You are standing behind the white house. There is something in the mailbox. A video message from a wizard informing you that you are the sweepstakes winner to the Valley of the Sparrows... right now, by magic flight. Upon arriving at this mysterious place however, not everything is as it should be. There's nobody to meet you and those who you do come across don't seem to have any knowledge about a sweepstakes. It looks like this is a private vacation and you'll need to find your own way through this land.
Return to Zork is a 1st person adventure game using video, and the revival of the famous Zork series by Activation. Similar to Myst in interface, you must rotate your viewpoint to discover new areas and uncover items that can be used or picked up. Various characters will be met along the way and spoken to via a system of dialog choices.
The series of Zork games is, arguably, adventure gaming at its finest. The first games were humble text adventures, while the last two in the series were full-blown 3D adventures. Return to Zork appeared between the two extremes, a few years before Zork: Nemesis, and the graphics are fairly low-res 2D compared with the 3D of the two later sequels. But for fans of the series, there is plenty to keep them entertained and challenged, from experiencing off-beat magic that only exists in the Zorkian lands, to fighting off deadly Grues and Vultures, to meeting the quirky characters, and finding the way through three mazes while exploring the Great Underground Empire of Zork.
While watching the credits scroll at the beginning, I was amazed by the cast of thousands assembled to make this game. This, alone, earned some respect. Then begins the rather cheesy (yet still enjoyable) musical introduction, and the familiar text appears: "You are standing beside a white house..." Then, finally, the enchanted world of Zork springs to life as you watch the introductory video. You, the adventurer, are the winner of a sweepstake holiday in the Valley of Sparrows, and at the beginning of the game are standing on a narrow mountain pass overlooking a green valley. However, the vultures flying overhead add to the foreboding that all is not as it appears in the peaceful valley below. The sign beside the road gives another clue: "Valley of the Vultures," it reads and the population has apparently dwindled to a mere 47. When a vulture whizzes past your ear and lands upon the sign, you - lucky sweepstake winner - had better take action before the population dwindles even further. Then your tele-orb announces that the Valley of the Sparrows has been recently renamed the Valley of the Vultures, and you realise with trepidation that this vulture-riddled place is actually your dream holiday destination.
There are rumours that the Great Underground Empire of Zork, now a legend, could have once existed and that some caverns have been discovered in the Valley of Sparrows leading to this lost empire. The land of Zork was believed to be destroyed long ago as it harboured dangerous magics. You, the adventurer, are hoping to explore some of these caverns and discover the answer for yourself.
BTW, to discover the hidden entrance to the underground, you'd better brush up on your toasting etiquette by reading the files in the Mayor's office in West Shanbar. In the nearby mill is where the now-famous glass of rye makes its appearance. While working your way through the very complicated toasting ritual, watch out for an opportunity to ask Boos for the keys - for without them, you can't open the secret door to the Great Underground Empire.
When you've found your way inside the Underground, then the magic really starts, and witches, forest sprites and wizards regularly appear. However, the puzzles are insanely difficult, and if you miss out on something earlier on then you have to replay from a much earlier stage. (Clue: Be sure to take photos of everyone you meet and record any interesting sounds, such as a dog barking.) My advice is to save multiple games to avoid this hazard. However, the game is laced with humour and unexpected fun, so you won't mind too much if you have to go back over certain scenes. Another reason to save often is that death comes as unexceptedly and often as the fun does.
You've been warned, adventurer! Have fun and stay alive!
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