King's Quest IV: the Perils of Rosella (1988)

Embrace for nostalgia goggles, as King's Quest IV has always been my favourite game in the series. Despite it has huge, huge design issues I love it to pieces. So that said, this is King's Quest IV, the first game in the series starring a female lead, the lovely Princess of Daventry, Rosella.

The tale begins at the end of King's Quest III: the son of Graham and Valanice has returned home after escaping the evil wizard Manannan, who kidnapped him as a child. Graham is over the moon and is just about to pass along his adventures cap to his progeny when a heart attack decides to manifest itself. As the family gathers around soon to be ex-kings deathbed, Roselle runs to the throne room, where she utters a promise of doing anything to save her father.

With a stroke of luck Rosella is heard, not by some deviant sex fiend, but a fairy queen Genesta, who's having troubles of her own in the faraway land of  Tamir: her magical amulet was stolen by an evil Lolotte, who's plotting to use it for a greater evil. To add more to this, the theft of the amulet is straining Genesta's powers and she only has 24 hours to live. There is, however, a magical fruit in the land of Tamir, that can be used to save Graham, so if Rosella is willing to lend a hand, she's free to take the fruit with her.

Oh, Graham, you were only two adventures and the adventure of your sons old.

Rosella, obviously, agrees to Genesta's terms and with some last drags of her powers, she transforms Rosella's royal attire into humble clothes of a peasant girl. With the general idea of what to do, Rosella sets out on her very own quest, where she doesn't only have to save her father, but the kingdom of Tamir as well. The stakes are high, but Rosella is willing to do the heavy lifting.

The very first difference to the previous King's Quest games is the new SCI engine, that replaced the previous AGI engine. This means higher resolution graphics, albeit still in 16-colour EGA and support for sound cards. The difference between King's Quest III and King's Quest IV is staggering, to say the least.  What a difference two years made in the 1980's, especially in what came to graphics and the use of music and sound effects.

Now, granted, it is pretty evident that KQIV was the first SCI game Sierra did, as while the music it has is very nice, it is also relatively sparsely used. The same goes for the sound effects, so it is somewhat clear they probably still weren't quite sure how much music was needed. Also, composing longer tracks or more music would have probably been seen as a bit redundant, as sound cards still were an extra peripheral and relatively rare at that as well. It would take a couple of more years before cards like Adlib and Sound Blaster were a common feature in all new computers.

Graphically KQIV took Sierra to a new level. The background art is much higher resolution and thanks to tricks like colour dithering, the scenes even look like they have more colours than they actually do. As a side note, if you are playing the game with a replacement engine like ScummVM, you can turn on de-dithering, which does a pretty good job at turning the dithered colours into an actual higher colour scheme. The character art has changed quite a bit as well, as this time around they too are in higher resolution, allowing nicer looking designs with a bit more details.

Just for fun: the same scene with ScummVM dedithering option turned on and off. Notice how the dithering dots are gone and the dithered colours have been changed into an approximation of the hue the artists wanted with the dithered look. While I do prefer the dithered look, the ScummVM option is a nice to have. The difference is the most noticeable on the tree on the left corner.

As another side note, there actually is an early AGI version of King's Quest IV around. It was pretty rare before the internet age, but it was apparently meant for a bit older machines. It is essentially the same game, but with lower resolution graphics and sound support only for the infamous PC-speaker.

What comes to puzzles and gameplay, KQIV is pretty much what you'd expect to see from a 1980's Sierra old-school adventure game. There's a fair amount of trial and error, multiple ways to get into a dead end, many ways to die, including navigation error on a tightly drawn walk path on stairs or on a mountain path. At times, the items you need are placed on some specific screen, which you can access only once without knowing that there was something there you needed. And as usual, the game doesn't hint in any way how you've goofed up. In short, it's full of things you just need to know. And to know is to fail and fail again to ad nauseum. Or to use a walkthrough.

There are design decisions in the game, that are just absurd. I'm not only referring to many random deaths that are caused by the sharks in the sea or the ogre in the forest but things like the whale tongue, that is one of the most annoying mini mazes ever done. On this particular case, Rosella is swallowed by a whale and she has to navigate up the tongue so she can tickle the whale's uvula so that the beast would sneeze her out. It's one screen, with tongue covering only the middle portion of it, but climbing up it is just beyond annoying task.

This screen has an important object. No, you can't see it on the screen. You just have to know it's there so you can look for it.

The trolls cave is another case, a location I've always been certain that it is just broken and somewhere in the game code there's a lit version of the cave. See, you need to navigate through a pitch black cavern that has a troll in it. So you use a lantern, but it doesn't really illuminate anything. It is, in fact mostly useless, especially when you try to avoid the only big hole in the cave. In the end, you just need to know where that hole in the floor is. You'd think that the lantern would be useful in frightening the troll so that he would not attack Rosella, but no. With or without the lantern the troll still attacks her randomly. When you enter a new screen you can never know if the troll is there or not.

But still, I love King's Quest IV to bits. There's so thick fog of nostalgia around it for me, that I can't really blame it on anything. For me, it is a game that can do no wrong despite I would personally witness it stealing purses from old ladies.

As a game, KQIV is a clear step forward of the titles that came before it. It has shifted away from being just about collecting random stuff to collecting stuff that might even be story related. Now yes, King's Quest III already had a deeper plot than the first two games, but King's Quest IV revolves more clearly around the story it has. While there still are some random feeling things about the game, the main bulk of it is actually very solidly tied to the story itself, especially after you meet Lolotte, who makes you do her bidding.

The lantern, it does nothing. I'm not certain, but it just might have been, that no-one at Sierra knew how lanterns actually work. It's not like they're meant for illumination or anything. 

And the things you do in the game aren't forgotten either, as in the end if you want to see the full score, you need to make right what you've done. The unicorn needs to be set free, the Pandora's Box needs to be returned where it came from and the door to it needs to be closed. There's even a possibility to an alternative ending if you don't bring the magic fruit to Graham, which leads him dying.

And another interesting thing about the narrative is the magic fruit. In most games, the fruit would have been the prize at the end of the game, but here, you can go get it before you are even in the middle of the game. As soon as you get the lantern and the magic crown you're good to go. The overall story really is more about Genesta and Lolotte than it is about the quest for the magic fruit. Sure, that's what Rosella is after, but that's not what the story is about.

There are many reasons for not playing King's Quest IV, but I don't really care of any of those. It is a game I know inside out. So because of that, I can wholeheartedly recommend it. It is a game that can do no wrong.

If you want to play the game yourself, it is available on GOG and Steam.