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Betrayal at Krondor (PC) artwork

Betrayal at Krondor (PC) review

"One of the worst things one can say about console RPGs in general is that they are not games, but ''interactive novels''. It seems to be a law of the universe that this argument must pop up in ever console vs. PC debate. The PC side will most likely then turn around and point at the endless customization and choices that every player of computer RPGs must face, then haughtily dismiss their cousins on the console as pathetic imitations of the real thing. Perhaps I generalize, but undoubtedly PC R..."

One of the worst things one can say about console RPGs in general is that they are not games, but ''interactive novels''. It seems to be a law of the universe that this argument must pop up in ever console vs. PC debate. The PC side will most likely then turn around and point at the endless customization and choices that every player of computer RPGs must face, then haughtily dismiss their cousins on the console as pathetic imitations of the real thing. Perhaps I generalize, but undoubtedly PC RPGs value non-linearity and sprawling paths over the scripted plots that seek to tell one focused story.

It's quite strange, then, for Sierra's Betrayal at Krondor to bill itself as an ''interactive story'' in its manual. Stating that it seeks to feel like ''reading a good adventure novel'' doesn't quite help its case. But perhaps that's not so bizarre; after all, Betrayal at Krondor is set in Midkemia, the same land where Raymond E. Feist's Riftwar book series takes place - in fact, Feist himself was involved in the game's development. Krondor is not just an adaption or a side-story; it has its own place in the Riftwar saga, and many of the books' main characters figure in prominently. While I am not familiar enough with the book series to judge whether it does it justice, I can say without reluctance Betrayal at Krondor feels exactly like playing out an epic fantasy, its enthralling adventure drawing you in with a fashion usually reserved for the greatest novels.

This may be surprising, if one breaks Krondor's elements down one by one. Its plot, while intriguing and well-paced, is quite simplistic and uninventive; the battles are fun, but rarely strategic or exciting; and, being released in 1993, immersive or stunning or detailed are not the most accurate adjectives one can use to describe its technical merits. No, to understand the appeal of Betrayal at Krondor, we must examine it as a whole, not a sum of its parts.

Krondor is divided into nine chapters, each beginning and ending with a story sequence. The first of these sequences will introduce three of the game's heroes. Owyn, a young magician, tends to the wounds of a high-ranking Kingdom official called Locklear. We learn that Locklear is in charge of bringing a prisoner named Gorath to Krondor. Just then, an assassin breaks into the camp, but is quickly disposed of by Gorath (despite the chains that bound him). Realizing that they should keep their journey as secretive as possible, Locklear persuades Owyn to go to Krondor with them. Here you learn of you very first objective: ''Escort Gorath to Krondor''.

Now, it is entirely possible to look up Krondor in the handy in-game map and immediately march your characters towards that direction. But don't. To enjoy Betrayal at Krondor, one must be willing to explore. Do not expect this game to spoon-feed you every single plot detail. Do not expect to be harried from one point to another. But exploring isn't something you must force yourself to do: with over half the world map accessible from the very start, it's almost impossible not to goof off.

An adventurous player will find Midkemia a land teeming with enemies and littered with puzzles. Even something as trivial as opening a treasure chest can become a grueling mental exercise, as many are guarded by mind-boggling riddles you must solve to break open the lock. Fiendish traps are everywhere, requiring you to painstakingly navigate your characters around fire-blasters and electric currents. Many doors and chests are locked, but you'll rarely have the good fortune to just happen upon the key nearby; instead, one must simply hold on to all the keys he finds and hope for the best - or leave it to the lockpicking skills of his characters.

Of course, every RPG must have its battles. Tedious battle systems and ad-nauseam encounters have ruined many a game, but this one handles combat with rare grace. Most enemies can be seen before you fight them (although some stealthy foes do appear out of nowhere to ambush you), and they always appear in fixed places, never respawning until the end of a chapter. You can even attempt a preemptive attack, your success depending on your characters' Stealth statistic. The actual battles are just as effortless. Although the characters and enemies take turns in gentlemenly fashion, it never gets boring thanks to an excellent system that actually makes range and positioning important. The battlefield is divided into a grid, and each character may only move a certain amount of squares per turn. A swordsman can only attack an enemy if he can move to a square adjacent to the target, but magic can only be cast when no enemies are in the immediate vicinity of the caster. This adds an element of strategy to the brainless clicking - when fighting spellcasters, for instance, it is often advantageous to station a fighter right beside one to completely shut down his casting.

But the best thing about this game's battles is the lack of them. Fighting in Betrayal at Krondor is never the center of attention, just something that occurs occasionally while you explore. The character growth system is simple; a character will become better at something purely through repeated use. A swordsman's strength grows with every swing of his sword, while a spellcaster's casting accuracy increases with each spell he uses. Never does this game feature a long string of difficult battles, but neither does it ever contain a long stretch of plain walking around or a seemingly endless series of puzzles - there is always something to break the monotony before you even feel bored.

