I, for one, welcome our new goblin overlords…

September 9, 2007

One of the great divides in modern popular fiction is between those who do and do not “get” fantasy. With the advent of the internet, the ability to post comments anonymously (“elves are gay!” “oh yeah? I shall surely slayest thee with my 1+ broadsword of smiting!”), and the proliferation of fetish websites (“Have you been a bad little gnome? Perhaps it’s time to visit Madame Electra’s domination and cosplay chat, only on World of Warcraft’s ‘Silvermoon’ server!”), the gap has widened considerably.

While I can’t personally attest to knowing the sexual orientation of elves, individually or as a class, I can comfortably seat myself with those who don’t “get” fantasy, particularly of the high fantasy variety. The difference between the two, as far as I can tell, is in how much you have to invest yourself to understand what’s going on; if you can pretty much jump into things from the start, it’s fantasy, if you must first have a thorough understanding of the surrounding mythology, it’s high fantasy. Chalk it up to having a lead ear for Tolkien, and a particular misadventure at a Renaissance fair (which shall henceforth go unmentioned), but if I’m not reading Shakespeare, as soon as I see “hither,” “thither,” or particularly, “mayest,” I generally get running in the opposite direction.

Yet, as with many genres, there are a few fantasy works of such tremendous quality that they manage to move even the most serious detractors. Given my general weariness of fantasy, I wasn’t quite sure what to think of Crystal Shard‘s “A Tale of Two Kingdoms,” but after a marathon play-through, I’m happy to report that it’s got more than enough to make even the most jaded of elf-punters smile.

In the game, players fill the shoes of Maeldun Whiteblade, a mercenary captain celebrating the anniversary of his kingdom’s victory over the invading armies of the neighboring kingdom of Theylinn. Not long after the festivities commence, a messenger (and former foe) interrupts the banquet with an urgent plea for help, as a goblin army is encroaching on Theylinn’s borders. Begrudgingly, the hero and his companions set sail for the capital of Theylinn, and set up camp on the outskirts of the city. After a very tense dinner-time discussion about tactics with the king of Theylinn and his advisers, the king is found murdered, and Maeldun is implicated as the prime suspect.

Thus, the path a player takes through the game is fairly non-linear, as the hero must not only clear his name, and stop the goblin menace, but prevent his army and the army of Theylinn from charging into all-out war (in no particular order). Making headway in any of these tasks is quite difficult, as the hero must overcome fantastic beasts and marauding armies, but he must also deal with the conflicting loyalties and motivations of friends and foes. This really lends the game quite a bit of depth, both in terms of difficulty and character development; it is quite interesting to hear what the hostile residents of Theylinn think of your past heroic exploits.

Graphics-wise, the game is a major accomplishment. Given the considerable size of the world in which the game takes place, every area looks unique, and nowhere is static; there is a considerable amount of activity, whether from passerby or ambient wildlife (which play into a clever puzzle later on in the game), everywhere you go in the game. The backgrounds are all quite painterly and engrossing, and the character sprites are well-animated, if somewhat blocky (although, if you are a big fan of classic adventure games, this may be a definite plus). Throughout all of the game, the colors remain lush and are easy on the eyes, not to mention the excellent (and at times, grand) soundtrack that accompanies the action.

That the visuals are easy on the eyes (and the music never feels repetitive) is quite significant, given the game’s unbelievable length. Apart from a number of optional side quests, finishing the main storyline alone could easily take a very, very long time, even if you have a walkthrough for all of the puzzles (trying to play through the entire game in one sitting is decidedly not recommended). Furthermore, the puzzles often have multiple solutions, which is a major plus, as allows you to define the moral path your character can take throughout the game, as well as flex your creativity (though, it is unfortunate that you are penalized for choosing to stab one character who really deserves it).

The range of solutions is also necessary because it’s pretty easy to die in “A Tale of Two Kingdoms.” This frequent peril will be hit-or-miss for some people: fans of the classic King’s Quest games and gluttons for punishment may find it refreshing, while less experienced players may find themselves scrambling for a walkthrough. Thankfully, there are no dead-ends to the game; if you make a fatal mistake, you find out about it pretty quickly, and no legitimate solution to a puzzle makes the game impossible to complete. However, some side quests can be made impossible if you complete tasks in the wrong order, or fail to adhere to King Graham’s famous rule, “take anything that isn’t nailed down,” in a timely manner.

In all, “A Tale of Two Kingdoms” is worthy of its epic setting. With multiple endings, intriguing characters, charming visuals, and a comparably majestic score, the game merits at least one play-through. Whether or not you’re into high fantasy shouldn’t decide whether you should play it, just how you play it: as an experience of grand adventure, or as a clever and engrossing puzzle game that can illuminate your coffee breaks. ♦

Highly recommended as the “Oblivion” or “Song of Ice and Fire” for the adventure-gaming set.

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