Ah, another long-running quest series, those are always fun. Honestly, going into things, the Red Axe series is probably my least favourite recurring quest series, because it's fairly generic: my memory of it is a fairly generic leadership conflict, but with dwarves, which isn't really enough to sustain my interest. But then it has been many years since I did the earlier parts of the quest, so open mind! Let's dive into...
The Giant Dwarf
This quest starts off fairly interestingly in that it's almost completely unavoidable. Sure, you could just choose not to go to Keldagrim, but if you ever do then you're immediately thrust into this quest. The only way to the city (aside from the mine carts, which are locked behind this quest, and I suppose the Luck of the Dwarves/Camouflage outfit teleports which I'm not sure how they're handled) is to use the Dwarven boatman, and doing so for the first time automatically triggers the cutscene where the statue is destroyed, and you're immediately dumped in front of Veldaban and prompted to begin the quest. It's a very of-its-time introduction; I was thinking the other day that Runescape was conceived as, essentially, a multi-user adventure game, which meant it could do these adventure game-style quests as integrated parts of the overworld that players could be expected to randomly stumble across. I have to say I like that approach, mostly because it ties the narrative to the game world in a way a lot of modern, instance-heavy quests are less effective at.
What I'm less sure I like is the opening narration during the cutscene:
The purpose of this opening cutscene is twofold: it establishes that Twoie and the Dwarven Boatman destroyed the statue of King Alvis, and it introduces the players to the basic story background of Keldagrim, which was a new location at the time this quest was released. I'm mostly fine with the first part, every story needs an inciting incident, but the second part kind of rubs me wrong. I have complicated feelings about non-diegetic storytelling like this; in my opinion it's almost always better to weave exposition into the narrative, rather than having it stand alone like this, though it can sometimes be done well (Citizen Kane is a good example, starting as it does with a massive exposition dump delivered both to the audience and to the viewpoint character in the form of a newsreel). I think this quest leans more towards the negative side of the spectrum, for two main reasons:
- There's no reason this exposition couldn't have been delivered by a character, rather than the impersonal narrator (in fact, the easiest solution is to have it delivered by the Dwarven Boatman, giving this passing adventurer a short history lesson on the city what he's transporting her to)
- It establishes the narrative stakes (namely the tension in Keldagrim between its monarchic past and plutocratic present) to us, the player, but it's never delivered to our character, which make a lot of her future actions make very little sense
What I'll say in favour of this intro is that it's very cinematic; it feels like the opening of a political thriller, which is pretty appropriate for this long-running series, and helps build anticipation for the epic story we're just scratching the surface of.
Anyway, immediately after crashing the boat into the statue, we're whisked off to meet Commander Veldaban, head of the Black Guard (which appears to be simultaneously Keldagrim's civilian law enforcement agency and its standing army), and the quest starts to lose us again. An occasional topic I've brought up in this blog is the "why me" problem: why does Xurdtwos, specifically, need to handle this problem. The reason stated by this quest is, essentially, you broke it you bought it:
The major problem, of course, is that we didn't knock over the statue, and it's ludicrous to hold us responsible for doing so. We were a passenger on a boat, we weren't steering the thing; hold the Boatman responsible if anything. There's some dialogue later in the quest that hints that an outside influence was needed to break the stalemate in the Consortium, but it's never really explained why an outside opinion would be valued so highly, and it's somewhat against Veldaban's later characterization to be playing political games. It's possible this will be explained more fully later in the series, but for now it's a massive narrative debt.
Having successfully conned us into helping to fix a statue we didn't break, Veldaban directs us to Blasidar, the sculptor in East Keldagrim. Blasidar, of course, doesn't really need us for much of substance: we're not a skilled sculptor, and he already has a model (not that a human model would make much sense for a statue of a dwarf anyway). Fortunately, he does need his shopping done.
That's me: Xurdtwos the Adventurer, hero of picking up some schmuck's dry cleaning. In fact Blasidar needs us to get three things for his model, to help recreate the statue: some fancy clothes, some fancy boots, and King Alvis' axe. We're not given any further direction on where to find these things, but I don't mind the lack of direction because they're all clearly within Keldagrim, which is a nicely-contained search space. So far so good. After a bit of wandering I find my way to Vermundi, who runs the clothing store in East Keldagrim. She's willing to make me the clothes, after a couple of simple fetch quests, so that's pretty simple. I'd have assumed she could have handled the boots as well, but apparently not, so now I'm a bit stuck.
I was on my way to speak to Veldaban, to see if he had any guidance for me (spoilers: he didn't), but on my way I decided to pop into the armour shop in West Keldagrim and talk to Saro; luckily he sells the kind of boots I need, but he just sold them to a strange dwarf named Dromund, who is not excited to see me:
Not going to lie, I'm glad to see a game actually address the fact that I have a habit of wandering into people's houses and talking to them. It's frankly bizarre behaviour in-context, and it's nice to be called out on it for a change. Anyway, Dromund has the boots but he's not willing to part with them for any price. No reason is given for this, and we never raise the possibility of borrowing the boots and returning them later, so we're reduced to the old adventure game standby: petty larceny. Because we can't make it too easy, Dromund has the boots separated for some reason. I managed to nab the left boot entirely by accident; Dromund is pacing his house, and you just needed to grab it while he's turned the other way. It's pretty logical. Unfortunately the right boot is more difficult, because it's being guarded by his cat. Clever me thought to grab my recently-acquired Amulet of Catspeak, which got me nowhere, but then I realized that the boot was sitting in front of a window.
