History Lessons: Betrayal At Krondor (part 4)

New readers may wish to read my History Lessons Introduction first. Also be sure to read part 1, part 2 and part 3 before continuing. Other History Lessons posts can be found here.

At long last, I have finished playing Betrayal at Krondor. I’ve had some time to reflect on the experience, and I’ll offer my thoughts about the game as a whole a little later. First, I should pick up where I left off. When I wrote my last post I was tackling some shorter, more story-focused chapters, but I predicted that the game would open up again afterwards. I was right; Chapter 6 is one of the biggest in the game, and full of interesting things to do and places to go. Unfortunately, it began with an abrupt and jarring plot reveal that seemed unrelated to anything that had happened up to that point. Stranger still, there was little in the way of further explanation until the huge, freely explorable chapter was over. Later, everything is tied together, and in hindsight the overall story is well thought out. But the pacing definitely faltered, and someone who hadn’t read Raymond E. Feist’s Riftwar series could easily have been completely confused by the turn of events.

I’ve discussed the close ties between Betrayal at Krondor and Feist’s novels in the first post in this series, but I didn’t realize then how much the storyline would be linked. Betrayal at Krondor is more than just a new tale set in a familiar world — it’s essentially a sequel to Feist’s saga, and indeed one he officially accepted through his later novelization of the game. And while I wouldn’t necessarily recommend Feist’s novels on their own, having read them did enrich my experience of the game considerably, and I’d imagine my enjoyment of the books would have been greater if I’d played first and read the books afterwards. Combined, they are greater than the sum of their parts.

And, despite the pacing problems, I appreciated the direction the story took in Chapter 6, because it involves the most interesting aspects of Feist’s world. I was beginning to worry that these would not play a major role in the game, and was happy to have my fears assuaged. I don’t wish to spoil the events of the game or the books, so I can’t say much more, but by the end these new plot developments are cleverly linked to the earlier parts of the story, and after I’d finished playing I was impressed with the tale overall. It’s very much the kind of thing that might have happened next, after the conclusion of Feist’s Riftwar saga, and it even mirrors Feist’s storytelling admirably. The problem, then, lies in the telling, rather than the story itself. With a few more hints dropped earlier in the game, the events of Chapter 6 may not have seemed so sudden, or so disconnected.

Still, it’s a story designed for a game. The events, taken on their own, would be far less interesting to read about than they were to play (and indeed, the poorer reception to Feist’s novelization of the game, compared to his earlier works, attests to this). Recently I’ve been thinking about the ways in which gameplay and narrative are fused; I touched on this in my post about To the Moon, and the discussion in the comments section of that post reveals how much the mechanical gameplay aspects enriched my experience of Master of the Wind’s story as well (something I tragically failed to discuss in my post about it). The same holds true here: by controlling these characters as they travel, make camp, visit towns and cities, do battle, converse with locals, and hunt for treasure or clues, my attachment to them and their plight was significantly strengthened. Even the most mundane of events is important and compelling when it’s happening to you; the events of Betrayal at Krondor are hardly mundane, but they do allow for more mundane things like travel and sleep to happen in between the exciting stuff. The game mechanics and narrative design complement each other well.

Speaking of game mechanics, the actual design of Chapter 6 is similar to that of Chapter 3, in that it provides an open-ended mystery to solve. I lauded this design in my last post, but it doesn’t work nearly as well in Chapter 6, partly because the mystery itself is tied to the clumsy plot shift and partly because there are fewer clues and fewer threads to follow before arriving at the answer. Plus, the answer itself is something I think the characters probably could have come up with themselves, without having to conduct an investigation. But, Chapter 6 is very strong in other aspects, particularly its optional side-quests. In earlier Chapters, these were often simply there for flavor, and were unrelated to the main story, although a few opened up longer side stories. In Chapter 6, these side stories all start to tie together, and pretty much everything, optional or not, relates in some way to the larger events happening in the game. Here the potential shown by the optional sections of earlier chapters bears fruit, and it was rewarding to see all the pieces form a bigger picture. The full explanations don’t appear until after the Chapter is over, but it began to take shape while playing and was great fun to see.

In the end, a few of these threads turned out to be red herrings, which made me wonder if the developers were considering following them further in a sequel. Any such plans were thwarted when publisher Sierra On-Line lost the license to Feist’s Riftwar books, and instead players got Betrayal in Antara in 1997, a semi-sequel set in an original universe. It wasn’t well received, but it is included with my copy of Betrayal at Krondor, so maybe I’ll check it out at some point. The next year, a “true” sequel to Betrayal at Krondor finally appeared, but Return To Krondor had changed developers several times and featured a very different style of play than the original game, which disappointed most fans. I don’t know if the game picks up any of the loose threads from Betrayal at Krondor, but Feist had written several more novels set in Midkemia by that point, so I’m guessing the chain of events was already established.

