Puzzles use to be the beating heart of the point and click, adventure game genre. But with the likes of Telltale focusing solely on narrative, and developers aiming for more of a general audience, those old, tough-as-nails puzzles just aren’t as prevalent in modern gaming, especially on consoles. Since Chapter 1, King’s Quest has been a call back to that more puzzle-centric game design. Chapter 4, Snow Place Like Home, takes this emphasis on puzzles to a new level.
Picking up not long after Chapter 3, Snow Place Like Home begins with King Graham now married to either Vee or Neese, depending on how the last episode turned out. Either way, Graham is happily putting up with his twin, newborn children. Almost instantly however, Manny breaks his way into the castle, stealing away Alexander, Graham’s son.
The story then jumps 18 years. Graham, now sporting a beard, is still racked with guilt over his lost child. As his wife and his daughter, Rosella, try to cheer him up, suddenly Alexander is back. Having escaped from Manny, he has returned home. And just like that, the family decides to go on a trip. It’s a lot to get through, and the episode does speed right through it in only the first few minutes. But with a surprising mix of dark, horrifying events and humor, it almost works.
Thanks to Graham’s excitement and insistence to get things rolling with his once-more-complete family, the episode simply dives right in to the adventure at hand. Longtime King’s Quest fans will know the story of Alexander, his escape, and how he learned he is the son of King Graham is the central plot of King’s Quest III. Bringing all these elements into the new game, along with series-staple characters like Rosella, the Sorcerer Manannan, and others, is an incredible nod to those that have played the old titles. Unfortunately, it’s also another point in which the partially rebooted King’s Quest has trouble standing on its own for gamers new to the decades old series.
Snow Place Like Home chooses to spend almost no time on Alexander’s story, all of it instead treated as nothing more than the necessary prologue to the real focus of the chapter, the family trip. What little narrative there is in the episode centers on Graham’s attempts to get to know and bond with his son as the trip goes awry and they discover themselves trapped in a sphinx’s labyrinth.
And that’s where the rest of the episode finds itself. During the four hours it took me to roll the credits, getting very stuck on two puzzles in particular, Graham makes his way through room after room of puzzles to solve. While a few challenges change things up with riddles or an impressively wide array of mechanics like sliding tiles, combination locks, and even shadows, almost every puzzle has the same core element you have to solve. There is a line on the ground, going from a start point to the door. You have to walk along that line to unlock the door and proceed. As you’d expect however, this is always easier said than done.
For the most part, the puzzles are clever and present just the right amount of difficulty. One minor complaint is that, in more than a few cases, you will figure out the puzzle before moving all of the pieces in the environment. This then makes moving those remaining pieces a slow process that drags on just a little too long. You can skip most of the animated actions, but it would be better for the characters themselves to just be a bit quicker, instead of having to continuously hit the skip button.
Also, at one point during a riddle, Snow Place Like Home does unfortunately feel a touch unfair. Discovering the rules for how each puzzle operates is part of the challenge. And the best puzzlers are able to teach the player those rules without saying a word. When one puzzle then contradicts the rules the others have laid out however, it comes off as imbalanced and needlessly frustrating to the player. In the end, in an episode full of dozens of excellent brainteasers, a single noticeable hiccup is little more than a nuisance. That said, the frustration was still more than enough to pull me out of the experience for that portion of the tale.
Admittedly, by the end, tracing lines on the floor does begin to wear out its welcome. Most adventure games disguise their puzzle mechanics through character interaction and exploring the world. Snow Place Like Home is just much more on the nose about it.
Unlike the dungeon resource management system back in Chapter 2, there is just enough variety, character, and humor to sustain the potentially repetitive puzzle rooms. Graham butts heads with his son on a regular basis as he struggles to understand him, the sphinx is wonderfully insulting in a GLaDOS sort of way, and Christopher Lloyd continues to do an outstanding job with the narration. Chapter 4 ultimately comes together as a solid collection of mysteries to crack and rooms to navigate, even if it is all missing a degree of creative subtlety.
And wrapping around it all is the progressively more interesting present day portion of the story. Filling in for the relative lack of plot in the flashback segments, the present day, frame narrative moves forward at a steady pace. The central theme of much of the King’s Quest series is the importance of family. As the newly introduced Alexander and Rosella appear as their older selves in the present, and King Graham and his queen share a couple touching scenes, that theme really begins to shine through. Overall, it helps set up the present day storyline to be a perfectly engaging backdrop for the fifth and final episode of the game.
Though struggling at some points, and a bit too direct with all of its puzzles, Snow Place Like Home is an engaging episode. Embracing the dark humor even more, King’s Quest’s latest chapter actually runs the gamut of sad, hilarious, and even heartwarming, all while offering up a healthy dose of complex new puzzles to solve.