For fans of the point-and-click adventure genre, playing through Return to Zork could be seen as a necessary pilgrimage – the game is practically one of the grandfathers of the genre and if you want to imbue some gaming time with a bit of historical appreciation, then the title is well worth looking into… if you are insane. Still, Return to Zork does show some of the earliest examples of when the genre began moving away from text-based inputs to one that utilised a GUI and mouse cursor. What’s more, the extensive voiceovers and digitised actors must have made this quite a game back in the day.
Despite Return to Zork being a veritable cradle of adventure gaming, it is quirky as hell and unnecessarily arbitrary in many instances. This, obviously, will not appeal to many gamers of today.
You do not have an onscreen character to relate to in Return to Zork, but you do have a plethora of verb-based options for interacting with the world. The GUI is cumbersome and verbose, but there is no doubt that it would have caused a stir amongst adventure game aficionados when it first made an appearance. One particular oddity is the lack of dialogue options when communicating with other characters. Instead of a list of things to say, you have a number of mannerisms you can adopt that might sway the conversation. If somebody is not being particularly forthcoming, you can become “threatening” in order to loosen their tongue.
The main issue I had with the game is that you’re very much on your own throughout all of this as you never really know what it is you’re supposed to do. The narrative is extremely disjointed and there is a whole host of characters who all have very little in relation to each other. Everything feels decidedly segmented and part of that is because it seems as if there is no overarching goal to work towards; in actuality there is, but it is so poorly explained that you only begin to grasp strands of the “plot” once you’re way over the half-way point in the game.
Then of course there are the puzzles. Some of them make sense and are rather clever, but others are so completely arbitrary in their solution that it’s amazing anyone ever managed to finish this game in the first place. I had to resort to a walkthrough on occasion and thank god I did otherwise I would never have guessed that I needed to show a photograph of a cow to a witch in order to be given a cage of bats. Yeah, I’ll just let that sink in, shall I?
To top it off, the game has one of those frustratingly annoying mazes that seemed to populate early adventure games. The best bit is that it’s randomly generated so there is no use in drawing maps. I literally spent over an hour traipsing around this bog maze, only to find out that once solved, I would have to re-navigate the whole thing at a later stage.
As previously mentioned, the game’s characters are actually real-life actors who have been digitized into the game world. While at the time this would have made people’s jaws hit the floor, today it comes across terribly. The acting is appalling and the voice-over work is so cheesy that you’ll find yourself cringing through ninety percent of the encounters with NPCs. What’s more, the bizarre mix of characters does the game’s world no favours. There seems to be an identity crisis running throughout Return to Zork as you flit between scenes with characters that look as if they belong in a fantasy adventure game, and other that would be at home in a Western or science-fiction.
I consider myself a fan of the point-and-click adventure genre. I grew playing titles like ECO Quest, The Secret of Monkey Island and Pepper’s Adventures in Time. Would I recommend you look into an oldie like Return to Zork? Sadly, the answer is no, unless you’re a sucker for punishment or you really want to see how the genre has evolved.