Trying to grab the boot through the window didn't work, but did give me a nice signpost for how to proceed:
Hmm, what method to I have to grab something that's too far for me to reach? That's right, Telekinetic Grab. Logical, reasonably well signposted, no complaints here.
I'll spare describing my wanderings, but I eventually stumbled across a weapons shop on West Keldagrim whose proprietor, Santiri, who tries to sell me an axe.
Foreshadowing mutates into a horrendous mockery of life
Fortunately it turns out that Santiri is in possession of (wat he believes to be) King Alvis' original axe. Unfortunately it's a little the worse for wear after so many years, and he says it can only be restored by an Imcando dwarf. Luckily, we know where to find an Imcando dwarf! One short fetch quest later and we have a restored axe, at which point we...get teleported back to Keldagrim?
Interesting design choice. I'm not opposed to it, because the puzzle of this part of the quest is "remember that Thurgo exists" (or, if you haven't done The Knight's Sword yet for some reason, "learn about Thurgo"), and getting back to Keldagrim is basically just busy-work afterwards, and in the days before lodestones it would have been a fair hike back. I guess I'm in favour, even though it is removing gameplay (admittedly the most token gameplay imaginable), it was just so unexpected.
Anyways, now that we have all three items for Blasidar, he reveals a new problem: the Consortium wants to use one of their leaders to model the statue's face, but they can't decide on who it should be. This is my problem to resolve, because reasons, and the way to solve it is by talking to one of the Directors of the Consortium's eight corporate members. Unfortunately the only way to do this is by doing a bunch of odd jobs for one of them, and this is where the quest loses me again. The way to complete this segment is to get five tasks from the secretary of one of the corporations, which mean fetching them some number of some ore, at which point you can talk to the Director and do a small number (between one and four, according to the wiki) of slightly harder fetch quests - bars instead of ores - until they allow you to join their corporation, attend the Consortium meeting, and endorse them for modelling the statue, which will *somehow* solve the dilemma.
As you can probably tell I'm not hugely down on the narrative substance of this section, but my complaints are basically identical to my complaints with the quest hook, so I won't repeat them. Instead lets talk about this puzzle. It's actually fairly well-designed: it's well signposted what you need to do, and there's a clear sense of progression, through evolving dialogue with the Secretary. The second biggest problem with it is that it's a little shoddily-programmed: your progress gets reset if you do basically anything other than immediately complete the task, including logging out or choosing the wrong dialogue options.
But the biggest problem is that it's *incredibly dull*. It's pure busy work, which makes a degree of sense in narrative context (we're essentially doing monkey work for one of the corporations), but isn't very fun to do six-nine times. I have to imagine it was even worse back in 2005, before Lodestones or the Grand Exchange. It feels very vestigial, like Mod Vincent knew he needed a puzzle before the climax for pacing reasons (which, to be fair, he did), but he didn't have enough time or budget or inspiration to implement anything unique, so he did this.
The proper way to fix it would be to have us perform a single, unique task for the corporation, some kind of adventure game-style puzzle, like finding the various items for Blasidar. That would sustain interest better because it's a less repetitive task, and there's potential to thread some additional narrative context. Failing that, at least make the random fetch quest chain shorter. Yes it's less realistic, and I'd probably grumble a bit about that, but it's so much more fun to only have to do three of these stupid tasks.
Once we've finally earned the trust of our chosen Director, we're given the opportunity to formally join the corporation, giving us the right to attend Consortium meetings. The plan is that, at one of these meetings, we'll break the stalemate by endorsing our Director, which will work...somehow. It's never made clear why the Consortium will respect our opinion, given that we're both human and not a leader in our corporation (as all the other attendees of the meeting are), but this is what the game says is happening so it's what we're going with.
Bizarrely, we need to go talk to Veldaban before we can go to the meeting, despite already being in the building where the meeting will occur. Even more bizarrely, he gives us the opportunity to skip it:
This feels like an extension of the "teleport from Thurgo" bit from earlier, but I'm massively less in favour of it this time because the cutscene we're prompted to skip is fairly significant to the plot of the series; not only is it the final resolution of this quest, but it's also where the Red Axe formally leave the Consortium, setting up their role as the arc villains of the series. Sure we're given the meeting notes, which summarize the key events, but that's not the same. I'm taking a hard line here: I'm opposed to letting players skip story content, especially if it's story content inside content they've chosen to engage with.
I know, I know: why would I say something so controversial, yet so brave.
Anyway, the meeting proceeds basically how I've already described, the plan succeeds, and we're finally treated to a view of the completed statue:
My final analysis is that this was a somewhat weaker quest. There were some good puzzles and some good moments, but a lot of odd narrative choices let it down. It's possible that some these questions will be addressed later in the series, but I somewhat doubt it.
One last thing I'll say in favour of the quest: I like how the statue's head actually does change depending on which corporation you joined. Twoie joined the Green Gemstone corporation, basically because it was closest to where I came onto the Consortium floor, but I had a look on my main account (who had joined the Purple Pewter corporation), and the statue looked like this:
That's a really cool detail, and must have been a bit of a technical nightmare at the time. Now I'm wondering what would have happened if I'd joined the Yellow Fortune, the company with a female Director. Oh well, missed opportunities.