Westwood Studios wasn’t only known for its Command & Conquer RTS or Eye of the Beholder RPG series, but the company also developed some interesting adventure games like The Legend of Kyrandia: Book One – Fables and Fiends.
The Legend of Kyrandia: Book One – Fables and Fiends (PC)
(USA 1992, developer: Westwood Studios (now defunct), publishers: Virgin Games (now defunct)/Electronic Arts, platforms: PC, Amiga, FM Towns)
Magical jester Malcolm murders King William and his wife Queen Katherine of the magical land of Kyrandia and steals the Kyragem, a mystic stones that contains the land’s energy, so Prince Brandon has to retrieve it and get rid of the villain.
Some kind of fantasy land
Fantasy stories can draw the player in if they’re well told and have characters one can easily relate to. The first Kyrandia game certainly sets the scene with its fairy tale-like environments and all sorts of people and fantastic creatures. While the story about a kingdom that has to be saved from an evil person could be right out of the handbook of clichéd tales and hero Brandon couldn’t be any more archetypal, there are still some things that set the game apart from other fantasy stories and worlds.
Stranger people and creatures
Despite only showing up a few times, jester Malcolm is memorable enough with his sarcastic remarks and the way how he constantly throws obstacles in the way of the hero. Then there are characters like Darm, the magician, and his dragon, the former being hard of hearing and the latter pointing out how un-heroic his friend’s deeds actually were. There aren’t many of these memorable encounters, but they’re enough to prove that Westwood Studios knew that dramatic scenes and a typical story are in desperate need of some light entertainment that some games, like the early King’s Quest titles of competitor Sierra, were didn’t offer. The world Brandon traverses could be from a storybook and even if one doesn’t recognize any fairytale characters, the environments feel magical and have everything one would expect from the genre, despite not presenting any surprises, because most objects, like altars or caves, are just for the puzzles.
Old-school puzzle adventuring
The puzzles aren’t very difficult, usually quite logical and well integrated in the quest-like structure of the game. Being able to cast four spells, including healing and frost, that are slowly unlocked when progressing in the story is also a nice fantasy touch. However, finding the necessary objects is anything but easy, because these are randomly positioned in the world. So in order to receive a magic object from an altar, one has to find gems of which there are quite a few. Without any clues of where they are and which are needed, it’s simply trial and error as well as walking around and checking every screen, which is also true for mixing potions. This wouldn’t be so hard if there was a map and fewer screens wouldn’t look so similar. At least the walking speed can be adjusted, but this still doesn’t prevent the game from becoming a long fetch quest, which is made worse by mazes and a limited inventory.
Walking and walking and back again without dying
It’s already enough to walk through labyrinthine caves, including multiple backtracking journeys, but it’s unacceptable that one can only pick up a certain number of items, as the inventory only allows a few which are usually not enough if one doesn’t know in advance what is needed. So in order to get through a cave, one has to collect enough berries that lighten the way, as one otherwise walks through absolute darkness. Additionally, one needs to have enough stones to put on a scale so that a door opens. Later one is obviously in need of other items one had to put down before, so having them in one place and remembering where it is saves a bit of time, even if frustration remains. Speaking of frustration, there are some dead ends and death sequences if one isn’t careful enough, another unfortunate gameplay mechanic that so many older games share.
Looks and sounds magical
The game has some lovely pixel art that still looks quite nice today with colorful backgrounds and characters, with animations being surprisingly realistic for the time the game was released. However, the graphics are quite pixelated at times, especially with faces, even though some cut-scenes show a few characters in a much better light. The audio is a mixed bag, as the music is beautiful to listen to with some very catchy and atmospheric synth tunes, which is even more surprising considering that the composer Frank Klepacki would later do the industrial-heavy rock soundtrack of RTS games. But the voice acting isn’t particularly good. Not even taking into account that some comments are repeated due to an overlook of the script, but there are just too many awkward pauses and parts that are simply read out without caring for the context. It’s not so terrible that it’s funny, but the voice acting definitely has a negative impact on the atmosphere.
The beginning of something fantastical
The Legend of Kyrandia: Book One – Fables and Fiends is a good but flawed start of an adventure game series. It has a lovely world to explore and a storyline that fits the fairy-tale like atmosphere, especially with the memorable villain. However, it suffers from a limited inventory, mazes, and puzzles that require too much wandering around, while the remnant of the past with dead ends and death sequences will definitely put some people off to play it today. Still, one should still do this (maybe with a walkthrough), as the music alone and well-drawn backgrounds are worth it alone.
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