While Betrayal at Krondor's gameplay is certainly solid, it will never be half as enjoyable if not for its freedom. There is always some mission you have to accomplish, but who cares? Rarely does anyone stop you from going the opposite direction of where you should. You are in control of where your characters go, not the invisible fences that so many RPGs love to put up. Perhaps this is what gives this game such an epic feel: you choose your own destiny. When a murder occurs midway in the game, you are the one who must find out who to talk to and where to search for clues; there are no insultingly obvious hints or invisible hands that push you around until you eventually land right on the doorstep of the culprit.

The importance of this feeling is most obvious when it is lost. Some of the transitional bits in the middle of the game force you to follow a more scripted course of events, and those are by far the worst bits of Krondor. You are restricted to a tiny part of the world, and must accomplish boring quests in linear fashion. That is when Betrayal at Krondor nearly loses its magic and turns the player away; luckily, these parts are quite short and are simply interludes in the grand symphony.

It is undeniable, though, that this game is at its best when everything seems so new and discoverable. By the game's half-point, you have trodden over practically the entire world map, and the feeling of unbounded exploration is lost. Later chapters attempt to salvage this situation by adding new locales, even warping Gorath and Owyn to a completely alien world at one point, but the excitement of the first chapter is never quite reclaimed. But to its credit, the game does an excellent job of putting new occurrences in old places. A guild war in the town of Romney is played out wonderfully over three chapters, while the invasion of a certain frontier city will become even more painful if you've visited it in early chapters.

Thorough exploration is made even more rewarding by the slowly unraveling storyline. While the cut-scenes between chapters do advance the plot, they only provide the skeleton for Betrayal at Krondor's magnificent plotline. You must add the blood and flesh to it yourself, by talking to the various non-playable characters around the world. Practically all of them will have a little background detail to add - be it a rumor about the leader of the Kingdom's enemies, information about the mysterious Assassin's Guild, or the whereabouts of the powerful wizard Pug. Most of the time, though, they're not giving up the information voluntarily; you usually have to ask them about things from a list of keywords. Your characters will gain keywords as they learn more, and talking with someone may even trigger a new dialogue option with someone else.

Fortunately, the game doesn't require tedious trekking between characters so you can activate some event. Most talking is purely optional. Those who prefer minimal reading can simply leave the keywords alone and only learn crucial information - although they will be missing a lot, for Betrayal at Krondor's storyline is truly amazing. Although the premise is simple, everything is so developed and real. Gorath, the moredhel (evil side) prisoner, brings news to Krondor of an impending invasion of the Kingdom, and from there a thoroughly intriguing course of events is played out. There are political maneuvering, great battles, secret contraptions - and the plot cleverly splits into two, with one group of heroes attempting to delay the moredhel invasion and the other seeking the ultimate end to the war. Most memorable throughout the drama is the character of Gorath. ''Dark side'' renegades have turned to good since the creation of such a side, but few have turned to good as gracefully as he. Becoming neither saccharine nor preachy, his inevitable redemption never shreds him of his dark charisma.

Another touch that makes the adventure even grander is the game's astounding realism. Few of the RPG genre's infamous cliches plague Krondor. Time passes with every step you take, and you must use the game's Encamp option when it gets too dark to walk. Each character consumes one pack of Rations at midnight, and it's game over if they go hungry for more than a few days. A night's rest in an inn, instead of miraculously healing you to full, will simply restore an amount of health depending on the length of your stay. Enemies do not increase in power as you progress for no reason at all, but are powerful where you expect them to: crucial passes are guarded by difficult combats, while only pathetic weaklings roam the heartlands of civilization.

As one becomes enraptured by the land of Midkemia, it's easy to forget that it is completely made of a few shades of solid color. The overworld looks barren, and the dialogue scenes are not much better - usually they only show an unmoving portrait of the talker. Only the between-chapter cut-scenes have any bit of animation, and the game's main way of showing action remains telling you about it with solid blocks of text. The text itself, while quite well written is burdened by its/it's errors and missing commas that stick out and make the writing look amateurish. (The missing comma in the above sentence is something that you'll come to expect from the game's text).

But don't be intimidated by all the reading. Perhaps what makes Betrayal at Krondor so much like an adventure novel is that it leaves so much to your imagination. You are free to picture great armies advancing and sieges going on without it all being butchered by 1993-caliber visuals. Text is a lot less pretentious than cut-scenes, and text boxes can be skipped by a simple click, meaning you don't have to sacrifice a good plot for quick story sequences.

If you need further persuasion of the game's worth, consider that Betrayal at Krondor is completely free for download. Although the game is quite antique by current standards and may not run on current systems, it's certainly harmless to give it a try. Behind the quite outdated visuals is one of the realest, most immersive adventures I've ever played through in a computer game - proof that we don't need to see it to believe it.

lurkeratlarge's avatar
Community review by lurkeratlarge (June 25, 2004)

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