Although rough around the edges, and still rough on the eyes and ears, Queen’s Wish may be Spiderweb Software’s most well-paced adventure to date.
Genre: RPG, CRPG
Developer: Spiderweb Software
Publisher: Spiderweb Software
Release date: 11 Sep, 2019
As someone who has played every single Spiderweb Software game within the last three months—okay, not every single entry (I am sane and mortal,) but at least one game from each series—my greatest fear was of getting burned out by the seventeenth (or the twenty-fifth) entry. To my surprise, Queen’s Wish was more refreshing of an experience than I ever expected, which wasn’t simply due to the fact that I played it from the start on the Veteran (Hard) setting. Although the added difficulty did play a role in my appreciation for the many added touches to the same tried-and-true mechanics, what reinvigorated my fondness for Jeff Vogel’s games was how much excess fat was taken off. While I wouldn’t go as far as to declare that Queen’s Wish is Vogel’s best game or his greatest story, Queen’s Wish is undoubtedly the best-paced adventure he has ever made.
The More Things Stay the Same, The More Things Appear Different
Now, in most cases, my preferred choice of challenge as well as how many previous games are under my belt wouldn’t be stated so bluntly in a review. Even if you are someone with no prior knowledge of a developer or his or her games, your opinions can be just as valid as my own if you substantiate your arguments as well as reexamine your own points from another perspective. The reason for highlighting these aspects is to help explain to fans as well as to newcomers why most of the new deviations aren’t to the game’s detriment.
Once, and if, you get over the initial confusion about the many mechanics integral to Queen’s Wish, you’ll eventually realize that, while some elements could use more polish, this game is not a case of dumbing down; it would be far more appropriate to call it streamlining old traditions. For anyone who doubts me, you can read Jeff Vogel’s blog post illustrating the importance behind these alterations to the same Spiderweb song-and-dance.(Or, you know, you could play the lengthy demo for yourself.)
However, we’re getting ahead of ourselves, so let’s go through this whole adventure from the beginning. Much like Avadon, you aren’t given any immediate customization to your character’s archetype; however, you are given much more “extensive” cosmetic options—and I use the quotes here as a relative comparison if you’ve played these games. Unlike any other Spiderweb Software game to date, there are no real classes as every character can become whatever he or she wants to be. Character stats do exist in some form as thresholds for the number of abilities you have in one specialty, which no longer makes upgrading feel like hoarding that one dump (“dumb”) stat from past games. Abilities are also unrestricted to weapon categories or armor classes, so if you desire to make a halberd-wielding sorcerer with plate armor or a rogue with priest and mind-bending abilities, then you most certainly can.
Although you are given various warrior-focused skills from the get-go, you don’t have to keep those skills nor any skills you may accumulate. This departure is another major change as you are meant to constantly experiment with your party composition, especially when you are given four Haven soldiers after the first main quest. You will also be heavily encouraged—but don’t let old man Jeff or me stop you—to replace your four compatriots with your new vassals after you acquire your first fortress in each new land. These three vassals have clan-specific abilities much like the protagonist with no class restrictions, but the vassals’ abilities are geared for specific play-styles; the Haven soldiers apparently don’t have time to become as cultured as you. This system, while I will always vastly prefer my CRPG parties with six, focused adventurers rather than accepting the boring four-man archetypes (Healer; Tank; Thief; Mage,) does address the inherent problem with many modern RPGs by heavily incentivizing and rewarding diverse hybrid-classes with as few limitations as possible.
Another important mix-up from previous games, which is also tied into the player’s progression, is the addition of the fortress-building mechanics. This mechanic, depending on how much and when you utilize the full extent of these features, can either become the most superfluous or the most beneficial addition to your own party. These fortresses not only provide you more resources the more side quests you complete in a given area but also are the home for your upgradeable gear, potions, armor and weapon components as well as provide you other useful combat benefits. Some of these buildings require specific resources available in each region (iron, stone and quicksilver) and there is a maintenance budget to keep you from getting everything all at once. Instead of viewing these mechanics as being something separate from the player, it would be more useful to think of them as another extension of the player’s progression as these forts give you better odds of survival rather than having the player focus solely on the arbitrary number of his or her own level.
Now if all these changes to player progression were isolated from the core gameplay, then it would hardly be worth all the extra effort. These features haven’t changed anything that didn’t already exist in other games; you might reasonably argue that this process complicates something as simple as choosing four classes and rolling with the punches. However, it’s how these changes work with the improvements to dungeoneering that tell the real story.
Dungeons as well as combat encounters have always played a prominent role in previous games, so it’s not surprising that these changes have also been the most controversial. For starters, while random encounters on the over-map still exist, these encounters nor the dungeon’s trash mobs (Jeff’s classification, not mine) give you any XP. Instead, the only way you gain XP is by slaying bosses or by completing quests, which are far greater incentives to go off the beaten path for a side quest rather than by grinding weaker foes. Perhaps this one addition alone is why so many dungeons for side-quests can often yield far more entertaining encounters such as the encroaching lava in the quicksilver mine while fighting off dozens of slimes. Additionally, side-quests also provide you resources for the forts that you can use to improve your gear, so you rarely have to stop your adventures in order to go find somewhere to level-up or to obtain rare ingredients in some obscure place.