In addition to the intriguing side-stories, Chapter 6 also takes the player to a new explorable area, which is my favorite in the game. In my earlier posts I discussed my explorations of Dimwood forest, motivated by what was essentially a dare the designers placed in the game manual. The Dimwood consists of an open wilderness rather than the roads and settlements of the rest of the Kingdom, and it was therefore an interesting expedition, but it didn’t feel that much like a forest, looking instead like an open field with occasional tree sprites dotting the landscape. In Chapter 6, I got to visit a real forest, and it was fantastic. A dense canopy blocked out the sun, and I traveled roads or barely-visible paths through the trees, fearful of hidden dangers lurking nearby. Mechanically, this forest was just as open as the Dimwood, and I could ditch the paths and wander the lengths of the forest if I wished, but the thick trees meant I couldn’t actually see anything, and would quickly get lost or disoriented. Couple that with the new environmental hazards unique to the area, and I found I was moving more slowly and carefully than ever before. This place was also an important location in Feist’s books, and the version in the game lives up to the books admirably. With the possible exception of the mystery in Chapter 3, this section was the highlight of the game for me.

After Chapter 6, the storyline really kicks into high gear, and the pacing speeds up accordingly. These sections were enjoyable for the story, but less so for the gameplay mechanics. The combat system that I was so impressed with in my last post becomes a little less interesting in the late game, in part because fights come more often and with less variation, but mostly because the best equipment and spells remove much of the strategy. Don’t get me wrong: the most powerful weapons and spells are awesome, and are excellent rewards for the player’s persistence in thoroughly exploring areas and following leads. In fact, I found the best stuff in the forest mentioned above, and tracking them down was a big part of why I enjoyed that section so much. But once I had them, fights became rather routine. With a powerful fighter wielding a fearsome sword, the difference between thrusting and swinging attacks became negligible. I rarely bothered to use a swing attack when I could thrust for nearly as much damage without spending any of my stamina (and still be able to move first). Similarly, with a few very powerful spells in my posession, there was little reason to ever cast anything else, removing the tactical decisions between spells that I made in the earlier Chapters. Being able to bring such power to bear in combat was great, but the later Chapters tended to rely on fighting to keep the difficulty up, and I lost interest in these battles quickly despite some clever twists on the standard combat rules. The game never quite felt like it was simply padding things out with a bunch of combat, but it came close. Fortunately, these sections are also where the most interesting parts of Feist’s world come into play, so my drive to continue never slagged; in fact, it may have even increased, as the Chapters featured less optional content and more focus on the main story. But my motivations shifted from a desire to explore and discover new things, to simply wanting to find out what would happen next.

Unlike the fights, the magical traps remained interesting throughout. I probably should have discussed these along with the combat in my last post, but I forgot. They’re actually one of my favorite details about the game: stumbling into a magical trap takes the party to the combat screen, but instead of a battle with enemies, the party is presented with an elaborate trap that must be carefully navigated. These traps are puzzles, essentially, but the idea to utilize the combat system for such a purpose is brilliant. Here the optional grid display, toggled with the “G” key, is critical, as it clearly shows which paths are blocked by deadly electrical pylons. Each move in these traps is crucial, with characters suffering heavy and often fatal damage as a result of a misstep. The traps appear throughout the game, but really get tricky after the first couple of Chapters, and they were always a joy to pick apart. Since they use the game’s combat system, there are even some instances where enemies appear as well. Sometimes this let me use the traps against them, by magically pushing or pulling enemies so they would spring the trap themselves, but other times it simply constricted by movement, trapping my fighters and spellcasters alike in furious melee in a tiny corner of the battlefield, with deadly traps on all sides. Best of all, the appearance of a trap usually indicates that the player has stumbled across a hidden treasure cache or another important location, so the rewards for making it through one are significant.

While I’m going over things I forgot, I should mention the music. I went on a tangent about MIDI music in my first post, but never mentioned how great the music in the game is. Much of the time, especially when traveling outdoors, there’s no music, and I listened to the sounds of chirping birds and gusts of wind instead. But other places (usually dungeons) feature a slow, creepy soundtrack that creates a feeling of unease, and battles are punctuated by blaring horns and a marching rhythm that gets one’s adrenaline flowing. Then there’s the fact that members of the party can try to perform as a bard in the various inns in the game. An inexperienced bard will completely mangle the song, and the player actually hears the mis-plucked strings and wrong notes. But once the character gets some practice on a practice lute (I would practice for an hour or two each night when the party made camp), he will slowly improve, and the song takes shape with fewer and fewer mistakes. Finally, I was able to hear a flawless performance, and was surprised to realize it was actually a version of the game’s main theme, which is quite good in its own right. It was well worth the trouble I went through to get the music working the way I wanted.

