King Arthur. Merlin. The Knights of the Round Table - there's nothing quite like the most epic of British fables. Many have taken their stab at adapting the tale be it books, movies or games and in 1996, Psygnosis published Synthetic Dimensions' long-gestating adventure game called Chronicles of the Sword. Taking place after the grail has been found, with Arthur firmly on the throne, he's beginning to find ruling over Britania in the magical Dark Ages quite troublesome.
Just as our young hero and protagonist, Gawain, is to be knighted, the priest of Camelot has been mercilessly murdered and it's no secret who did it. The evil sorceress Morgana La Fay, sister to the King and one who hungers for more power. With the help of Merlin - who is much more commanding and gruffer than the kindly old man he's usually depicted as - you are to rid the kingdom of her treachery.
That requires a large number of fetch quests. Basically, grab everything that's not tied down, you're bound to use it at some point. Very rarely will you be stumped by the puzzles which are all inventory based and a little too obvious. Need to get through a dark cavern? Grab a candle, light it and enclose it in a lantern. Easy to figure out, but you may be a little stumped trying to do it. There are many candles adorning the walls and tables in the castle, and only one can be collected so unless you have a walkthrough at hand you'll be sweeping each screen for the hotspot. Fire lights every hallway and warms every room too, but the candle can only be lit in the fireplace that adorns the dining room. At least the lantern sat atop a table in the throne room is a little more obvious. Couple that with an unnecessarily unintuitive control scheme and you'll be fumbling your right clicks with your left clicks until you stumble upon the right combination. It's not exactly hard to understand, but every time I entered the inventory screen, I still seemed to press the wrong button regardless.
Despite the much-touted graphics, all characters appear to look the same.
If you like pixel hunting, this is the game for you. It's not just smaller items like rocks or submerged skulls that suffer from this curse of the genre, but on where you can walk too. Most doors, being large and obvious, are easy enough to figure out, with the cursor changing to that of animated footprints to let you know you can go there, but many stairs require you to point the cursor at the bottom or top step. At one point, being a spiral staircase, the top step is pretty small so the hotspot is unnaturally tiny. Knowing where they are can be a puzzle in and of itself.
On the plus side, I was suitably impressed by the theatrical voice actors, most of whom had faint Welsh accents which add to the charm. According to Synthetic Dimensions, the talent were professionals (and you can tell) but I can find no details on who they actually are. I swear I can hear Michael Sheen of Frost/Nixon, Twilight and Good Omens fame in there, but it could have been any talented thespian from Cymry.
Right-click to access the inventory, where you can access
the settings menu and get a closer look at each item.
In the mid-'90s, the pre-rendered look of Chronicles of the Sword was simply stunning - in screenshots at least. I remember gawping at the renders in the pages of PC Gamer only to install the demo and be a little disappointed. The models and backgrounds may look nice, with some above-par cinematics compared to its peers, but the clunky animation and sloppy presentation let the whole package down. Now that I've played the full game, I can see it doesn't improve the further you go.
What's worse is that the story is the most basic of fantasy tropes, with only the visual design giving them the odd twist. The dragon is actually a Stegosaurus. Faeries are hopping green demons that seem to like frolicking in the woods a little too much. Even Merlin is not the warm-hearted elder as seen in most other adaptations, though I suspect that is down to the limited number of character models they used. Most of the cast look the same - a bland featureless dude who spends too much time at the gym.
Fight scenes are interactive on regular difficulty (left).
Wilf the stable boy scratching his balls in front of the barn (right).
There are two difficulty modes - easy and regular - but it only affects the action scenes. These fights are played through a series of pre-rendered cutscenes and are little more than a game of chance. Block or attack, and hope the other guy does the same. On easy, these play out like the cutscene that they are. I prefer to play this way as you never know when an attack is upon you and failing means reloading your last save. You're not gaining much by having them anyway.
PC Gamer eventually gave the game 28% when it came out in May 1996, almost 2 years after its intended release under the name of King Arthur: The Quest of the Fair Unknown. The score seems a little harsh in my eyes and it did put me off picking it up back then in favour of Gabriel Knight 2 (thank you Dad!) but even this classic was given a score of 65% (PC Gamer was known to be very unkind to adventures). I'd add an extra 20-25 percentage points to each game and you'll get a closer representation of their quality.
Merlin is very different from how you may have pictured him (left).
As is the dragon, here depicted as a dinosaur (right).
If you think the PC game got low scores, you should see what happened to the console release. Some publications gave it the worst game of the year, though I believe they were more justified for the inferior PlayStation port (apparently Sony had just bought Psygnosis and forced them to port it to their little grey box). Mouse-based games rarely play well with a joypad anyway. I own this version and have had for some time, but I've yet to play it. I've long since given up playing PSX discs on the original hardware as I find the emulation scene more convenient, however, Chronicles remains unplayable on any emulator as far as I can tell. In a rather bizarre move I've not seen anywhere else, all of the voice acting is played through CD audio. Not only that, but different lines are spoken on the left and right channels presumably to save space. Emulators cannot handle this so will either play both channels at once or stick to one channel throughout the whole game. The PC version does this too, with regular DOSBox giving the same garbled result. Thankfully the Daum branch of the program has figured this programming quirk out and plays it well.
So, Chronicles of the Sword is a little mediocre. The gameplay is bland, the story is bland and the graphics are a little horrifying in parts. But is it the worst game of 1996? Not by a long shot. I've played much worse games, some of which are on this site. In my opinion, this revisionist take of British mythology is simply slightly below average.
To download the game, follow the link below. This custom installer exclusive to The Collection Chamber uses the DOSBox Daum build of DOSBox 0.74 to bring the game to modern systems. Manual included. Tested on Windows 10.
File Size: 625 Mb. Install Size: 714 Mb. Need help? Consult the Collection Chamber FAQ
Chronicles of the Sword is © Kevin Bulmer / Psygnosis
Review, Cover Design and Installer created by me