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SummaryToo much has changed during my absence
The GoodReturn to Krondor is the official sequel to Betrayal at Krondor. It is set in the same universe and introduces some recurrent characters. Concerning gameplay, it is quite different from its predecessor in several core issues, with only a few characteristics having been carried through.
The tactical combat returns while eliminating separate battle screens in favor of seamless transition between exploration and battles. I liked this change and generally found combat the most pleasing aspect of the game. It does rely too much on initiative, which also has a positive side: a well-trained, well-coordinated party can wipe out the opponents very quickly, while taking too much time to act will usually result in complete devastation. Encumbrance plays a role in the characters' mobility, which is a nice realistic touch.
The magic system is rather interesting. The game's two mages can specialize in four disciplines, each revealing more and more spells as you invest points into them. There is a wide variety of supportive and offensive spells, some of which suit the game's tactical battles very well and include variables such as area effects, positioning, etc. There is also a fully developed alchemy system allowing you to collect recipes and brew your own potions.
There is a large amount of items to be found in the game, and micro-management of inventory has certainly not been dumbed-down. In fact, there is more weapon and equipment variety, with separate pieces for arm and leg protection and more weapon types. The introduction of thief and priest classes is certainly a welcome addition to Krondor's meager selection of warriors and mages. The lockpicking mini-game is pretty cool as well.
The game does try to compensate for its linearity with some side quests, most of which, sadly, occur in locations you'll have to visit anyway several times according to the dictation of the main plot. Once the world map finally opens to you, however, you can opt to go to a few places you are not required to visit in order to complete the game. This is a far cry from what we have seen in the first Krondor or in its true spiritual successor Betrayal in Antara, but at least it's something.
Although I fiercely protest against the game's choice of engine, I can't deny that some of the background graphics have a certain cozy warmth and feeling of mystery to them. Particularly the areas outside of the city are well-done, such as the haunted temple or the spooky path to the sunken ship.
The BadPeople talk about a certain "RPG crisis" in the mid-nineties that prompted the so-called "RPG Renaissance" - rapid advances in technology and subsequent changes in the player's mentality, resulting in the lack of direction and well-developed concepts, reduction of gameplay features, watered-down systems, and so on. While I do not agree with this generalization, Return to Krondor could serve as an excellent example of those problems. Betrayal in Antara might have struggled to find its place during those tough times, but it's nothing compared to the absence of design guidance in the "true" sequel to the classic RPG. It might be a blood relative, but Antara is a much more faithful adopted child.
Return to Krondor is stuck in a void, unable either to make independent decisions or at least apply the old formula to its deficiencies. First and foremost, it doesn't understand what made Betrayal at Krondor great. It wasn't the story - if an RPG lives and dies because of its story something is very wrong with the concept of what makes RPGs in general great. The old Krondor excelled, above all, in merging dramatic elements of game design - story, writing, etc., with open-ended gameplay. That game immersed you not thanks to its brilliant writing per se, but because of how it blended writing with exploration. Return to Krondor, on the other hand, is a completely different game: it is scripted, and that's it. It is, in fact, much closer to Japanese RPGs, only without their goofy warmth and cinematic direction.
There is hardly any exploration in Return to Krondor. Yes, there are optional areas, but they are accessed by clicking on locations rather than physically moving through an interconnected world. Now, some great RPGs managed to create the feeling of open-ended exploration even with that system, but Return to Krondor is not one of them: it is rigid, sometimes aggravatingly linear, and - worst of all - irritatingly stingy with material. Did you like all those side quests in other RPGs? Well, go and play those, because in Return to Krondor the side quests are triggered by going to the very same areas you've already visited in a different chapter. There are no NPCs wandering the streets that may just give you some task. There are no places you can just go to because you feel like it. Your hand is being firmly held and you go only where the designers want you to go.
The game's terrible pacing is partly to blame. What should have been a brief prologue is stretched to almost the half of the game - during the first five chapters out of eleven or so you are confined to one city. And I'm not talking about a city like Athkatla in Baldur's Gate II, its streets and houses bursting with activity, quest-givers, potential companions, and what not. In Return to Krondor you cannot enter any house except pitiful identically-looking shops, tiny abandoned rooms, or wherever the main quests sends you to. Compare it to the wealth of towns and people in the first game or in Antara. And imagine that you have to spend a very large portion in the game in this city, without any possibility to leave it, re-visiting the same small, narrow, featureless districts over and over again, treading the same streets, doing nothing but running around and triggering plot-advancing events.
The game uses pre-rendered backgrounds, "dynamic" camera and 3D models with tank controls. While this type of graphic presentation may be suitable to survival horror games with their deliberately small worlds, where diverse camera angles and detailed visuals do contribute to tension and atmosphere, it is a disastrous choice for an RPG. It robs the game world of all its arguments for seamlessness. While other RPGs went out of their ways to try and create an illusion of uninterrupted exploration by the player, even when this was not technically possible, Return to Krondor does just the opposite: it burns the only bridge connecting it to atmospheric, immersive world design. It is also one of the worst examples of this style - the camera turns and swirls and jerks mercilessly after just a few steps, making every area a mishmash of awkwardly captured still shots and navigation an excruciating experience: I remember running in circles everywhere simply because "forward" becomes "back" with head-spinning speed. The game does little to make us want to stay in its world in the first place, but with this awful engine it simply pushes us out.
Return to Krondor is far from perfect in other aspects as well. Character development is quite unbalanced: you'll max out all the important attributes very early in the game without any effort, and spend the rest of the game increasing stats that have no noticeable effect on the character. Harder difficulties only makes it more clear that initiative in combat pretty much determines its outcome: ergo, with maxed-out initiative you'll be able to win most battles in a few seconds. Like the first Krondor, the game has an annoying tendency of splitting up and re-arranging your party by itself. Erratic pacing, overscripting, and restrictions imposed on exploration all contribute to the lack of flexibility and purpose in character development.
Lastly, in terms of writing and storytelling I found the game clearly inferior to both its predecessor and Betrayal in Antara. For those who likes reading text in games there are bad news: with the exception of a few notes and letters, there is no text in Return to Krondor. Conversations are all voiced, and there are no subtitles. There are no descriptions or comments or anything that made older games so charming. Voice acting is mediocre, and for a game that relies on scripted events so much, Return to Krondor sorely lacks cinematic direction. There is no camera work during cutscenes, musical cues, and other dramatic touches that made similarly scripted games like Final Fantasy fun. There is little emotionality, no plot twists, and the entire story is pretty much set in stone from the very first important event: track down the instantly-recognized villain and prevent him from doing something bad.