Legend Of Kyrandia Review: The Maze Runner

Oh, Westwood. You are so good at some things and so bad at others.

Take Command and Conquer, for example, or Eye of the Beholder 2. Command and Conquer opened up what an RTS could be by adding zany characters into everything else that was going on. Years later, people still talk about how bad [but good] the voiceovers were for that game. They still discuss how it was an evolution of Dune 2, itself a watershed moment in RTS design. Of Eye of the Beholder, they still mention how that game surpassed the original in terms of it’s awesome introduction and it’s attention to detail – how you could interact with the environment. How there were more options for role playing – in short, how they took the dungeon crawler and made it something of an actual RPG.

Westwood were excellent at animating things, too.  This is a still from the transformation from human to pegasus.  Westwood only used it twice in the game, but you'd never forget that smooth animation.
The Pegasus transformation. Still an arresting bit of animation, even today.

Westwood would go on to try it’s hand at many and varied sorts of game – and in 1991, their attention turned to Adventure games. They looked at what was on the market already and decided that it was simply too convoluted. From the right click shenannigans of the Sierra SCI games to the verb construction kit that seemed to bog down the LucasArts games, Westwood felt that the user interface of these games could be simpler and more inviting. So they ditched both of these and went with a very simple one-command cursor. Everything would be accomplished by left clicking with no hunting for the right verb and certainly no cycling through a collection of potential actions.

This freed the user interface up considerably and instead of making use of a full-screen “window” to the world, Westwood would opt for another “sort” of puzzle entirely: your inventory was locked down to exactly fourteen items. The abundance of items [often spawning in the world at random points] and the inability to tell upon first play which were red herrings or not often left you with the problem of “what should I take?”

Because, of course, this “fixed inventory” concept also drove the design of the game. You would go from “one big area” to the next confronting different puzzles in each area. The starting area, for example, leads to one last puzzle where you need to find a saw in order to help a character to create a bridge sot hat you can leave that area behind.

This doesn’t seem such a bad idea at first, after all, most adventure games do force some amount of backtracking on you, and the good thing about Kyrandia was [for the most part, anyway] that there wasn’t a hard cutoff from area to area [that is, there was no way to get locked out of one of the previous places you’d been.]

But then…there’s the game-killing maze.

And the random nature of some of the puzzles.

And the really bad dead-end two-thirds into the game.

And that’s really the problem with Kyrandia. So much of it is well done, but there are some awful, awful game design issues that have kept this particular game from reaching the sort of status that – say King’s Quest has managed with it’s sixth iteration. [To be fair, that game has it’s own share of problems and we’ll cover those, but the writing was what helped that game along.]

Westwood's artists were so good at depicting incredible detail given the tiny canvases and pixel dimensions they were working with.  This particular image is of a graveyard, but everything is visible, including a whole lot of autumn leaves on the ground.  Such masterful use of colour and fog.
This is a graveyard. But it’s so beautiful.

So, let’s talk about the good: Kyrandia is graphically arresting. From the moment you start the game, it just looks good. There’s none of the muddiness that comes from the scanning process King’s Quest V employed to make the paintings they used come to life. Everything is crisp and clear and there’s a great amount of detail on screen. Especially given the small size of the view-window. Certainly, there are too many copy-and-paste forest scenes and WAY too much red from the maze you have to pass through, but the stand-alone screens – the unique little parts of the universe – are wonderful to look at. Even today, they hold up as some stellar pixel work.

The soundtrack, too, is a beautiful marvel of subtle and gentle melodies that – to this day – I can still remember. Playing it through for this review was a pleasant trip down memory lane with all the sights and sounds of the game reminding me of the original play through I did almost twenty five years ago with my friend Caine.

And the much-aligned cursor system really is the sort of thing that would invite new players to the adventure genre. Sure, it’s over-simplified to the point where most of the puzzle solutions hit you over the head with how glaringly obvious they are, but to my mind, at least, Kyrandia was never menat to be Infocom-level hard. It was meant to be a gentle introduction to the genre so that you would pick up the second Kyrandia game – and then branch out into this wonderful, cerebral world of puzzle-based adventure games.

Darm and Brandywine are a pair you'll meet fairly early on in your adventure.  A bit like Fenrus and Erasmus from Quest for Glory, they're there for laughs, but the're rather interesting to listen to.
Darm and Brandywine – such a fun pairing of wizard and dragon.

While the characters are generally nothing to write home about, they’re all basically unique. Brandon is a kind of gentle buffoon, Malcolm is a raving lunatic jester. And so on and so forth. My favourite pair are probably Brandywine and Darm. They’re a kind of oddball magician and dragon pair that reminds me a bit of Fenrus and Erasmus from Quest for Glory.

But the bad? The bad is problematic. The maze shuts down any forward momentum the game had going. The random nature of some of the puzzles is just hair pulling and the fact that you can get permanently stranded at one point makes it impossible to really [or easily] recommend to new adventure gamers.

Otherwise? It’s a passable game. If you want to see some gorgeous artwork and listen to some beautiful music, I’d pick it up. But the gameplay is pretty ho-hum and you’re going to want a map for the maze.

I did a let’s play of Kyrandia and you can watch it here.