King’s Quest Chapter 1: A Knight to Remember stands out for me as one of the best gaming experiences of 2015. I’d never played the Sierra King’s Quest games, which had come out not long after I was born; my days of PC gaming didn’t start for another twenty years or so. Coming to The Odd Gentlemen’s re-boot of the franchise was completely fresh for me, and their mixture of humor, adventure, excellent voice-acting, and Princess Bride references was a perfect soup to whet my appetite for more of Graham’s derring-do. I watched their Twitter feed and various news sites like a starving hawk. When Rubble Without a Cause was announced, I tucked my bib in and sat at the table awaiting my feast.
I finished the second chapter a couple nights ago, and far from sating my appetite, I am left with a sour taste in my mouth and a deeper hunger that goes unanswered. It’s not that Rubble Without a Cause is bad. It’s not, and I enjoyed my time with it. It’s just not what I’d hoped for, which is testament to the horrible business model that is episodic content. Had I played this second installment directly after the first, and then whatever subsequent chapters beyond that, there would be a balance to the highs and lows. Episodic content is bad. I want it to stop. I want full games without massive breaks in between short chapter releases. It’s maddening.
Rubble Without a Cause takes place sometime after A Knight to Remember. At the end of the first chapter, Graham has triumphed over his knightly opponents, and we leave him at the gates of the city where the next episode will presumably take place. It doesn’t. Rubble Without a Cause has Graham as King of the realm already, with no interim story to tell us how he got there. This left me confused from the very start and wondering if something in those old Sierra games explained more about why there was such a narrative jump. Another possibility is that future episodes will tell the in-between tale, which is fine, if bad storytelling. The opening is good, despite my confusion, and relates what it’s like to be the ruler of a kingdom (which seems mired in tedium). Things escalate as Graham and many of his subjects are raided and kidnapped by goblins. The rest of the episode is basically a prison break scenario with Graham attempting to free himself and his subjects.
In theory, I like this idea. Figuring out the puzzle of how to escape a guarded dungeon is intriguing and not often explored in video games. Breaking out of prisons is usually a matter of grabbing a weapon and slaying your way to the top. There’s no murder in Rubble Without a Cause, thankfully, and there are some clever mechanics for freeing the townspeople. Unfortunately, it’s easy to bypass these clever bits because the episode is structured on a day-to-day basis. This means that not saving your subjects is a very real scenario.
What this episode attempts to do is offer players hard choices. Essentially you can let one subject “die” to save another, which is the kind of decision a King might face. There are ways to save everyone, but those aren’t easy nor obvious from the start. Each of your subjects, as well as your trusted steed, has a health bar that must be kept stable by feeding them. Food is a scarce commodity, hoarded by the goblins and by the miserly (and frankly, evil) merchant who also gets kidnapped. This merchant sells a few items needed to make progress in the escape and requires gold coins found in the surrounding caves, as though gold does him any favors in an environment without economy. In my playthrough, I bought the wrong item at the wrong time, and several of my subjects perished. This is frustrating, but is a genuine frustration at my lack of foresight and intelligence. Ruling is hard.
Where I take real issue with the episode is partly what makes it so interesting. I found my time with Rubble Without a Cause to be tedious. The intriguing day-to-day cycle mechanic felt too much like daily life in a real prison; repeating actions over and over until something happens. Rubble isn’t quite so limited as that, but sometimes it felt nearly as monotonous. There were points of humor in the endless cave crawling, and I enjoyed the spin on traditional fairy tales that the story attempts, but the zany comedy and competitive spirit of the first episode was lost in dreary stalactites and weary stalagmites. And there wasn’t a single Princess Bride reference. Inconceivable. The ending of the episode also completely falls apart, and made me feel like every choice I made during the course of my time in those caves to be completely meaningless.
I don’t feel like The Odd Gentlemen earned my ten dollars with Rubble Without a Cause, which is an insanely entitled thing to say, but as a poor gamer, it does matter. I would have paid double the cost for A Knight to Remember, and sincerely hope that the third episode (and beyond) is a return to what made my initial foray into this franchise so memorable. That said, I’ll likely still return to each of these two episodes at some point in the future, particularly as the third may take upwards of several months to release. Seriously, I’m so tired of episodic content. Have I mentioned that?