Heroine's Quest: The Herald of Ragnarok - Review  

Girl Power!
by Michael Baker

20-40 Hours
+ Good use of Nordic source material
+ Great soundtrack and voice acting
+ Classic SVGA graphics
+ Improved interface
+ Quirky sense of humor
- Sequel seems unlikely
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   Times are hard in the Iron Forest of Jarnvidr. Winter has yet to release its hold on the land, and food is scarce. Bandits and wolves attack during the day, while trolls and worse roam the night. There are rumors that this is the Fimbulwinter, the deep cold that comes at the start of Ragnarok. What the people want is a Hero. What they get is a Heroine. Crystal Shard Studio has created a love-letter to the Sierra adventure-RPG hybrids of old with Heroine's Quest: The Herald of Ragnarok.

   The Heroine — be she warrior, sorceress, or rogue — is every bit as much an adventurer as the Hero of Quest for Glory. From the time she recovers from a trollish ambush in the prologue, she's got her work cut out for her. Over the course of four chapters she must deal with the problems plaguing the two human settlements of the Iron Forest, and even travel to the gloaming realm of Svartalfheim as well. There is an amazing breadth and wealth of material to add to the setting of this adventure, with much of it cribbed from the Poetic Edda. Nearly everyone has some story or bit of lore to impart, and a surprising amount of it turns out to be useful later on.

   Like its source of gaming inspiration, Heroine's Quest uses the time-honored point and click interface, though direction buttons and hotkeys exist for those who prefer the keyboard. The combat interface is easily handled in this way, as is explained in the short tutorial available at the beginning. The battle system takes the classic format from Quest for Glory II and the Quest for Glory VGA remake and improves upon it, creating a setup where the Heroine can easily trade a variety of attacks with her opponent, as well as block, dodge, or dive out of harm's way. In fact, by hearkening back to the earlier games of that series in this manner, Heroine's Quest manages to be easier to play and more entertaining than much of the later QfG games.

I could use a new handbag! I could use a new handbag!

   Heroine's Quest follows the standard character advancement of its inspirations, with individual scores in various stats and skills being raised through frequent use. What's new here is that the game will inform the player of stat gains via pop-ups in the top right corner, which is a convenient addition. The skill lists vary between the three playable classes, though of course it's possible to purchase out-of-class abilities during character creation (for a considerable cost). Some skills — like parrying, stealth, and magic — are obvious and venerable elements to the gameplay formula, but Crystal Shard has added a few more for spice. Fighters come with the Animal Ken ability, which affects the handling or hunting of various beasts throughout the game. Sorceresses learn the intricacies of Herbalism, and can create their own potions if given the materials. And aside from the staples of stealth and thievery, rogues have the Fast Talk skill, allowing them to get new and interesting options in dialogue. A lot of effort went into developing alternative puzzle solutions that accommodate these disparate skill sets, and the different classes certainly do not play the same.

   The graphics in Heroine's Quest are about as advanced as they could get and still fit within the definition of SVGA. All of the major locales have a meticulous level of detail, and even the trails of Jarnvidr and the tunnels of Svartalfheim, for all their generic nature, possess a sort of character. This is accompanied by a large cast of NPCs and a decent bestiary of monsters, all rendered in slightly cartoonish game sprites. The Heroine in particular has some excellent facial expressions for a relatively low-pixel model. For conversations, everyone has detailed portrait art with some lip-synchronization.


   Speaking of which, the voice acting in this game is really above par. While the text itself is bilingual in English and Magyar, the voice-over is one hundred percent English, and it's obvious that the cast had a good time recording this one. From the snarky tavern proprietress Lithrasir and the circuitously worded wizard Aurvandel, to the two-headed troll Thrivaldi (always arguing with himself) and Ratatosk the DOOM SQUIRREL, no one's afraid to ham it up to eleven when necessary. This lends a good deal of needed comedy to a story about the impending doom of the cosmos.

   As for the soundtrack, it fits the game like a glove, with many elements making direct references to the works of Wagner and Grieg. Nothing else would fit a game about trolls and Ragnarok, after all.

   In keeping with tradition, this game also includes a veritable hoard of in-jokes and silly references to other games. Special attention is made to the Sierra library, with copious references to Quest for Glory, King's Quest, and even a few Space Quest Easter eggs hidden around, but there are also shout-outs to old Canadian TV shows, the aforementioned composers, other contemporary indie games, the Legend of Zelda series, the developers' favorite fantasy novels, and even an extemporized and highly paraphrased section of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody". There is much humor to be found in even minor bits of conversation, often enough.

   Such is the benefit of hindsight and experience. The people at Crystal Shard went in knowing what it was they did and did not like about the games they were emulating, and it shows in things like how NPCs will intrude on each other's conversations depending on who's present, or the interesting ways that various skills can be put to use. There's a sense of consistency and congruity among all the parts of this game, which benefits greatly from the focus of nostalgia goggles. So it goes. The fans have become the creators, and in doing so they have surpassed the original.

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