The Legend of Kyrandia: Book One

Review by Scout
June 2004

Imagine, if you will, it's the early nineties. You and your partner own a growing game development company based in Las Vegas called Westwood Associates. Your name is Brett Sperry or Louis Castle, and you have this new adventure game called The Legend of Kyrandia. The two of you are trying to convince one of the big dogs of gaming development, Ken Williams of Sierra Online, to publish it for Westwood. Never mind the concept. It's your basic thinly plotted fantasy wrapped around a modest bit of puzzling, some colorful graphics and some nice music. That's not the point. The point is you've created a new interface especially for this game, an interface you're sure is going to get you noticed. No more typing text messages like in that game you just finished for Infocom, Circuit's Edge. Parsers are dead. This new interface is better. You use a mouse, see. That's right. A mouse, and you run your cursor directly over a character or item and click to interact with it. You've never seen this before, and most people who try it rave about it once they get past the offputting novelty of using a mouse-driven interface in a computer game.

You deliver your pitch, your excitement rising, and then you give the demo to Williams. He plays it. You wait for his reaction, certain he'll be impressed. Instead, he asks if you would like to see something. Sure, you say. After all, this is Ken Williams here. He takes you into a room, sits you down in front of his company's newest project and shows you how it works. It's this thinly plotted fantasy wrapped around some pretty decent puzzling, some very gorgeous, hand-painted graphics and nice music, but it's got this new interface. No more typing words. All you do is use a mouse to run a cursor around the screen ... As you pick yourself up off the floor, you hear yourself ask the name of the game.

"King's Quest V," says Williams.

Then he drops the bomb. He asks if you would consider selling Westwood.

What do you do?

You sell, right? You realize that what you thought was your ticket to ride has already been bought and punched and the train has left the station. What else to do but take the money and run, maybe open that bar in Mexico you've always dreamed about.



If you are Brett Sperry or Louis Castle, you go back to Las Vegas and you and the 30 people at your company finish the game and publish it through Virgin. You follow up with two more installments. You go on to make the bestselling Command and Conquer RTS franchise, the Dune series, Blade Runner, the Lands of Lore series and Nox 1 and 2. Along the way you merge with Virgin, later get sold to Electronic Arts for $122.5 million and only in 2002 do the last vestiges of your company finally dissolve into the ever-transmorgifying corporate landscape.

So Kyrandia, had it been finished twelve or even six months earlier, might have secured a place in adventure game history. Instead, it has more or less been eclipsed by, among others, the King's Quest series. This is no surprise because, in many ways, the above anecdote is the most interesting thing about this game. Still, for the patient gamer willing to tolerate some glaring flaws, this game has some modest rewards.

I recommend that you read the manual before you begin to play, specifically the segment starting on the second page titled "The History of Kyrandia." I advise this because you're not going to find much lucid backstory in the actual game. The abrupt manner in which the various characters are introduced and the often enigmatic comments of the main character suggest the developers expect you to do your homework. If you can't be bothered with all those words, here's a quick synopsis.

King William the First, king of Kyrandia, calls a meeting with the forces of Nature and they cut a deal. Mutual care and protection all around. As a token of its appreciation, Nature creates a Volkswagen-sized gem right where King William stood, and this gem is called ... wait for it ... the Kyragem. It's Nature's gift to Kyrandia and the royal family's eternal responsibility. It acts to focus and concentrate magic power and in doing so makes Kyrandia the Magic Capital of the Universe.

The king, being a practical guy, builds a castle around the stone and names it Castle Kyrandia. Things are good and then not so good. War then peace, the invention of trousers, and then one fateful day, for reasons unexplained, Malcolm the court jester kills the king and queen. Kallak, the chief of the royal mystics who care for the Kyragem, casts a spell to lock Malcolm in the castle and then takes the king and queen's only child, Brandon, away into the forest. As the game begins, Malcolm has just broken Kallak's spell and escaped the castle and is merrily wreaking vengeance up on the land and its inhabitants, especially targeting the loathed royal mystics. Brandon is a young man now and Kyrandia's only hope. Will he defeat Malcolm? Can he restore harmony to the kingdom of Kyrandia? Will he discover the secret of his birthright? At the end of the game, will we even care?

