tohmystery33Everybody enjoys a good, long fantasy (fairy-)tale depicting the adventures of a true hero. It’s a pity then that it’s so difficult to come by an adventure game that matches this seemingly broad description. The days of regular King’s Quest and Quest for Glory entries with occasional great one-shots like my personal favorite Death Gate seem to be long over. The few new games that encompass traditional fantasy elements tend to push them towards cartoony slapstick and parody rather than offer a serious treatment of the genre. Also, most new adventure games suffer from shortness, often even choosing an episodic format of publishing – not the best fit for an epic story of heroic daring-do. It is then an experience not totally unlike that of a starving hobbit coming upon a delicious feast to finally play an adventure game which not only captures the spirit of epic fantasy, but it is able to feel fresh, exciting and have a personality all of its own. It is a game that fully deserves the title Tale of a Hero.

Now, I won’t go into detail about the layered and gradually unfolding narrative of ToH. Suffice it to say that it follows Olaf – a hero by profession, a man of considerable wits and courage – on the long awaited quest of his life. Being a son of a famous adventurer, but due to many twists of fate making by as a fisherman in a small town, there is an element of an underdog proving himself to Olaf’s story. Well, to be sure he doesn’t have that much of a choice and a big part of him would feel much more fulfilled if he stayed home and went to the festival with his finance, but lets not make this synopsis too complicated, shall we? Anyway, Olaf’s journey will be filled with many magical animals, epic conflicts between ancient races, rivaling witches, ice-giants, magical artifacts and marvels of nature like the water of life for instance.

The game is both a serious fantasy piece and humorous fairy-tale which twists both well- and lesser-known fairy tales in quite mature ways that reminded me of The Witcher books by Andrzej Sapkowski, especially his short stories. I don’t mean by that that Tale of a Hero can challenge The Witcher in terms of sex and violence, but that it has comparable moral ambiguity interestingly woven among the more classic motives. Olaf himself is a mix of a generous, helpful fairy-tale hero and a pragmatical, stubborn fisherman, with many useful tricks up his sleeve and a heroic know-how passed upon him by his father. The existence of a conflict between making appropriately heroic choices and staying independent-thinking is especially apparent in the finale which is considerably bittersweet.

the visuals are simple, but effective with many subtle background animations

A seemingly unimpressive hut of a sorceress encompasses a sprawling dungeon.

The rich, magical world of ToH is drawn first of all through many long, branching dialogues. The characters generously share little stories, anecdotes and information about themselves and the places they live in. Those conversations are very well written, full of wit, and usually make for a great reward after a sequence of challenging puzzling. Still, on a few occasions, in moments when the story picks up the speed, they dominate a bit too much over the adventuring.

The English translations as well as the voice talents are all solid, but the voices can take a bit to get used to since some actors were cast against stereotype. The only beef I had was with the actor who played both an innkeeper and an ancient seer. Not only is he immediately recognized as the same person in the second role, but he does sound much younger than he should in both of them. A raspy voice is not enough to convincingly play an older man.

Tale of a Hero offers a really hefty amount of objects to interact with or at least to have a look at. The controls are simplified to the left/right mouse button combo. In a rare feature the main character offers different comments when clicking on the same hotspot more than once. This enriches the sense of being in the game world even more. Interestingly, when you can’t bring upon any special action with the left button it brings out the same spoken descriptions as the right one – this was a bit confusing at times.

The gameplay might be pretty old-fashioned adventuring with dozens of ingenious and very fun to figure out inventory uses, but ToH also popularizes a modern concept that allows to avoid lugging around improbably heavy objects. Olaf simply carries with him their mental representations and comes back for the real thing only when he knows what to do with it. It certainly is a good design concept. However, to the despair of many inefficient pixel-hunters Tale of a Hero doesn’t employ the kind of magic button that reveals all hotspots in a location. During most of the game this presents no problem. Still, in the icy wastelands my progress came to a long halt over two very special piles of snow that were indiscernible from their surroundings.

The puzzles are fair, but challenging enough to satisfy – the best possible combination. Often they make you smile just because of their creativity, for example the failed attempts at melting snow, or an unprecedented use of a severed hand. The game is also very anti-myst-like-puzzles. Just wait till you see what Olaf does when he comes across one of those complex locks that you can spend hours tinkering with :).

The underwater chapter of ToH is the game’s Rubacava (speaking in Grim Fandango followers lingo). It’s really huge. The player becomes even equipped with a magic map to be able to travel faster. Yet, contrary to the countless intersecting quests in the city of Rubacava it is an almost entirely linear experience. To be honest such is the whole game, which may sadden some. On the bright side, you won’t be ever asked to bring a long collection of different ingredients to anyone and the plot constantly moves forward rather than lingering on the subquests.

In the end, I think Tale of a Hero is a great surprise for fans of such epic fantasy adventures as The Longest Journey (having lots of stories, subplots and interesting comments on storytelling), King’s Quest (having lots of fun and twisted references to fairy tales and mythology) and Quest for Glory (exploring the question, what makes a true hero). It may be not that beautiful to look at, but at its core it is the best newly released adventure game I played in many years, possibly since Return to Mysterious Island. I’ll be eagerly awaiting new tales from the same creators to follow this excellent premiere effort.

My Score: 5/5 starks

At the end of this underwater cavern there is a dragon you don't want to wake up.

At the end of this underwater cavern there might be a dragon you don't want to wake up.

Note: Tale of a Hero was released under the banner of the Czech company Future Games known primarily for the original Black Mirror, which engine it uses. However, ToH was created by a mostly entirely different development team than Future Games‘ previous games – a small and pretty loose group that usually appears under the name of Peregrius.