CONQUESTS OF THE LONGBOW / Sierra / PC
Famous Texas newsman J. Frank Dobie once advised that you should "never let the truth get in the way of a good story", and that's pretty much the approach you have to take if you want to enjoy Conquests of the Longbow. Aside from the whole thing about Robin Hood likely being nothing but a folk myth, you also have to play pretend and imagine that Richard the Lionheart wasn't an incompetent, sometimes brutal ruler, that he didn't turn around and restore John as heir to the throne when he came back in spite of all of John's plotting against him, and that the Crusades themselves were somehow both acceptable and honorable.
As with previous game Conquest of Camelot, if you can put aside the historical fudging, what you are left with is quite a good story and one that brings a relatively rare level of literacy and intelligence to the gaming world. The ol' Lionheart is really nothing more than a plot device to bookend the story (his capture in the prologue gives the outlaws impetus to gather ransom and hope for the future, his return at the tail end potentially provides the requisite Happy Ending), and what it mostly centers around is the battle of Robin Hood and his skilled band of Merry Men taking on the corrupt and evil reign of Prince John and his tools the Sherriff of Nottingham and the Abbott.
Robin Hood is raw, son
The plot leans heavily on magic and contrivances that sometimes feel a little cheap and cartoony, but the characters are fleshed out and the dialogue is sharp. Like Camelot, the world is somewhat dark, and in spite of the various magic flying around still feels more "real" than your standard fantasy game - death is around each corner and it is never very pretty. Unlike Camelot, the game does not have a bleak and lonely feel - Robin is constantly surrounded by his mirthful crew and they are more likely to laugh at a dangerous situation than go all somber and Emo. It's the interaction between them, and the real-feeling ruthlessness and ignorance of the Sherriff and his men (and the resultant pleasure you get in thwarting them at every turn) that really makes the story here.
Helping it along is some nice VGA art, particularly the backgrounds. Unfortunately, artist Peter Ledger did not return for this installment, so we didn't get a look at what he might have done with a VGA palette available to him. While the art is never really bad, the sprites are no great shakes and neither is the animation, both of which were a highlight of the previous game. The game also doesn't have the little inspired touches like the "mood corners" from the previous game, but I did really like the facial portraits in this one when major characters speak - they were detailed and also frequently shift to show the mood of the character.
My favorite part of the game, however, has to be the soundtrack. I think I've said this before about a couple other Sierra games, but I really think this one was Mark Seibert's best soundtrack for the company. He sticks with the medieval influences he is known for, but this soundtrack is heavier on pretty, slightly melancholy guitar and lute pieces than any other. It also seems to have more consistent presence than many of his other soundtracks do; about the only time the game does not feature music is when you are strolling through Sherwood Forest with nothing pressing going on.
Probably the biggest complaint about Camelot was the inclusion of clunky arcade sequences that could not be skipped. This game includes slightly-less-clunky arcade sequences that can be skipped (at the cost of points.) I actually though the archery mini-game was pretty fun, but pretty much every other arcade sequence was dreadfully stiff and random and I skipped them all after failing a couple of times. There's also another "follow the sparkly things" maze near the end of the game, but it seemed leagues more forgiving and easy to deal with than the one in Camelot.
The game also has some depth in the sense that there are multiple solutions to a number of situations, and some game scenarios can be skipped entirely. These affect both in-game dialogue, and also ultimately determine the ending that you get. Robin and his band spend a lot of their time waiting along Watling Street to pwn hapless noobs, and the way you treat many of these characters affects how you are judged at the end of the game. At certain points, Robin also meets with his men to determine a strategy for the outlaws to attack some target en masse, and the choice of the right strategy leads to less casualties, greater riches robbed and more points for you.
The game feels a little too short, and the "happy ending" a little too deus ex machina and abrupt, but the ride is highly worthwhile and you'll likely find it good enough to play a couple of times over the course of your gaming career. One of Sierra's better adventures, most certainly, and will likely quench the thirst of the gamer looking for something a bit more mature and literate.
* Gameplay Video
* Ways to Die