History will remember Westwood Studios as the guys who invented the modern real time strategy genre, introduced with the groundbreaking Dune 2 and refined with Command and Conquer. Yet their talents spread far wider than their reputation might lead one to believe, with the fairly decent RPG series Lands of Lore, and their adventure game series The Legend of Kyrandia.
The Legend of Kyrandia games sprang from the mind of Brett Sperry, one of the heads of Westwood Studios. The name sprung from a MUD that him and his friends used to play, called Kyrandia: Fantasy World of Legends. It is no longer around, obviously, although it doesn't appear that much substance was derived from it beyond the name.
At first look, the world of Kyrandia seems to be a typical adventure game setting, filled with fantasy clich?s and wistful fairy tale stylings. And, to be fair, the first game really doesn't stray far from any stereotypes. Still, it tends not to take itself too seriously, which helps give it some identity. But its personality grew with each sequel, introducing weirder characters and expanding the bizarre kingdom of Kyrandia. By the third game, the finale of the series, the series had crafted such an imaginative and crazy world that it would give hallmarks like Monkey Island and Day of the Tentacle the proverbial run for their money.
Each of the three games share some commonalities, notably the gorgeous background graphics and immensely catchy soundtracks. Each also has a fairly straightforward, single icon interface. Items are manipulated by clicking on them, and then either dropped into the inventory window or used on something on the screen. Since inventory space is limited, items can also be dropped practically anywhere and retrieved at a later time.
Despite the change in tone amongst the games, from normal to weird to even weirder, there's a consistent amount of world building, especially through the characters. The initial entry introduces us to the mystics of Kyrandia, who control all of the magic in the kingdom. Brandon, the hero of the first game, regards them with the greatest of reverence. The second game puts you in the shoes of Zanthia, a mystic herself, who regards her fellow magicians with occasional bits of cattiness. The third game puts you in the role of Malcolm, the villain, who regards the group as nothing but a bunch of pompous jerks. There's a well written sense of continuity amongst all three games, as there are a number of recurring characters, and it creates a fully-realized land that's a joy to inhabit.
Malcolm isn't your typical jester, the kind who smiles and laughs and trips over things for the amusement of other people. No, he's a psychotic nutjob who's taken a few notes from the Joker, the famous Batman villain. He's an immensely powerful magician and uses his powers to murder the king and queen of Kyrandia in hopes of ruling it himself. He is captured, but soon proves too powerful and breaks free, wandering the country and taking vengeance on those who imprisoned him.
Brandon is the grandson of a royal mystic named Kallak, who is turned to stone by Malcolm in the opening sequence. (Malcolm, being the magnificent bastard he is, leaves Kallak's eyes open, so he may gaze forever on the terrors Malcolm will cause.) This is Brandon's motivation to take up arms, but he's hardly qualified for it. He's affable, but his attempts at humor often fall flat, and he's missing most of the elements that make a compelling protagonist. More often than not, he comes off as a bit of a weenie.
There are a few other interesting characters, at least. Some of the most charismatic include the pin-headed wizard Darm and his sarcastic pet dragon Brandywine, and the sassy sorceress Zanthia, who went on to star in the sequel. However, the plot never really evolves beyond the "save the land/defeat the bad guy" premise, so it's hard to get too involved. At least Malcolm proves to be an appropriately despicable villain. You need to be careful in each encounter with him, because despite his jocular demeanor, he will kill Brandon in cold blood without hesitation.
The land of Kyrandia isn't necessarily huge, but it feels that way due to the extraordinarily repetitive scenery - you'll see the same "generic forest screen" several times before you reach the end, and it's one of the few modern adventure games where you might actually need to make a map. The puzzles are hardly inspiring either. One of the early ones revolves wandering around and collecting gems randomly strewn throughout the land - hardly the most compelling of tasks. As you progress through the game, you'll also find four different magic spells, activated through an amulet on the bottom of the screen, but it's not used for anything particularly interesting either.
Far more frustrating is a cavernous maze about a third of the way into the story. Like most caves, it is shrouded in darkness, but at certain points there are Fireberry bushes, whose fruit can provide some light. The fruit can only last for three screens while in Brandon's inventory, but they'll stay permanently lit if they're dropped on the ground. Beyond the fact that this doesn't make sense, you'll find yourself dropping berries, backtracking to pick up more, venturing a little bit further, returning, and doing this over and over, all while trying not to get lost. There's some trial and error involved too, because if you wander into a screen without a Fireberry bush and your lights go out, you're instantly devoured by the monsters within. It's not difficult, all things considered, but it is incredibly tedious.
Despite the repetitive backgrounds, the graphics are quite nice, detailing Kyrandia as a lush world full of vibrant greens, and the music is quite good too. The CD-ROM version features full voice acting, and most of it far better than any other adventure game of the time. Despite its annoyances, it's a pleasant game, although hardly a classic.
Fables & Fiends: The Hand of Fate / Kyrandia II: Unmei no Te (キランディアII 運命の手) - IBM PC, FM-Towns, PC-98 (1994)
At first glance, the second Kyrandia game, The Hand of Fate, might seem identical to its predecessor, as it runs on the same engine, and looks extremely similar. But the change in development staff marked a different direction for the series, one which embraces a quirkier sense of humor, and creates a far more interesting game world.
