King’s Quest II: Romancing the Throne

Introduction

After porting King’s Quest to a greater variety of platforms, it quickly became an overnight success for Roberta Williams and Sierra On-Line. It provided a novel take on the adventure game formula. Not only was it played from a third-person perspective, the protagonist had a name and backstory. This was quite a contrast from contemporaries, including Ms. Williams’s first efforts. In the oldest adventure games, protagonists were a little more than a stand-in for the player. In extreme cases, the two characters were one in the same. By going so far off the beaten path, Ms. Williams ensured her work shaped the genre in the coming years.

Shortly after the game’s release in 1984, Ms. Williams began thinking about where the story should go from there. Sir Graham, now King Graham, rules the land and is beloved by his subjects. She then realized he needed a queen to accompany him. Envisioning him starting a family, Ms. Williams would have Graham take the first step towards making it a reality. Joined by two up-and-coming designers named Scott Murphy and Mark Crowe, who vowed to make the game an even greater hit than the original, she began work on a sequel. It was released in 1985 under the name King’s Quest II: Romancing the Throne. Despite Sierra’s best efforts to make King’s Quest II a killer app for IBM’s PCjr platform alongside its predecessor, it was discontinued the very same year. Much like the original, it became a bestseller once it was ported to a greater variety of platforms such as the Apple IIe, Tandy 1000, and standard PCs. Does this sequel successfully take the series in a brave, new direction?

Analyzing the Experience

WARNING: This review will spoil certain puzzle solutions.

One significant difference between King’s Quest II and its predecessor reveals itself before it even begins. If a player chooses not to press a key on the title screen, they will be treated to a cutscene detailing the game’s backstory. This idea had its origins in the arcade scene in which gameplay demonstrations would play out before somebody inserted a coin into the machine. Fittingly, this was often dubbed “Attract Mode”. In some cases, cutscenes outlining the basic premise would indeed play out in a similar manner as King’s Quest II.

Sir Graham’s quest to recover Daventry’s three treasures and rid the land of the evil witch Dahlia was a complete success. On his deathbed, Edward the Benevolent crowned Graham the new king of Daventry. He was hailed across his kingdom as a hero and an age of prosperity began. Though he has adjusted to his new life well enough, Graham has begun to feel rather lonely as a result of his new, demanding responsibilities.

One day, he is enraptured by a vision in the magic mirror, which he often gazed into for answers. In it, he sees a beautiful woman in a tower. Her name is Valanice, and she hails from the land of Kolyma. An evil witch named Hagatha imprisoned Valanice in the quartz tower out of immense jealously. Guarding Valanice’s room is a ferocious beast. In order to reach the enchanted land in which the quartz tower resides, Graham must travel to Kolyma, seeking out the three magical doors that will guide him to his goal. Determined to rescue Valanice, King Graham sets out to Kolyma, arriving there after a long journey.

By the time King’s Quest II was being developed, the engine that powered the original had a name: the Adventure Game Interpreter (AGI). It would become Sierra’s default engine as more talent joined their ranks and began conceiving adventures of their own. As it was coded using the AGI engine, the gameplay of King’s Quest II is nearly identical to that of its predecessor.

Being an adventure game, King’s Quest II places a great emphasis on exploration and perceptiveness. As it was a product of the mid-eighties when few computers had mouse support, every single command is executed with the keyboard. The player can make King Graham interact with his environment by typing commands into a text parser. Once again, basic commands consist of at least one verb – typically followed by the object you wish to manipulate. You do not need to form complete sentences in order for the game to understand your intent; commands such as “TALK WOMAN” and “TAKE TRIDENT” are perfectly acceptable.

Despite using the same AGI engine as the original, the text parser is decidedly more sophisticated. The biggest improvement is that one can now receive a general room description by simply typing “LOOK”. In King’s Quest, typing “LOOK” only resulted in the game asking you to be more specific. Even the unintuitive action of typing “LOOK ROOM” in an outdoor area didn’t always produce the intended result. Getting a summary of the immediate area is helpful because, being an older adventure game, the graphics can hide important details one wouldn’t immediately notice. Most room descriptions in King’s Quest II will mention any set piece worth interacting with.

The control panel is mostly the same as it was in the original King’s Quest. It is accessed by pressing the escape key, and doing so also pauses the game. Observant players will notice that the “Game” menu is now missing. This is because the “Jump” and “Duck” commands have been removed, prompting the programmers to move the inventory options to the “Action” menu alongside “Swim”. It’s just as well; the jump command was only ever used once in the entire game. Meanwhile, the player could conceivably go the entire game without ever needing to duck at any point, only being useful to dodge a single enemy on a screen with nothing of interest in the first place.

