Police Quest III: a thoroughly compelling mess

After an embarrassingly large number of years being too intimidated to play them, I finally played through Police Quest: In Pursuit of the Death Angel (or its 1992 VGA remake, anyway) and its sequel Police Quest II: The Vengeance. I had a thoroughly lovely time with both of them, so I was excited to explore 1991’s Police Quest III: The Kindred, even though I knew it was regarded with somewhat more mixed feelings than the other installments.

I had a very enjoyable time with Police Quest III, as it happens — though I also understand why some people absolutely love it and others despise it with a fiery passion. It is a glorious mess of a video game for more reasons than one — but it remains a fascinating cultural artefact, as well as a suitable swansong for the Sonny Bonds saga. So let’s take a closer look!

Police Quest III: The Kindred

Police Quest III: The Kindred follows on directly from the first two games. Lead character Sonny Bonds has been promoted to Sergeant and now has his own office in the Lytton Police Department, and in between the dramatic finale of Police Quest II: The Vengeance and the opening moments of Police Quest III, he has also married his childhood sweetheart (and former sex worker) Marie “Sweet Cheeks” Wilkans.

As the game opens, Bonds is called in to help out with the Traffic division, since they’re “always short-staffed”. Consequently, the first part of the new game actually marks something of a return to the format of the original Police Quest: patrol the streets in your car, wait for Dispatch to tell you about something interesting (or for something interesting to go whizzing past you on the road) and then deal with it according to proper police procedure.

Almost immediately you’ll encounter the first questionable decision that Police Quest III makes: the return of a driving sequence. After Police Quest II rather wisely omitted both the unnecessarily challenging driving of the first game and the rather tedious navigation of its VGA remake, it’s back with a vengeance in Police Quest III. And it’s worse.

Police Quest III: The Kindred

While driving, you can click in front of the car to make it accelerate and behind it to make it brake. In order to turn around corners, you need to click either side of the car just before the turning appears. And when you reach one edge of Lytton’s grid of streets, you need to stop for stop signs — otherwise you’ll lose 5 points for not setting a good example on the roads and, in the worst case scenario, completely drive off the edge of the map, crashing into a flaming wreck and ending your game. Hooray for cheap and unnecessary deaths — this is a Sierra game, after all.

All this is sort of fine for the most part, although it is quite tedious — there’s no other traffic on the roads, so there’s nothing to avoid, and the streets are arranged in a completely strict grid layout, so there’s no real challenging navigation to worry about, particularly once you memorise how they’re laid out. Where things do become a little frustrating is when it comes to finding your way to a particular location and stopping there.

The trouble with this side of things is that it’s not consistent. In Police Quest’s VGA remake, arriving at a destination required nothing more than making a turning to park when the interface indicated that you had reached a particular location. Police Quest III does this for certain locations on the map, such as the police station, but others simply appear briefly as an on-screen sign while you’re driving around. In order to stop at these locations, you need to actually bring the car to a stop, select the “walk” icon from the interface and click outside of the car.

Police Quest III: The Kindred

To make matters worse, in a couple of particularly memorable instances, you have to do this without even the benefit of a sign to tell you that you’ve reached the appropriate location — you simply have to make a rough judgement based on your knowledge of how the street numbers are arranged. Authentic? Perhaps. Fun? No.

Thankfully, once you’re out of the car, things get a whole lot better — and a lot more familiar. Police Quest III makes use of the same point-and-click SCI interface as Police Quest’s VGA remake, albeit with a slight difference; if you attempt to look at or interact with something that isn’t defined as a particular “hot spot” in the scene, you don’t get a generic “there’s nothing interesting there” kind of message, the cursor just becomes a red cross for a moment to indicate you should be looking elsewhere.

In some respects this is good, because it helps you spot things in the scenes which can be interacted with more easily — if you’re really stuck, just click on things until something produces a message rather than that red cross — but in others, it feels like a missed opportunity for some of that classic Sierra narrator’s wit. Still, it’s intuitive, and despite a couple of scenes requiring fairly pixel-perfect clicking in order to interact with small items of evidence in the area, things which you can do something useful with are generally fairly obvious.

Police Quest III: The Kindred

Like the original Police Quest in particular, Police Quest III’s emphasis on proper procedure means that it doesn’t necessarily incorporate “puzzles” in quite the same way as other Sierra games — though there are some interesting sequences where you are forced to improvise a little in order to obtain the optimal resolution to a situation. Like Police Quest II, there are also occasions where you can completely miss out on accomplishing something without any real consequences other than not scoring a few points — though there is one awful, awful situation where that is emphatically not the case. More on that in a moment.

Sonny Bonds isn’t kept on the traffic beat for too long, because shortly into the game’s main narrative, his wife Marie is stabbed and ends up in a coma. The remainder of the game concerns an investigation into a larger pattern of crimes that Marie’s attack appears to be part of, and whether they are the work of a serial killer, a cult, or something else altogether.

The premise and setup is intriguing, and there’s a good sense of gradually uncovering clues as you work your way through the game. Some particularly clever puzzles involving using the police computer to cross-reference case files, pieces of evidence and crime scenes really gives you the feeling that you’re doing some Hollywood-style detective work, and the whole thing seems to be building to a spectacular and exciting climax.

