Thursday, October 23, 2008

Exchange This World For...

80%!  Quest for Glory IV marks the penultimate step (or possibly pen-and-a-half-ultimate step) on my journey to finally conquer the Quest for Glory series, two decades after it began.  And, it might be the most entertaining of the games I've played through in this sequence.

First, on the technical front: this was the most challenging game for me to get running.  If you want to try it out yourself, you'll first want to be sure to grab DOSBOX.  Immediately after installing, be sure you are all patched up.  If you are using the disk version, you'll need to apply Sierra patches to version 1.2.  The CD version includes those patches, but even here you'll want to install the community patches, which are unofficial but fix some critical bugs and make the game playable on modern computers.  Let me re-emphasize that: you will need BOTH Dosbox AND the unofficial patches in order to play, and you'll want everything installed before you begin, to avoid save game corruption.

Also, while I was relatively lucky on this next point, numerous people have complained that there are still bugs that make the game unbeatable.  Some of these aren't so much bugs in programming as bugs in game design - you are allowed to make certain decisions, or fail to act in time, in ways that will break the game for you and make it impossible to win, without it being immediately obvious what is happening.  My best advice here is to save the game regularly under different files - perhaps one at the start of each day, or whenever you receive word of an important event - so that if you get stuck, you can go back a few days instead of starting again from scratch (or, more likely, giving up altogether).

Some final notes - something that caught me up at first was that, whenever I looked at or touched anything in the game at the start, a window would very quickly appear with some text, and almost instantly disappear.  It was hard to learn online what was happening, but I eventually figured it out.  If you are using the CD version, and don't have the CD loaded, then it will try to play the audio off the CD, and when that fails, immediately dismiss the window.  There are two solutions.  If you have the CD, go ahead and pop it in.  Otherwise, go to the Settings, and then click on the word "Audio" in the lower right.  This will toggle it off, and you can just read the text and click through it as normal.  Also, if you still run into glitches even after installing the unofficial patches, I've found it can be helpful to decrease your speed - even using the in-game Speed slider, not the Dosbox settings.  In particular, this helped for one part in the game where, whenever I tried to go through a door, it would immediately return me to the previous screen.


The graphics and gameplay are better than in QFG3.  Rather than low-res talking-box portraits, you encounter people through full-screen cartoonish images.  The land in general is prettier than in QFG3, too.  The overall interface remains the same - select icons and click them on the world to interact - but has been more severely customized; instead of the stock Sierra eye, you have a floating eyeball, for example.  On the whole, this game reflects the awkward adolescence of the early-to-mid 90's PC games: new generations of technology and frontiers of budgets were dramatically expanding the range of tools available to gamemakers, but they had not yet developed a craft around using them.  So here you have a game where every line of dialog in the game - which adds up to quite a few! - is spoken by an actor.  It... well, it's kind of odd, really.  It's pretty clear that they wrote the script like they would for a normal QFG game, with a pleasing denseness and wide scope to it.  And then, every single line of that text gets recorded.  This doesn't just mean the people you speak with in the game: every time you look at something, every time you click on something, any time you do any task more complicated than walking, you get to hear about it.  It isn't bad, really, but it's very unusual.  I can't imagine a modern adventure game paying for this level of detail.

As for the voice actor quality, they're all over the map... generally bad, but in a funny or lovable way.  One unfortunate thing is that the game is set in a facsimile of eastern Europe, and as a result, there are a painful number of really fake Russian accents.  Occasionally, it sounds like two different people recorded for the same character; I'm thinking of one person in particular who sometimes speaks with a Slavic accent, and other times sounds like a Voodoo priestess.  Fortunately, the narrator, who speaks a strong majority of the lines you hear, is pretty good.  He's also famous; try to guess who it is without peeking at the credits.  I'll give you a hint: It isn't Ian McKellan.

One place where the game falls low is combat.  They revamped it from the earlier systems, turning it into what looks like a side-scrolling action game.  I just couldn't get the hang of this - it didn't have the strategy of QFG2VGA, and didn't have the speed and simplicity of QFG3.  I eventually gave up and switched to "Strategy" mode, which lets the computer control your actions.  This isn't very good, but is less annoying than failing on your own.

