Review by Flashman85

Reviewed: 04/28/09

Definitely the pinnacle of the Space Quest series. Almost. Maybe.

Space Quest V has all the ingredients to be a potential disaster of a game: it is the sequel to the near-perfect masterpiece that is Space Quest IV; the graphics and gameplay are a little bit of a departure from the previous installment; the voice acting that adds to SQIV’s greatness is nowhere to be found; the game primarily parodies one specific sci-fi franchise rather than a bunch of different ones; there’s noticeable in-game advertising by the game’s sponsor; the game was developed by a different studio than usual during a time of financial trouble; and, perhaps most importantly, only one of the two designers of the Space Quest series, Mark Crowe, returned to work on the game. For these reasons, Space Quest V should presumably have “huge disappointment” written all over it.

As it turns out, Space Quest V is anything but a huge disappointment. In fact, if you can get over the few issues that keep me from liking it more, I expect you’ll find SQV to be at least on par with the stellar Space Quest IV. Not bad for something that has all the makings of a failure, eh?

One of the biggest reasons Space Quest V is such a success is its dynamite plot, which is unquestionably the most intricate and twisty out of any of the games in the series. Roger Wilco, buffoonish janitor of the stars (the kind of stars you find in outer space, not Hollywood), is now a cadet at StarCon Academy, and it’s not long before a freak accident sends Roger’s test scores through the roof, landing him a position as the captain of a starship! How appropriate—he gets a garbage scow. Before long, Roger and his crew get mixed up in someone else’s sketchy dealings that now threaten the entire galaxy, an unpaid debt from Roger’s past returns to haunt him, and Roger finally meets the woman who will supposedly become his wife and bear the child who will go back in time to save him in Space Quest IV… except he totally botches his introduction and makes an utter fool of himself.

Virtually all of the puzzles and action sequences are plot-driven, too; from outsmarting a killer android to springing someone out of jail, just about everything has to do with the story, and the challenges are some of the most creative and varied you’ll see in any Space Quest game, requiring much more than just using the right item on the right object. Over the course of the game you’ll need to make quick tactical decisions to save your ship, pilot a tiny shuttle with very sensitive controls to rescue a crew member adrift in space, and figure out how to get the attention of your crew after an embarrassing transporter accident that makes communication almost completely impossible.

Indeed, Roger’s crew plays a big role in the game, and they frequently serve to get him both in and out of trouble. Whereas previous Space Quest games most often left Roger alone in the universe for the majority of the game, having him occasionally cross paths briefly with an eccentric shopkeeper or an alien caught in a trap, Roger is just as often surrounded by other characters in SQV as he is alone. There’s a whole host of memorable characters: the antagonistic, conceited, toupee-wearing Captain Quirk; the tough and beautiful woman of Roger’s dreams, Beatrice; the man-hating communications officer with the beehive hairdo, Flo; the cynical, mouthless tactical officer, Droole; the laid-back and out-of-shape engineer, Cliffy; and plenty of other characters who are sure to leave an impression.

The point-and-click interface allows you to interact with these characters and the environment with ease. As in SQIV, you can click the mouse to walk around, examine your surroundings, talk to people, and pick up anything that isn’t nailed down. Sadly, the useless-yet-fun ability to smell and taste things has been removed, but the ability to give commands to the people around you has been added. Of course, trying to give commands to those who aren’t members of your crew sometimes yields funny results. For example, if you try to order around one of your fellow classmates at the academy, he’ll shout back at you, “Stop it, Wilco, or I’ll rip your arm off and beat you over the head with it!”

Humor, as always, is a big part of SQV—even the instruction manual, a parody of the National Enquirer tabloid, is hilarious—but there are notable comic dry spells throughout the second half of the game. Still, the parts that are funny usually elicit some big laughs, or at least a chuckle or two. The humor tends to be concentrated in the dialogue, puzzle solutions, and death messages, though there are still a few sight gags and some amusing descriptions of the people and objects you look at. This game contains one of my all-time favorite death messages in the Space Quest series, which you get from just waiting around during a space battle and letting your ship get blown up instead of defending yourself: “Duuuuh. You died because you were dumb.”

SQV offers a whopping 67 different ways to die, including getting sucked out of an airlock into the void of space, being squished by a speeding turbolift, ceasing to exist because of a time paradox you created, and turning into a hideous mutant. This last kind of death is the single greatest reason SQV can’t ever be my favorite game in the series.

When the slimy, Toxic-Avenger-esque mutants are introduced in the second half of the game, SQV changes from a Space Quest game into more of a sci-fi survival horror game of sorts, which I might not mind so much if it weren’t for the fact that something about these mutants is absolutely terrifying to me. While individual moments in other Space Quest games give me the heebie-jeebies (such as roaming around Xenon’s streets in SQIV and some of the gorier deaths in SQIII), I almost can’t play through the end of SQV because of the mutants and the omnipresent risk of dying at their gooey hands; it’s that bad. It doesn’t help that most of the parts with the mutants are the ones that are more serious than funny, and that those sections of the game generally require you to be constantly on the move and/or exercising very precise timing.

