Are you tired of your family putting pressure on you? Do their expectations clash with your hopes and dreams? Don't you sometimes wish you could just jump into a pond, get whisked off to an alternate dimension and forget all your worries? Well, if said alternate dimension faces the eruption of a deadly volcano at the hands of an evil fairy, you'll easily forget about all your troubles!
Admittedly, I feel a great deal of nostalgia when recalling King's Quest VII, as it was the first computer game I ever played. Many happy childhood memories come to mind when replaying it, but there's more to it than that. Simply put, King's Quest VII is a delightfully whimsical fantasy with a pure heart that can appeal not only to children, but to the child in all of us.
The setup is simple: Princess Rosella of Daventry, nearing the ripe old age of 20, is none too happy about her mother, Queen Valanice, insisting she "put childish things away" and get married. Not only are her potential suitors all colossal bores, but Rosella feels she is not ready for marriage and still wants time to enjoy herself. Gazing forlornly into a nearby pond, Rosella is surprised by a vision of a glorious castle floating amongst the clouds. Her curiosity peaked, she dives in, quickly followed by her panicked mother. Both women are then transported to the Realm of Eldritch, each winding up in a different location. It is now up to Rosella to unravel the mystery of who lured her there and why, and to stop the land from being destroyed by Malicia, the evil fairy in question. Meanwhile, Valanice must track down her daughter's whereabouts before it's too late. Along the way, many good deeds will be performed, many whacky characters encountered, and many sinister plots foiled. All in a days work for seasoned questers.
Though familiarity with the previous games certainly helps (in particular, knowledge of King's Quest IV will make the ending a bit clearer), it's not required to enjoy this installment. King's Quest VII can easily be taken as a standalone adventure as well as a continuation of an established series. There were many firsts in this game - it was Sierra's first SVGA game, featuring double the resolution of most games up to that point; it was the first King's Quest to feature dual protagonists; it was the first and (to date) only time Queen Valanice was a playable character; it was the first entry not to feature King Graham in any capacity; and it was the first King's Quest to be released exclusively on CD-ROM, for even without digitized speech it would've been far too big for floppy disk.
There are other differences as well. Purportedly inspired by The Legend of Kyrandia, creator Roberta Williams implemented a greatly simplified interface this time around. Gone are the multiple icons for walking, talking and looking, replaced by a single mouse cursor for every action. Taking the shape of a magic wand, this cursor sparkles over interactive hotspots. Also gone is the need to constantly save your game out of fear of dying or getting stuck. King's Quest VII features no dead-ends; it is impossible to make the game unwinnable. Should Valanice or Rosella perish, they will offer the player clues as to the correct course of action, and the plot will resume right where it left off. Furthermore, the game is divided into six chapters (both protagonists star in three chapters each), which can be played in any order.
From start to finish, the game is an aural treat. The lush MIDI score complements each locale perfectly, and the professional voice acting is equally first rate. Carol Bach-y-Rita lends great maternal warmth to Valanice, while Maureen McVerry gives Rosella spunk and personality, certainly much more than the character had in the voiceless King's Quest IV. Also listen out for Roger Jackson (the voice of Ghostface in the Scream series) as a variety of different characters.
Graphically, things are also quite impressive…for the most part. All locales visited are diverse and engaging. The hand-painted backgrounds benefit greatly from the expanded resolution, and the bright color palette really pops. The visual style recalls the works of Walt Disney and Don Bluth, and Disney’s Aladdin is said to have been a major influence on the overall look of the game. The cell-animated sprites are fine for the most part, but the large number of animation houses employed to create the artwork means that characters often lack consistency. Facial shapes, clothing length and movement styles frequently shift, resulting in occasionally jarring transitions. It’s a minor quibble, though, and for Sierra’s first time at bat with a game of this scope, the results are very impressive.
Unsurprisingly, for a game which did so many things differently, reception was mixed. Some praised it for its animated feature influences and novice-friendly atmosphere, while certain longtime fans expressed outrage at the game’s simplicity, short length and cartoon-like style. Some criticism was also aimed at the bugs plaguing early copies, a few of which were severe enough to render the game impossible to complete. Fortunately, most problems were solved over time with patches and updated reissues. As an aside, it's worth noting for modern players that all initial versions were designed for Windows only, and are incompatible natively on modern hardware - if you want to play the game through DosBox, look for version 2.00b, the only release to feature a DOS compatible engine.
While all sides have made valid arguments over the years regarding the game's pros and cons, my opinion is this: Sierra adventures were always about breaking new ground and experimenting with the latest available hardware. As technology progressed, so did the style of the games. It was natural for them to want to take the series to yet another level. With personal computers becoming more prevalent, creating titles to appeal to a broader range of players was only logical. Yes, some may say that simply creating a new series aimed at this demographic would've been more appropriate than to drastically overhaul a pre-existing property, but taking the opportunity to expand upon the King's Quest universe in such a new, visually exciting manner wasn't exactly a bad idea, either. Nothing about this game contradicts any story points that came before it, and one could argue that it's a far more original creation than many of the earlier entries. Most characters presented here are unique to this game, whereas the first four titles were littered with cut-and-paste storybook archetypes like Little Red Riding Hood and Dracula - none of whom were exactly cleverly integrated into the plots. Though this story may not be as complex as that of its predecessor, King's Quest VI: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow, it nevertheless succeeds at creating a fresh, compelling adventure that stands on its own.
So don't put childish things away just yet. Enter a place where everything's new and not really what it seems. Put aside preconceived notions and escape into a land beyond dreams. It's worth the trip.