Title: The Colonel’s Bequest
Developer: Sierra On-Line
Genre: adventure, single player
Around Halloween, I always make it a point to find time to play scary games. While I’ve mostly enjoyed work from smaller indie developers this season, there is one game that I often go back to that undeniably helped influence and shape some of these games today.
Released by Sierra On-Line in October of 1989, The Colonel’s Bequest is a murder-mystery adventure game directed and produced by Ken and Roberta Williams at the height of their success with the King’s Quest series. I had no idea this game existed when I got into Sierra games and ended up discovering it included in a King’s Quest collection bundle at my local electronics store in the nineties. King’s Quest IV was critically acclaimed and the best selling Sierra game to date, so you would think the smart business move would be to release a sequel the following year, but instead they gambled on The Colonel’s Bequest, which was a new game that had no relation to any of their previous franchises. In retrospect, I am amazed they took such a huge risk.
You are Laura Bow, an inquisitive daughter of a detective and currently a journalism major at Tulane University in New Orleans. After receiving an invitation from your flapper friend Lillian, you accompany her to her uncle’s mansion at a defunct sugar plantation located on an island in the middle of the Louisiana bayou. Once there, it’s discovered Lillian’s uncle, who’s a reclusive and eccentrically rich Colonel and a veteran of the Spanish-American War, has called his family members to his estate to announce he has finalized his will and his estate will be split evenly among all his relatives. Shortly afterward, you find everyone is disappearing one by one.
There are very interesting characters for a game of its time. You may notice many characters are based off of famous people from the era, such as Clara Bow, Clarence Darrow, Rudolph Valentino, W.C. Fields and Gloria Swanson. There are also characters such as Jeeves and Fifi who are classic stereotypes of the strong and silent type butler and the oversexualized French maid respectively. I have to admit this type of direction feels lazy to me, particular with Jeeves and Fifi, however the nerd in me can’t help but love the homage to classic movie stars with some of the more important characters in the game. Admittedly, this can be overlooked after a little while once you get to know the characters and they take on unique personalities of their own.
This game is loaded with the classic Sierra death scenes from random and silly things. If you walk underneath a chandelier or against a railing just right you will die. You can randomly get snagged by alligators if you are in the wrong area. One puzzle in particular that stands out to me is when you’re trying to ring a bell in a bell tower, and if you position yourself slightly wrong the bell lands on your head. For being such a serious game, I’m actually happy there are these tongue-in-cheek moments. If they decided to leave them out, I think it would have been omitting a key part of the Sierra game charm.
There is intense and engrossing music that keeps the game feeling legitimately scary and tense, the developers made very good use of when and where music is inserted, and use silence very well. When you are out by the bayou and all you hear is the chirping of insects and the sound of the wind, it can makes you hesitant and nervous to explore. I remember as a kid playing this on my grandmother’s old computer because she had a more compatible Sound Blaster, whereas my computer at home had a lot of issues replicating the sounds. Still, nothing compares to playing this game with a Roland MT-32, and hearing the soundtrack nowadays through one gives the game a whole new experience from before. I find all of this even more impressive considering this is the third Sierra game ever to feature soundcard support, with King’s Quest IV and Space Quest III preceding it respectively.
As far as gameplay is concerned, some puzzles and items aren’t completely obvious. A problem that has plagued Sierra games in the past, but seems to be more a problem in this game where it is crucial to find small unassuming items. Didn’t notice that white spot on the floor was a handkerchief you needed to pick up? Too bad. Not only that, certain items are only available during certain times and if you miss the mark, you can’t get Super Sleuth, which is the best rating you receive from finding all clues in the game. It is very easy to mess up a perfect rating. There are two actions you have to do immediately upon starting the game or else you already miss your chance at the perfect score.
This can be tough for a casual gamer. It was tough for me as a young kid. The text parser wasn’t exactly obvious and learning how to eavesdrop on character conversations was nearly impossible for me to figure out without help of a walkthrough at that time.
However despite this gripe, and unlike many adventure games of old, you can’t ever “dead end” the game, in other words rendering the game unbeatable. No matter what you do or do not do, you will always be able to advance the game, but you might miss important clues. Because of this it is easy to play this game passively, but if you take notes and really try to figure out what’s going on instead solving whatever puzzles come your way, you will find this game very engaging. You do find out that you did something wrong at the end of the game, and the game gives you hints at the end on how to get a perfect score based on the things that you forgot, pushing the replay value up.
Although not one of Sierra’s more notable titles, The Colonel’s Bequest is up there with one of their best. This game brought the adventure game genre to the next level in multiple aspects, and while there are unfortunately few murder-mystery games out there, especially today, The Colonel’s Bequest unarguably remains the quintessential example.