On the upside again, the puzzles are generally good.  They hit that sweet spot: challenging enough that you need to think about them for a bit, but not so obtuse that a reasonable person can't eventually find the answer.  Often you will need to acquire some information from elsewhere in the game in order to solve it.  Many puzzles also feature some in-game help, which I think is excellent - if you get stuck, you can wander back to your main haunts and question people, and often they will provide you with a hint for what to do next.  As a final result, the more mechanical puzzle passwords provide a hint system on the same screen that suggests what you need to do.

The music is very enjoyable.  Music has been a strong component for the QFG series, and QFG4 keeps up the tradition.  Many of the short ditties get into your head and repeat ad nauseum.  Often the music is evocative and mysterious, in keeping with the game's eldritch setting.  My favorite themes are probably the ones for Erana's Garden and for the Thieves' Hideout.

All right, I think that covers the technical aspects of the game.  Now lets move into some


Another reason why QFG4 satisfies is its dark theme.  This feels like the most mature entry in the series yet.  Now, every land you've been to yet has lived under some form of threat, and you've always faced dark magical foes.  In Mordavia, though, that darkness has lasted for years, and it seems to have crept into the very souls of the townspeople.  They have turned insular and callous, expecting the worst of everything.  Your own explorations seem to affirm this darkness.

That isn't to say that it's unrelenting, though... this game has nothing on, say, Planescape: Torment.  It's just that the lighthearted and funny elements are fewer and farther between.  Even the comic elements have a line of melancholy underneath.  This game features an actual comedian... but a vicious curse has stolen his sense of humor.  The townspeople are a Greek Chorus of comic suspicion.... and their attitude leads to a grave crisis. 

In this, your hero's fourth quest, you seem to be turning into a man.  In the past you have worked with and under people who are stronger and wiser than you; people like Erasmus, Rakeesh, and Uhura.  Your friends have taken you to each new land and introduced you to their homes.  This time, you are on your own.  You arrive alone.  You must fight your way to the relative safety of the town.  Once you get there, you realize that there is no person living there who can be a mentor or a true equal friend.  Instead, you must become a sort of parent to this village.  You use your own strength and judgment to provide and care for them, standing alone against the darkness.

This aspect of the game impressed me most of all: watching how people's relationships with you evolved over time.  There's a real depth and poignancy to the characters you meet, and watching them emerge from their shells is incredibly rewarding.  It's hard to think of another RPG that has pulled this off as well.  Granted, the scope feels very narrow, with just a handful of people to meet, but even so, I was very impressed by the variety of reactions you encounter.

Closely tied to this asset, the rhythm of the gameplay was one of the best yet.  QFG1 was wide open; almost nothing happened on a set schedule, you just took on tasks as your interest and abilities warranted.  QFG2 practically ran on rails.  You couldn't do anything before its appointed hour, and once you were let out the gate, you only had so long to complete it.  QFG3 was kind of a hybrid, with some set tasks early on and more freedom later.  In this game, you are literally free from the very beginning, able to explore anywhere and do most quests; but, the world is not totally static, and you must wait for certain events in order to proceed.  Because of this, there were certain times in the game when I thought I was stuck, but after sleeping for another night I would learn of something new which had happened, which in turn would lead me on to my next goal.

Thematically, this game is also mature; it doesn't just look at bad things in the world, but also at how those things affect us; our own actions can be driven by our environment, even as our actions become the environment for others.


This was most movingly presented in the story of Tanya.  The simple way to do this would have been to make her a pure damsel in distress: an innocent child snatched from home by a being of pure evil.  They didn't do that, though.  They tease out the complicated relationship she has with her parents, and the moving friendship she establishes with Toby.  I was particularly pleased when, at the end of the quest, her father realized that his own attempts to keep her safe from the darkness were what made her frightened.  In a way, you need to accept the darkness in order to gain power over it; you cannot conquer the darkness while you try to shut it away and live in fear.