As you may have deduced by now, The Legend of Kyrandia: Book One has a rudimentary point-and-click control system. The upper three-fourths of the screen contain the viewing area. Here, you navigate by running your cursor to one edge of the screen. If you can advance, you get a clickable arrow. If not, you see the universal "no" icon of a slash through a circle. The bottom fourth of the screen is reserved for housekeeping chores. There is a very limited inventory of only 10 spaces, an options button to take you to the save and load functions, a long, thin, horizontal text message box (holy vestigial holdover, Batman!) and a lozenge-shaped amulet with four darkened, dead gems. These gems light up one by one as you progress through the game and achieve your goals. Each gem represents a power that, once obtained, is available to you for the remainder of the game.

Gems, by the way, are a running theme in this game. As well as the mystical Kyragem and the four gems in the above-mentioned amulet, there are myriad other gems scattered around Kyrandia, blue gems, red gems, gems growing on trees, yellow gems, hidden gems, gems in plain sight ... so many gems, in fact, that after a while playing Kyrandia begins to feel a bit like a medieval Easter egg hunt for the Faberge set.

You aren't far into the game before you begin to see the exposed roots of text adventures peeking through. At times Kyrandia felt like little more than a glorified text adventure with the "rooms" transposed directly to the screen. In fact, in a 2002 interview on Adventure Gamers, Rick Gush, the game's designer, claims Kyrandia was loosely based on a multi-user text adventure game of the same name hosted by the Galacticomm Bulletin Board in the late eighties. According to Gush, the game's creators, Brett Sperry and Michael Legg, had been playing the original text adventure and subsequently purchased the rights to use for Westwood's first graphical adventure. While I haven't seen the original game, a quick scan of a walkthrough references, among other things, the Kyragem. Indeed, the paradigms of text adventuring have such a strong hold over this game that a few hours into it I had reverted to mapping the different areas using the time-tested standard of labeled squares connected by lines.

The text adventure "feel" wasn't the only reason I turned to mapping. It's not because the game world is overly large or complex (other than the infamous fire berry maze, which I'll get to soon enough) but simply that everything looks the same. There is a reason for this: several of the screens were reused multiple times in multiple areas. Occasionally the artists went to the trouble of modifying the screen somewhat, closing up a cave entrance, removing or adding a foreground branch, or reversing the image, but just as often they didn't. A few times the same screen is used next to itself, making it appear as if the player character "pops" from one side to the other, when in fact he has moved over a screen. This becomes especially annoying in the forest regions, where you really need some decent visual cues. Because of this ill-considered production shortcut, the different areas in Kyrandia have a bland, homogenous look. As much of the puzzling entails trudging back and forth to these areas in search of inventory items, mapping as you go helps lower the frustration level a few notches.

This incessant recycling carries over to the music, which often plays in tight, repeating loops, loops that sometimes don't change for several screens. The tone seemed off as well, sounding awfully light and happy for what is essentially a dark, cautionary tale. In researching this review, I came upon a website that contained .mp3 files of the original MT-32 midi tunes, and I finally got to hear what I was missing. Quite a bit, it turned out. The composer, Frank Klepacki, created a lushly evocative, multilayered score for this game, but because the files require the true LA Synth playback that only an LAPC-1 sound card or an MT-32 midi module can reproduce, few modern-day gamers will ever get to hear it as they play the game.

Though I played the CD-ROM version with voice acting, the original release was diskette only with no voices. As with King's Quest V, the developers were quick to exploit the huge data capacity of the newly emerging CD-ROM technology to add spoken voices. The results were a mixed bag but on the whole very serviceable. While a few voices were sort of leaden, most of the actors did a decent enough job of it, especially Gloria Hoffman as Brandywine the dragon and Gimalyn Torrecilla as Zanthia, one of the royal mystics. Gary Hyatt, the actor playing Malcolm, was by far the standout. Sadly, as is often the case, the main character's voice left a lot to be desired. It was thin. It was whiny. It was a spoiled little boy's voice. And to be fair, it was probably written that way. Checking my notes, I find scrawled, in capital letters this note to myself: "Brandon. Most annoying player character ever? No. But close." Upon reflection, I think that's a bit of an overstatement, but the general sentiment holds.

