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The Backseat Game Designer: Return to Krondor

This is the addendum to my Return to Krondor Review in which I put all my opinions that contain spoilers. If you haven't finished playing Return to Krondor yet, you don't want to read this page. Please go back to the regular review site, where I promise to tell you everything you need to decide whether or not to play this game without giving away any of its plot.

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The Backseat Game Designer: Return to Krondor

These Backseat Game Designer pages are primarily a place for me to put all my game commentary that was too revealing for the regular reviews, as well as a place to tell everyone exactly how *I* would have done the game better. Hey, who knows, maybe someday they'll make another Krondor game, and my site can save them from repeating the mistake of loading pre-written characters down with magical loot they're never going to be able to use. Ah, well, a girl can dream, can't she? Here's all the news about Return to Krondor that's fit to print, just not on the no-spoiler review site.

Personal Reactions

Truthfully, I didn't think I was going to like Return to Krondor very much. I wasn't a big fan of Betrayal at Krondor's use of prefab characters in the first place, and now they wanted to insert the same shtick into a 3rd-person format and a constrained area of exploration? I keep agitating for graphic adventures to incorporate more of the interactivity and flexibility of CRPG's, and then along comes a CRPG that seems bound and determined to be about as interactive as a King's Quest game. But hey, never let it be said I stick with a bad first impression. Return to Krondor is actually much more interactive than it would appear at first blush--most of the quests have multiple solutions or multiple paths that can be followed, and there are plenty of minor choices to be made along the way. Most importantly of all, the whole thing is so well-written that I never felt alienated from the characters or frustrated with the plot. There were some annoying interface elements, but in general, this was a good game and I had a good time playing it.

Return to Krondor Game Advances

Things I hope become standard in all games from now on:

1) The dialogue in this game was so well-written it almost made me want to weep. I've suffered through so many CRPG's with corny dialogue about "the fight between GOOD... and EEEEEEEVIL!" that fantasy-adventure characters who talk like real people are an unbelievable breath of fresh air. Some of the accents were a little strange, especially that doggedly exotic Eastern European/Arabic/Gypsy fortuneteller/Deanna Troi hybrid lilt of Jazhara's, but the voice actors are so expressive and the lines they are delivering are so believable and generally non-idiotic that it is easy to suspend any disbelief. I honestly don't remember wincing at the dialogue even once.

2) The amount of interactivity Return to Krondor was able to add into a flatly linear plot is something that should be studied intensely by all graphic adventure game designers. I prefer computer games not to be so linear in the first place, to be honest, but if all games with linear plots were able to achieve this degree of flexibility and player input I'd be dancing on the rooftops. Return to Krondor was able to present me with prefabricated characters and through a series of minor game decisions and conversational choices, let me functionally determine their personalities. Partially that was because the characters' personalities were left slightly open-ended in the first place, which left room for projection. Partially it was because the dialogue was carefully written to permit ambuiguity. But mostly, it's because the dialogue trees bothered to offer meaningful choices in the first place--not just a set of topics all of which need to be clicked on to proceed, but an option to become offended by another character's tone, or a choice between playing along with an NPC or calling him out. These decisions flesh out a character into someone you can feel ownership of, and that's genuinely impressive.

3) Though much of Return to Krondor's pacing was poor (see below), one thing it did that I thought was successful on that front was building each of its longer chapters around one simple direction. Subquests and explorations fanned out from there, but at the core of each chapter was a single goal that could usually be achieved in a matter of minutes, if you made a beeline for it and ignored everything else. This meant that if you thought one part of the game really sucked, you didn't need to spend your time there; you could push right through to the next one. Particularly on subsequent play-throughs, this is a very thoughtful concession to gamers who may not care to retrace the same exact footsteps through an area that really didn't appeal to them.