As King Brandon narrates in the intro, the land of Kyrandia is mysteriously disappearing into thin air, piece by piece, and all of the royal mystics are baffled. Conveniently, Marko the magician has just been joined by a human sized hand (think of a larger version of Thing from The Addams Family) who's devised a plan to find an important artifact in the core of the planet. Zanthia, one of the more colorful characters from the first game and a skilled magician, is chosen for this undertaking, only to find her house robbed of all of her magical items. And so her quest begins to retrieve her stuff, and save the land.
From the get-go, Zanthia proves to be a more compelling character than Brandon. Right outside her house is a giant monstrosity that pops out of the mud to devour her. In a Sierra game, this would have been a solve-it-quick-or-you're-dead puzzle, but here, without hesitation, Zanthia just grabs its tongue, ties it into a knot, and leaves it to sink embarrassingly into the swamp from whence it came. She's cheery, if a bit exasperated by the situation, and remarkably resourceful, with a keen fashion sense too. Her outfit is always ruined upon reaching a new location, forcing a change of clothes with each area. She starts off in a hippie-ish blouse and skirt, eventually graduating to tropical dresses and ski outfits when reaching different climates.
Outside of Zanthia's swamp, the world is much more fascinating. Her journeys take to her a rough-and-tumble pirate bar, where even the manliest men share their feelings with heartfelt poetry. (Zanthia herself delivers a stirring to ode to seasickness.) The entrance to the Center of the Earth is a strangely sleazy tourist trap, filled with sham guides and other such cheesiness. The core of the earth is filled with dinosaurs, and the final area resembles something of a modern ski resort. The backgrounds are brightly colored and gorgeous, again preferring pixel art over scanned backgrounds like LucasArts and Sierra titles.
There are also some running jokes regarding The Hand and his master, the incompetent Marko the Magician. It's clear from the get-go that The Hand is the one behind this whole mess, but everyone is completely oblivious to it, despite the copious amounts of evidence. Marko himself is a doofus which an obvious crush on Zanthia, who reluctantly rushes to his aid on more than couple of occasions.
The puzzle design is also much, much better. As Zanthia is a master of potions, the amulet from the first game is replaced with a magic cauldron to mix ingredients. Zanthia's spellbook lays out all of the necessary ingredients for everything you might need, but taking a note from the second act of The Secret of Monkey Island, you'll need to do a bit of lateral thinking to find everything. One recipe calls for a toadstool - well, you won't find any mushrooms, but you do run into a gigantic toad, who also happens to own a stool, so that'll work. Most of the potions are pretty silly too, like the Sandwich Potion and the Teddy Bear Potion. Your inventory is also much larger, reducing the need for all of the item juggling from the last game. There's still some annoying stuff, like the Tower of Hanoi puzzle at the game's end, but otherwise it's all fairly straightforward, and proves to be an immensely enjoyable experience worthy of a place amongst the adventure game greats.
At the end of the first game, Malcolm the jester was imprisoned in stone, putting an end to his reign of terror for good. Or so Kyrandia thought, until an errant lightning bolt hits the statue, freeing the jester from his prison and leaving him to roam free once again. But your task isn't to stop him - no, in a unique twist, you're put into the shoes of Malcolm himself. As it turns out, he was framed for the murder of the King and Queen, but no one believes him, so he must put together the pieces of a royal conspiracy that set him up to take a fall. This is all a bit weird if you've played the first game - he was clearly a hideous bastard who had no problems killing Brandon in cold blood, and his reformation from a psychotic lunatic into a mere mischievous jerk is clearly a retcon. But while it's only halfway believable, it does provide a unique setup, and the developers expand on the offbeat sense of humor from the last installment, making for an even more interesting game.
The first chapter of Malcolm's Revenge might be one of the most brilliant segments in adventure gaming history. The residents of Kyrandia - Brandon and Zanthia included - are none too pleased that Malcolm has awakened, and have ordered him into exile. They apparently don't have the resources to actually kick him out, though, so it's up to Malcolm to find his way out the kingdom. There are half a dozen different ways to accomplish this, each with wildly varying solutions. You can try digging up ingredients to create a Pegasus Potion, morph into a flying horse and simply jet off the island, similar to a quest from the first Kyrandia game. Or you can learn to juggle or become a mime, and hitch a ride on the ship of the local circus troupe. You can take the easy route and simply create a magic portal, or follow a bizarre ritual by clicking two eels together. (No, that is not a misspelling.) Perhaps the most amusing simply involves becoming an escaped convict. If you're captured at any point, you're sentenced to some menial community service (making doilies, etc.) before being freed. You can carry out your sentence if you want, but you can also get creative and figure out ways to escape. After each continual break-out, you'll be given new tasks, and eventually joined by your incompetent prison guard (and potential love interest, of all things). Keep weaseling out of these situations, and eventually you'll find yourself in the next chapter.
