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31 May 2015 @ 11:01 am
Game Review: Heroine's Quest  
I'm not sure how generally useful or applicable this review will be, even beyond the normal subjectivity that is inherent in any kind of review, because Heroine's Quest is a direct homage to the old Hero's Quest / Quest for Glory series of games and those were foundational for me as a young child. I'm not sure why I took to them as well as I did, but their particular combination of point-and-click adventure and RPG gameplay drilled itself directly into my brain and lodged itself there for eternity, to the point where I downloaded a Pathfinder adaptation despite never having run Pathfinder, never having played Pathfinder, and, indeed, never having even read Pathfinder.

The games came out before RPG elements were cynically added to every game under the sun as a way to encourage grinding of arbitrary numbers and artificially extend play time--though after books like the excellent Lone Wolf and Fighting Fantasy series, which are basically novel versions of the adventure game/RPG hybrid--and one of the benefits of those elements is that because the games were designed to be completed with three classes, there are always multiple solutions to puzzles, which does a lot to reduce the frustration from adventure game logic. There are some puzzles that need specific items to solve, but generally even if you're playing a thief you can try smashing your way through if you can't find out the right lock to pick.

Always wizards forever.

Heroine's Quest continues that tradition, but then undermines it by only awarding points for puzzles solved the class-appropriate way. As an example, at one point in the game a child gets kidnapped and you have to rescue them. I ended up in his prison without the ability to return, because the game says you aren't willing to go back empty-handed, and without the spell I needed to solve the problem the sorceress way because I didn't understand the haggling system and I thought I had bought it when I hadn't. I defeated the guardian in combat and saved the child, but I didn't get any points for freeing him because I had to resort to battle, even though the battle was me blasting the guardian with spells.

I mean, I don't care about points, but it irked me that the game was implicitly criticizing me for not solving problems the "right" way. It goes back to the old pixel-bitching style of adventure games that the Quest for Glory games bucked the trend of, and it seems like it's just put in there to make achivement-hunters work for their popups.

Enter three Norns.

The setting is directly taken from Norse mythology, with the main character tasked with stopping Ragnarök. It's treated with the same seriousness as the Quest for Glory series treats its own inspirations--which is to say, none at all--and it's liberally sprinked with references to the company's other games, the Quest for Glory games, pop culture, history, and basically everything else under the sun. If you're looking for an immersive RPG, you should probably run screaming. It honestly bothered me more than I thought it would, and even though Heroine's Quest was following in QFG's footsteps I ended up twitching a bit every time the next random game reference popped up. It might be that I hadn't played a lot of the games it was referencing, but I'm pretty sure that when I first played Hero's Quest when I was ten I didn't know half the references it was making either. It might just be the loss of my childlike joy as I grow older, honestly.

I don't know that much about Norse mythology beyond the basics and what I've picked up through cultural osmosis, but it seemed like it was treated with the same gravitas as everything else was, which is to say that it's all thrown together into a stew. It's at least a consistent stew and it never gets diluted into generic fantasy, but there's random wandering jotuns later on because a hero needs high-level enemies to fight, and you get to chat with Loki because who better to learn riddles from so you can stump the town wizard. Who, speaking of, is dressed like a generic fantasy wizard in star-studded hat and purple robes instead of anything actually Norse. At least when the sorceress introduces herself, she describes herself as skilled in seiðr rather than a wizard.

You'll be seeing this screen a lot.

The main element that separates Heroine's Quest from other adventure games, and the reason it has stats at all, is the combat system. Most of what it's used for is random encounters which appear on the same screen as you are so you have the option to fight or run. Or, if you're playing a sorceress like I was, there's a spell you can use to create a shadowy duplicate that the enemy will go chase so you don't have to fight them if you don't want to. And while early on I would always fight so I could raise my stats and so I could practice the combat system, later on I just ended up running from everything.

I don't know if this was just a problem with my expectations or if it's a design decision, but it seemed like there was a delay built into the various actions so that I always performed things just slow enough to annoy me. Sometimes it didn't take affect and I was able to attack in a whirlwind of enraged...well, I was using a staff, so a whirlwind of enraged oak, I suppose. But usually between defending and attacking, I got hit enough from actions not being performed as fast as I wanted them to that I eventually just gave up. It was fun, but not fun enough.

There's a few other mechanics that you can similarly graduate to ignoring after a certain amount of time. While the first puzzle in the game involves finding food, after a couple hours I had more food than I knew what to do with and I didn't eat even a quarter of the amount I found throughout the game. Unlike combat, which is part of the game because the RPG/adventure hybrid is about mixing stat-based combat into item-based puzzles, the food consumption seemed thrown in just because Quest for Glory had it without much thought as to what purpose it actually serves the game. And I can say that the answer is that it serves no purpose. It wasn't a money sink because I never had to spend money on it, it wasn't a time sink because I got loads of food doing what I was doing anyway, and all that it meant was that once every in-game day, I had to make three extra clicks to stay alive. Yawn.

