Thanks to recent games like Broken Age and The Monkey Island Adventures the point-and-click genre’s been returning to the memory of current events. No longer are people saying ‘why don’t they make point-and-click games any more?’ They’ve taken to saying, ‘oh, that’s right.’ It’s like most people remember that there were good point-and-click adventure games, but the ones we bring back or try to replicate are the games that have somehow been infected along the way with the worst elements of those old games. There’s this recurring theme of Use Key On Door, in these discrete rooms with a threat of confused logic that never seems to make sense unless some crazy person had come along earlier and deliberately nested everything together.
What, the mind wonders, made the old point-and-click games any good?
C’mon, check this out. We’re going to look at a really good one.
There Was a Kyrandia I?
Point-and-click games of the 90s were spread on a continuum between Sierra’s punishing churn and Lucasarts’ gentle unfailables, and Westwood pegged Hand Of Fate much closer to the latter than the former. You can die, if you want, but you do have to try to do it. Even if you do, it gives you the option to undo the move that messed everything up. It’s possible to destroy important items, though the game’s surprisingly good at making all important things into a renewable resource – if you destroy or lose an item, you’ll be able to find a version of it, or a replacement for it elsewhere.
In place of a game world of hostile things that try to kill you every thirty seconds, then, Hand Of Fate challenges you with a very limited set of problem-solving skills. Rather than making the game about finding keys for doors, the central mechanic is Zanthia’s spellbook and her magical cauldron; one contains recipes for potions that you craft in the other. Puzzles are instead in working out which potions you can craft with the pieces you have, and then using those potions as keys in doors.
It’s also hard for me to judge how hard this is. I know that when the game says a recipe calls for a ‘toadstool’ it can in one scene mean a fungus and in the other, a piece of furniture owned by a toad. It’s easy for me because I’d finished the game once before, and also because I was raised with this sort of demented moon logic that makes stuffing rocks in rock pipes make complete sense, even if you’ve never had any reason to bother made clear to you. Chances are, if you play Hand Of Fate, you will wind up confused and maybe even stuck. There are plenty of places where the game is unhelpful about how it works, and the penultimate puzzle is just a tower of Hanoi, which is a puzzle slightly older than dirt.
I can recommend that if you want a puzzle adventure game that isn’t going to stop short and kill you for trying things, this is a great game. It’s a sequence of fairly interesting puzzles, which may indulge player kleptomania, but at least cleans out your inventory fairly often.
“I don’t have time for your funny business today!”
It’s a competent enough game, you know, not harmful or weird. It also isn’t particularly remarkable in the good direction; it’s not a ground breaker, nor does it defy conventions or redefine genres. It didn’t even push hardware to the limit when it came out – it left that job to its lesser brother, Malcolm’s Revenge. Why do I go back and re-play this game, then?
I think the reason I like Hand Of Fate so much is that I really like Zanthia. Zanthia is pointed out in the introduction like she’s some wannabe uppity apprentice, ‘the youngest of all magicians’, and then she’s deprived of all her stuff. After an introduction like that, I was expecting a character who was weak and I’d have to struggle through the game trying to do things like open jars, with elaborate puzzles to do basic tasks. Instead, first thing she does is change her outfit, then strut out of her home and threatens a giant swamp monster. She then ties his tongue in a knot and refuses to play his stupid bullshit games, and goes on about her day. That’s a great defining moment for her – the rules of the character are set.
Zanthia is a hero character who has no fucks to give. Roger Wilco of the Space Quest series was the kind of feckless idiot who would stuff his head in an acid lake and the game would mock you for it, like you were the idiot. King Graham could ruin everything by straying too close to a Leprachaun. Guybrush Threepwood was scared of sharp objects. But Zanthia? Zanthia is grumpy, tired, and she is Not Putting Up With Your Adventure Game Shit, thank you. If you look at Adventure Game puzzles as a lens through which to see the character, you see that Zanthia is content to muck around with dead things, will put almost anything in her mouth, always has costumes for the occasion, can get mad and creative, respects animals and is also willing to jump on the back of a dinosaur. But when someone blocks her way saying ‘Oh no, I need seven fruntdrabs of thingummy to pass’ her solution is to instead rig up a potion that terrifies them into pissing off. Her world is one where she’ll play adventure game click-and-play nonsense but only so far. At a certain point, you do have to interrupt a bar brawl or jump down a steam vent.
She also changes her clothes a lot, which I didn’t realise was a big deal, at first, but as I’ve grown up, I realise both how much work was involved in that, and how much it tells you about Zanthia. It takes her no time at all to do it, so there’s no practicality concern. You don’t have any opportunity to choose them, so it’s expressive of her character rather than a player option. I wondered once if it was a palette, time-saving technical thing, but what I can dig up indicate that nope, Westwood just wanted her to change outfits a lot. It was her thing. It actually was almost like a little cut-scene bonus, a reward to see what new outfit she’d put on in each new area. Hm, how to rephrase that so it doesn’t sound creepy.
There’s a bit of a plot tumour, in which Zanthia has a token boyfriend, and he makes Peach look nuanced and interesting. While he bothers me, it’s still funny to look at his blistering incompetence – he is literally a plot impediment at one point. I do kind-of-love him on an external level. As a person you have to interact with and eventually do a smooch on he’s embarassing and Zanthia could do a million times better. As a plot structure, he is what female characters were in other games of the day… and that makes him ridiculous. I’d almost say ‘satire’ if it didn’t make my tongue leap out of my mouth.
Obviously I like this game, and I definitely think you should check it out, but bear in mind that it is an old game. It has no autosaves, it was written for an audience that was twenty years younger, and while I certainly think it’s safe for audiences, there is a little bit of the Loony-Tunes style comedy hug-and-kiss harassment in it. It’s a tiny sliver of the game, though, and in the end Zanthia saves the day by tabletopping the villain. The voice acting is also good for the time.
You can get it at Good Old Games.
Buy it if:
- You like sassy protaganists.
- You want an inoffensive, patient game that’s hard to completely ruin.
- You like fantasy kingdom stories with a bit of anachronism and comedy.
Avoid it if:
- You don’t like backtracking.
- You really hate girly girl protaganists, even ones like Zanthia.