Whatever route you choose, it's a brilliant example of freeform design, the kind that gives you several alternatives, ranging from easy to obtuse, and lets you choose which one to take. While it has no bearing on the rest of the game, it also adds quite a bit of replay value, because there are whole segments of the game that you'll miss unless you explore every possible path.
Unfortunately, once you leave Kyrandia, it's almost all downhill from there.
The second act takes place on the Isle of Cats, where the mystical feline population has been overrun by a group of oppressive dogs. All of the locations are connected with a tediously confusing jungle, which is extremely easy to get lost in until you memorize all of the directions. It also brings back some of the dreaded gem puzzles from the first game. They're all buried underground, and the only way to retrieve them is to get one of the dogs to dig them up by giving them a bone. But their locations are randomized, requiring that you continually save and reload until they dig up all of the proper jewels.
The next area, The End of the World, is a series of waterfalls. There's a very specific route down these cliffs, all requiring bizarre items like umbrellas and inner tubes, but it's almost all determined by trial and error, forcing you to restart (or at least, reload) until you've found the correct path. At the end of the line is Limbo, which is an undersea kingdom ruled by a horrific fish queen. The items you need to escape this area are, again, randomly generated, requiring that you leave and return multiple times before they'll appear. Worse, Malcolm is enslaved by the Queen, and will routinely call for his presence to play stupid games of Tic-tac-toe, dragging you away from your quest.
After escaping, Malcolm thinks he's found peace in the Underworld, which more closely resembles a vacation spa than the usual fire and brimstone image that Hell usually conjures up. It seems to be the only place he can find happiness, before being thrust back to Kyrandia to find some closure. The island is much the same as the first chapter, except it's nighttime, and you can take all of the steps to gather evidence and clear Malcolm's name once and for all. Again like the first chapter, there are multiple ways to tackle the situation. As the intro relates, Malcolm used to have two guardian angels - the good Stuart and the evil Gunther. Stuart was knocked out a long time ago, leaving Gunther as Malcolm's sole voice of guidance. Due to Malcolm's spiritual journey, Stuart awakens for the final chapter. Malcolm can choose who to follow, or accept both of the voices, leading to three different paths to the end game.
The final chapter practically redeems the whole middle section of the game - the tedious puzzles are gone, and it's much more in line with the beginning. It also brings some differing viewpoints on elements from the previous games in the series. The earlier games presented Kallak, Brandon's grandfather, as a kind-hearted wise man. Malcolm, on the other hand, has always viewed him as a weasel - his perusal through the royal picture book is one of the most amusing parts of the game - and the final segments cleverly flip some of the purported truths established since the beginning.
While the quality of the puzzles is severely inconsistent, the writing and sense of humor further establish Kyrandia as an extremely weird place. In the first chapter, Malcolm is constantly harassed by a weird backwards-talking kid, and the most popular snack in the land seems to be fish cream sandwiches. The game includes a studio audience, which laughs blindly at anything being said. And while there still aren't any dialogue trees, you can choose how Malcolm approaches the other characters through the use of the Mood-o-Meter. You can switch his demeanor to Nice, Normal (i.e. sarcastic) or Lying, depending on how manipulative you want to be.
This is also the only Kyrandia game that keeps a running score, which increases when solving puzzles or finding Easter eggs. The real purpose of this is that every accomplished task has some kind of humorous moniker. Combining two disparate items to create a completely new one will yield MacGyver Points, while picking a lock with a rusty nail will give Common Thug points.
The designers also know that it's sadistically fun to see your character get killed, so they not-so-subtly warn you every time you're in a dangerous situation - and even if you do get killed, you can choose to resurrect right before Malcolm's death. After all, there aren't too many games out there with deadly squirrels or killer mimes. Most of these scenes are pretty silly, except for one so absurdly gory that that game asks if you're old enough to view them. (Malcolm's Revenge was released before the days of ESRB ratings, but this single scene features such extraordinary amounts of cartoonish blood that it alone would've earned it a Mature rating, despite the disclaimer.)
There's a different feel to the graphics this time around. While all of the sprites look similar to the other two games, the backgrounds here are computer rendered, and unlike most CG from the time, they've aged pretty well. Some may miss the classic pixel look of the first two games, but the artistry exudes colorful imagination. The rendered cutscenes don't fare quite as well, especially due to their heavy compression. The inventory bar is hidden most of the time, allowing for the visuals to take up most of the screen, and only pops up when necessary. The music is also all digitally streamed, allowing for a much higher quality soundtrack. The Kyrandia games have always had excellent music, but this game's soundtrack is undoubtedly the best, as it allows composer Frank Klepacki and his sound team to move away from the militant marches of Command and Conquer and create something more lighthearted. Although the voice actor has changed for Malcolm (and is far superior to his original incarnation), former vocal cast members have returned for the likes of Brandon and Zanthia.
Malcolm's Revenge is pretty hit or miss overall - it's bookended by some fantastic segments, but the whole mid-game is borderline dreadful. But its sense of humor, bright visuals and excellent music help keep up the spirits even through the lousiest segments, enough that it's worth seeing through to the end.