TORIN'S PASSAGE / Sierra / PC
Sierra's famous "dirty old man" Al Lowe was best known for his Leisure Suit Larry series, but he actually got his start at the company doing kids games, so Torin's Passage is actually kind of a return to the roots for him. You wouldn't know it just from the game's box, however, which leads with a quote something like "from the twisted mind of Al Lowe!", sort of implying you'll be cruising Daventry for chicks.
But the game was actually envisioned by Al as a lighter-duty adventure game that kids (of the single-digit age range) and their parents could sit and play together, something like the old Bugs Bunny cartoons that were aimed at kids but also threw in enough little jokes for the adults to keep them interested. That's important to know up front (and I wish the marketing had emphasized more), because the standard adult adventure gamer on their own will likely find this one just too simple, easy and corny.
The game actually reminded me more of the Legend of Kyrandia games than King's Quest, with the simplified interface and the division into "chapters" which take you through different realms of the world of Statra. You can actually start the game at any of these five chapters without unlocking them, and you're given whatever items you need from the previous chapter - only downside is that you also start with 0 points, so you can't get the maximum score, nor can you make as much use of the in-game hint system, which docks you points every time you request a clue. In general, the game is much more gentle than the typical Sierra adventure - there's deaths, but not many, and when you die you get kicked back to immediately before you performed the action that killed you automatically. As far as I can recall, there's no hang-ups by missing an item early in the game, either.
Torin is a young farmhand who starts the game by being sent to the Tashi station Crystal City to get some new tools. Not far from home, however, a malevolent magician comes by and warps his parents away to points unknown. Torin is baffled, but as we know if we bothered to watch the introductory cinema, Torin is actually the son of the king and queen of Statra, smuggled away by his nanny during an attack by the same evil wizard. The wizard disguises himself as a traveller and tells Torin that a sorceress named Lycentia from the Lands Below was probably responsible, and Torin rushes off to find her, the only difficulty being that nobody seems to remember how to operate the magical gates that take you there since they haven't been used in decades.
The game looks and plays a lot like Sierra contemporaries King's Quest VII and Leisure Suit Larry 7. A "context cursor" replaces the action menus of the standard adventure game, which makes things simpler for kids and adventure noobs, but also necessarily lowers the general challenge quite a bit. The game on the whole is pretty straightforward and easy - as you explore each new land, you'll run into people who quickly express a desire for something, then by exploring further you usually find it and return to them with it. Not ALL of it is easy, though - it's about 80% simple puzzles, but there's 20% that's a rude kick in the grapes when it shows up, mostly in the form of sliding tile puzzle variants. There's a tile puzzle at the end of chapter 2 that has such an abstract design that I couldn't even begin to figure it out even after the in-game hint system had described to me in excruciating detail what it was supposed to be, and had to watch a video to see how to do. There's a couple of obnoxiously vague puzzles in the next chapter involving moving little doods around into a pattern without really having much of a clue what the pattern is supposed to be, and then there's a pretty tedious maze in the fourth chapter. These tend to come toward the end of the chapters, so you can skip them if you really get hung up on them, but I thought they were all kind of badly designed and stood out like a sore thumb. Grizzled adventure vets with have trouble with these, much less a 9 year old.
Aside from the handful of terrible puzzles, there's a lot to enjoy in this game. The background art is absolutely beautiful throughout, and the character sprites are nicely detailed and move with great fluidity (the character designer and lead animator on this game would go on to work for Pixar.) The soundtrack is pleasant, and consists of digital audio rather than MIDI. And Al throws more than a few jokes in for the adults, reminiscent of good old LSL style.
I can't say what the game would be like for a young kid - probably a better experience. For an adult playing it, it ends up with a "meh" feel on the whole. The difficulty sits at "almost non existent" for most of the game, but then suddenly jags to "seriously unfair" here and there. While the characters are generally likable, the world itself feels vacant and not really fleshed out, and its hard to get drawn in to. The game mostly maintains a jokey tone throughout, but at points it tries to shift to serious Melodrama and Romance, and at these points the writing is so hackneyed that even a nine year old will cringe. I know the writing is geared toward younger kids, but you can do effective kids entertainment without pandering, as shown by the likes of Pixar and Studio Ghibli.
* Al Lowe's page
* Manual at Replacementdocs
* Sierra Help page - install their patch prior to play or saves may be corrupted
* Gameplay Video