Tonight we’re gonna point n’ click like it’s 1995!
When first playing A Tale of Two Kingdoms, you could be forgiven for thinking it’s a Sierra classic from the golden age of nineties point n’ click adventure games. In fact, it’s a more modern title, but with lovingly pixellated graphics to recreate that giddy feeling of popping in a CD Rom circa 1995. A Tale of Two Kingdoms casts you as the strapping young Maledun: with a roguish Celtic lilt and a rugged good nature, he’s the hero of this fantasy tale.
The story starts off in a disarmingly generic fashion, with Maeldun and his companions Branwyn the warrior and Taliesin the bard preparing to storm the castle of King Vostigern and put an end to his raiding of defenseless villages. After a bit of puzzling and subterfuge, Vostigern is captured and made to pay recompense for his brutality. A while later, Maeldun and his mercenary company are invited back to Vostigern’s castle to come together in an alliance against an army of marauding goblins. However, Maeldun is framed for a murder he did not commit, and a tale of political intrigue begins as our plucky young hero must find out who framed him.
A Worthy Tale to Tell
The story in A Tale of Two Kingdoms is well-paced and superbly told. Celtic Mythology features heavily in ATOTK from the wise old druids, to the fairies who twinkle around the woodlands, to surprisingly consistent Irish accents form many of the main characters. Though the title isn’t an uproariously funny spoof as the classic Lucasarts games like Monkey Island, there’s still plenty of amusing observations to be had. There was one very funny moment when Maeldun is captured by goblins, and asks if he’s going to be eaten alive only to be chastised by the tribal leader who bemoans being accused of such barbarism! It goes to show that the variuous characters in the game never quite fit squarely into the typical fantasy tropes, and that the world of ATOTK is a distinctive one.
The characters were well developed and subtly characterised enough that I felt attached to them. The murder mystery at the heart of the tale casts suspicion on all the various characters. This really highlights how they all have their redeeming and humanizing traits, yet all have the motivations and will for murder.
The interface and general structure of A Tale of Two Kingdoms is as classic as a Hippie’s Harley Davidson. You right click to cycle through look, use, speak and whatever item you’re holding, and click on whatever you want to interact with on the scenery. There’s no shortage of textual descriptions for any item under the sun you might want to look at. You’ll even get a mini-essay on the style of ornamentation when looking at a chandelier! There’s clearly a great deal of thought put into crafting each bit of minutiae in the gameworld.
Despite being an ode to the point n’ clicky classics of old, ATOTK nonetheless manages to innovate new mechanics. You can ask characters you meet to “do you a favour”. If they accept, you’ll be able to interact with the world through them, using their inventory. This can create some amusement as you can ask characters to look at Maledun. One wisecracking monk told me to find a mirror! Of course, this gameplay variable means there are even more possible combinations of items to use, which adds even more depth to the puzzles.
What’s both enticing and offputting about A Tale of Two Kingdoms is its impenetrability. Like the point n’ clickers of yore, what you’re meant to do next is usually pretty vague, and hints are hard to come by. Crucial items you’ll need are usually conspicious, but sometimes they’ll just be a small bundle of pixels that fade into the background. It’s not even always clear where the exits are to whatever screen you’re on! It’s easy to miss a grassy path into a clearing or that you can walk through a stream or lake to get to another screen.
It’s Tricky to Save Two Kingdoms! It’s Tricky! Tricky! Trrrrrricky!
The puzzles range from the straightforward to the maddening. Sometimes puzzles are as straightforward as throwing a bucket of water on a torch to snuff out the lights and escape a guard-filled room. Other times they’re convoluted affairs that require a time-limited use of items and making you to find a certain zone to walk to. This sort of puzzle appears early on when Maeldun is outwitting a guard by cleverly using some pillows to simulate his sleeping body in a bed, hiding behind a door and escaping when a guard comes in to check on the sound of a statue he’s just knocked over. This puzzle was particularly aggravating as I wasn’t allowed to knock over the statue until I’d examined the window for some reason! It’s some puzzles like this that might have you relenting and dashing for a walkthrough. But if you persevere and solve them yourself, you feel like the cleverest of clever clogs!
After a certain point, different possibilities really start to open up. In the top corner of the screen there’s a meter that tallies up your “honour” and “wisdom”. You get wisdom for finding clever clogs solutions to the various puzzles. You get honour for being a goody two shoes and doing nice things like returning King Vostigern’s lost scepter near the start of the game. The final tally of these two scores helps determine which one of the many endings you can receive.
A Choice Title
A Tale of Two Kingdoms is not a casual linear adventure game by any stretch of the imagination. Choice and consequence is heavily emphasized. Early on, you’ll find a coin, and you have a wide variety of ways you can use it. You can use it to gain favour with a fairy, increasing your honour, or you can drop it in a wishing well for one of a variety of wishes. One of the wishes you can wish for is the future well being of one of Maeldun’s closest friends! Even the most seemingly mundane of puzzles and choices can have big implications for later, so you can never relax too much!
The way the look and feel of classic point n’ clickers is captured is marvellous. MIDI-tinted psuedo-orchestral melodies are overlaid over pixellated scenery and lovingly animated spites. Woodland creatures flitter atop trees, streams rush rapidly and smokes billow up from houses in the horizon. The vibrancy of the world and the way the music captured the ambience of each scene teleported me right back to being a wide-eyed youngling playing one of the classic Sierra or Lucasarts classics.
Saviour of the Two Kingdoms
A Tale of Two Kingdoms follows the time honoured traditions of its genre reverently both in its wonderfully realized style and its frustratingly obtuse puzzles. If your memory of nineties puzzlers is of annoyance (or not existing to play them) then you might not get such a kick out of ATOTK’s traditionalism. However, if you have lots of fond memories of desperately trying to use items on other items in increasingly nonsensical ways then ATOTK will be right up your alley… or fairy-enchanted glade.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: PC (reviewed) ; Publisher: Crystal Shard ; Developer: Crystal Shard ; Players: 1 ; Released: October 31st, 2017
Full disclosure: This review is based on a review copy provided to Hey Poor Player by the publisher.