|As I loaded the disc for King's Quest: Mask
of Eternity into my CD tray, I couldn't help but feel a sense of nostalgia. King's Quest
was my first experience with true PC gaming on a "real" computer. Kings Quest V
- Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder was the very first game I played on my shiny new 386
with a (gasp) SoundBlaster 1.0! I was cooking along with a SVGA card and four megabytes of
memory...my machine was golden and I was primed for gaming! I ended up playing the game
three times: once alone, once with my wife, and once with my niece. Well, that was over
seven years ago, and how the times have changed!
The King's Quest games have been the most successful adventure series ever to hit the PC with over 7 million copies sold. Roberta Williams pioneered the graphical adventure movement back in 1984 when King's Quest I: Quest for the Crown was introduced. It was the first game to fully support the newly introduced EGA graphics card. Mask of Eternity is the eighth installment in this classic collection. Long gone are the days of 16 or 256 color sprites and text parsing commands such as "Open door". Sierra has put the three plus years since Kings Quest VII to good use by implementing a 3D environment and support for 3D acceleration. Many "up and coming" adventure game developers cut their teeth on the King's Quest series, including designers who eventually went on to make such classic series as Space Quest, Leisure Suit Larry, and Gabriel Knight.
In this installment you play Connor, an unassuming tanner living in the Kingdom of Daventry. Under the guidance of King Graham, the star of several previous games, it is a time of peace and prosperity in Daventry. Lucreto takes over the Realm of the Sun where resides the Mask of Eternity - the icon of truth, light, and order. Lucreto summons a vile spell, breaking the Mask into five pieces that are flung to the lands below. An evil tempest sweeps out from the temple turning all Humans in Daventry to stone.
Connor is spared this fate when one piece of the mask falls near him. As he picks it up, the evil tempest sweeps over leaving him unscathed. Thus by chance, the commoner is drawn into an adventure to restore truth, light, and order to the world...and to return the citizens of Daventry to the ranks of the living.
First I should say that I played Mask of Eternity on a 3D accelerated system, and this review is based on playing it exclusively in that mode. Your mileage may vary. When I first saw screenshots and descriptions of the game, I had mixed feelings. Yes, 3D acceleration! No, it's supposed to be an adventure game! As it turns out my worries were for naught. You can have your cake and eat it too...at least with Mask of Eternity. This is one of the first games I have played that successfully mixes together elements of adventure, RPG, and a 3D action. The graphics and environs are great...especially using a 3D accelerator. I switched into software rendering mode (DirectDraw) for a short time and was quickly greeted with average graphics. If you have the magic of 3D acceleration, your experience will be that much better. It's tough to pull off outdoor environments in a 3D game, but Sierra does. Colors and textures are unique, not the boring ones you find in many 3D games these days. There are a lot of fog effects, mostly because of the games automap feature. The map fills in to the extent of your vision, and it wouldn't make for much of a game if you could see all the way across the map in an outdoor setting. Regardless, you can still see for quite a distance without giving away the location of every creature, tree, and building.
There are basically seven worlds to the game. Daventry: represented by a village and castle. The Dimension of Death: a dark labyrinth of cobbled streets and courtyards. The Swamp: valleys filled to the hilt with water and muck. The Realm of the Gnomes: a classic dungeon romp. The Barren Region: a wasteland of lava and rock. The Frozen Reaches: mountainous rifts of snow and ice. And The Realm of the Sun: a four level pyramid in the sky. By far my favorite worlds were The Swamp and The Frozen Reaches. I recall one episode in The Swamp reminiscent of Star Wars. I was slogging along waist deep in muck, skirting giant mushrooms and trees, and noticed a trail of bubbles approaching. Before I knew it, Connor had been pulled under the water exactly like Luke. Seconds later he emerged, sputtering...alive, but damaged. Thankfully, I put the unseen creature out of its misery, never knowing what the abomination looked like. Another encounter in The Frozen Reaches (where snow constantly falls from the sky) freaked me out. This time I was slogging through the snow to suddenly hear snarling and breathing. Something was attacking me! I quickly quaffed a Reveal potion and saw the outline of an invisible bearlike creature mauling me! I also dispatched the poor devil. It's unknown factors like these that make a great game, and keep me coming back to play...just to find out what's going to happen next.
