Allow me to tell you the story of a strapping young man, a young man who grew up in peace and comfort, totally ignorant of his heritage and his destiny. One day, after he'd come of age, the evil forces that commenced when he was a baby made a sudden reappearance, forcing him on a journey not only to save the world, but of self-discovery. Hmm, perhaps I should be more specific, as the preceding synopsis can apply to any number of fantasy titles. In this particular instance, we'll be discussing, released in 1995 by Sierra On-Line.
Game designer Al Lowe, famous for the risqué Leisure Suit Larry series, wanted to create a title that he could enjoy with his daughter, and that other parents could enjoy playing with their children. Hence,was born. Players take on the role of Torin Farnham, the strapping young lad in question, whose quiet life on the planet Strata is violently shaken by his parents' abduction by an unknown force. A stranger appears, who tells Torin about an evil sorceress, Lycentia, who was banished to The Lands Below years before, and whom he believes is responsible for the capture of Torin's family. You see, Strata is unique in that the outer surface, The Lands Above, is not the only inhabitable area. Four subterranean layers are also populated - Escarpa, Pergola, Asthenia and Tenebrous (the infamous Lands Below). Enormous phenocrysts penetrate all layers of Strata, transferring sunlight, and they also allow teleportation to those possessing a magical powder. Torin must now acquire the means to make the dangerous journey to Tenebrous, confront Lycentia and rescue his family. This won't be easy, as travel between the various layers has not occurred for some time. Torin soon finds himself a stranger in several strange lands, encountering a variety of different characters as his quest progresses. With him all the way is Boogle, a purple shape shifting creature who serves as Torin's pet, companion and, most of all, friend.
Utilizing the same SVGA and single mouse pointer design employed in King's Quest VII: The Princeless Bride, Sierra clearly had more of a feel for things this time around. The character sprites inare far more consistently animated, and the backgrounds, composited from painted and 3D elements, hold up well even today. The production design is top-notch all around: beautiful music, great voice-acting and an overall bug-free presentation. The creative and original story provides ample opportunity for family-friendly gameplay, as children and adults alike can marvel and the colorful scenery and imaginative characters. Kids will love the cartoon-like atmosphere while adults can appreciate some of the jokes that little ones may not get.
In spite of all this, there is a slightly disjointed feeling to the game that prevents it from gelling into a completely satisfying whole. The layered worlds concept was great for creating five unique chapters (like King's Quest VII, they can be played in any order), but some elements present in these worlds feel like an excess of imagination. They exist purely for the sake of being whacky, not because of logic.
Take the Bitternut family, encountered in Escarpa. Their world is that of a vintage black & white sitcom, complete with corny lines and a laugh track. When Torin enters their home, he remains in color, suggesting that black & white is not simply an audience gimmick but is indeed the Bitternut's reality. However, no other area encountered in Escarpa (or anywhere else in the game) has this dynamic at play. Why do the Bitternuts, delightful as they are, differ so drastically from everyone else in their world? Though certainly inventive and a funny diversion, segments like these stick out like a sore thumb, and prevent the game from feeling universally consistent. I shouldn't criticize too harshly, however, as the ultimate intention here was clearly entertainment, and in that regard it does succeed.
Perhaps the biggest letdown ofare the elements left under-developed. This is partly due to the fact that the game was intended as the start of a new series which ultimately never materialized. Though the primary story does get resolved, the ending is very anti-climactic and open-ended. Al Lowe has discussed his unused sequel concepts, which suggest that far more world-building and resolution would've come in time had they been made. As it is, the game works as a standalone title but feels somewhat incomplete.
Overall, though,accomplishes what it set out to do: to provide parents and children with something fun to do together. Perhaps, given the remake and reboot craze sweeping all mediums at present, Sierra will revisit the property one of these days and continue what was left unfinished. Even if they don't, however, there's still enough to enjoy in the one title that was created. Like the old saying goes, "always leave 'em wanting more" - which this one definitely does.