BETRAYAL AT KRONDOR / Dynamix / PC


I'd never encountered Raymond Feist's fantasy novels prior to playing Betrayal at Krondor back when it came out in 1993, and even afterwards I wouldn't actually check any out until I stumbled across a couple of them at random laying on some table while I was at the city library one day. Recognizing the name, I decided to check them out and give them a shot. After reading about half of each and then giving up on them, I was baffled by the inconsistency between the at least somewhat interesting world and decent writing of the game, and the complete formulaic crap in the books which were basically one cheesy fight scene after the next strung together by contrived fetch quests and deus-ex-machina appearances of major characters.

It wasn't until I replayed the game for this review that I discovered that Feist actually didn't write any of the game. He just licensed his world and characters to Dynamix, and lead programmer Neal Halford did the bulk of the story and dialogue.

I freely admit that I can't stand any fantasy novels outside of Tolkien so I'm predisposed to be biased. But from what I can gather from cruising around the message boards and hangouts of Feist fans, he is beloved for about six books or so that he wrote in the 1980s introducing the whole Midkemia/Krondor world, and since then he's pretty much been in cruise control pumping out formulaic crap for the cash a couple of times every year. Apparently the books I encountered at the library were among those, and fans seem to feel that Betrayal At Krondor was the point at which Feist really began to roll downhill in earnest. After he converted this game to an almost word-for-word novelization called Krondor: The Betrayal, he apparently decided the video game formula was such an easy way to appease his fans and keep his gravy train rolling that he used the "fetch quest-fight scene-magic object" structure in almost everything else he wrote after it. In the meantime, for bonus classiness, he made a whole bunch of money in royalties off the game and the novelization, and then turned around and used Halford's unique characters for the game in later novels all without acknowledgment or any sort of compensation.

Anyway, the purpose of bringing all this up is that invariably in other Krondor reviews I see around the web, the writer at some point starts lavishly praising "the writing skills of Feist" as something that adds tremendously to the quality of the game. So I think it's important to establish that Feist didn't actually write a word of this game, so his "skills" are irrelevant here. His characters, his world, yeah, but none of it is his writing.

Anyway, with that out of the way -- Krondor is typical of the early PC era in that it throws you into a huge, open-ended world with tons of sub-quests and sprawling dungeons. Unlike most PC RPGs of this style, however, there is a strong narrative and good characters to drive the action along. The story starts you out as Signeur Locklear, servant of the noble and wise Prince Arutha of Krondor, as he escorts a turncoat Moredhel (Krondor's dark elf enemies to the north) who claims to have information about a planned invasion. Also along for the ride is a young healer/magician named Owyn who gets pressed into service when Locklear is wounded by an assassin's ambush. The first chapter has you getting this motley group to the relative safety of Krondor from the Northlands border, but subsequent chapters switch up the character mix. The world of Midkemia itself is pretty clearly ripped off from a mix of Tolkein and IRL cultures (Tsurani = Japanese with a mix of other Pacific Islanders), but it's like Tolkien with less of the humanist and anarchist aspects and more of a libertarian, mercenary sort of bent. In spite of largely seeming like a really unappealing place to have to live your life, the story has a very good mystery/intrigue quality to it that keeps you pressing through the rather high level of difficulty.



The game is divided into nine chapters, and the first three basically turn you loose on the world of Krondor to do as you will. Each has some overarching objective to get to some point at the other end of the map, but you literally have all the time in the world to do so. In fact, you pretty much HAVE to take the long route and unearth all the sub-quests and bonus treasures in the first three chapters, because there's a sudden and very vicious jag in combat difficulty in the 4th chapter that can force you to restart the game if you don't come in with characters who are already nearly maxed out in their most important stats and equipped with the better equipment in the game.

Re-starting and re-playing long sections of the game isn't as big of a deal on modern PCs with DOSBox as you can increase the CPU cycles and make the game run much faster than normal, but if you were playing on normal speed on a 486 during the time the game came out, it meant hours of your life down the toilet. The game, at regular speed, moves and feels like a tank. Actually, I take that back - a tank is much faster and less clunky. The only zippy portion of the game is combat, which does so by sacrificing character animation down to only two or three frames per activity, and having everyone sort of ice-skate around the battlefield rather than walk.



I may sound really hard on the game thus far, but Krondor is actually a game you want to like because it does so much right - involving plot and world, great music, and despite the lack of animation the combat is actually pretty fun and controls pretty well. And there's tremendous depth in all the little sub-quests, the Moredhel word-lock chests to find laying about (which require you to solve a riddle to open, most of which are pretty easy, but a few are devious), and magical trap-puzzles to navigate in certain places. And for the first three chapters, you probably will like it, since this is where the game is at its best - letting you roam all over the countryside exploring at your own pace and giving you tons of little activities to get involved with.



It is from the fourth chapter onward that the game sinks itself by suddenly jagging the difficulty upwards, and continuing to escalate until it just becomes a masochistic trial. While the plot picks up and becomes even tighter and more interesting from the fourth chapter onwards, the enemies keep getting such ridiculous advantages on you that unless you've read a walkthrough ahead of time to know what items and spells to have on hand and boosted your levels up as much as possible, you won't even have a ghost of a chance of making it through. The fifth chapter is likely to be the quitting point for a lot of people, adding a weak new character to your roster yet forcing you to bulldoze through a huge string of really tough combats with no access to any kind of inn or store to resupply.

Krondor has its qualities, and you'll undoubtedly start out enchanted with it (with the caveat that you're running it in DOSBox with the speed cranked up), but you're just as likely to feel betrayed after you sink 15 to 20 hours into it only to find yourself in some unwinnable scenario in a later chapter. The layout is really shortsighted and inconsiderate to the point where it torpedoes all the other great aspects of the game along with it, basically forcing you to exploit bugs and glitches to be able to survive. Sometimes dense quests that don't give you adequate information on how to complete them are another source of regular frustration.



Links :

* Betrayal At Krondor Help Web

Videos :

* Chapter 1 Intro



 

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