Advice from the Backseat Game Designer

In my game review, I gave Return to Krondor a 7.5 out of 10 (rating: very good). So, what would have taken this game to the next level? Well, this is an older title, so it would be specious of me to sit around quibbling about the graphics and movement AI (both of which were very good for 1997 and are still tolerable today.) There are a number of improvements that could perfectly well have been made at the time this game was released, though. I think I would have given it another half-point right off the bat if there had been a "take all" button from the loot-collecting page. I'm not actually exaggerating. If there was one thing that made me want to drop-kick this game it was sitting there moving one tiny object at a time from a dead body to someone's inventory, over and over ad nauseum. It was also frustrating that there was never any way to tell what the specific effects of many items were. You can tell the exact damage range of weapons by examining them, for example, but there's no way to check the armor class of any piece of armor. Many magic items just have vague descriptions like "This ring is a good luck charm" or "This sword is a magical blade that was used in the 12th century by the Duke of Blah blah blah..." without ever telling you what it actually does within the game. Call me old-fashioned, but I like to be able to make equipment decisions based on something other than the color of the armor. Finding a cool new artifact loses some of its squee factor if you have no way of telling whether it's any better than the elven chain mail your guy's already got on. This was also a game in desperate need of subtitles, and I would really have appreciated an option to speed up combat by discarding excess animations (watching James carefully align himself with an enemy and slowly draw his sword back for a strike gets to be like nails on a chalkboard after the 200th time you've had to sit through it.)

Then there were the gameplay issues. Return to Krondor is a very well-written game, but the gameplay is very badly balanced. It's a short game, especially for a CRPG, but that's not an unforgiveable sin--a lot of games are longer than they should be just because they include a lot of chores and tedium, and I'll take the tightly packed shorter game over a longer, more boring one any day of the week. Unfortunately, though, Return to Krondor actually feels short. The main reason for this was the game's lousy pacing. The party is split at the end of Chapter 2, which wouldn't necessarily be the end of the world except that it isn't split evenly. Two characters, James and Jazhara, remain in Krondor to pursue several complex quests, pick up an interesting new teammate, and explore the overland map freely. The third character, William, gets whisked off to endure a series of tactical combats and cutscene interludes. Just as one William combat finally finishes and you're looking forward to getting control of him again and exploring his environment, his chapter ends and you're jerked back to James and Jazhara, only to return to William when it's time for his next combat. William never does rejoin James' party--their "reunion" in the final chapter consists only of a single combat fought in parallel and a couple of cutscenes. This was highly disappointing and, from a game mechanics perspective, very badly designed. William, for example, kept finding loot he was unable to identify or use. James, meanwhile, continued to find magical two-handed swords that no one besides William could wield. There was never any point to any of these objects, because the characters couldn't share them. Magic items that can never be used by anyone should never be included in a CRPG, and because of the poor gameplay decisions, Return to Krondor put itself in this situation. The final chapter is also very short and choppy, leaving players with the surprised feeling of "Oh, you mean that was it?" when it ended.

Which is too bad, because a lot of the rest of the game was brilliant, and you hate to end a well-written, compelling role-playing adventure on such a bad note. Return to Krondor may have limped across the finish line, but it still won its heat with flying colors. If they ever come out with a third Krondor game, I'll be there with my credit card out. I just hope they call me for advice on inventory management next time. ;-D

Best Quest: There were many good ones, but the investigation of the sweatshop belonging to Jazhara's relative was especially memorable and could play out in several different ways.
Lamest Quest: William tracking Bear. Not only was it awkwardly paced, but nothing the player chose to do had any effect on the outcome whatsoever.
Best Puzzle: The one at the entrance to the temple about reflecting light beams with prisms. That was excellent and very logical.
Worst Puzzle: The combination lock with runes leading into the tomb. The correct sequence of runes was not indicated anywhere within the game, and the correct solution seemed to actually be based on the background color of the stones instead, which is really lame.
Best Plot Twist: The rat poison in the farmer's feedlot in Haldon Head. That really took me aback.
Lamest Plot Twist: This was a pretty solid plot overall, but the twist at the end with Sidi and the lich was pretty contrived.
High Point: The cutscene cinematography. The intro movie is ominous and gripping (the serrated prow of that magical pirate ship has totally burned itself into my consciousness), and the frenzied chanting in the beginning of the dream sequence with Talia was chillingly dramatic.
Low Point: The final chapter was a real letdown, for the reasons mentioned above.

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