CONQUESTS OF CAMELOT / Sierra / PC
Conquests of Camelot is the first (of two) adventure games designed by Christy Marx, a prolific writer who has mostly worked in scripts for cartoon shows such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Jem, G.I. Joe and the somewhat short-lived Darkstalkers cartoon. At this point you might be thinking, "cartoon writer = guaranteed hackery", which I must admit would be my first thought too, but this is actually one of Sierra's most mature, detailed and well-written adventures.
I admittedly don't know a whole lot about the Arthurian legends, but this game seems to hew pretty close to the historical legends and folklore surrounding Mr. Pendragon and the Holy Grail. The game opens with Camelot in decline, due to the love triangle between Arthur, Gwenhyver and Launcelot. The Grail seems to be the only item that can restore the kingdom to its former glory; the knights Gawain, Galahad and Lancelot all ride forth to find it, but promptly disappear. It falls now to Arthur to venture from the castle and bring peace and plenty back to the kingdom.
The game starts you out in Camelot and you must make preparations before Arthur can set out on his journey. This part of the game was a bit reminiscent of Police Quest in that there are a lot of persnickety little things you have to do before leaving the castle, and you can be bumped off rather rudely a bit later if you fail to do all of them. Outside of that, though, the game is fairly linear, comparable in form to most of the Space Quest games - you are guided from one relatively small area to another, which is mostly self-contained, and you must accomplish everything in it before moving on to the next.
Asking about the castle at the beginning reveals that Arthur's knights took off to Glastonbury Tor, the frozen lake of Ot Moor where Excalibur was first granted to the king, and the far-flung city of Jerusalem. You'll search these locations one after another, hoping to find the Grail, or at least a clue to the fate of your missing knights. Each location is a mix of puzzle-solving and arcade action sequences; Camelot is fairly heavy on the notorious Sierra Arcade Sequences, although they are mostly reasonable to control here (and have adjustable difficulty) and I had no serious trouble getting through any of them.
Unfortunately where there is one there is usually the other, and the equally notorious Sierra Hang-Ups are in full effect here, though they tend to come in a different form than usual - you will be presented with numerous chances to help people at expense to yourself throughout the game, and while skipping these optional sequences might spare you from an irritating action sequence, it can also cost you everything at the very end of the game (which, I imagine, would be quite frustrating to someone not prepared for such an outcome). The game mostly makes these choices obvious, and a concientious player will have little trouble fulfilling all the requirements to be worthy of the Grail (and the good ending) at the end however.
The primary strengths of the game are in the artistic and historical detail, and in the writing. This is very much a mature story and a dark-tinged game that does not follow conventional Hollywood "kill the big evil and save the kingdom!" conventions. Gamers used to the saccharinity of Squaresoft and other modern developers will likely find it very refreshing. As mentioned, you must make hard choices throughout the game, and it is a brutal and realistic world where deaths are plentiful and sudden (and there are no Phoenix Downs to be seen). Not to say the game is overly difficult; it's on the challenging side, but even moderately skilled adventurers shouldn't have too much trouble winning through to the end (as long as you have the copy protection!). The art and animation, by Marx's husband Peter Ledger, is about as striking as 16-color EGA can get and packed with lots of little affecting details like the images in the corner of the screen borders that change to reflect what is currently going on in the game, and detailed character animations such as when your mule stops at a pond and sniffs it several times before deciding not to drink the water. The soundtrack by Mark Seibert is also one of his best for Sierra (I recall reading somewhere that his degree is in medieval music, so this was right up his alley).
The low points would have to be the copy protection puzzles (which seem pointless, as the relevant pages in the manual are easily copied anyway, and the puzzles are awkwardly inserted into the game in some cases), and a particular swordfight towards the end of the game that is very tedious and difficult to control.
On the whole, though, this is one of my favorite Sierra adventures. One might question whether a bit better leadership and governance might be better for Camelot than the powers of some magical cup, but if you can suspend your disbelief and take it as folklore/parable, this is really a literate and intelligent experience and such a breath of fresh air from the Japanese pop culture trends that dominate the gaming market these days. Highly recommended to anyone who appreciates a good story, good atmosphere and a good adventure game.
* Download and copy protection available from Christy Marx
* Quest Studios music downloads
* Thank you, smelly Thing!
* A vision of the Grail!
* All the morbid deaths