Review: Order of the Thorne – The King’s Challenge

There are two ways of paying homage to a beloved classic: remaking it or extensively referencing it in an otherwise separate game, and the last few months have been kind enough to the original King’s Quest to bestow it with both these honors. Whereas Sierra’s recent episodic effort attempts to update what is probably the most legendary title in an already illustrious back catalogue with gorgeously cinematic visuals and a dash of humor, Order of the Thorne – The King’s Challenge aspires to stay even closer to its spirit despite the fact that it features a different story, setting and cast of characters.

This time around players take the role of Finn the bard as he travels to the faerie kingdom of Uir to take part in the King’s Challenge, a competition organized every ten years to discover the bravest and brightest in the land. On this occasion, the Queen of Uir has agreed to hide somewhere within its borders and seven challengers – our hero included – are tasked with locating her. The winner will receive any wish that King Quilhairn can grant and the title of Champion of the realm, though Finn’s own reason for participating is to be inspired into composing the greatest ballad in the world.

After basic instructions are given and hasty introductions are made among the contestants, the adventurous seven are off, and the players find themselves in traditional point ‘n’ click territory. Here, the ability to register the few interactive pixels hidden within backgrounds of tangled thickets and cluttered shelves is the most essential skill, closely followed by the ingenuity to guess which of the various trinkets and oddities you have amassed during your journeys will serve to solve each of the, mostly sensible, inventory-based puzzles blocking your progress. Taking a page from Lucasarts’ Loom (in a move that could be considered high treason by wizened Sierra devotees), developer Infamous Quests complements this standard genre mechanic with a collection of songs that Finn can play to resolve a variety of situations, a process that may be done either automatically or performed in a sequence-memorization minigame.

Screenshot 1 - Crystals
More than the near-identical setup, more than the genre conventions and the 320×200 resolution, it’s the tone of The Order of the Thorne that harks back to the original King’s Quest. This is a gentle, family-friendly fantasy where kings are wise, queens are beautiful, quarrelsome gnomes always get their comeuppance and our hero’s noble features are never besmirched by the slant of an ironic smirk. Players expecting something similar to the equally reverential but much edgier Quest for Infamy, one of the best traditional adventures of recent years, would be well-advised to look elsewhere.

Such fidelity comes with its own set of issues. By contemporary standards, Sierra’s 1983 classic is perplexingly straight-faced (the slapstick of its numerous deaths aside), lacking the witticisms we’ve come to associate with the genre. While the lack of a wisecracking narrator is not inherently problematic (several modern adventures, including Telltale’s more “serious” efforts and Kentucky Route Zero, have fared fine without them) it becomes one, as Infamous Quests struggles to congest its text bubbles with all the verbosity of a paid-by-the-word freelancer. Try to pick up a large rock and you’re treated to the following: “You don’t need such large rocks. They’re also going to be very heavy and picking them up wouldn’t be much fun”. It’s not just the irredeemable blandness of the response, it’s the fact that two thirds of it are utterly disposable, as if the writers at Infamous Quests were trying to fill some inexplicable quota.

Screenshot 2 - Finn The Bard
Not that there was a lack of those to take into consideration during development: there’s the Isle of the Honored, an area that serves no purpose other than commemorating all the backers of a specific Kickstarter tier – and gracing you with an achievement for reading the nearly forty tombstones bearing their names, tacked on to cookie-cutter descriptions of which battle during the Faerie war they died in. And you can always visit the village library, filled with all manners of uninteresting books to peruse, the dubious honor of their authorship similarly granted to a particular group of Kickstarter backers.

While the overarching elements of The King’s Challenge, the plot, the setting, the central characters are strong enough to keep adventure fans pleased and the game ends on a cliffhanger that should generate some interest for the upcoming second episode, there’s a certain charmlessness pervading its secondary aspects, the incidental details that have proven the most memorable parts of other, more successful examples of the genre. One cannot help but get the impression that too much of Infamous Quests’ work was mere bullet points imposed by the economic necessities of crowdfunding and perhaps an understandable, though no less counterproductive, rush to capitalize on the buzz generated by Sierra’s own remake. There is a decent game waiting to be made underneath, but what we’re shown here seems phoned-in, too uninspired to distinguish itself.

Screenshot 9 - Playing Lute
Closing Comments:

The King’s Challenge is a serviceable old school point ‘n’ click adventure that should appeal to fans that found the recent remake by Sierra a tad too removed from the spirit of the original. There’s plenty to explore in the forests around the faerie village of Crann Naoimh, a handful of memorable characters to get acquainted with, and promisingly, a hint of an all-enveloping backstory that may develop into something more epic and intriguing than the largely innocent frolic of this first chapter. However, the perfunctory effort in its dialogues and descriptions, still vital parts of any traditional adventure, point to a development process that must have been more of a chore than a labor of love. Whether that’s true or not, it’s an impression that inevitably taints the experience of playing the first episode of The Order of the Thorne and one that Infamous Quests have to reverse if they’re going to recapture the brilliance of their earlier work in its upcoming installments.

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