A few months ago I started thinking about writing a “You Know You're in Trouble When…” article. It was going to be about the dicey world of buying computer games, and I had things like “when the included catalog is bigger than the manual” and “when the CD's come in sleeves rather than a jewel case.” However, I kept finding counterexamples for each of my ideas, and I finally decided that the whole concept wasn't going to be as humorous as I first thought. But then a funny thing (finally) happened when I received a copy of Arthur's Knights: Tales of Chivalry, the latest adventure from French-based developer Cryo Interactive. Inside the box was a card describing a bug in the game and how to get around it. I quickly decided that this was the perfect example of a bad omen, because if one bug got past the play testers -- and especially a really obvious bug like the one described on the card -- then what else might have gotten past them? Well, the answer is “quite a few things,” and as a result Tales of Chivalry is buggy, shoddy, unfriendly and often tedious.
In Tales of Chivalry you take on the role of Bradwen, the bastard son of a 6th century British king. Early in the game the king dies, and you soon find that your legitimate brother Morganor is thirsty for power -- and considers you a threat to his rule. Morganor banishes you and your family from the kingdom, and you spend the rest of the game visiting the icons of the Arthurian legends -- Avalon, Camelot, Merlin, and Lancelot to name but a few -- and following a plotline that's more than a little similar to the one used in last summer's Gladiator. In an interesting twist, there are actually two adventures in the game, and while they each tell the same story, they do so from the eyes of a different culture. So in the “Christian” adventure, Bradwen gains his power through prayer, miracles, and good deeds, and in the “Celtic” version, Bradwen has dealings with fairies, Merlin, and other magical creatures.
Unfortunately, despite the richness of the Arthurian environment and the possibilities involved with having two parallel adventures in one game, Cryo Interactive wasn't able to create a quality gaming experience. In fact, just about every facet of the game has serious flaws, and while some might be attributable to a poor conversion from French to English, others are much broader than that. Consider the gaming engine, for instance. Tales of Chivalry uses a third-person perspective with 3D characters and 2D backgrounds, and movement is managed through the arrow keys on the keyboard. That sounds a lot like the latest LucasArts adventure engine (used in Grim Fandango and Escape from Monkey Island), but while in the LucasArts engine the characters swivel their heads to “look at” interesting objects, Tales of Chivalry gives absolutely no indication about which objects can be manipulated or examined. That makes certain parts of the game much more difficult than they need to be, and Cryo even compounded the problem by making the engine very picky about where Bradwen has to be standing (and facing) in order to interact with an object. And so something as simple as opening a door can be a chore, and you'll likely spend a lot of time trying to interact with objects, and then, when failing, not being sure whether you can't interact with the object or if Bradwen is just standing in the wrong place. Bradwen shrugs when you try to do something and he doesn't see anything to do, and you'll see that shrugging animation a lot (and start hating him for it -- or maybe that's just me). The gaming engine also has some “minor” problems, such as having only one key that initiates actions -- talking, grabbing, looking, and so forth -- which isn't at all versatile enough for an adventure, and having the camera angle switch way too often, making movement disorienting at times, especially when you have to travel down winding trails. In short, it's hard to imagine anybody even thinking the Tales of Chivalry engine was a good idea, let alone actually releasing a game with it.
Even well intentioned parts of the game didn't turn out well. For example, there's a Book of Adventures that records your progress in the game and summarizes key events for you. That sounds good, and a similar idea worked well in The Longest Journey. But in Tales of Chivalry the entries are often useless, usually only saying things like “the fairy told me an interesting prophecy” rather than actually including what the prophecy is, and so you'll still have to take notes. And Cryo wasn't especially careful with the entries, either, and sometimes they don't match what you just did, and sometimes they give away future events. In all, since the Book of Adventures leaves space for unseen entries, all it really does is show you how far you've progressed in the game.
