. And that flatness of presentation continues all the way through the "climax" when he kills himself to release the dragon. It just isn't even remotely believable. Why would a guy with so much wealth and power kill himself just to spite another country? I'm not saying it can't be done, just that this game gives us no reason to think he would have done so.
In contrast, think of Ad Avis from QFG2. In some ways that was a similar setup: some unknown force is causing suffering in a city. There, though, Ad Avis was an unknown quantity. You simply had no idea who he was for most of the game; if you solved a particularly tricky optional quest, you would get an early warning of his name, and when you spoke with others about him, you tapped into a sense of menace and danger. Arriving in Raseir, you encountered a stark vision of his evil aim; even then, though, you were directly interacting with his underlings and puppets, not the man himself. You met face to face, and found him to be powerful, talented, and charming. By the time you met him face to face on the tower, you had gone from nothing to a clear understanding of his motives and agenda. Few moments in gaming have been more satisfying to me than when you toss a dagger at that pentagram.
That's a good way to do it. In contrast, Minos is nothing. A wisp.
At least once Minos is out of the way you get to meet the dragon. Now, there's no subtlety to the dragon, no motivation: he is a being of pure destruction. But at least he's big, he's powerful, and he offers a really interesting fight. After a entire series of one-on-one fights, you have an epic confrontation of five - five! - heroes joining forces to bring down the most powerful monster in existence. A freaking dragon! That was really fun. Even with the constant crashing. And the way that the roof would randomly cave in regardless of what I did. Basically, even saving every thirty seconds throughout that fight and reloading more often than I would have thought possible, it STILL was a lot of fun.
The end-end game was reasonably satisfying. I kind of chuckled that, once again, the game ends inside a palace, with various people clustered around to testify how wonderful you are. That said, there were still some things I would have done differently. First, it would have meant a lot to have actually HEARD from Rakeesh, Toro, Shakra, etc., instead of just seeing them standing there mute. And once again, things felt kind of... small. I mean, you're the kind of a whole country, right? And you see a grand total of, uh, fewer than a dozen people at your coronation. It's just one of those jarring RPG things, like how when you fight in the Coliseum there are hundreds of cheering fans, and yet when you walk around the city it seems to have a total population of around twenty. This problem is hardly unique to QFG, and frankly the only place where you can convincingly get large and differentiated crowd is in the benighted MMORPG sub-genre.
As I hinted at before, the first time I beat the game, I was astonished and infuriated to find that I was not the Chief Thief. After reading online I figured out what had gone wrong, and did some cursing. Then I grimaced, reloaded, and played through the entire endgame again, including regular switching between Vista and 98. My ultimate reward was the final scene - I was quite happy that it took place after the coronation, since, after all, for the thief this will be the true crowning achievement, not some stupid crown or getting to rule a dumb kingdom. I was doubly pleased when, at the end, you and Nawar get to heavily make out, despite Elsa's earlier announcement of your betrothal. After all, back in the day the Famous Adventurer called out "playboy" as one of the advanced career tracks for the successful thief. You're living the dream, baby! Living the dream!
All in all, my feeling about QFGV is that it is an... odd game. It's fun, and makes a nice capstone to the series, while at the same time it feels quite unlike anything that's gone before. If you play as a thief and enjoy the thieving aspects, you might find yourself thinking that this is the best game of the series. If you're addicted to classic Sierra-style puzzles, you'll likely be disappointed and think this is the worst of the series. It is far from all that I had hoped, but much better than I had feared. As franchises go, that isn't bad. So long, Quest for Glory! It's been a fun ride.