Review: Zork: Grand Inquisitor
Reviewed By: Bill Stiteler
Review Date: November 21, 2001
"Dying is easy, comedy is hard."
Just one of the many proverbs from theater which also applies to computer game design (others being "break a leg" and "don't whistle because a sailor might drop a beam on your head"). There's very little comedy in the gaming world today, but lots and lots o' death. Even Alice in Wonderland--one of the most wonderfully bonkers books every written--got sucked in and turned into a Metallica video.
Not that I mind, really, since humor in games today seems to be limited to cheat codes that make strippers explode and chat options allowing you to tell your various "biznatches" the ways in which they are going to "eat it." Ha. I do miss the days of Infocom, a company that put out some of the most oddly twisted and outright hilarious games every made. Cue intro for?
Zork: Grand Inquisitor (ZGI), available now for Mac from MacPlay by way of Activision. I'm going to describe the game to you, but I want you to give me the benefit of the doubt. Do you remember when you first heard about The Matrix and thought "Keanu Reeves and cyberspace in one movie. Man, that's got to suck." But it turned out to be the greatest movie of the year? Okay, ZGI features Dirk "Starbuck" Benedict, the voices of Lenny and Squiggy, and that guy who played Ogre in Revenge of the Nerds.
And not only will this game rule your world, it will then proceed to rock it.
The original Zork wasn't a particularly funny game, but ZGI is a non-stop barrage of reference jokes to the original, Star Wars, Myst, Dungeons and Dragons, the presidency of George Bush (Sr.), the explosive properties of pop rocks when combined with soda in the human stomach, and about a thousand other things that I'm probably going to have to replay the game in order to catch. It's like an interactive episode of Mystery Science Theatre 3000.
The plot: the Grand Inquisition has finished its conquest of the land of Zork, driving out magic. Ruling with an iron--and somewhat inept--fist, they have imposed a strict curfew on the town of Port Foozle. Capture, imprisonment and totemization (being turned into a hockey puck) await those who are caught outside after curfew. You begin the game outside, one second before curfew.
You must find your way to the Great Underground Empire (GUE) and assemble the three artifacts of magic to free the land from the evil Inquisition. In any other fantasy game, the artifacts would be a sword, a chalice, and a crown. In ZGI, they're a skull, a block of salt, and a coconut.
You explore the land in a series of 360 degree "rooms" (sort of like Quicktime Virtual Reality), which allow you to rotate fully. The cursor turns gold when you come across a path you can take, or an object you can interact with. Make sure you explore everything, because in homage to the original Infocom games, you'll find items in the most bizarre places. In fact, the only thing stranger is the way you'll have to use some of them. And the only things stranger than that are the spells.
Travelling through the GUE, you'll also come across spells to help you, but don't count on finding a trusty Fireball scroll or even Melf's Acid Arrow. In ZGI, your spell book will contain incantations ranging from the mildly sensible (Clarify Instructions) to the downright bizarre (Turn Purple Things Invisible). The great thing about ZGI is that, unlike its predecessors, a combination that doesn't solve the puzzle isn't as frustrating, if only because you'll get a joke out of it. "Oh yeah, just dig through the inventory," said one monster I was trying to slay, "something's got to work!"
Visually, ZGI can be uneven. The area which you explore look great, nicely combining the sinister feel of an abandoned kingdom with the slightly goofy tone of the game. Where ZGI runs into problems is during it's use of motion capture video for the actors. You experience it both in non-interactive cut scenes and as part of the game itself. The video becomes pixelated, which can be a distraction from the great campy acting that's going on, and it's a shame when it screws up the great rendered backgrounds.
Speaking of the acting, Dirk Benedict looks to be having a lot of fun as Antharia Jack, an Indiana Jones-clone who personifies the game's sense of bumbling comedy. A parody of the Fearless Adventurer-type that's always the hero of these type of games, Jack is both a help and a hindrance to the player from the get-go. He repairs the lantern you'll need to get into the Underground, and then refuses to give it back to you. Later in the game, he tells Yannick, the Grand Inquisitor himself where to find you because he (Yannick) seems a little depressed and doesn't feel good about himself as a Grand Inquisitor. Jack's also in possession of one of the artifacts you need; well, several years ago, he was. Along the way, Benedict cracks some of the better jokes in the game, even referencing his appearance on TV as part of "The Z-Team."
Major props also to comic god Michael McKean as the voice of the Dungeon Master, your guide (once you find him) to Zork. I didn't even realize McKean was the voice until I'd finished the game...now I have to go back and see how many Spinal Tap jokes I missed. I shouldn't have to tell you that McKean is funny, but his delivery of even the most obscure D&D joke is dead on, which makes me think that perhaps he's as big a geek as I am. This makes me happy.
Besides making you laugh your butt off, the game is fun to play as well...that is, if you're into some of the most fiendish puzzles to yet bear the Zork name; puzzles that make you feel like a mastermind when you finally decipher the logic behind them. Luckily, you can't "break the game" (you'll never lose an item you'll need later), and dying is difficult unless you're persistent or stupid. As with all Zork games, the rule is "Save often; try everything."
Grand Inquisitor is a worthy inheritor of the Zork name. The designers have created the "Blazing Saddles" of computer adventure games, poking fun at the source material, but always with a love for the subject. It's also a hell of a game in its own right. Here's hoping that, like Myst, ZGI spawns another rebirth of the puzzle-adventure game.
I mean, Grand Inquisitor even comes with an ending.
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