Conquests Of Camelot: The Search For The Grail

Publisher: Sierra
Developer: Sierra
Year: 1990
Platform: Windows, DOS, Amiga, Atari ST

Rating: 3

A well-researched labor of love by Christy Marx, Conquests of Camelot takes a fantasy world a lot more seriously than does King’s Quest. While in many ways a nice break from the usual Sierra adventure fare, it unfortunately bit off more than it could chew and is a mess on many levels.

The story follows King Arthur during a time of famine in his kingdom, where he is tasked with saving three of his hapless knights and finding the Holy Grail. The introduction is a great hook as you gather information and supplies before heading out on your quest. One gets the feeling that an epic adventure awaits where there are multiple paths and cunning deduction needed to figure out the best way to go. I found myself taking copious notes on every city in Briton so I could plan my journey. But shortly I discovered that you can only travel to three cities in Briton and there is an exact order to everything you must do. Many puzzles have multiple solutions, but it’s often very clear which solution is the “correct” one that gives you more points, and it’s rarely even more difficult. Merlin keeps track of your skill, wisdom, and honor throughout the game. As it turns out, only the honor points matter for the good ending, while the rest are just a way to measure how good you were at the fighting sequences and how culturally competent you became while in Briton, Gaza, and Jerusalem.

While a de-emphasis on inventory puzzles is always welcome, most of what exists is one very long fetching sequence disguised as Arthur proving his honor. Money management is present, though it is impossible to run out of money unless you are trying to. Fighting is also present but is rudimentary and dull. The manual makes it seem like the final battle will be extraordinary, but I wound up winning it on my first try mostly by luck. For the most part, button mashing was more productive than a stealthy plan. The jousting sequence was a cool idea, at least.

Most annoying, however, are the dozens of copyright protection puzzles disguised as learning about culture and history. In the manual, Marx makes a desperate plea for people not to pirate her game but emphasized there’s no copy protection. And while technically this is true, a third of the game’s puzzles would require blindly guessing and checking for hours without the manual. I don’t mind having to reference a manual for help with the game, and some of the puzzles require deductive reasoning even after reading the manual, but the whole deal is disingenuous.

Also, sadly, one non-optional puzzle involves solving a bunch of riddles. I do like me some riddles, and you only have to solve five of the twenty-six the game throws at you. But if riddles are not your jam, or if English is your second language, then good fucking luck. Completely unrelated, there’s a Sierra hint book for sale!

A lot of this I could forgive if the game had transported me to this semi-historical fantasy world. But it felt more hamfisted than wondrous. Arthur does not seem larger than life, but rather an ordinary douche with power. Enemies are laughably quaint. But mostly it’s just the wretched graphics and sound. I’m not sure how one of the Sierra’s last games to be made with EGA only graphics had the worst production values, but here’s some graphical proof.

The first screenshot is from Police Quest 2, made in 1988. It’s not a Monet by any means, but the grass looks like grass and the trees look like trees. In Conquests of Camelot–released over a year later–everything has this heavily pixelated look that is repeated without much variation. Meanwhile, the sound is constant, screechy, and repetitive. Which is surprising because Mark Seibert usually did a competent job, including Police Quest 2, which is more understated.

I’ll give Marx credit for not going hard on racist stereotypes for the Israealites in the game and there were some genuinely funny moments. My favorite was falling off the cliff once reaching Jerusalem. And a few puzzles were fun. But if not for the relative ease of play (and modern access to hints), I would have shut this game down pretty early.

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