An extremely useful option in Mask of Eternity is the ability to play it in the default third person mode, or hit F2 and instantly be switched to first person mode. ALL 3D action adventure games should have this option!! I typically used first person mode during combat or indoor locales, and third person while exploring the outdoors. The reason for this comes down to the camera control. In the third person mode, simply holding down the right mouse button allows you to rotate and zoom the camera about Connor, even when he's moving. But physical barriers hinder the movement of the camera, so it's not too conducive to use in tunnels, buildings, or the like. Add in the ability to climb up walls and buildings using a rope and grapple, and you've got yourself one cool 3D adventuring environment!
Connor is equipped with armor, a hand weapon, a ranged weapon, and many potions of healing and augmentation. During the course of the game new equipment is found and Connor gains hit points and increased damage abilities through combat, puzzle solving, and interaction with characters. Combat is simple and elegant. Choose your weapon, and swing or shoot...that's it. The action is not a frantic fragfest, but a slower, more methodical affair. Character interaction is very good. Conversations are informative, yet not long, drawnout drone sessions like many RPGs. And get this--the lips on their texture mapped faces synch with the voice...more attention to detail. To top it off, the voice acting is also pretty good, with only a couple over the top performances.
As with all Sierra games, the music and sounds are second to none. The only game that may have better music is their upcoming Quest for Glory V. Mask of Eternity does a superb job using just the right music and sound affects to set the scene. I really felt like I was knee-deep in the crud, mosquitoes flying about, while trudging through The Swamp. The puzzles are challenging but not frustrating. Only one or two actually got me a little frustrated. The rest were pretty straightforward and logical, clues are always at hand...you just need to figure out where to find them or how to interpret them. Dramatic cinematics, using the 3D engine, are sprinkled throughout the game and usually occur during a character encounter or critical point in the story.
Most of the things about Mask of Eternity are good or great, but not all of them. The game has one flaw that keeps it from being a great 3D adventure game. Load times! I can't even guess how much time I wasted loading saved games or moving from one world to another. Here's the way it works. Anytime you move to another world (by finishing a world, teleporting, or restoring a game that uses a different world than the current one) the game deletes the world files off your drive, copies and uncompresses the new world files onto your drive, THEN loads the world (and savegame if applicable) into the game. Whew! This process can literally take a few minutes...and this is with a FULL 400 MB install!! I would have gladly opted for a "true" full install if it would have meant shorter load times, even if copying all the world files onto my drive would have taken up several gigabytes! Hey, I have the room! Rumor has it that the reason for this aggravation was Sierra's goal of shipping the game on one CD.
A secondary flaw, which some may shrug off, is the fact that this installment has nullified the King's Quest series as a family game. Blood and gore abound. Monsters get sliced in half, characters go up in flames, and Connor even jumps off a roof and snaps the neck of an Ice Orc at one point. I have no problem with it, but others out there might. People who buy this game expecting the sugar-laden KQ adventures of the past should be warned before slapping down $50 of their hard-earned cash.
I've seen many reports on the Internet (Sierra's own Mask of Eternity discussion board) that this game is buggy. What game isn't these days? This is a risk gamers take in the "time to market" gaming industry we live in today. Honestly, I had no problems at all. I think I had one crash in a week of playing every night. These days I wouldn't count that as buggy. . . I would say that's pretty normal. There is also quite a jump from the system minimums to the preferred requirements (see above). I played it on a system that is almost identical to the preferred and experienced a few choppy moments in the graphics department. As usual, the faster the better, but I couldn't imagine playing this on a Pentium 166 without a 3D accelerator.
In the end, Mask of Eternity took me about 30 hours to finish. Not bad for an adventure game, and certainly far better than Sierra's seven CD Phatasmagoria, which I polished off in seven hours when it was released. And finally, the ending. Fortunately, the ending does not make the game. But it's always nice to top off the effort with a great finale. What I'm trying to say is it's nothing to write home about: it's anti-climactic and about 10 seconds long. There, I didn't give anything away.
This series has gone from a family-oriented experience, to a darker, more violent one. Is this such a bad thing? Only if you're an adventure game purist, or a King's Quest purist. In either case, Mask of Eternity will probably leave a bad taste in your mouth and will cause you to dig out The Curse of Monkey Island or Grim Fandango. I welcome the change wholeheartedly, and look on it as a breath of fresh air in a dated genre. If you're looking for a game with a pinch of adventure, RPG, and 3D shooter; a dash of 3D acceleration; and a smidgen of atmosphere; then overlook the few flaws it has, pick up this potent mixture, and get to adventuring!