The theme of sacrifice is extraordinarily powerful.  "Sacrifice" is a word that we (or at least I) tend to bat around a lot without really thinking about what it means.  Sacrifice isn't just giving something up.  It isn't just helping people.  Sacrifice means pain.  Sacrifice involves a meaningful loss.  Sacrifice changes you at least as much as it changes the target of your sacrifice.  Too often I talk about sacrificing flavor or sacrificing convenience, as if it was just a trade.  I should instead be remembering the sacrifice of Isaac or of the marines at Guadalcanal.  Quest for Glory IV recaptures the necessary angst around sacrifice.  If it is an easy choice to make, it isn't a sacrifice at all.  I get the impression that I'll be forgetting a lot of this game next year, but I think that the two major sacrifices within it will stick with me in the same way that, say, Aeris does.

The first major sacrifice is that of Erana.  It happened long in the past, but her death was such a powerful event that it still reverberates, and she is the one influence that seems to give any measure of comfort to the terrified villagers.  I love how this mysterious figure has been slowly painted in since we first learned her name in Spielburg; now, even though you share her dreams, there is still a sense of mystery about her.  I'm really looking forward to QFGV, if for no other reason than to hopefully learn the details of how her story ended.

The second major sacrifice is Toby's.  I was surprised by how affected I was by this, considering that I had only met him a few minutes before.  Part of that might be his animal nature... although he is described as a giant ape, I find it much easier to compare him with an especially fierce dog.  His unswerving loyalty reminds me of the canine companionship I've had, and because of that Tanya's loss feels like me own.  Besides Toby's character, the directness of the action serves as well to emphasize the tragedy.  He's obviously sad and frightened, yet he never balks at what is asked of him.

From theme to geography: This was one of my favorite games in the series, and I think a big part of that is because of how obviously it cribs from Quest for Glory I.  Seriously, I wonder if the development team was actively listening to fan complaint about QFG3 and decided to return to "the good old days".  The game just FEELS really similar.  In both cases, you are in a valley that used to be part of a bustling trade route, but a natural event has caused it to be cut off and isolated from the world.  Both feature a small medieval town and a large castle.  Both have active Thieves Guilds, and are the only games in the series to feature one.  Both have refuges that were planted by Erana, feature a giant magic tree, and provide the only safe place to sleep outside of town.  Both are primarily forest, and walking through the screens in QFG4 feels much like QFG1.  Both 1 and 4 reward map-making, while it isn't really necessary in either 2 or 3.  You arrive as a stranger in both games without any friends or contacts, and leave both as a hero.  And on and on.  Don't misunderstand me, I'm not complaining: I loved the first game, so these are all Good Things.

I have mixed feelings about how this game treats thieves.  It is far better than the abysmal opportunities in 3.  In some respects, it is the best yet: there's a pretty complex Thieves Guild, some new Thief-only features (disarming traps and acrobatics), you can actually get back your daggers after throwing them, sneaking is actually useful, and the game generally approves of your illegal activities.  The biggest downer, though, is that you only have one thief job for the entire game (at least that I found).  I don't consider the guild or the monastery to be real jobs.  No, a thief job is you breaking into someone's house and stealing their stuff from under their noses.  After the fun outings in QFG1 and especially QFG2, it's a bummer to have such limited chances to strut my stuff. 

The endgame was pretty thrilling... in terms of drama, I'd have to rate it just a notch below QFG2's heart-pounding thrill ride, but still above the other two games' endings.  As in the last two games, once events are set into motion you are committed to completing them swiftly.  Revelations come quickly, you must explore and puzzle out new environments, and eventually learn the trick that will defeat your final opponent.  What set this one apart were the frankly demonic trappings.  Yah, Avoozl!  The rituals and altars and blood and chants make the ending even more Lovecraftian than what came before.  However, that sharp bleakness helps make the very end even more joyful than it would be otherwise.  I was thrilled to catch my first, tantalizing glimpse of Erana, delighted to see Erasmus and Fenris again for the first time since QFG1 (as a thief, I didn't get to keep in touch via W.I.T.), and just plain pleased at the traditional (except for QFG3) ending, where everyone gathers in the castle to talk about how awesome you are.  It makes the hours of gameplay not just worthwhile, but well appreciated.