The biggest improvement, however, is that there now exist four game speeds: slow, normal, fast, and fastest. The “fast” speed now allows Graham to move at a much more reasonable pace. It ends up highlighting just how sluggish he is when the game is set to its normal speed. It’s important to know that anything working on a timer speeds up accordingly.

The original King’s Quest was notable for its rather non-linear design. Graham could retrieve the three treasures in any order he so chose. In 1984, most adventure games were written like a traditional story, having a definite beginning, middle, and end. Even action-oriented games with little plot to speak of followed a rigid structure – levels were to be completed one right after the other. The idea of giving the player leeway to advance the story as they saw fit was highly inventive for its time.

King’s Quest II, on the other hand, could be seen as a return to a more classic design. Graham’s goal is to scour the land of Kolyma in search of the three keys with which to open the magical doors. However, the means of obtaining the keys will not present themselves until Graham has found the magical door itself.

By examining the door, Graham finds an inscription. Reading it reveals a hint as to where he can find the first key. It’s important to note that this is a vital step to completing the game. Even if one were to conduct a second playthrough and knew the keys’ locations in advance, they would still need to have Graham read the inscription on the door. The door says that the one who wishes to open it will make a splash.

As it turns out the hint was to be taken literally, for a mermaid can be found on the beach. Someone who took their time getting to the magical door in the first place may have stumbled upon this area. Had they done so, this hypothetical person would note that the mermaid wasn’t there before. She appeared as a result of what programmers call an event flag. By taking one specific, typically unrelated action, the player unknowingly effects a change elsewhere in the game. In this case, reading the door’s inscription caused the mermaid to appear on the beach. As the hint suggests, she is indeed important to obtaining the first key. By handing her a bouquet of flowers, Graham is granted an audience with the ocean king, Neptune. He can return Neptune’s trident to him. In exchange, Graham will be given the first key.

Unlocking the door reveals a second smaller door behind it. As is expected, reading the second door’s inscription subtly changes the state of Kolyma, allowing Graham to obtain the next key.

Because King’s Quest II shares its engine with the original, it stands to reason that the two games would share many of the same strengths and weaknesses. On some level this is true. Much like in the original, I feel the greatest appeal of King’s Quest II is how it awards more points for finding peaceful solutions to your problems. On his way to obtaining the second key, Graham receives a sword, yet despite being the perfect item for a fantasy game protagonist, one could potentially never find a use for it. In fact, resisting the urge to take the easy way out is what the player needs to do in order to amass all 185 points.

Unfortunately, this and the new walking speed are the only true compliments I can pay King’s Quest II because it is a deeply flawed experience. One of the biggest problems with Kolyma is that there are far too many featureless screens. Daventry had its own share of worthless screens, but a majority of them usually had some kind of purpose – even if they only existed to allow Graham to easily get from Point A to Point B. In Kolyma, the points of interest are far and few in between; there are entire regions you can go the entire game without visiting and still obtain every point. In all honestly, this is likely a consequence of the game’s dependence on event flags. One had to jump through hoops to obtain the three treasures of Daventry, but there typically weren’t many obstacles preventing them from doing so. Meanwhile, with event flags enforcing a strict order by which one procures the keys, they are all found in areas that can’t be reached until Graham has read the appropriate inscription. This renders Kolyma a mere springboard to these areas, robbing it of an identity. It has many vital items lying around, but once one has obtained them all, the world suddenly becomes empty and dead.

When I reviewed King’s Quest, I remarked that one of its biggest problems concerned the many random encounters present. While they made exploration annoying, they had something of a saving grace in that none of the screens potentially containing a monster were important to completing the game. Once a player learned where they were, they could easily avoid them. In King’s Quest II, there are three enemies: a dwarf, an enchanter, and Hagatha herself. Like in the original, the dwarf aims to steal a treasure from Graham. Meanwhile, the enchanter and Hagatha kill Graham outright if he is unfortunate enough to be captured by them. Though having only three enemies to the original’s five may sound like an improvement when taken at face value, the designers saw fit to greatly expand their territory. All of these enemies have a general region they haunt rather than a single screen.

To make matters worse, a lot of the screens within these regions must be visited to complete the game. For example, there is an antique shop Graham must patronize on his way to getting the second key, and the enchanter has a random chance of appearing near its entrance.

