In 1977, a college English professor named Raymond E. Feist began to craft Magician, a novel that would later garner worldwide praise and act as the genesis for more than a dozen brilliant books set in the mystical lands of Midkemia and Kelewan. In 1992, the award-winning staff at Sierra convinced Feist to authorize Betrayal at Krondor, a strategic RPG for the PC based on Feist's writings. Much like its literary counterparts, BaK was hailed and praised for its outstanding qualities by critics and consumers alike. Even more remarkable is that the complete game is completely free with no strings attached.
BaK is set a few years after the final book in Feist's Riftwar Saga and is a tale both tied to and independent of the novels (well, at least it was until Feist wrote Krondor: The Betrayal years later, but that's another story). The Kingdom of the Isles is returning to a sense of normalcy and contentment after the trials of the Riftwar and the invasion of the moredhel (dark elves). The West and East are united, the rulers mete out evenhanded justice, and the common people go about their daily lives without much worry. Perfect setting for a disaster, right?
Enter Locklear, noble of the Prince of Krondor's court. A hero of the Riftwar, Locky ends up in a mess of trouble in a very short time - not only is he cut off from his companions while in fairly hostile territory, he also manages to capture a moredhel and stumbles across a son of the Count of Tiburn. Upon further investigation, this moredhel is no ordinary moss trooper - he is a former clan chieftan, a defector with news of a second invasion of his people into the Kingdom. Locky's duty is to bring this urgent information to the Prince of Krondor - a week's travel time away under the best of conditions, which are too much to expect in an RPG (naturally).
BaK benefits from being based on an already established and proven fantasy world. Fans of the Riftwar Saga will recognize many characters from the series, such as the aforementioned Locklear. Knowledge of the state of governments, the lore of different races, and certain inside jokes will also make for a more pleasant experience. However, that's not to say you must read 2000 pages of fiction to grasp the basics of Midkemia - given time and a little patience, any competent gamer should have no problem understanding the concepts of the world.
The storyline is rich and gripping, taking place through 9 chapters and several in-game months (at least in the plot line - you can literally go through several game years if you wish to). The excellent writing, characterization, and plot line are impressive, even if you're not familiar with the series. Within the first five minutes of gameplay, you realize that Locky is a freaking badass for example. Although Feist himself did not contribute to the script, Neal Halford did a rather marvelous job both in emulating Feist's style and in creating a separate installment of the heroes of Midkemia.
Of course, BaK is not the kind of game to merely rely on Feist's books. Although the graphics, sound, and gameplay are a bit archaic by today's standards, the gameplay is still very much enjoyable; taken in the context of the year it was released in, one can truly appreciate what BaK has to offer.
Navigation throughout Midkemia is through a first-person, 3D interface. World objects are rather pixelated yet distinguishable - very little, if any, graphical bugs are to be found. Additionally, you may opt for a top-down view which shows a map and surrounding landmarks, although certain objects (such as enemies and treasure chests) will not appear unless you are in first person mode. Towns and cities are easily explored, while dungeons, of course, pose more difficulty, but none are frustarting to traverse. The one gripe I have is in regards to objects that are close to each other, like corpses - often times, you must move to a different angle to get what you really want.
Speaking of corpses, where do they come from? Why, from your slain foes, of course. BaK is chock full of pirates, goblins, and dark elves who are more than happy to run you through. Most battles are triggered by merely approaching a group of enemies; other times, you fall victim to ambushes and must fight your way out. Battles take place on a 3D grid; basic rules of movement, positioning, swordplay, and magic are your tools.
Only two of the characters you will control may cast spells, which require a certain amount of stamina/health to cast, rather than magic points. Spells are usually learned through the discovery or purchase of a magic scroll; once a spell is learned, it is never forgotten. A few sidequests provide you with spells, but not many.
Mindless button mashing will not see you through battles, because you'll be outnumbered in most of them. Additionally, many battles are avoidable, so you must learn to distinguish between a hopeless fight you should skip and a fair fight you stand to benefit from.
Character advancement is basic, yet challenging. You choose which skills you wish to advance for a certain period of time and the more you have selected at one time, the slower they will increase. The skills raise through practice and use - your Barding skill will increase by playing practice lutes or by putting on shows in taverns, for example. Certain skills are more important for certain characters than others, yet a good number should be practiced by everyone. Your health and stamina ratings increase a small amount when 30 game days pass and certain sidequests and books will raise your statistics as well. For example, in Chapter 1, Tad Questor in Questor's View will raise your Accuracy: Melee skills through fencing lessons for a small fee of gold.
Puzzles are manifested in moredhel wordchests. You are required to solve a riddle to earn the contents; some of these are nigh impossible if you're not familiar with the literary series, haven't found certain clues in-game, or lack the patience of a mountain. However, the rewards for the toughest ones are usually substantial; one in particular can almost be called game-breaking.
The inventory is much like everything else - simple and clean. Each character must make use of a very limited amount of storage space. Rations must be consumed regularly, armor and weapons must be maintained (they will diminish in worth and performance as the quality reduces, so practice your smithing skills and visit tinkers in cities regularly), and so on and so forth. Certain items restore the health that sleeping under the stars will not, while others will summon warhounds to your side or increase the power of your spells.
The quality of the sound depends on which version you play. If you download the free version, you will miss out on the high quality sound that comes with the scarce CD version. However, the scores are basically identical in compostition and only vary in the format they're presented in (if you wish to listen to the CD tracks, you may download them here). Even in midi format, the music is quite outstanding and does what it should - suit the mood of the current scene without dominating your attention. The score for the city of Krondor, for example, truly gives you a feeling of awe and majesty that's fitting of the Prince's capital city. The sound effects are not spectacular, but they are tolerable and functional.
The one major problem with BaK (besides outdated graphics) is that, as with most DOS/older Sierra games, BaK requires a healthy amount of free conventional memory to run. You may have to temporarily disable certain devices or programs to run the game. Not to sound condescending, but please, if you don't know exactly what you're doing, take my advice - do not do what I did and fiddle with your settings to run the game. Take the extra few minutes to contact a computer-savvy friend. It will be worth it, trust me.
By now, you're probably asking me why the game which I laud so openly will not cost you a penny (at least if you don't buy the CD version, which I wholeheartedly recommend as well). Well, several years ago, in anticipation of the release of BaK's sequel, Betrayal in Antara, Sierra licensed BaK as a free download. BiA turned out to be a poor follow-up, but the fact that BaK is free because of BiA is truly a blessing in disguise.
If you're a fan of the series and haven't played BaK yet, shame on you! Not to deter you if Midkemia is a completely new world to you, in fact, I myself played BaK several years before I picked up a book by Feist. If anything, the game was the main reason why, sixteen books later, I feel Feist is one of the best fantasy authors out there. In any case, this review isn't about the books, it's about the game! BaK is undoubtedly a very fun addition to most any gamer's library. Even though it's nearly 10 years old, the gameplay and storyline still shine. If only other game companies would emulate BaK and bring other literary worlds to the gaming masses in such a solid manner, we'd be in for some special treats.