So now that I’ve established myself as a wimp, let me clarify that just because I don’t enjoy playing through certain portions of the game doesn’t mean that it’s a bad game. By no means. Assuming I could find a way to laugh at the gross mutants instead of recoiling in panic, I’d have almost nothing but positive things to say about SQV, although there are a few aspects of the game that might be hit-or-miss with certain players.

Perhaps the most obvious potential sticking point is that, between commanding a starship on missions to various planets and interacting with obvious parodies of Kirk and Scotty, SQV generally feels like you’re playing a silly version of Star Trek, especially during the scene that directly parodies the bar fight from “The Trouble With Tribbles.” If you’re a Trek fan (and I am), all this should be right up your alley. However, while there are references to the likes of Star Wars, Alien, Flash Gordon, The Fly, Pong, and Battleship, Star Trek totally dominates the comedic reference scene, which could be a turnoff for some folks.

Going along with that thought, spending a lot of time solving puzzles and chatting with people on board your spaceship and returning there after every mission is a bit of a departure from the other Space Quest games, where you explore a big desert or a vast jungle and go from one area to the next without any real base of operations. Furthermore, many areas of the game consist only of a few screens to explore, which helps to keep that overwhelmingly hopeless feeling of “I have no idea where to go” from ever setting in, but those who enjoy aimless wandering might feel a bit restricted here. So, while the gameplay is still very similar to that of other Space Quest games, it's just different enough that ardent fans of the first few games might complain.

These same people may or may not care for the graphical style of the game; the backgrounds are just as detailed and vivid as they are in SQIV, except the characters and cutscenes have a distinct “comic book” feel to them. Personally, I think it’s very well done, and the style helps to create a unique, character-focused atmosphere, but I’m sure there are some people who prefer the less-stylized graphics of SQIV. Heck, I’m sure there are people who complained when Space Quest made the jump from 16 colors to 256 colors, but that’s beside the point. Even if you don’t care much for the way the characters are rendered, I don’t expect many complaints about the shimmering waterfalls of Kiz Urazgubi, the austere hallways of StarCon Academy, the funky mushrooms of Thrakus, or the creepy “abandoned” greenhouse on Klorox II. Well, unless the complaint is that the greenhouse is too creepy. I have a phobia about greenhouses now because of SQV.

But I digress.

The graphics aren’t solely responsible for creating the game’s atmosphere; music also plays a crucial role. SQV’s soundtrack is almost certainly the best in the series, featuring a slew of songs that fit the scene perfectly and can really get stuck in your head. There’s the Jeopardy!-inspired music during the StarCon exam; the eerie music of a deserted planet; the danger-filled tune of conflict between two ships; and the triumphal variation of the main Space Quest theme that plays at the very end, just to name a few. You’re also bound to remember many of the bloops, pings, and ptooies that make up the sound effects, but the sound effects in this game are just good enough to serve their purpose, so don’t expect them to wow you.

Though I miss having voice acting, that’s more of an added bonus to SQIV than it is a shortcoming of SQV. Dynamix, the game studio that handled the development of SQV when Sierra handed the series off to them, apparently didn’t have the budget and/or the managerial support for voice acting, but the game doesn’t feel incomplete without it. Surprisingly, the few in-game advertisements by the game’s official sponsor, Sprint, don’t throw off the feeling of the game, either; all the ads are just subtle enough that you might mistake them for a parody if you didn’t know any better.

It’s hard to say if the game would have been better, worse, or just different if Scott Murphy, the absent co-creator of the Space Quest series, had been on board. Though, in all honesty, there’s not a whole lot one can do to make SQV a better game. Granted, certain players might object to the “comic book” look of the characters, the rampant Star Trek parodies, and the slightly altered gameplay; however, aside from the need for a bit more humor in the second half of the game, and having to live my life in fear of greenhouses and anything that even bears a passing resemblance to one of the mutants, the only thing at all that is universally unpleasant about the game, regardless of personal opinion, is the extended maze section toward the end that quickly becomes just plain tedious, even if you do have a map. I dunno, though; you might feel differently about it.

Still, my irrational fears notwithstanding, the positive aspects of this game more than outweigh anything negative: with diverse and solidly challenging puzzles, rich graphics, outstanding music, lots of laughs, a great cast of memorable characters, and a superb plot that stays interesting to the very end, Space Quest V is truly one of the best installments in the Space Quest series and should not be missed. Just… you know… play it with the lights on. For me.

Rating: 8

Product Release: Space Quest V: The Next Mutation (US, 12/31/93)

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