To be completely fair, Graham can obtain a protective spell from a fairy. Once he has it, none of these enemies will be of any harm to him as long as it remains active. Said fairy also has a general territory in which she can appear, making it easy enough to find her. Moreover, the dwarf is a very minor nuisance this time around. He only steals the various diamond and sapphire encrusted jewelry you may find – none of which are required to complete the game. On top of this, if he does steal something from Graham, the latter can retrieve it easily enough from the former’s house. Even with these caveats to consider, my stance on these random encounters is exactly the same; it doesn’t add any significant challenge to the game. You either die because the random-number generator says so or render the gamble superfluous in the first place by receiving the fairy’s protective spell. Either way, in a genre with such an emphasis on exploration, punishing the player for their wanderlust is tantamount to rendering an action game unwinnable by pressing the attack button.

Various aspects about King’s Quest II suggest its production was rushed. King’s Quest took nearly eighteen months to develop while King’s Quest II was released almost exactly one year later. Not having to develop a new engine from scratch likely expedited the development cycle, but it still doesn’t change that it comes across as a token sequel. You’ll often try to examine an object in a given room only to be told “you see nothing special”. Admittedly, this only applies to unimportant objects, but because one primary purpose of an adventure game is to build a world, it’s strange that the team never took the opportunity to give Kolyma more of a personality.

Though this facet doesn’t do the experience any favors, I would say the greatest evidence of its rushed development can be found in the various glitches present throughout the game.

One of the strangest ones I found involves the poisoned lake dominating a large portion of Kolyma. Because of its extreme toxicity, swimming in it is impossible. You can also have Graham drink from the poisoned lake with a highly predictable result. The developers even coded a unique animation. However, they neglected to freeze Graham in place as the animation is playing out. If he is walking while attempting to get a drink from the poisoned lake, he will keep moving in that direction. While this normally wouldn’t save him, if he is close to the edge of the screen, he will move to the next area before the animation can complete.

If you do that, Graham’s poisoned animation cycles endlessly without actually killing him. This allows him to float on top any body of water – including the poisoned lake. Using this exploit, it’s possible to get to the island in the center of the lake before setting off the appropriate event flag.

There’s also a glitch that can be observed if Graham swims too far out into the ocean. Doing so normally causes him to drown. Despite what the accompanying textbox suggests, the game doesn’t lock the arrow keys as he begins splashing around. This allows you to press the right arrow key and move to the previous screen. Graham’s drowning animation continues to play, but he is in no danger as long as you guide him back to the beach. Though these glitches do not result from an action required to complete the game, they still come across as major oversights that should’ve been addressed in playtesting sessions.

King’s Quest housed one of the most infamous puzzles of its day in the form of guessing a gnome’s name. It was so bad that in one of the rereleases of King’s Quest, the developers outright spoiled the solution in the README file. However, as poorly conceived as the puzzle was, it did follow a real, if wildly outlandish strand of logic. As a result, every puzzle solution in King’s Quest could claim to make perfect sense to at least one person. The reason I say this is because King’s Quest II featured the kind of puzzle for which classic adventure games are frequently mocked.

The old woman who runs the antique shop gives Graham an oil lamp in exchange for getting her nightingale back from Hagatha. Rubbing the lamp produces a genie, who gives Graham three items: a magic carpet, a sword, and a bridle. Riding the magic carpet allows Graham to travel to the clifftops in eastern Kolyma. This is where the second key is located.

Guarding the cave is a venomous serpent. Because attempting to simply walk past it would be a foolish idea, Graham must deal with it directly. Cutting the serpent to ribbons with the sword is the obvious solution, but not the ideal one. I can appreciate discouraging players from resorting to violence to solve their problems, but there is no way even a veteran adventure game enthusiast would think to type the following four words into the parser for any reason.

No, I did just not type a wacky sentence into the parser just to see what the game would say; this is the solution required to get all of the points.

This highly illogical course of action is rewarded by turning the serpent into a winged horse. The horse explains that the enchanter transformed him after he refused to be his steed. This is one of those puzzles that fails because it doesn’t sufficiently signpost to the player the scope of the problem. Without prompting, one would simply kill the serpent and be on their merry way. This is inadvisable because the horse gives Graham a magic sugar cube. Ingesting it will grant the good king immunity from the poisonous brambles growing on the island in the center of the toxic lake. Given how difficult said brambles are to avoid, not obtaining the sugar cube is a ruinous disadvantage. In other words, the game not only has an unintuitive solution, it actively punishes the player for not thinking of it.

The description one gets from examining the bridle beforehand doesn’t even imply it’s enchanted in any way. Without context, one would assume it’s an ordinary bridle. Graham receiving it from a genie might cue a player into thinking there’s something odd about it, but if that were the case, it raises the question of why the developers didn’t call it a “Magic Bridle” or an “Enchanted Bridle”.

