The Silver Lining releases its first episode

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At long last, the first episode of the fan-made dedication to King’s Quest by Phoenix Online Studios is done and out in the wild. A word of warning at the time of this writing: you have to register with their fan club first, though, before you get the download screen which can be annoying to deal with. Either that, or wait until the 364MB download gets its own torrent. With that said, it’s worth it for fans of the series to check it out.

When the new holders of the King’s Quest IP, Activision, sent a cease and desist to the developers of “The Silver Lining”, fans were understandably crushed and upset especially after it had come so close to completion.

But it looks like the outpouring of support for the project as well as Phoenix’s dedication have convinced Activision otherwise and, in an uncommon reversal, allowed the free-to-download project to continue.

Though it won’t be called “King’s Quest” because of the usual legalese, fans that have been following the game know who the characters are and what the story is expected to tell. And now that it’s out, how does it fare?

It’s an incredible achievement given that it was created by a cadre of volunteers around the world who freely gave their time to see this eight year project through. Many of the characters featured expressive faces that delivered their lines as effectively as the voice actors. The hand drawn art featured during installation and on Phoenix’s site were also as impressive making it as easy to see where much of the inspiration may have come from.

The first episode, “What is Decreed Must Be”, begins with a suitably mysterious omen of things to come when Rosella is cursed on her wedding by a dark stranger. Her brother, Alexander, is also stricken on the same day by wicked magicks making it more than a coincidence. Before questions can be asked, the dark stranger disappears with a laugh as a storm descends on the Green Isles.

Taking up his familiar blue cap, King Graham of Daventry heads off to save his children and unravel the mystery before it is too late. But there are hints that what is going on goes beyond these opening moments and that it is only the first part of a much deeper conspiracy of darkness.

There’s really only one puzzle in this episode with the rest acting as story filler to get the player involved in the introduction. And that’s what this feels like: an introduction to a much larger storyline to come, a setup to the rest of the series, so viewed from that perspective, it makes sense though it might not make everyone happy.

One thing that impressed me was the sharp voice acting that sounds just as professional as any other adventure game on the market. Somehow, the crew at Phoenix have managed to find voices that feel spot on to the characters they represent, especially King Graham’s. One thing that I’ve always been leery about is when a fan project decides to put in voice because of the perception that it might add some level of quality when it only ends up making my ears bleed. Not so with Silver Lining.

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A shout out should also go to the team behind the music which brought back nostalgic memories of Sierra’s original work with King’s Quest. Austin Haynes, Nick Boland, and Michael Fortunato have followed the original style of the series just enough to keep their own style alive within each scene. It fits in with the fabled feel of the story and doesn’t impose itself by trying to be different, but remains unique enough for the Silver Lining making it a pleasure to listen to.

But it isn’t perfect. The game is built on the Torque game engine and the Phoenix team have done well by it. Unfortunately, it also has a few teething problems as a first release. Veteran adventure gamers might be put off by the lack of any real pathfinding making maneuvering Graham anywhere something of a small chore.

There were also one or two bugs, such as when Graham’s walking animation simply stopped working turning him into a floating model on two legs that moved to where he should go like a chess piece. Or when entering one area seemed to start two versions of the soundtrack for it, one a few seconds behind the other, while breaking the camera making it impossible to go anywhere.

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Performance-wise, it chugged on a system that can run Crysis in full detail at 1600×1200 without much of an issue. I’m not sure why it did as it’s not exactly using photorealistic textures and high-poly assets, but it was an odd issue that cropped up every now and then within the castle.

Controls were also pretty spartan. No double clicking for quick travel or holding down the mouse button for Graham to follow, but it wasn’t a game breaker since everything was close enough together to be manageable.

There’s not quite enough of the story here to really get an idea of what the quality of the rest of the production will be like, but so far, it’s not bad. It’s a little rocky in certain spots, but does the narrator have to be so verbose? She’s fine to listen to but as much as I appreciate having a lot of things to click on, it’s kind of overwhelming in hearing a story on everything in the castle. On the other hand, talking to NPCs was entertaining thanks to the solid voice work throughout the episode. There were no Cedric the Owl moments here.

All in all, I’d say that the wait has been worth it. It’s a Golden Ticket back into the world that Roberta Williams had created so long ago, written by some of its biggest fans and brought to life by the same.

Can’t wait for the next one. You can download the first episode (and subsequent ones) from The Silver Lining’s official site.