As I played it was easy to get into the rhythm of exploring, battling, opening treasure chests and caring for my equipment and supplies, so it wasn’t until after the game was over that I stopped to think how remarkable it is. As I discussed in part one and part two, the strong ties to Feist’s novels really set Betrayal at Krondor apart from other role-playing games. The Kingdom is not the kind of place one usually visits in such games; it’s heavily settled, isn’t constantly overrun by monsters, and it’s full of interesting locals to meet. And these really did feel like a cast of characters, rather than the generic NPCs (that’s non-player characters, a common acronym for these games) that populate most modern role-playing games. In Skyrim, for example (which I’ve written about a lot), the NPCs are often little more than quest-givers and dispensers of rewards, with hardly any personality. But not only did people I met in Betrayal at Krondor have interesting stories to tell and opinions to espouse, they played significant roles in the story. Each new Chapter gave these people new things to talk about, often related to what had transpired in earlier Chapters, and they had a tendency to pop up in unexpected places as the game went on. Virtually everyone I met ended up being more important than I first suspected, and they really helped create a sense of place — a place that, despite the prescribed adventure I was having, I could explore at my leisure. In fact, when I finished the game there was still one area I had never visited. Important things happened there, but they didn’t involve any of my characters, who were always off somewhere else at the time. I could have wandered there at some point, but I just never got around to it — and that’s fine. I was going to say that a modern game would ensure that a player visited every location and saw all of the content, but then I remembered that when I played Skyrim I never went to two of the cities. I suppose this is a hallmark of an open-world role-playing game, even if Betrayal at Krondor’s world feels so different to most.

Indeed, for its setting and characters alone, I was ready to say that Betrayal at Krondor is unlike any other game I’ve played. And that’s not even taking into account its unusual open world design and its use of third-person text narration, both of which set it apart from its peers. But I was surprised to realize that this isn’t the case, and even more surprised at which game it reminded me of: The Witcher (which I discussed briefly here). In most ways, the games couldn’t be more different: the tone and gameplay mechanics are practically opposites of one another. But The Witcher (and its sequel) share a similar type of world design, one with a rich history that’s full of memorable characters. And the Witcher games feature the same division into discrete chapters, allowing those characters to remain intricately entwined in the narrative throughout, even as major events unfold and the action moves to new locations. It’s no coincidence that the Witcher games are also based on fantasy novels, and draw upon established characters and places. When I played the Witcher games they felt fresh in the same way Betrayal at Krondor does; they’re games that have a clear and unique vision for what they should be, and are designed accordingly. That so few other games can claim this is more than enough reason to check them out.

And I guess that’s really my conclusion. Betrayal at Krondor is a fascinating game because it tried something that no role-playing game had attempted before and that few have attempted since. Rather than look to other games for inspiration and improve upon them incrementally, as is usually done, the designers simply focused on their vision, and made that game. If that meant ignoring popular game conventions and coming up with something new instead, then so be it. I think it was this vision that attracted Feist to the project, and the fact that he’s officially recognized the game as canon in his fantasy books is remarkable in and of itself. And like many other games that display such vision (including some I’ve covered in my History Lessons posts), Betrayal at Krondor doesn’t play quite like anything else out there. For those used to modern role-playing games, Betrayal at Krondor is an intriguing example of an alternate design, one that proves that games should dare to break the mold from time to time. It’s definitely worth a look — just be ready to embark on a different kind of adventure.

Betrayal at Krondor is available from GOG.com, and you get Betrayal in Antara along with it. Check out part one for details about getting it running (it’s easy), and enjoy your stay in Midkemia! Also, here are links to part 2 and part 3 in case you need them.

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4 Responses to History Lessons: Betrayal At Krondor (part 4)

  1. jefequeso says:

    This makes me think I might want to try the game out. It sounds really interesting.

    On a completely unrelated subject, is there a good way to contact you with a press release? I just released a small free FPS/RPG/Roguelike game, and I was wondering if you’re like to give it a try and possibly review it (since you’re a huge Roguelike fan). It’s short and not too difficult.

  2. Armand K. says:

    Great read. Definitely giving this game another shot soon.

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