The second major change is that whenever you leave a dungeon you will have most, not all, enemies respawn on your next visit. This mechanic also works with the Vitality (or Energy) system from Avadon where spells and abilities are spammed less often in favor of more tactical gameplay, but you do earn some energy back for every kill after the battle ends. (Some method to generate energy mid-battle would help alleviate the drawbacks of this system.) The only way to completely clear an area is when you have killed the dungeon’s boss. Certain special encounters like scripted ambushes appear to be exceptions, which can make any return trips much easier after you have better prepared yourself. Even if you leave, all the items you have obtained will stay with you as there are no more junk items nor an endless pile of worthless daggers to pawn off. With the additional mechanic that all your potions will be refilled whenever you visit your forts, the penalty of failure isn’t as severe as past games. In fact, even if you perish, your misfortune may yield far more profitable results than you might expect.
The final major alteration to Queen’s Wish is the fact that you cannot die—or it would be more proper to describe the mechanic as a magical prevention to your final death. Instead of having to reload a quick-save to try again, you will be sent back to Fort Haven with a day’s progress gone where you can buy equipment, change your loadout or be stubborn to try again completely refreshed. Sometimes this mechanic can be extremely beneficial such as when I killed the boss while his henchmen finished me off, which made my return-trip to loot the place much easier when they were all gone. Now, if this happens to you and you don’t want a cheap victory, you could always reload your last save, or you could use this exploit in your favor if a particular boss gives you too much trouble. The point behind this mechanic is that it gives you another means of victory when in trouble, even if that results in a small defeat, as well as taking away any downtime between exiting the dungeon and returning to your fortress.
Much like the many other revisions to the same formula, these changes, once you learn to accept them and understand how they work off one another to the player’s benefit, ultimately make the game a far richer experience. Quite honestly, outside of that one exploit, I don’t understand why anyone wouldn’t appreciate these obvious improvements; any sentiments in favor of adding more trash-mobs, XP grinding or meaningless loot feels misguided adhering to tradition rather than accepting the benefits of innovation. Something that I wish the rest of Queen’s Wish would more often adhere to.
Something Rotten in the State of Haven
Having watched, read and followed Jeff Vogel for some time, innovation isn’t a foreign concept no matter how often his games are criticized for being more of the same. If anything, Queen’s Wish feels like a direct response to those twenty-five years of criticism by changing up the visuals as well as the overall gameplay. That being said, sometimes innovation also carries with it an increased risk of failure, which has to be managed with respect to budget, time and expected sales, so any criticisms that I may have should be considered against the business realities of the situation. However, as one of the billions of other people on the internet with an opinion, I’m still going to complain.
As someone more focused on mechanics and narrative in reviews, I do feel the need to start off by pointing out similar past problems that don’t bother me as much as well as more personal nitpicks. While there was a Kickstarter stretch-goal to improve the sound quality, the milestone wasn’t reached, so the sound effects are pretty much identical to the ones found in Avernum 1 (the old one, but not Exile.) There is also no in-game soundtrack, so you’ll need a mix-tape or a YouTube playlist on-hand if you want something more than ambient sounds. Probably the most confusing aspect of the presentation, at least for long-time Spiderweb fans, is the regression from the isometric perspective back to the Exile-style top-down view. After a couple of hours, the visuals grew on me despite how odd some of the proportions were as doors appeared to be made for giants as well as the fact that some of the upward stairs look like walls. As far as what this perspective does for the gameplay, the only difference it adds is that some of the bigger enemies now occupy more than one tile, which can be used in combat for your benefit.
Outside of those minor problems, although I understand if those aspects bother you more than I, my bigger problems with Queen’s Wish concerns its narrative-related issues, which may be excused as of right now by how much effort was put into prioritizing the many gameplay enhancements. These narrative matters are divided between breaks in immersion as well as unresolved plot-threads. One category is going to be more important to the developer than the other because we are talking about games, but it’s still important to consider both because some examples may overlap with one another. Additionally, these unresolved threads may be answered in future entries either as intended or as a way to address the previous games, so, if anything, I am giving the developer free consultation for future stories.
Immersion is one of those finicky magic tricks where the more sleight-of-hand you apply the harder it is to maintain the illusion, but is it equally a problem when a game feels too much like a game? The whimsical, funny shape of Sacramentum (Queen’s Wish) is something that I can accept because it’s fantasy. Meanwhile, the various contrasting climates being connected to one another as one landmass can often feel like a level-select screen following the video-game rule of three: the Swamp zone, the Quarry zone and the Forest zone. Quite honestly, if these regions were segmented into individual islands, then I don’t think the thought would have occurred to me, but I understand the inclusion of a boat would also pose various narrative problems of its own.
