Crowns and Pawns: Kingdom of Deceit Review
Fortune and glory, kid
Lithuanian developer Tag of Joy appears to know exactly what makes a compelling point-and-click adventure. Globetrotting, wisecracks, a MacGuffin, a nefarious adversary, and a few unexpected twists make Crowns and Pawns: Kingdom of Deceit a game that not so much emulates its forebears, but in some cases rips them off entirely. If you can get past the familiarity, you’ll be treated to a six-hour adventure that rollicks along at pace with only a few puzzle niggles preventing it from reaching the heights of the golden era of adventure gaming.
Milda is a twenty-something Chicagoan living carefree in a tiny apartment when, in keeping with the mysterious prologue trope, she receives a letter informing her that her grandfather has passed away and she has inherited his house in Lithuania. Arriving at the crumbling residence, it is apparent that someone has been rummaging through gramps’ belongings in search of… well, that’s where the story properly kicks into gear, and so an Eastern European trek awaits you.
It’s hard to play Crowns and Pawns without comparing it to Broken Sword. Hell, even the PR promoting the game cites Revolution’s classic as a selling point. And in fairness, it works. The charming hand-painted characters of George Stobbart’s first two outings may have been replaced by a Dreamworks-esque aesthetic for Milda and her friends, but the voice acting is absolutely superb and elevates the cutesy, saturated locales and character models significantly. Yes, at times it’s easy to shake your head at the familiarity of a goat puzzle, or a building being guarded by a stubborn dogsbody, but at least the solutions to handling these are different from the games that inspired them.
The occupation you choose for Milda at the start of the game actually feeds into some of the puzzles you’ll encounter. As a psychologist’s assistant you might want to use a textbook to analyse NPCs for clues on how to make them help you; picking the programmer path will give you an item that lets you hack computers, and so on. These choices seamlessly meld with the story and while they may not be significant enough to warrant a second playthrough, they provide a glimmer of uniqueness in a crowded genre.
As Milda uncovers more about the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the ultimate goal becomes apparent: to find a crown. Why? Well, obviously because your grandpa was after it, and now someone else is too. Milda’s motivations are a little hazy, but you have to admire her chutzpah. Though many of the puzzles are straightforward enough to solve logic-wise, there are a couple of duds, not least a horn-related hockey nightmare involving lines, pairs and audio cues that needs to be confined — using the game’s deliberate misspelling here — to the anals of history. Otherwise, most obstacles involve you scouring a location for clues using the middle mouse button (or space bar) to highlight points of interest, combining objects (which make sense for the most part) and exhausting dialogue options.
There aren’t a huge amount of NPCs to interact with which makes the adventure feel more compact than the likes of Monkey Island. That said, Milda’s relationships with her best friend Dana and potential beau Joris are a real highlight. The dialogue — even over text message — crackles with chemistry and feels natural. Sometimes it even feels a bit too breezy; Milda brushes over potentially fatal situations with an almost psychopathic cheeriness, especially when it comes to people close to her. Even so, this isn’t a violent affair by any stretch.
There are a few lowlights. Early music loops border on offensive (jazz guy at the Bean and Dana picking guitar: I’m looking at you). The ending feels mightily rushed, as if there was a puzzle that Tag of Joy didn’t have time to implement and instead subbed out for a cutscene. The villain’s motivations or how they link into Milda’s tale are never really made clear. There’s a moment ripped straight out of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade that made me groan, and the overall sense of completion I should have felt was muted by an obvious setup for a sequel. But that aside, the variety of puzzles, likeable and interesting characters, and a vibrant jaunt around Eastern European history makes Crowns and Pawns a cracking addition to any point-and-click fan’s library.
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