Page to Pixel: Betrayal at Krondor

For a game to be based on a book is rare enough; for the game to be a relatively well-known, successful and important one is rarer indeed. While we’ve already seen the impact the Dune franchise has had on strategy gaming, we haven’t yet looked at the influence that Raymond E. Feist’s Riftwar books have had on the role-playing genre.

Feist’s first novel, Magician, debuted to surprising popularity in 1982. Since then, he has authored numerous works that share its settings: the world of Midkemia and the rift-linked world of Kelewan. The initial novel concerns the young Magician-apprentice Pug as he is drawn into his education, into his first love with a fickle princess, and his embroilment in the escalating war with the invaders from Kelewan.

Magician (split into two seperate volumes in 1986, Apprentice and Master), was only the first of many Riftwar novels to come. Feist would produce a number of new stories, occasionally collaborating with other authors (among them William R. Fortschen, who wrote a few Wing Commander novels.). The Riftwar series is large enough to rival only Terry Pratchett’s Discworld (which has also had some notable electronic adaptations) and Piers Anthony’s Xanth (which barely qualify as stories so much as collections of puns and increasingly weird fetishes) in the fantasy genre.

The Riftwar books also established a number of fantasy tropes that would eventually become more or less standard in the genre. First and foremost, you know how it seems all dwarves are portrayed as Scottish stereotypes? Well, the dwarves of Midkemia are essentially the beginning of that trend, with Gaelic-inspired names and a brogue that James Doohan would find excessive. In addition, there is the matter of the rifts themselves. Guess who stole that?

Mr. Feist, I think you and Games Workshop have a lot to talk about. Namely, a Class-Action suit against Blizzard.

The Dynamix of A Classic

The Midkemia setting arose from a campaign setting Feist’s RPG group created in college. Therefore it seems somewhat appropriate that it would be adapted into a computer game. Dynamix (who had earlier developed the classic flight sim Red Baron and would later create the Starsiege series), which was a division of Sierra (which was THE developer if you were a PC gamer at the time) contacted Feist with the idea of doing their own take on the RPG, which would focus more strongly on story and the depth of the world as opposed to lots of dice-rolling type gameplay.

It’s rare that an elf is quite as badass as Gorath.

The game’s story begins as an assassin ambushes the game’s starting party- Seigneur Locklear, a knight; Owyn, an apprentice magician; and the moredhel (a race of xenophobic elves) fugitive  Gorath. Gorath quickly dispatches the assassin, but the party is soon on the run from more assassins and making tracks for the city of Krondor. To tell the whole storyline here would spoil the game (in a recursive Page to Pixel moment, Feist novelized it as Krondor: The Betrayal). To say it without spoiling: Gorath’s character arc is one of the best in gaming.

Notice Locklear’s sweet mustache in the portrait.

While Betrayal at Krondor is certainly heavy on the storyline, it also offers a very large, open, 3-dimensional world to explore. From where you start (near LaMut), you can pretty much attempt to go anywhere on the map (and should, to find some enemies to fight so you can better outfit your party). You have to keep your party fed and your equipment in decent condition, as well as keep your health up. There are no magic points or Vancian spells-per-day here; spells consume hit points when cast, so you have to be careful not to overexert your magicians. Similar to the Elder Scrolls games which would come later on, characters developed abilities as they used them (although they could specify two abilities they’d like to specialize in, and these would grow faster).

The game’s epic, involving storyline and deep gameplay (as well as the ability to save anywhere and pick up where you left off with the “bookmark”) earned it high praise from a number of publications, taking Computer Gaming World’s Best Game of the Year in 1993, and the CD-ROM version of the game became one of the killer apps for the format (and one that has certainly aged better than, say, Rebel Assault). With a hit on their hands, what did Sierra have in store for Midkemia? The future, it seems, was shrouded in mist.

Two More Betrayals

Interestingly enough, Betrayal at Krondor ended up with not one, but two successors. Was one the true king and the other a pretender? Or were they both just a pair of jokers?

The villain of Return looks a lot like Bloth from Pirates of Dark Water to me.

The first and probably more obvious guess as to the successor was Return to Krondor, which, other than its setting, shares very little with its acclaimed ancestor. While the game stars Feist’s popular character Jimmy the Hand (or Squire James as speaking formally), the game is often considered to be far more linear and generally inferior to Betrayal. It’s not a total loss, but certainly disappointing as a follow-up to one of the more remarkable games of 1993. The game is pretty short, but it does have a decent and well-written plot going for it. It’s also notable for providing detailed crafting and lockpicking of the sort that weren’t common in RPGs of the era. So Return to Krondor is a mixed bag. But how about the other one?

Betrayal in Antara: “It’s only the Columbia River standing between us and Oregon City, YEEHAW!”

Betrayal in Antara does not take place in Midkemia, on Kelewan, or in the Riftwar universe at all. It’s a standalone story that takes place in its own setting and is entirely its own game. So why the claim to the throne?  Well, for starters, the game uses an updated version of the Betrayal at Krondor engine, and is a spiritual successor in its novel-style presentation. The game has more modern features than Krondor and is pleasantly stylized. The game doesn’t feature a revolving door of characters like Krondor did, rather focusing primarily on a trio of adventurers, some of whom do bear a resemblance to Betrayal at Krondor’s characters. The noble swordsman William is analagous to Locklear, and the young magician Aren is quite similar to Owyn. The odd one out is Kaelyn, who only resembles Gorath by being the third member of the party. The game is somewhat flawed, but is an entertaining enough adventure. If you liked Betrayal at Krondor, chances are good you’ll enjoy the yarn that Antara spins.

Unfortunately for those of us who enjoyed it, its lukewarm reception and Sierra’s collapse in on itself means that it is the last we’ll see of the Antara series.

Overall, Return to Krondor is a neat if slight addition to the Riftwar universe and a historical marker of where RPGs were at the time, while Betrayal at Antara is more of the bastard son that really takes after its old man. Personally, I don’t find Return to still be worth playing (it was novelized as Tear of the Gods), but Antara, in spite of looking a bit dated even when it was released, still has a good enough story and familiar enough gameplay to be worth returning to.  It wasn’t well appreciated in its day, but I happen to like it for what it is.

Return to Krondor unfortunately suffered quite a bit of executive meddling and was released in a somewhat unfinished state, and reportedly Raymond Feist was unhappy enough with the experience that he didn’t want to risk that experience again. This means we’ll probably never see another game set in Midkemia, as much as a Kingdom vs. Tsurani strategy game or Riftwar MMO would be enjoyable. However, Betrayal at Krondor’s legacy of storytelling and open world exploration has certainly lived on, as have Feist’s novels, which currently number at more than 30 books. So raise your mug of Crydee stout high and drink to the classics.

One Response to “Page to Pixel: Betrayal at Krondor”
  1. gnomeslair says:

    A fantastic write-up! Thanks!

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