Backgrounds from 1994, character models from 2014.

The pixel art warmed my nostalgia-laden heart, and it's almost all quite beautiful. I'm not sure if it exactly sticks to the 640 by 400 resolution that the original Quest for Glory came with, but it definitely is all done in that same style and it looks fantastic.

There's one exception to that praise, and that's in how the designers decided to handle perspective. For some reason, they didn't make smaller versions of the heroine or just accept that she would be the same size all the time, so when she's walking toward the top of most screens, she suddenly snaps into a much higher resolution than the surrounding backgrounds. The problem is that this just makes her look blurry rather than smaller, and I ended up cringing every time I'd have to travel up instead of toward one of the other ends of the screen. You can see the same effect in the screenshot above, where all the character models stand out against the backgrounds.

The odd part is that the ceiling there is walkable and when characters are up there, they have extremely low-rez models that fit in with the general aesthetic, so I'm not sure why they didn't just universally apply their design choices.

In contrast to the art, the voice acting is terrible. I lasted through the intro and the mandatory conversations at the beginning of the game, and as soon as I had control I went in and lowered the voice volume--which is fortunately separate from sound and music--to zero. It's possible that I just ran into a bad patch and later on it gets better, but I figure that if it's so terrible right at the beginning that I immediately want to excise it, I'm not going to lose sleep over turning it off.

It reminds me of another garden I know.

One thing I should mention is that I nearly didn't finish the game because of a bug. Around the halfway point, the heroine is tasked with earning the trust of the two major settlements in order to acquire the artifacts necessary to gain access to the end boss, the reasoning being that he's sealed up with the power of the Eyes of Thiassi and if he gets his hands on them, he could free himself, so letting the heroine have them is dangerous. Each class has a way to circumvent some of the quests required, but my sorceress finished everything in the town she was able to circumvent, moved on to the other town, and then a key character disappeared.

Without being too spoilery, there's a cat you have to find that multiple other quests depend on. If you take it too far from the town, it runs away, and it's supposed to run back to where it had been hiding in the first place. In my game, it just disappeared completely, leaving me scrambling to complete all the other available quests in the town to get the absolute minimum amount of trust to get the Eye. I managed it with a couple spoilers, but if I hadn't spoiled myself I could have easily ended up either flailing around for hours or days trying to find what I had missed or actually locking myself out of the ending, since one of the other quests depends on a consumable item.

I noticed someone else on the official forum who had the same problem, so it's not like I'm unique in this, and there was no reason posted as of the time I'm writing this review. If you're playing and you find the cat, take it straight back to town without delay so you don't end up in the same situation that I was in.

Here's one of the references that I actually understood.

I want to say that Heroine's Quest is a good successor to the Quest for Glory games that falls a little short, but I'm not sure how much of that is just nostalgia. Unlike a lot of the judgements I make, where I've played the old games recently enough that I know that they're superior, or at least superior in some particular way, I haven't played any Quest for Glory since before softlykarou and I moved to Japan. It's entirely possible that some of the criticisms that I made here of Heroine's Quest apply equally to its spiritual predecessors, and that ifwhen I go back, I'll find them equally as annoying.

Note that "annoying" here is relative, though. A lot of the annoyance I experienced came from the cat bug, which led to two hours of running around trying to figure out what I had done wrong and gearing up for quests that I hadn't realized even existed, much less that I'd have to do them. Quest for Glory IV: Shadows of Darkness is somewhat infamous for the number of game-breaking bugs that could destroy your ability to beat the game, and it's just luck that I never ran into them. It's possible, and indeed probable, that your playthrough would be bug-free, or that you'd play a warrior or rogue, both of whom have ways to bypass the situation I found myself in. Don't let my bugged playthrough prevent you from enjoying one of the few examples of this kind of game that exists. I mean, I still won, right?

Also, it's free, and I don't really understand why. It's longer than any of the QFG games. It has full voice acting. Say what I may about it, Heroine's Quest is absolutely worth more than they're charging. Even though the ending was pretty definitive, I hope they make a sequel. Or at least, another game in the same style, since no one else is doing it.

And if someone else is doing it, please let me know immediately.  photo emot-qfg.gif
Current Mood: accomplishedaccomplished
Current Music: Quest For Glory I: So You Want To Be a Hero - Erana's Peace (Reprise)