Quick rundown of miscellaneous thoughts:
Favorite in-game character: Baba Yaga!  Having her back was a blast.
Favorite out-of-game character: Erana, with second place going to the Mad Monk.
Favorite evolution: The social scene within the inn.
Favorite voice: The narrator.  Among the characters, I'd have to say the Rusalka.  (What?!)
Favorite battle: All combat was tedious.  The wights were at least interesting and had treasure, though.
Favorite skill: I'll have to go with sneaking, much as I want it to be lock picking.
Favorite quest: Baking a pie for Baba Yaga.
Favorite scene: It came early, but I loved it when you became a pyromaniac and set fire to the monastery.  Burn, baby, burn!
Favorite line: I really enjoyed the gnome's jokes about dwarfs.
Favorite music: Hrm.  Maybe Erana's Garden?  I kinda wish I had an old Roland MT-32 card; I think that an instrument is getting poorly synthesized.
Favorite portrait: Oh gosh, aren't they all hideous?  I think that Davy's is especially jarring.  And the Rusalka is just over-the-top.  Um... in all seriousness, the Domovoi is fascinating without being ugly (ironically enough).  Second place to poofy-hair-Katrina.
Favorite in-joke: Gotta love the Blackbird.
Favorite inventory item: Grue Goo.


It wasn't all roses, of course.  Here are some of my complaints.

First of all, some skills seem totally useless.  I was able to get my communication up high, but as far as I can tell, it does nothing in this game.  Previously it could be used to bargain, but now that bargaining has been taken out, it isn't good for anything that I can tell.

Speaking of which, the money system feels broken.  I think that this was deliberate, but I still don't like it.  There are only a tiny number of things you can buy, all of which are available from the very beginning and none of which cost very much.  For all the things you would expect to spend money on, you instead are rationed: healing potions are free, but you can only get one a day.  So money is kind of useless, which helps explain why there's almost none of it to get.  You start off with a little, and if you're a thief you can steal some more, but other than that, you'll be flat until you're far enough in the game that you can start killing Wights.  So what's the point?  I hope that you get to carry it over to Silmaria and actually buy stuff with it.

(In their defense: yes, the previous games were ripe for abuse.  I think I ended QFG2 with over a hundred healing pills.  You can become an amazing junkie, popping pills and endlessly practicing, and so max out your stats within the first day or so if you're really demented.  So I can see why they revisited this, and even why they removed stamina potions, but the system still feels broken.) 

The voice acting is often quite bad.  Much of it is bad enough that it's funny, but still, after a while I found myself frequently pressing the right mouse button to skip through the dialog.

As described above, while the thief is much more fun to play than in QFG3, it is still lacking.

Combat just isn't much fun.  (Partial credit for letting people skip it.)

Minor complaint, but the monsters aren't seeded intelligently.  When I first started my game, I ran into a wyvern before I reached the town.  Needless to say, I died.  You also are still running into bunnies right before the end game.  Didn't QFG1 start switching to more dangerous monsters the further you got in the game?  Why wasn't that happening here?  (On the other hand: it's more realistic this way, and if you enjoy combat and are good at it, you can fight everyone from the beginning without needing to wait.)

And that's about it!

Final stats for the curious:
I feel like I came out of this one far better than QFG3... not a single stat maxed, but most of them had a chance to decently increase.  Even luck went up by a little bit.  I'm pretty surprised that Agility stayed so low, considering that I consistently played as a thief.  The only stats I directly trained were throwing and acrobatics, the remainder came naturally.


On the whole, QFG4 can make an argument for being the best game in the series.  It's a hard call to make, largely because it's quite different from the earlier games, especially in its tone.  But after the minor disappointment that was QFG3, it felt wonderful to slip back into a good old-fashioned balanced adventure RPG.  It was a chance to meet old enemies instead of old friends, a chance to grow in stature and in responsibility.  After QFG4, your character has wings.  As I look forward to QFG5, I hope he uses them to soar.

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