For a counterexample, what interested me about Avernum was how much attention to detail there was in the writing and the environments to make the location seem so lifelike from the green cows and mushroom farms to the various faction wars uniting against an Empire from the underworld. (Okay, out of context, this example does sound equally silly.) This criticism isn’t to say that each area in Queen’s Wish lacks attention to detail because when you do consider these areas separately you do see an equal amount of care, especially in the maps themselves, or how these environments affect their respective cultures. You can see this from the value of pride for the Vols and their disgrace for creating debts to one another in a harsh land where stealing another man’s steed is akin to murder, or how the deadly swamplands have created people all too quick to action at the smallest offense, and how these attitudes foster an overwhelming sense of self-loathing. While the land itself may not convince me this place is real, the people and their hardships do make this place feel believable.
This one aspect alone along with the many other examples of this game’s world-building is what makes the overall story of Queen’s Wish so enticing despite those moments where the façade gives away. So why then do I have a harder time with one game versus another? Quite simply, the beginning.
Queen’s Wish may have the weakest and the most confusing start of any Spiderweb game, and it’s also indicative of many other examples where contrivance gets in the narrative’s way. Without going too much into detail, you are the third-born of a queen who wishes to resolve one of her three greatest regrets of losing her hold on Sacramentum, so you are sent with no previous experience in war or conquest—alone. In addition, the speedy introduction of the protagonist’s family as well as the history of Haven is over so quickly—which is fine because you do get a better understanding from all the people of Sacramentum what the Havenites are like—but you never really get a chance to see the real might of Haven much like the Black Fortress in Avadon (probably because Jeff is still thinking it up.)
Now Avernum pulled off something similar as the Empire was always alluded to by other characters, but the execution worked with the underdog narrative. Even when you do get your three-hundred soldiers per region, those soldiers will not accompany you until you have effectively conquered the land all on your own. The rationale that you’re given is that the queen wants to test to see if you are worthy after all the training you have had in isolation. (You might as well just say the game designer didn’t want to make the game that short.) Finally, the whole power to avoid your death is never really properly explained other than some magical wards, nor does any of the characters ever recognize you dying in battle (or even simply vanishing.)
Unlike all the other Spiderweb games, these sorts of problems just don’t exist. In Avernum, you were simply a band of adventurers sent to exile; in Geneforge, you were an apprentice sent on a trial who was shipwrecked; in Avadon, you were a newfound apprentice for the Pact after properly meeting them and being tested by their trials as the tutorial. Neither game expected you to overcome some great obstacle, which is why each journey feels like an act of heroism. Even when you were sent in alone, such as hunting down the leader of the Sliths in Avernum, there was a more reasonable explanation that you wouldn’t be noticed (or traced back to a certain faction as mercenaries.) You were also never given any abilities without being told the context behind them such as the Shaper’s magic at the start of Geneforge.
Now as much as flak as I have given the introduction, there is a silver lining here because the ending and everything leading up to it almost gets everything right—even when the line of what really happened gets equally confusing as the start. While most of the choices that affect the ending happen towards the end of each region’s arc, the stories leading up to that moment as well as the many side-quests provide narrative, sometimes gameplay, rewards. Even in the final dungeon, there are almost half a dozen different outcomes structured like Pathfinder Kingmaker’s epilogue that will influence how the ending plays out, which gets more and more difficult from those succeeding encounters. (The entire final act does pose some gameplay balancing issues if you thought armor tiers had a light, medium and heavy system.) While I wouldn’t go as far to declare the quests here to be as complex as Geneforge, these quests do a much better job than most quests in Avadon to give the player as many choices as possible and make them mean something. Although the scarcity of these more impactful quests varies with the region as well as the number of choices per quest, the result feels like a game all too often stretched too thin at every opportunity.
Verdict: One Chapter Ends, Another Has Only Just Begun
As previously mentioned, some oversights can be explained by constraints, budget or business habits, and I find this last problem the result of having to always make an indie RPG for 50+ hours with 100+ quests because it has become his tradition at this point. Choosing business over creativity has been the name of the game for Jeff Vogel for two decades, and I won’t fault him for doing what he does best if he believes that much is worth the asking price of $20 (or $15 on a bad day if the coin lands on heads.) While there wasn’t any place to mention this information beforehand, the hint book and game bundle is a good example where what is best for the product/consumer and what is best for the business can make a good compromise. Although some vague puzzles like the Ahriel Thicket seem a little obtuse without the map reference, but this section is supposed to have positive vibes. (PS. You could sweeten the deal if you packaged some of those original graph papers with developer notes rather than feed them to the dog.)
I guess what I’m trying to get across is that we could always ask “What if…?” to these kinds of situations—what if the game was thirty-to-thirty-five hours and seventy quests with an equal amount of choices per quest and a greater focus on replayability—or we can appreciate what we have at the moment: flaws, crappy graphics and wonderful bits of writing in all.