Westwood Studios’ foray into CD-ROM technology brought all kinds of changes to The Legend of Kyrandia: Book Three – Malcolm’s Revenge, the final instalment of the fantasy adventure game series.
The Legend of Kyrandia: Book Three – Malcolm’s Revenge (PC)
(USA 1994, developer: Westwood Studios (now defunct), publishers: Virgin Games (now defunct)/Electronic Arts, platform: PC)
Jester Malcolm is liberated by lightning from his stony prison as a statuze and tries to prove his innocence, because he didn’t murder the king and queen of Kyrandia all these years ago.
Sometimes it’s good to be bad
Presenting a different view of what transpired before Prince Brandon took over in the first game is an interesting concept, and having a villain who doesn’t seem to be one is intriguing as well. Unlike the stereotypical hero or brave and confident heroine Zanthia in the sequel, Malcolm is torn between the good and bad, in this case devil and angel forms Gunther and Stewart. This doesn’t only have an impact on the story to a certain degree, but also on the puzzles. However, completely dismissing how vicious and evil Malcolm was in the first game is nearly impossible, so despite coming up with a more or less nonsensical excuse for the player to sympathize with him, it still becomes very difficult to see the story rewritten this way, especially since Malcolm still acts in ways that go against the whole Goody Two-shoes characterization he’s thrown into at the nonsensical end that goes against almost everything built up in the first game.
Fun or not fun, that’s the question
The strange change of Malcolm can also be seen with the world of Kyrandia. After showing a bit of the castle’s surroundings and meeting a few characters known from the series, one is put from one strange setting and nonsensical scene to another. A jungle where a revolution of cats against dogs starts and a world of fish where a school is right next to a water slide that goes right to the afterlife seem to be more like a lucid dream than scenes that follow each other in a logical way. Of course the Kyrandia series has always been a bit different, especially Hand of Fate, but the story segments were somehow connected and made sense in the world. This time one rarely feels any emotional relation with either the new scenes or even characters. Writing is also hit and miss, leaning more towards the latter. Despite Malcolm delivering some good one-liners, more of them are only mildly funny. The same goes for his evil side Gunther whose comments are often pretty awful, which isn’t made better by a TV-show like audience laughing in the background, an option that can thankfully be turned off. The humor feels so forced at times that not even the optional helium voices feature can save the script from being one lame joke after another.
Lots of things to do
The gameplay is also of a very mixed bag. As one can change Malcolm’s behavior in three modes (nice, neutral, liar), there is much variety in the ways one can solve puzzles. With multiple solutions and alternative scenes/dialogues the game is much more open than in the previous installments. For example, getting off the island of Kyrandia can be done by acquiring a portal potion, disguising oneself as a juggler or pantomime to be accepted as a circus performer by a ship’s captain. But becoming the flying horse Pegasus or trying various escape attempts as a prisoner are viable options, too. These sections don’t only involve different puzzles and require other items, they also make the player learn something more about Kyrandia and its people, as the setting and characters also change, depending which route one takes. So unlike the very linear approach the preceding games took, trying different things is rewarded. However, the story itself remains the same, even if one later has to decide if one wants to trust the evil or good side of Malcolm. These only result in different puzzles, but don’t change the outcome of Malcolm’s redemption.
Lots of items to collect
However, despite all these rather groundbreaking changes in gameplay, the puzzle design itself is far from good. Something that has been annoying in past games is again present here, but to a much greater degree: random item hunting. This already starts with rummaging through trash multiple times to receive different items, exiting the screen and doing this again, without actually knowing what one will need. As the inventory space is again limited, this becomes more than an ordeal. It doesn’t stop here, as later one has to sell stuff in a shop to receive other items. As the shopkeeper randomly decides what’s in store and what is needed, the same method applies here. Then one has to make a dog dig for gem stones in the jungle, which is also random, so in order not to lose any bones as payment, one has to save and reload the game to finally receive six that are needed for a puzzle.
Lots of frustrations to overcome
If solutions to puzzles would at least be original and make sense, then there would be a reason for doing all the tedious collecting procedure. But unfortunately most of them defy any logic and can only be solved by trial and error… or just a walkthrough to prevent frustration altogether. Still even this doesn’t save the player the trouble of going through each screen to find a character or item that is randomly placed, making it even more difficult for people who don’t want to use a walkthrough to make sense of all the various actions one has to perform and objects to pick up. Multiple death sequences further add to frustration, and even if it’s possible to try again, this doesn’t keep the game from becoming simply an exercise in perseverance. Going through a jungle maze by picking off fleas from Malcolm from time to time (or make him take a bath) is as much fun as using a machete to clear a path and find worms that kill him if one isn’t fast enough. There’s also a sequence in which one is constantly called back by a fish queen to play a game of tic-tac-toe, which stops the player from figuring out what to do in his/her own time.
CD-ROM technology of the best and worst kind
The CD technology that was already used for the talkie versions of the first two games is now even more prominent with the format-exclusive release. It offers more and sometimes even quite intrusive CGI cutscenes, as in the case of a rollercoaster ride or moving planet sequences that don’t make any sense for the plot development. Unlike the pixel artwork of its predecessor, the third installment hasn’t aged well at all, either. While some of the animations are still quite good and the character artwork is nice, these are difficult to make out with the newly rendered models, which is especially noticeable with the ugly backgrounds. Who knows how beautiful Kyrandia would have looked like with the jungle, fish world or limbo environment if hand-drawn graphics would have been used? As it is, it’s barely acceptable and hurts the art direction. The cut-scenes might have blown people away back in the days, but with their low resolution, they’re not that impressive anymore.
The soundtrack is different from the fantasy fare one would expect. Due to the CD-ROM technology, the CD-audio quality is much clearer than the previous games’ midi sounds, and the various tunes are also varied if they weren’t played in a loop. As the game itself is very surreal, the soundtrack is pretty weird as well with funky and chorus tunes that are cool to listen to on their own, but that can grate on the ears when again being stuck on a puzzle, too. Voice acting isn’t the best again, with some downright awfully dragged out parts. There aren’t any strange pauses this time, but the volume of some actors is too low, making it even more difficult to make out what is said.
An interesting but very flawed deviation from the adventure game norm
Playing the bad guy in games is always a nice distraction from what one is used to. However, disregarding what atrocious things Malcolm did before and writing a story around him to make him more likable isn’t the way to go. It’s apparent that the Westwood Studios folks had a lot of fun developing the game, as can be seen in the very funny credits sequence that is worth playing through it alone. But there are simply too many obstacles to overcome.
In a way, this game is a much braver attempt with its open world setting, but it doesn’t always work that well. The puzzles are varied and being able to try out different things, as nonsensical as the solutions are, almost makes sense in a setting that feels just as crazy as the characters Malcolm meets. But the lack of clues and a general direction make even the most seasoned adventure gamer question the developers’ ability to create a fun game, so one gives up way too early and falls back on walkthroughs. Despite trying new things, this is unfortunately the weakest of the trilogy that one might have remembered fondly for its CGI graphics and different gameplay, but today only realizes how badly designed it is and outdated it looks.
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