Police Quest III: The Kindred

Unfortunately, the whole thing completely shits the bed in the finale, with a villain who had been built up to be an absolute monster immediately surrendering with no resistance whatsoever, a betrayal plot that comes seemingly out of nowhere and has no rational explanation, and absolutely no connection made between any of the supposed “cult” happenings and anything else that occurs in the game as a whole.

It’s very obvious that the ending of the game was rushed, and this is likely due to the fact that retired police officer Jim Walls, who had acted as designer and consultant on the first two games, left the project partway through. To this day, no-one really seems to know exactly why this happened. Presumably there was no real bad blood between Walls and Sierra, since a digitised Walls still appears in Police Quest III, acting as narrator — not only that, but Walls reflects positively on his time with Sierra in his own “rap sheet” online.

Enter Jane Jensen, a woman who would go on to be responsible for the stories in some of Sierra’s most beloved games, including King’s Quest VI: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow and the Gabriel Knight series. Police Quest III was one of the first games she worked on alongside edutainment title EcoQuest: The Search for Cetus — and it’s clear that in many respects, Police Quest III can be thought of as something of a precursor to what would eventually become Gabriel Knight.

Police Quest III: The Kindred

Jensen’s works often incorporate dark themes and explore how human belief in the supernatural can drive people to terrible things — and for a fair chunk of Police Quest III, it seems like that is what the story is going for. The murders you encounter as you investigate the attack on Marie are clearly ritualistic, there appears to be something far more sinister than you could possibly imagine at play, and everything seems to be building to a big, impressive climax.

Then what does that climax involve? Driving back and forth between a battered old house and the courthouse, first to get a search warrant and then backup from a battering ram team, and then a rather underwhelming encounter with the main villain and the revelation that — surprise — there was nothing “weird” going on at all, and the explanation was, instead, drugs.

This would be fair enough were it not for the fact that the finale to the game appears to completely forget the fact that any of the “cult” stuff existed at all. None of it is explained whatsoever; you burst in, you shoot one guy and arrest another, then “oh no, drugs lab”, and that’s pretty much everything over and done with. Underwhelming, to say the least. It feels very much like Jensen had the opportunity to write something cool, but there simply wasn’t time to finish it off; it very much appears like Sierra wanted to ship the game by a particular deadline, so quickly shoved in a ham-fisted finale rather than resolving things properly.

Police Quest III: The Kindred

To make matters worse, it’s entirely possible to get yourself into a situation where you can’t even reach this finale at all, with one of the most dreadfully designed “dead ends” in adventure game history. You remember how earlier we mentioned how our hero Sonny Bonds starts the game with a temporary stint back in Traffic? Well, as part of that process, you’re called to help out where a colleague has stopped a driver on the freeway, but is having difficulty with them.

Once you’ve completed that process, you are then supposed to drive back up and down the freeway repeatedly until several seemingly inconsequential (but actually important) things happen. Unfortunately, the game doesn’t make this clear at any point, so the natural thing for many players to do will be to pull off the freeway and drive around the city streets until something happens. Something does happen: Marie gets stabbed, and the “big plot” gets underway.

Trouble is, if Marie’s stabbing occurs too early in the game, you miss out on triggering a particular event that unlocks a critical location — the courthouse, which, as noted above, you need to visit several times during the finale. And if you reach the end of the game without the courthouse unlocked you are, not to put too fine a point on it, completely fucked. You don’t die, you don’t “fail”, you just can’t do anything.

Police Quest III: The Kindred

Just to emphasise what a problem this is, the initial traffic incidents happen on the game’s first in-game day, while the finale happens on the sixth. It will likely take most players anywhere between three and five hours of gameplay to get between those two parts in the story if they’re figuring things out for themselves rather than following a walkthrough — so that means if you miss something right at the beginning of the game, you can get pretty much to the very end only to find that you need to pretty much start over. Whoops.

Again, this smacks of a game that was rushed to release; thorough QA testing would have raised this as a serious issue, but for one reason or another, it was completely missed. And, as such, you can put pretty good money on a fair proportion of Police Quest III’s players encountering this very “dead end” the first time they play through the game. I speak as one of them, though fortunately I found someone else’s save file online that allowed me to skip straight to the finale with the appropriate flags in place!

But here’s the thing: for all the stupid elements, for all the dodgy design decisions and rushed narrative… I really liked Police Quest III. For the most part, it felt like a nice development of Sonny Bonds’ character and his life situation in Lytton — and the ending, for all its faults, feels like it wraps things up for him and Marie very neatly and nicely.

Police Quest III: The Kindred

Not only that, but the “police work” side of things in Police Quest III is some of the best in the series. The aforementioned evidence cross-referencing and pattern recognition elements are immensely satisfying; solve those puzzles and you’ll feel like a real master detective, keen to take the bad guys down. That sort of thing is exactly what the series should have been making players feel like by this point in its lifespan and Sonny Bonds’ virtual career — so when it delivers, it really delivers.

On top of all that, it has a soundtrack by Jan “Miami Vice” Hammer. How perfect is that?

Police Quest III: The Kindred is interesting precisely because it’s such a mess. When it’s good, it’s really good; when it’s bad, it makes an absolute hash of things. And, even now, long after its original release, we can only really conjecture what happened during its development to result in such a peculiar, chaotic end result.

That, to me, makes it a game that it’s fascinating to look back on in the 21st century — and marvel at how far we’ve come.

Police Quest III is available as part of the Police Quest Collection on GOG.com.

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