This is a weekly column from freelancer Rowan Kaiser, which focuses on "Western" role-playing games: their stories, their histories, their mechanics, their insanity, and their inanity.
Last week, when GOG.com announced that Quest For Glory was the newest addition to its collection, I was delighted. In fact, I'm not sure that there's a game series that could have induced as much joy. I think some others, like Wizardry or a collection of old SSI games, might have been better and more important, sure. But I have more love for Quest For Glory than those other games. I'm not the only one, either: The Quest For Glory games are great games, yes, but they're also special games.
Quest For Glory is a five-title series of adventure/role-playing hybrids, with the first release in 1989, and the last in 1998. They were published by Sierra – a company whose fate was recently detailed to Joystiq by Leisure Suit Larry creator Al Lowe – and used similar interfaces and graphics as other adventures, such as King's Quest or Gabriel Knight, combined with combat systems that varied from game to game.
Being a genre hybrid is one of the surest ways to become a beloved game. Panzer General, Deus Ex, and Mass Effect are all crossover hits, thanks in part to combining role-playing with other genres. Quality hybrids manage to feel both fresh conceptually and comfortable to actually play, a winning combination.
The first Quest For Glory was released at the height of the adventure game genre's popularity, and its interface and visual perspective are those of an adventure. But its addition of role-playing mechanics to the adventure structure smooths out the rough edges of both genres. The binary succeed/fail form of adventure game puzzles tended to either make those games too easy or too hard, but most puzzles in Quest For Glory involved some kind of skill check for your hero. This meant that you could succeed at most challenges by practicing or exploring, instead of getting stuck on bizarre item-combination puzzles. And unlike most of the combat-oriented, non-Ultima RPGs of the era, Quest For Glory was built around character interactions and utilizing different skills, instead succeeding only via skill in combat.
At the start of each Quest For Glory, you choose if you want to play a magic user, fighter, or thief. Many of the solutions to puzzles or other obstacles in the games are based around the different classes. For example, in order to reach a high window, a mage could cast a levitation spell, a thief could use a magic rope and a fighter could just climb. Each class also has specific quests and storylines in each game, often focused on their respective guilds. In short, the games were designed to be played multiple times, and succeeded. A fourth class, the paladin, became an option for heroes who completed the second game in the series, and imported their characters into the sequels.
Although transferring characters from a game to its sequels was relatively common for RPGs of that era, those tended to be the party-based games where your characters were cogs in a combat machine. They didn't necessarily have the implicit personality of your Quest For Glory hero. More than that, as more recent RPGs have demonstrated, it's easier for players to get attached to single characters whose skill progress can be customized. As any Mass Effect player can attest, there is a power in taking your hero from one game to the next.
The Quest For Glory series is also famous for its tone. A winking narrator regularly breaks the fourth wall, and the writing displays an affinity for puns that goes well beyond "love." There are also a constant stream of references: Marx Brothers-like characters work as salesmen in the second game, while the fourth contains a character named Dr. Cranium, a nod to Sierra's Dr. Brain series of games.
Each game in the series makes wider references to a set of geographically bound myths and legends, from the Arabian Nights to eastern European folklore, the Baba Yaga and the Rusalka. They serve as pastiches of common tales, another attribute that gives the series its unique feel. The Quest For Glory games act as journeys through a kind of collective unconscious, allowing you to play some through aspects of some of the most well-known and resonant stories in human culture.
The first Quest For Glory: So You Want To Be A Hero? was initially released as Hero's Quest, but the title was changed for legal reasons. There are two versions of the game: the first uses text commands, the second uses a purely mouse-based interface. The GOG.com package includes both. As befits the first game in a series of increasingly difficult heroics, this first adventure is charmingly small-scale. You play a would-be hero who decides to help out a small barony that seems to be cursed. Most of the fun comes from exploring the valley that contains Spielburg and its Germanic legends, such as kobolds. The non-linearity of the game keeps it calm, almost relaxing. It's also relatively short and easy if you try to play through it to win, but that's the only major critique I can make of the first in the series.
The second game, Trial By Fire, takes place in an Arabian Nights-style world of djinni and grand viziers. It's possibly my favorite of the series, although I must admit that's partially colored by nostalgia. I love the personality of the setting, and the time limits on the main quest mean the story provides you with a consistent stream of interesting challenges. That said, the game can be difficult to navigate. In terms of space, Quest For Glory II has an odd perspective/mapping system. In terms of interface, it's the only game in the series to not have a mouse control version released – although a somewhat official remake was released within the past few years, though it's not included in the GOG.com pack. Still, it's worth making the effort to learn the text parser.
I'm less fond of the third game, Wages Of War. I do like the setting of sub-Saharan Africa, with savannah and jungle to explore, and it does have one of the better combat systems of the series. However, its use of a world map, instead of a series of interconnected screens, makes exploration less interesting. It was also one of the first batch of Sierra adventures released after the games transitioned from keyboard interaction to mouse, and the puzzles in all of those games (i.e. King's Quest V) tended to be much easier than previous or successive games. Wages Of War isn't a bad game, but it is the least exciting of the original four games in the series.
If I were trying to step back and look at the series objectively, without nostalgia, Quest For Glory IV: Shadows Of Darkness would be the clear best of the bunch. As the redundant title indicates, it's the darkest of the series, with a mix of Slavic folklore and Lovecraftian horror. Everything seems to work here: The story has solid new plotting while also building on the events of the previous games, the music is memorable, the puzzles back to a proper level of difficulty, and a fun, two-dimensional combat-system. It's even the first game of the series to utilize voice acting, which is somewhat awkward by today's standards, but quite competent by the era's.
The final game of the series, Dragon Fire, stands apart from the rest, and not necessarily in a good way. After the first four games had been released fairly close to one another, Dragon Fire came five years after Shadows Of Darkness. Its technology was totally different, using three-dimensional polygonal graphics. The transition was difficult and, to be honest, not one that I find successful – I've never been able to get into Quest For Glory V, though it certainly has its fans.
Perhaps the best thing about the Quest For Glory series is that they exude an almost childlike joy about what video games can do. From their core interfaces and mechanics to their settings and characters, there seems to be a mentality of "why not put this in the game?" It's not always perfect or coherent, but it's usually entertaining to see and play the attempt.
Rowan Kaiser is a freelance writer currently living the Bay Area, who also writes for The A.V. Club, and has been published at Salon, Gamasutra, Kotaku, and more. He still occasionally finds Ultima VI Moongate maps and mantra notes when he visits his parents' house. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser.