Review: The Quest HD12 Nov 2016 5
Review: The Quest HD
Released 31 Jul 2016
Tell me about your first time: was it with Wizardry II or Ultima IV, Dungeon Master or the original Might and Magic, one of the Gold Box games or maybe, if you’re really old-school, Akalabeth? Bard’s Tale III: Thief of Fate was my first, and, like nearly everyone, I didn’t know what to expect. It was exciting, and confusing, and, to be honest, a little disappointing. I didn’t know what to do or how to do it, and the whole process was almost as much of a mystery by the end as it was at the beginning. I didn’t even know I needed graph paper, for chrissake.
But we learn by doing, and it’s a rare person who finishes the first RPG they pop into their 5 ¼” floppy drive. If you’re snickering and nodding, stick with me for this one, you won’t regret it. If not… well, maybe you should pull up a chair anyway, because The Quest HD has old school appeal with all the modern conveniences: intuitive controls, pretty art, automap, autosave, and even music!
The Quest isn’t new - it debuted on iOS in 2009, and Hungarian studio Redshift has been making mobile RPGs since 2001, when you would have been playing on Palm or Pocket PC. Even then, there was a “retro” sensibility to their work, but that may have been partially because of the stark limitations involved in developing for a greyscale screen and 8 mb of RAM. This year, The Quest and official expansion/sequel Islands of Ice and Fire were re-released in gorgeous re-engineered HD editions, and now Android users finally have a chance to get their hands on the game that arguably defined iPhone roleplaying when it was released. (The Android version is HD, but is simply titled The Quest, causing some confusion).
The Quest knows and loves it’s roots, and the occasional homage made me smile, but it’s never wanted to be as obtuse or difficult as those early RPGs were, thank Gygax. If you’re looking for a different frame of reference, you could think of it as like Skyrim, just packed into tidy turns and map squares (as opposed to the real-time Aralon games) It’s certainly in the same vein as Dungeon Master homage Legend of Grimrock.
The most striking thing about The Quest may be how accessible it is, somthing that was never a strength of the classics. Character creation offers a lot of possible permutations but never too many options at once. Character class is just a division between primary and secondary skills, and everything does what it says on the label. I went with a custom skillset that favors Heavy Weapons (Strength-based) and Light Armor (Dexterity-based)... that was probably sub-optimal, but when you add in the mobile apothecary I’m carrying around with Alchemy as one of my primary skills, maybe it wasn’t such a bad call. Alchemy components literally grow on trees, or at least bushes, so you if you can pack a couple hundred flowers and mushrooms without breaking a sweat, you can mix up whatever you need, whenever you need it.
I mentioned before that there’s an automap, and it’s a good one, it even shows enemies, but you can toggle that off if it feels like cheating. Even with enemies shown, the automap never becomes a replacement for the first-person view. The map gives a hint of the roguelike to combat, as Orcs charge right at you, Brigands attempt to flank you, and ranged enemies have the sense to line up shots from a distance. The Enemy “AI” routines are simple but sufficient to reward attentive play and generally help keep combat fresh.
There’s the de digeur diegetic card game, Gol’crop, but gambling with it is genuinely optional as long as you're prudent with your funds and don't go around punching guards. Gol’crop is a quick-playing, simplified Magic-alike with three fixed decks, and while it’s no Gwent, it's better than Pazaak.
The world of The Quest is familiar fantasy territory, but ethically nuanced in a way that I’d describe as blending modern sensibilities with old-fashioned Slavic pessimism. You can play as one of the Rasvim (undead), and that’s a choice at character creation, not an in-game possibility like Elder Scrolls’ vampires and werewolves. If you're one of the walking dead, virtually everyone you meet will insult you or express disgust at your presence. Those who don’t are mostly outsiders already, fittingly enough. This doesn't have much impact on game mechanics: the bias against your kind exists almost exclusively in hostile “greetings."
The player gets an object lesson about assumptions early in the game (spoiler warning for this paragraph). Depending on how you explore, it is very likely that you'll come across goblins for the first time shortly while on a quest to find a farmer who was taken in a raid.You'll see several of them arrayed before you, and they're ugly. If you restrain an impulse to attack first, you’ll discover that they’re a peaceful fishing village engaged in trade with the nearby human town. Other quests highlight differences in race and class, presenting conflicts where both sides are somewhat sympathetic and “best” solutions that might not pan out.
The Quest’s art is well-executed but not as distinctive as that of Grimrock or 7 Mages, and lack of variety is The Quest’s Achilles heel: the reuse of the same art for all NPCs of a given type is, if anything, more disruptive in the HD version as the characters are sharp and detailed enough to make them really look like specific, unique people. All the identical townsfolk gives The Quest’s human settlements a distinctly Stepford quality that one never fully acclimates to. Similarly, while most of the game’s “dungeons” exist for logical reasons, they all look similar and very much like stone dungeons, natural caves, and/or pits of hell, even when they're supposed to be hideouts and warehouses. Fortunately, The Quest is expansive and well laid-out: geography and story serve to make it's various towns and regions distinct even when they look a little too much alike.
It's also worth noting that The Quest plays really well on mobile, without any of the headaches that bedevil PC ports.The autosave is reliable and backed up by manual save slots, and the game’s “idle” memory usage must be pretty low, as I’ve been able to pick right back up where I was without reloading after a lot of multitasking. The Quest also switches seamlessly between portrait and landscape mode, an invaluable feature for playing on phones as well as tablets.
Sometimes games rise to greatness by racing ahead of the pack in one specific way. The Quest takes the tortoise's path and become great though persistence: it is well-rounded, well-balanced, expansive, and user-friendly. It’s just as good a game by the standards of 2016 as it was back in 2009, and just as remarkable. Retro-RPG fans, gamers looking for something like modern first-person RPGs, and even folks hoping for a good experience their first time will all get something out of The Quest.