As insane as this solution is, it does have a precedent in classical Greek mythology. A winged horse, Pegasus, sprang fully grown from the head of Medusa, a gorgon who could turn anyone foolish enough to gaze at her to stone. One of her most defining features is that her hair is made up of serpents. Therefore, the idea of a serpent turning into a winged horse is thousands of years old. However, this still doesn’t excuse the absolutely gigantic leap of logic one must perform to reach such a conclusion. Even those versed in Greek mythology would find the act of placing a bridle, an instrument commonly associated with horse riding, on a snake because Pegasus spawned from Medusa’s hair an absurd extrapolation.

It doesn’t help that phrasing such a bizarre command in a way the text parser will understand is a nightmare; commands such as “PLACE BRIDLE ON SNAKE” or “USE BRIDLE ON SNAKE” will not work. This means even if somebody learned of the solution from a secondhand source or tried to brute-force the puzzle, they could still get the impression that it’s the wrong course of action.

Though these flaws make for an underwhelming experience, by far my least favorite aspect of King’s Quest II is how easy it is to render the game unwinnable. It’s worth mentioning that the game is remarkably short if you know exactly what to do, but dragging things out if the player takes the wrong course of action is highly unreasonable. Strangely, unlike its contemporaries, there’s only one realistic way to render King’s Quest II unwinnable, but it’s still quite notorious among adventure game enthusiasts. It involves a certain bridge.

To begin with, the screen housing said bridge is horribly designed because if you approach it from the south, there’s a good chance Graham will trip into the bottommost fissure. Sadly, it’s only the second-worst aspect about this area. The important thing to note is that this bridge spans over the giant chasm leading to the magical door. As such, it is the only way to reach the side with the door.

This is a screenshot taken seconds after the previous one. Do you see something different? That’s right – you were awarded a point for crossing the bridge. I remember noticing that shortly after I began playing King’s Quest II for the first time. I tested to see if going back across the bridge awarded another point. When it did, I figured I found a way to earn infinite points. From there, I had Graham walk back and forth across the bridge to see how many I could get.

To my astonishment, the bridge gave out, sending Graham to his death. It turns out you can only cross the bridge seven times. Incidentally, this corresponds to the number of times Graham must read the inscription on the door, leave, and return with the key. If he crosses the bridge an eighth time, it will break. This was the single worst design decision either game had known. Not everyone is going to notice that crossing the bridge will award a point. Even those who do might end up crossing one extra time, believing they were doing the right thing when in reality, they’ve trapped themselves. Anyone who thinks they may have spotted a loophole in the form of the magic carpet will be disappointed when they try riding it only to learn that crossing the bridge an extra time prevents them from doing so.

Looking at the bridge beforehand only informs the player of its instability; that it’s in poor enough shape to snap in half at any moment was deemed an unnecessary detail. This is what causes the quality of King’s Quest II to sink like a stone. While a savvy player would think to examine every strange feature of the world, they’re rarely given enough information to make what the game considers good decisions. This often leads to them blundering without realizing it or preventing themselves from achieving all of the points simply because they resorted to the more intuitive solution. It is a game that doesn’t realize the minute difference between challenging the audience and being openly hostile toward them.

Drawing a Conclusion

Pros:

  • Faster walking speed available
  • Point system lends a degree of replay value
Cons:

  • Obtuse puzzle solutions
  • Random encounters are even more annoying
  • Certain deaths are decidedly cheap
  • Programming is a bit spotty in places
  • Subpar world design
  • Short if you know what to do
  • Annoying sound effects
  • Easy to render unwinnable

I feel King’s Quest II is indicative of the growing pains adventure games were suffering at the time. Introducing graphics in Mystery House changed the industry forever. The scope of this innovation was only rivaled when King’s Quest made its debut four years later and added animation to the proceedings. While the original King’s Quest was at least reasonably designed enough that one could find their way around, I feel King’s Quest II suffers because it relied too heavily on its presentation. Though the ability to show rather than tell is an important skill to have, graphics were not to the point where such an approach was feasible. Anyone attempting to play this game blind is going to spend half of their time wondering what to do and where to go – assuming they manage to finish it at all.

