An entertaining game, with some problems
(First of all, a disclaimer: I am anything but a diehard "King's Quest" fan. The only games in the series that I have played is this and "King's Quest VII".)
"King's Quest VI" casts the player in the role of Prince Alexander of Daventry, shipwrecked on the island where his lost love, Princess Cassima, lives. The object of the game is to get in contact with Cassima and save her from the dark machinations of a Grand Vizier (of course; never trust the Grand Vizier). I wouldn't say that this is a particularly original storyline, but it does have a serious, emotive appeal, even if one isn't a big fan of romance. The plot also develops nicely throughout the game, as Alexander travels to the other islands ruled by Cassima and delves deeper into the intrigues.
The writing is good for a computer game. It does get melodramatic in places, but most of the time the dialogue and narrative holds up, and the object descriptions are concise and useful.
Graphics-wise, the game is little short of excellent. Some character sprites are a bit undistinguished, but the backgrounds are consistently beautiful. Some of the locations (the forest, for example, or the top of the Sacred Mountain) will stay with me. The cutscenes are also outstanding (particularly the Oracle).
The sound effects are very real-sounding. (Unfortunately, the sound on my computer gave in around this time, so I played the second half of the game with no music.)
The H.P. Lovecraft reference got a big "YAY!" from me.
Controls are very good, and the invisible interface must have been quite groundbreaking for the time.
The puzzles are varied. While I liked some better than others, on average they were quite good. I particularly enjoyed the showdown with the Five Gnomes and the various spell ingredients. The way you use the two old coins is great as well.
More impressive than writing, graphics or puzzles, however, is the very scope of the game. The world is big, new areas being unlocked is the best incentive to keep playing. Usually, they don't disappoint. On a related note, the two different (but both successful) endings is a brilliant innovation that I haven't seen very often in old, or for that matter new, games. (OK, "Maniac Mansion" did it first, but its alternative endings were on a smaller scope.) When I got one of the endings, I immediately replayed it to get the other one.
The fairy-tale simplicity of the plot and characters didn't allow much depth. The characters are flat, though not unrealistic. The only people in the game I actually felt for were all in the Land of the Dead, which is probably significant.
A slight problem, but still a problem: the two mutually exclusive endings, as I said above, were a brilliant idea, and great in execution - but it still felt rather evident that one wasn't as good (conclusive, extensive) as the other. In consequence, the shorter ending felt less satisfying than the other.
(Only after reading the reviews on this site did I try to listen to "Girl In The Tower" online. I can now say: I'm glad I missed it in the game. That song wouldn't even be shortlisted for the Eurovision.)
There are two people named Ali in this game. This caused me confusion.
There is very little thematic coherence. Early in the game, I went to the town and the castle, and expected a serious fantasy game set in an "Arabian Nights"-like milieu - rather unusual, as far as games go. Unfortunately, the faux-Arabic setting was confined to the Island of the Crown. The other significant places in the game were disappointingly based on North European fairytales, Lewis Carroll-inspired nonsense stories, British druid lore, or Classical myth. Quite apart from the lack of unity (I can't believe how a couple of adjacent islands could be so dissimilar in culture), it also feels disappointingly unoriginal. I am certain Ms Williams could come up with her own plotlines, rather than ransacking unconnected myths and fairytales.
On a related note, there is some inappropriate comic relief in wrong places. One death scene, for example, taking place in one of the best-written and moodiest parts of the game, is unbearably cartoonish.
In the matter of gameplay, "King's Quest VI" have some features that are not as popular today. You can die by performing explicitly stupid actions, which I don't mind. You can also die by, for instance, accidentally clicking next to a block you're stepping on to, causing Alexander to jump off. You can render the game unwinnable, I am pretty sure, by failing to pick up something in a place you can only visit once, or by entering the Catacombs without the right equipment (however you are meant to know what the right equipment is). Make sure to save before doing something that might be risky.
Objects simply turn up in places, for no other reason than that the plot demands them, and this happens several times. In quite a few places, the answer to: "How do I find [object] that I need for this puzzle?" is simply: "Go back to [place] and it'll be there." I give them credit for the fact that the objects turn up in places where they could realistically be (a teacup on a coffee table, for example). But it breaks immersion.
Not so much so, however, as an unfortunately central puzzle near the end (the one involving the "drink me" potion and the lamp). It ranks among the worst adventure game puzzles I know. I can't start to explain what's wrong with it, but think about this: why does Alexander perform this admittedly clever action? So that Alhazred will think he's dead and be off his guard? (Presumably, though this is never addressed.) What *is accomplished*, however, is that the *player* gets vital information through a cutscene, and then makes Alexander act on this, even though he hasn't got the information. The creators were aware of the weirdness of this (note Alexander's dialogue when handing over the lamp), which means that they knew how stupid it was, and didn't do anything about it.
Yes, there is one thing I hated more than that puzzle, and that was the Island of the Internal Copy-Protection. Let me explain what an idiotic idea this was. If a company is worried about pirated copies of a game, they should put the copy-protection bit before the start of the game, where it belongs. The only thing they accomplish by putting copy-protection questions INSIDE the game, dressed up as puzzles, is to make themselves look like morons.
I may serve as a test case, since I bought the game in a classics edition, where the manual was a very slim thing containing only an explanation of the controls and the key of the Language of the Ancients. When I got to the Island of the Sacred Mountain, the following happened: I solved the first puzzle more or less by trial and error, solved the second puzzle after much thinking, and then I was stuck. Eventually, I looked the solution to the third puzzle up on the Internet, and it turned out to be... four different symbols that did not make up any word, sequence or pattern I could understand. Why? Because that's how the creators of the game ordained, and hey, it said so in the original manual. The rest of the puzzles I solved by trial and error, again. By the time I got to the trapped flagstones in the Catacombs, I simply got by by save-and-restore.
To clarify to any budding programmers reading this review: puzzles in a game can be based on pure logic (like certain types of riddles), or they can follow the game-world's internal logic (give the pecan chocolates to the guy who likes them and get information in return), or they can be based on common knowledge (garlic kills vampires). Most of the Sacred Mountain puzzles conformed to nothing of the above. They weren't out of place in themselves (*everyone* knows that ancient civilisations loved to surround themselves with puzzles and traps, or you haven't watched "Indiana Jones"), but they were not solvable unless the player had the manual. And even then, they made no sense.
Might I add, the "real" manual (when I eventually found it) was one of the worst examples of such that I've read. It explained *everything*: not just the copy-protection puzzles, which deserved it, but also, for instance, the identity of the people of the Sacred Mountain, which would have been much better left for the player to find out. What is the point of putting the player in a "marooned on an unknown island" scenario if you're going to provide him or her with all the information about it?
The Bottom Line
In spite of my whining, "King's Quest VI" is a beautiful, well-written game with a large and exciting (if somewhat stale) fantasy world, a decent plot and many twisty puzzles. I just wish it could have been less heavy on the stuff I didn't like.