My main complaint, though, and what finally brought this game down, was the puzzles. They were simply poorly designed, often coming off as little more than exercises in trial and error. More than once I was reduced to guessing at the solutions, trying this, then that, until finally randomly stumbling across the answer. Thinking I had missed some vital clue or overlooked a crucial inventory item, I would retrace my steps, revisiting each location. I think I spent as much time searching for nonexistent clues than actually working on the puzzles. I even made a point of watching for hints during the second play through, to no avail. To me, one of the pleasures of a well-made adventure game is discovering the clues scattered about the game world. This gives me reason to pay attention, to note the significant detail, to become immersed in the game. Good puzzle design should reinforce the story instead detract from it. Good puzzle design should exercise lateral thinking, rewarding both leaps of intuition and logical deduction. There's not a lot of this in Kyrandia.

And then, finally, there is the maze.

Where to start? First, a confession. I'm one of those people who actually enjoys mazes. Yes, it's true. Maybe it's because I have an inborn sense of direction or maybe because something went wrong at birth, but when first encountering a maze I'm as likely to rub my hands in anticipation as wring them in despair. I enjoy mapping strange, convoluted worlds and trying to make sense of them. It's exploration in one of its purest forms. I loved the sewers in Traitors Gate, reveled in taming the beast that was the maze in The Black Dahlia. I even occasionally found myself humming as I explored the vast, convoluted nightmare better known as a Daggerfall dungeon. So what did I think of the maze in Kyrandia?

It was like Zork with pictures.

You remember Zork. You made your way though a vast underground labyrinth full of snarling grues who feared only one thing. Light. As long as you had lanterns and flashlights, the grues stayed away. When the light went out, the devouring began. In Kyrandia's maze, you have the same basic model. You require light to navigate the maze. The only source of light (at the beginning) exists in the maze. This source is fragile and wears out easily. You must find more light or suffer the consequences. This light is readily available to you but usually at the price of repeated dying. In a way, this maze is simultaneously the most elegantly designed puzzle in the game and the most unfair.

It's obvious that some amount of thought and care went into its design. In fact, a very, very lucky gamer might conceivably stumble through the whole thing and survive. It can be done; in fact, logic dictates that it has to be possible for the maze to actually work. Still, it felt unfair in that it's nigh on impossible to map the maze without dying repeatedly. As the chances are excellent you are going to have to traverse the entire maze at least one more time (I can just hear the groans), you pretty much have to map it, and to make the needed map, you must die.

Also, there is at least one place, near the three-quarters mark, where you can easily find yourself at a dead end. Luckily, it doesn't take long to figure out that something is wrong and reload. Still, I hate dead ends in graphical adventure games. For some reason I can abide them in text games, where they seem more organic somehow.

The game ran like a dream in DOS with not a bump, shudder or crash. I installed it to my hard drive, booted to DOS and played from there. There is also an option to install a semi-Windows version via a wininst.exe command that then lets you click on a KYRACD.BAT file from Windows Explorer. I didn't try it, but at least it is an option.

There is some confusion about the name of this game. It appears that this game, indeed all three Kyrandia games, have two separate titles ... sort of. Originally the first game was released as Fables and Fiends: The Legend of Kyrandia: Book One. Later, the three games were packaged as a boxed set titled The Legend of Kyrandia: The Series. In this set the first game was entitled Book One: Fables and Fiends, the second Book Two: The Hand of Fate and the third Book Three: Malcolm's Revenge. Open the box, though, and the jewel case inserts all show the original titles, each with The Legend of Kyrandia intact.

Alas, in the end, The Legend of Kyrandia, whatever its official title, didn't do much for me. All of the parts were there, the story, the puzzles, the exploration, but they never really gelled into any kind of satisfying experience, any sort of real payoff. It's always a balancing act to weigh an older game's worth to the modern gamer while still trying to imagine its impact back in the day. While there are games that are still as entertaining today as they were 15 years ago, Kyrandia isn't one of them. It's more "important" than it is "fun," offering up some tidbits of historic interest but not really delivering any sustained entertainment value. And in a game where the whole point is to find the magic again, that's just a little sad. The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: Westwood
Publisher: Virgin
Release Date: 1992

Available for: DOS

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System Requirements

DOS 4.0 or higher
VGA graphics
Sound card

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