Having said everything there is to say about the experience, I find myself being unable to recommend it at all. This was the very first adventure game I had ever played, and even with that bit of context, I have to say it would be a horrible introduction to the genre. All of the genre’s worst traits are in full effect while its strengths don’t have a chance to shine. Meanwhile, veterans attempting to revisit the game are going to lambast it for the same reasons I did. I could only ever envision a fan of the King’s Quest series getting anything substantial out of this game, and I feel even they would be disappointed when trying to approach it from a modern standpoint. It especially doesn’t help that it features a bare-bones story, only contributing one substantial aspect to the series’ lore. This means anybody willing to put up with the game’s shortcomings is not going to be rewarded with a satisfying payoff. I can appreciate King’s Quest II for allowing the series to thrive long enough to eventually achieve a level of greatness higher than that of the original, but an essential play it is not.

Final Score: 3/10

10 thoughts on “King’s Quest II: Romancing the Throne

  1. What do you use to take your screenshots? As you may have noticed, when it comes to PS4/Switch games, I have to use their share features on Twitter, and then copy those pictures from Twitter. Not the most professional way to go about it. Otherwise, I just have to use generic screen caps. I suppose I could use my GameCapture HD to do it, but running that on my computer eats data fast, so I usually try to hold off unless I’m recording video (seeing as all I have right now is a laptop from 2011). Talking of which, I really should start making videos of some kind. I keep wanting to…

    Anyway, great review. And I see they got a lot more creative with the subtitle this time around. A nice Romancing the Stone reference. Definitely an improvement from beginning the subtitle with ‘Quest’ after the series’ title ends with ‘Quest.’

    Liked by 1 person

    • For most PC titles, I just press the Print Screen key and format the screenshot in Paint (if necessary). As for PS4 games, I copy the screenshots onto a thumb drive and place them on my computer that way. I have yet to review a game I originally played on the Nintendo Switch, so I’m not sure what I’d do there yet, though I may end up stealing your method because I think it’s a fine way to get them.

      Oh, are you considering making a video Let’s Play?

      Thanks! Funnily enough, there’s a fan remake of this game also made by AGD Interactive that is called Romancing the Stones. The reason I didn’t mention it this time is because it’s almost a completely different game. The basic premise is the same and the map layout is vaguely reminiscent of Kolyma in its canonical form in places, but it provides such a unique experience compared to the original that it would warrant a separate review.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Interesting. I can only play so many PC titles on my laptop (it’s a Mac…from 2011). But I’ll have to check if I can do something similar.

        Haha yeah, my Switch method isn’t exactly professional, but it works.

        A video Let’s Play, Video review, or maybe just some weird video game related videos, but yes, I do plan on doing that. I’ve had all the equipment for a while, but I’m just a shy individual and it’s kind of a big step to put oneself out there. Hopefully I can just pull the trigger on that soon. I would really like to do it. And in this day and age, having videos could only help my site.

        That fan remake sounds interesting. Do you think it’s better or worse than the original?

        Liked by 1 person

        • Oh, the fan remake is unquestionably better. The puzzles are far more sensible and it’s impossible to render the game unwinnable. AGD managed to turn one of the series’ weaker installments into something that approaches the level of the canonical series’ pinnacle (King Quest VI). It’s incredible how much effort went into it; they even got Graham’s original voice actor in on the project.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve long held one of the future games’ ‘Throw Pie at Yeti’ as the absolute most boneheaded puzzle solution, but I think preparing for snake-mounting is at least at par. Adventure games are at their worst when they hit the level where you have no choice but to rub all your things on all the other things, and man, that example is pretty extreme.

    As is the breaking bridge. Only able to cross it the bare minimum times required to beat the game? With no other indication? That’d be crazy easy to get yourself in a walking dead state that you won’t realize for hours. Even with the rush, I have to wonder what they were thinking with that.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think throwing the bridle at the snake is worse. Throwing a pie at the yeti is dumber from a tonal standpoint, but there’s a more obvious cause-and-effect notion at play. You can at least see why it works. Throwing the bridle at the snake makes no sense – even for those versed in classic Greek mythology. Also I have to admit I’m a little easy on the yeti solution because it’s not even the worst puzzle solution in that particular game. That would be a moment that cannot be advanced unless you actually do, as you say, rub all of your items on the set pieces. That’s a case where not only does it not make sense, the game doesn’t even bother to explain why it worked. I’ll be sure to talk about that one in depth when I get there.

      As for this game, the breaking bridge is one of the meanest things I’ve ever seen in an adventure game. I’m glad I figured that one out immediately because I would’ve been quite incensed if I made a lot of progress only to be told, “Sorry, you lose because you explored too much in an adventure game”. It’s a rather hostile game design choice, wouldn’t you say?

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: October 2018 in Summary: 2018’s Home Stretch | Extra Life

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