Once a flourishing and prosperous land, thriving under the wise rule of King Arthur and guarded by his courageous knights, Camelot has fallen from its former glory and splendour. Embodied by the unfaithful passion between Gwenhyver and Launcelot, sin has corrupted the kingdom and plagued it with famine and drought. Gathered together at the Round Table, Arthur and his valiant fellows are visited by a vision of the Holy Grail, covered by an immaculate white drape. Launcelot, Gawaine and Galahad ride promptly away from Camelot in search of the sacred artifact, each of them seeking one of the sites in which the legend said that Joseph of Arimathea stashed the holy cup. But weeks pass, and none of them return: thus, once again advised by the deep wisdom of Merlin, King Arthur himself must quest for the Grail, last hope of salvation for his dying reign.
This appealing premise is recounted during the introduction of Conquests of Camelot: The Search for the Grail, released by Sierra in 1989 and designed by Christy Marx. Marx had met Ken Williams the previous year – “by a total fluke” in her own words – and the two of them developed the idea of a series of games inspired by the Arthurian cycle of legends, and Camelot soon became the first. Well known for her previous work on a number of comics and TV series, from Conan the Adventurer and Elfquest to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Marx did a huge amount of research to write the script of the game, blending together the main Arthurian canon – the ancient Historia Britonum, Chretien de Troyes, Sir Thomas Mallory – with Greek and Roman mythology. Covering both the Christian and pagan Grail symbolism, Marx crafted a story that, although not comparable in depth and daring with Jane Jensen’s later take on the subject, manages to be both entertaining and fascinating.
Throughout the game, beginning in England before moving to the Far East, King Arthur must overcome tough challenges on his hallowed quest. The path leading to the Grail bristles with dangers and obstacles: from the haunted forest around Glastonbury Tor to the frozen Ot Moor, the voyage of Arthur will test him both in body and mind. Finally, across the Mediterranean Sea, Arthur must prove himself worthy to receive the Grail, and thus heal his wounds as well as the ailing Camelot.
The background meticulously detailed by Christy Marx is evident from the very first steps: before leaving Camelot, King Arthur is encouraged by Merlin to study a map of southern England. Although only some of the displayed locations can be visited through the game, every important place of the region is enriched by an exhaustive description about historical events, local Anglo-Saxon saints and folklore. Every line of dialogue speaks to the extensive research of both historical and literary documentation, and even the romantic aspects of the plot – mainly the love triangle between Arthur, Gwenhyver and Launcelot – are treated in a delicate way, mindful of the laws of courtly love as arranged by the Occitan troubadours.
The characters, with their names often spelled in ancient English forms (i.e. Gwenhyver instead of Guinevere), are lavished with an equal care and even the least important supporting characters are well-rounded and realistically written. The script is also very solid: while epic and engrossing when dealing with the main quest, it displays a lighter mood from time to time. The only complaint that can be made of the plot is that the last few segments of the game feel a bit rushed and, after the closing credits, it’s evident that a direct sequel was originally planned and yet never developed. In fact, some of the early copies of the game displayed the number one, which was removed from later versions when it became clear that the next game in the series wouldn’t concern Camelot or the quest for the Grail. Although it doesn’t ruin the overall experience of the game, it’s a pity that one of the major points of the story doesn’t come to an end, leaving the player a bit disappointed. Aside from this note, the storytelling is strong and offers more than a few moments of authentic emotion.
The atmosphere of the game is enhanced by its beautiful, for the time, EGA graphics. The art design was led by Peter Ledger, famous Australian artist and Marx’s husband, and his visual imagination is easily seen in the richly detailed background. Even though the game’s palette is limited to only 16 colors, there are times at which you’ll forget this: the aerial view of Camelot makes a great use of different shades of green and blue, while the violet and pearl gray grant the ice palace of the Lady of the Lake the proper eerie atmosphere. The cozy little Merlin’s study is filled with alembics, vials and other oddities such as ice crystals and long dehydrated leaves, and all these particulars are nicely polished, despite the low resolution. But where the graphics really shine is in the depiction of Jerusalem’s bazaar, which is is filled with bright, vivid colors.Continued on the next page...