Review by Alecto

Reviewed: 08/20/02 | Updated: 05/06/03

Solid, but don't expect an epic

The Quest for Excalibur looks at the Arthurian legend from a rather unique perspective by choosing to focus not on Arthur the King, but on Arthur the boy and his apprenticeship to the wizard Merlin. Before he can claim Excalibur and the kingship, the young Arthur must prove his worthiness by being chivalrous, wise, mighty, and above all a “people’s king.” As if this wasn’t a big enough task, Arthur must also thwart the plans of the shady King Lot, who desires the throne for himself. And so begins a lovingly-crafted, albeit quite short, recreation of “Merry Olde Englande” and a fine adventure to boot.

Being a relatively vintage game (1990), The Quest for Excalibur uses a text-based interface. For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, this means that instead of interacting with your environment by pointing and clicking with the mouse, you actually type in commands that you want the character to perform. For example, typing “put gem in bag” will cause Arthur to perform the action of putting the gem into the bag. Neat eh? So if you want to play this game you might need to brush up on your spelling and grammar, heh heh. Fortunately the computer’s ability to recognize syntax isn’t bad. Generally if you construct your sentence properly (verb + object + indirect object) it will understand what you’re asking it to do, and there was only once when I got really frustrated trying to do something and couldn’t get the proper wording to trigger the event. The computer also assumes things, which makes your life much easier. For example if you type “unlock door” it will assume that you want to use the key in your inventory to save you having to type out the whole thing.

Gameplay is light on graphics and heavy on text, and the two are combined in a very unique way. The top third of the display is a picture that shows up to depict a first-person view of each new screen that Arthur enters. The bottom two thirds are where text appears describing the place you have just entered, and any dialogue that goes on. There is a neat auto-map feature that keeps track of where you’ve been and a separate menu that shows your inventory. There isn’t much animation in the game, which I could have dealt with had the text not so often been totally uninspiring. Let me demonstrate with a few room descriptions you’ll come across in the game.
Dark Passage
You are in a dark passage that continues down to the north and back up behind you to the south.

Yay. And how about this one:

You are now swimming in the river, which flows from north to south.

Ugh, this is just unacceptable for a game that relies so heavily on text. I don’t mind scrolling through a lot of text BUT it has to be well-written and interesting. Mind you, this is the game text at its worst. Most room descriptions are slightly to moderately better. What’s really hilarious yet sad at the same time is that the examples I gave were taken from when the game was in “verbose mode!” There’s also a “brief mode” (don’t even ask…) Another problem I had with the text can’t really be blamed on Quest for Excalibur alone because there seemed to be a general trend at the time for developers to insert smart-ass references to real-life into their games, no matter what the setting. There are references to Larry Bird, Purina dog-chow and, in the ultimate fit of tackiness, an NPC answers with “because I can look into the game code when you’re not looking”. Ewwww.

Oh well, the game makes up for its lackluster text in the quality and variety of its puzzles. Solving the puzzles takes a combination of ingenuity, trial and error and very carefully reading everything. Besides the standard “take object here” and “unlock door x with key x” puzzles, there are several cryptograms and time-specific puzzles that must be executed in a certain number of moves. Unfortunately if you go over the limit of the number of moves, it more often than not results in your death.

As Merlin’s apprentice, Arthur’s ability to change form into various animals (owl, turtle, eel, badger or salamander) is a very cool feature that was not exploited nearly enough. Sadly a few of the animal forms (I won’t spoil it by saying which) only need to be used once in the game. This is just one area that left me wanting more. All-in-all the game is on the short side, and unless you get really stuck on a puzzle you could easily breeze straight through in an evening or two. I would have liked to see a bigger universe to explore; as it was, I felt restricted. On the plus side however, there are very few “empty screens”, meaning that you have to do something at some point in almost every screen of the game. Which I’m very thankful for because I don’t think I could have put up with endless superfluous rooms with “This is a room” as the description.

Overall Quest for Excalibur is a perfectly fine adventure game, but isn’t quite as smooth a ride as some of its contemporaries. Arthur has to eat, for one thing, and can actually starve and die during the game if he doesn’t. Why they chose to insert this dungeon crawler element into a perfectly innocent adventure game is beyond me. Because it’s not like food just randomly spawns anywhere in the game. There are about three or four pieces of food in the entire game and once they’re gone, they’re GONE. They also stick one of the most infuriating puzzles right at the beginning of the game which, for me anyway, really put a damper on my enjoyment until I could figure out how to solve it. The culprit of this puzzle is a bratty invisible knight who steals all your items and he just happens to attack at the very important crossroad which connects everywhere to everywhere so that you can’t possibly avoid walking there AND you can’t get the items back until you can find his lair. Maybe I’m just stupid but this puzzle stumped me and it was really Not Fun to have no items. Why, oh why did they do this? I finally go so fed up that I read the faq.

Now that everyone’s indignant and calling me a cheater, let me retaliate with “but the game made me do it!” Yes, the game has its own built-in faq. Heck, it’s one step away from being a full-fledged walkthrough. Each time you look at your magical torque you can access a Hints menu which gives you steps on how to solve a particular puzzle in order of vague to more detailed to ok I’ll just give you the whole answer now. Only those with huge amounts of willpower will be able to avoid using this feature. In a very real way it cheapens the game. I wasn’t strong enough to resist and I feel so dirty inside…

In spite of these nuisances, Quest for Excalibur is a solid game with entertaining puzzles and a strong story. Just don’t expect an epic.

Rating: 6

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