Each month, Raz Greenberg reviews an overlooked piece of science fiction, fantasy or horror – be it a film, a television episode, a comic or a game – one that should have gotten more attention when it first came out and should still be remembered, in his opinion. This month, he dives into an adventure game with a true magical feeling.
As a teenager, I was hooked on digital adventure games that Sierra Online and Lucasarts have produced during the genre’s heyday in the ‘80s and the early ‘90s. Seeing the genre die as the 21st century grew closer was heartbreaking – but seeing it reborn in the past decade, thanks to the dedicated work of independent developers working with tools that were previously only available for professionals, was a joyous experience. Of all the hundreds of such independent adventure games, the one that grabbed me most is A Tale of Two Kingdoms, developed by Crystal Shard Games. It’s a game that manages to do the impossible – retaining the old feeling of classic adventure games from the genre’s days of glory while at the same time giving these games a much-needed narrative makeover.
The game’s introduction tells of Maeldun Whiteblade, a young warrior who rose up against the evil warmongering King Vortigern of Theylinn, liberating the southern kingdoms and becoming a hero to his people. Years later, Whiteblade is approached by King Vortigern – now old and sick – who desperately needs his help when a horde of goblins is about to invade his kingdom. Whiteblade accepts the king’s invitation to visit his kingdom, and soon enough finds himself framed when the king is murdered. Acting on his sense of honor and justice, Whiteblade decides not to run away but to remain in Theylinn and find the king’s killer, while at the same time attempting to stop the coming goblin invasion.
When playing A Tale of Two Kingdoms it’s easy to notice what gave its developers their inspiration: the feeling of playing the classic Sierra Online fantasy adventure games as their flagship series King’s Quest as well as their renowned RPG-style series Quest for Glory and even the company’s lesser-known Conquests series echoes strongly in A Tale of Two Kingdoms. But the developers at Crystal Shard didn’t just make a homage to the style of their favorite games; they took it to the next level. The classic Sierra Online adventures let gamers play heroes; A Tale of Two Kingdoms also gives them the feeling that they are a part of something much bigger. It starts with the kingdom of Theylinn, which is not only a huge place to explore but also one which has a feeling of a living environment: characters met throughout the game move around, and their behavior and responses change as the game progresses. In the course of the game, Whiteblade’s actions are reflected through changes in everyday life in the kingdom, making gamers realize that they do indeed make a difference.
And, as gamers dig deeper, they’ll discover that Theylinn is more than just a generic pseudo-medieval region. The kingdom has a long history, two different religions, complex politics and above all – a rich tradition of tales about the kingdom of fairies. It wouldn’t be much of a spoiler to reveal that these aren’t just tales; the fairy kingdom and its inhabitants play a very important role in the game, and the encounter with it – inspired by Celtic mythology – brings a true feeling of magic, of a fairy tale come true, more than in any other game I have ever played.
In the grand tradition of the games that inspired it, A Tale of Two Kingdoms revolves mostly around object-oriented puzzles, although dialogue plays an important part in the game as well (a cool combination between the two – which takes some time getting used to – lets you ask other characters perform actions based on specific objects). The puzzles, for the most part, make sense, but some of them require some out of the box thinking, and few are really out there in terms of logic. There is one particularly annoying obstacle in the game which requires you to solve a very difficult logic puzzle in order to progress – there is a chance to skip it (a puzzle in its own right) but at the cost points awarded. The murder mystery aspect of the game could have used some more work as well. But once you get immersed within the game’s rich world and story, all is forgiven. Easily one of my all-time favorite games, A Tale of Two Kingdoms is highly recommended.
Where to get it: when it first came out, the developers of A Tale of Two Kingdoms have released the game completely for free. The free version, however, is no longer available and a deluxe version with improved graphics is available for purchase on multiple stores. See the game’s official website for details.
And if you like this… Crystal Shard have followed A Tale of Two Kingdoms with another standout game – Heroine Quest: The Herald of Ragnarok. More RPG-oriented, and feature a far better structure, the game is also highly recommended, although it’s somewhat inferior to A Tale of Two Kingdoms in terms of story and atmosphere. Again, check out its official website for details about purchase.