And if that wasn't enough, Tales of Chivalry is also buggy and shoddy to a fault. I spent about 25 hours playing the game, and it crashed on me over a dozen times. Plus, there are an amazing number of spelling and grammar mistakes in the Book of Adventures and in the subtitles, several times you get a subtitle but no spoken dialogue, and often enough the interface stops responding altogether, forcing you to load an old game to get it working again. Plus, there are some just plain weird things, like a shield that suddenly turns into a coin, a “sorceress” that has a man's voice, and Lancelot having a French accent. It's enough to make you wonder what the game might have been like before it went through quality assurance testing, and if those quality assurance testers still have jobs.
Cryo could have helped matters immensely if they had provided interesting puzzles in the game, but -- you guessed it -- that didn't happen, either. Tales of Chivalry features numerous inventory puzzles, but the puzzles are so basic that they're barely puzzles at all. For example, the first two puzzles you encounter in the Christian adventure require you to find food and drink to entice other characters to talk to you. So do you have to buy the items or steal them or somehow make them? Nope, a jug of wine is simply sitting on the ground, a ham is simply hanging on the wall, and all you have to do is pick them up. That's about the difficulty of 90% of the puzzles, and of the rest, half are interesting and half are annoying because of the unfriendly game engine. Plus, the adventures are completely linear, so at any one time you only have a couple inventory objects and a handful of places where they can be used, and so even if you don't understand the puzzles, it's easy to muddle your way through (such as the shield-is-really-a-coin puzzle).
But perhaps the worst part of the gameplay isn't the easy puzzles, it's that you have to spend so much of your time walking around. Most games with disconnected gaming areas provide a friendly overhead map so you can instantly move between areas. But for some reason Cryo eschewed that idea and created “travel areas” between the game areas, where all you can do in the travel areas is ride your horse between the game areas. That might provide for better continuity between the game areas, but it makes moving between them amazingly tedious, especially since Cryo intentionally set up the puzzles so that each step is always separated by a long distance to travel. In fact, if you take this sequence -- talk, walk, walk, ride, walk, ride, ride, walk, talk, walk, ride, ride, walk, walk, ride, walk, do something -- and repeat it about 100 times, you'd have a basic walkthrough for the game, not to mention an indication about why it can be boring to play. Of the 25 hours I spent playing Tales of Chivalry, I bet a good 10 of them were devoted to watching Bradwen walk around or ride his horse, and that's about as fun as it sounds.
Need I even mention the graphics or sound? They are both mediocre. The 2D backgrounds look nice enough, but they are fuzzy and muted, and the 3D objects, being much brighter and sharper, don't blend in with them at all. Plus, the 3D objects themselves aren't impressive. They're overly blocky, even with the camera never zooming in closely, and sometimes it's difficult to tell what the objects represent (I won't even say what I thought a cat was the first time I saw one). And Cryo reused character models much too often, and so, for example, all fairies look the same and all blacksmiths look the same. On a brighter note, Cryo did a nice job of adding ambient movement to the locations to prevent them from being too static, and some of the object animations are nice (I especially like those for the horse).
Meanwhile, the sound is uneven. There isn't any background music, and while some of the ambient sounds are nice, some are also really annoying. For some reason cats always yowl and wolves always howl, and Cryo didn't do a good job of changing the volume of sounds to indicate your distance from them. As for the voice acting, all of the characters read their lines cleanly, but about half of them sound like they're bored out of their skulls. Unfortunately, Bradwen is one of those latter characters, but maybe that's because he read the script and saw he had lines like ``Who are you, malevolent monster?'' and decided acting wasn't worth the bother.
When I review a game, I take a piece of paper, divide it in half, and record the good things on one side and the bad things on the other. With Tales of Chivalry, I had to get a second piece of paper to fit in all the bad things, and all I wrote on the good side was ``horse animated nice'' and “butterflies look good.” Well, obviously, I can't even give a weak recommendation to a game with that sort of imbalance, so save your money and play something else.