Sunday, 23 September 2012

Quest of the Auburn Pelt by James Kyle and Chris Young

The front picture
I was intoduced to this one page gamebook (which you can download from Demian's page on it) by Jake Care on his post about one page gamebooks.  After playing his enjoyable little gamebook, I went over to the page and downloaded the images to give the gamebook a go.  Despite being on two sides of A4 (or possibly because of being on two sides of A4 - as Mark Rosewater says, restrictions breed creativity), the gamebook contains a lot of innovative elements that provide the player with lots of choice.

The one page adventure is available for free as two image downloads from Demian's gamebook page on it, so have a go at it before reading the review. 

Theme 1/5

Since the authors had to fit a whole adventure onto one page, something had to give and so the background is rather light.  However, they devote 1/6 of the adventure to it.  A selkie has had her pelt stolen from her by a sidhe and she cannot live beneath the waves without it.  It is up to you to enter a dungeon full of Sidhe and get the pelt back.  Pretty straightforward but it's pretty good for 1/3 of an A4 side of paper.

Illustration 3/5

There is only one actual illustration to the one page gamebook and that is a drawing of the back of a lovely young woman who appears to have nothing but an otter to cover her up.  The authors, however, make good use of pictures in their rules systems.  You have to draw yourself a map of the dungeon using the diagrams provided which, whilst not too pretty, seem to make a which door choice a bit more entertaining, especially as you know that there will be a room behind the door and not a deadly booby trap.  The combat system is also shown using a picture, listing all the manoveres you can make and whether they are offensive or defensive.  Also, instead of getting a list of spells, you are given a grid of runes which make up spells that you can cast in the book.  As you use the runes, you cross them off from your grid.  An inspired idea. 

They say a picture paints a thousand words and this certainly rings true when writing a one page gamebook.  With an innovative use of pictures, the authors have come up with a magic system, a mapping system and a complex combat system on two sides of A4 and still have room for a bit of nudity too.  A lot of ful length gamebooks could only boast one of those things.

Gameplay 4/5

Once again, James and Chris have managed to pack a lot of choices into two sides of A4.  The use of the map means that the gamebook is very free roaming.  The book also has 34 paragraphs which also offer lots of choices.  You can cast a spell or fight a monster.  Do you eat the gruel or use up runes to cast a spell on it first?

The gamebook also offers you interesting puzzles with combat.  In combat, you have a choice of actions that you can take which are ranked in order of power.  For example, backstab is the most powerful attack mode and dodging is the most powerful defence option that you have (monsters have alert which is more powerful).  After you have made an action, you have a limited choice of actions that you can take in the next round depending on what you did.  So for example, if you chose to backstab the monster in round 1, then you have to wait in round 2 which is the weakest action to take. 

The puzzle comes from the fact that you are given all of the monster's manouvers so you need to work oout the sequence of manouvers that will kill the monster and cause you the least damage or you could fight defensively until the monster runs out of manouvers and so it flees (very useful of you enounter a monster in a dead end that you don't have to kill).  The combat system also incorporates the magic system by having two spells that you can cast as your actions.  I enjoyed working out which actions to take in the combat system, especially agaisnt the mimc which takes whatever action you took in the last round.  Try and work that one out!

Exposition 1/5

This, along with the theme are the two things that were cut to fit the adventure into two sides of A4.  After the introductory paragraph and the rules, you get very little description of the dungeon.  The paragraphs on the encounter table aren't written in full sentences and the adventure doesn't even describe what a sidhe or a selkie is (although they are mythological creatures so you could look them up) and it does not describe the effects of the spells you are casting.  Much like the Take That You Fiend spell in Tunnels and Trolls, you have to imagine how the defensive combat spell defends you and why casting a spell lets you avoid combat (is it invisibility, or does it grant speed to help you run away or does it teleport the monster away?  It's up to you).  I suppose you could write your own narrative of what happened if that's what you're into.

Rules 4/5

As I've stated in gameplay, this adventure has fitted in a combat system, spell system and way of exploring a dungeon, all on two sides of A4.  There is also a character creation system where you distribute 10 points between magic and stamina and cross of a rune for each stamina point you take.  However magic points aren't used in the adventure and I never ran out of runes, so I guess a stamina of 10 is best.  Whether this was an error or that magic would have been used in later adventures, I'm not sure.  The rune system is also slightly inconvenient as runes are randomly placed on a grid.  It may have been clearer to have a tally for each rune which would save me having to hunt around to make sure I have all the runes I need. 

However, these are minor niggles in an excellent and innovative rule system that covers less than two sides of A4 paper.

Conclusion 13/25

This is a great adventure and a good education for someone who wants to push the boundaries of solo gamebooks whilst simultaneously saving space.  Yes, the score is mediocre, but lets remember that this adventure covers 2 sides of A4 paper.  It lost points on exposition and background because the authors had to cut something and these are two things that the players could provide themselves if they wanted.  A great little adventure.  I would like to see more in this style. 


Friday, 31 August 2012

Assassin! Way of The Tiger book 2 by Mark Smith and Jamie Thomson review

Hello world!  Sorry for the big delay between posts.  I've been stockpiling posts on my other blog so that I can focus on actually writing gamebooks (such as for this great Android game and the Adventurer system) but then actual things started happening in the gamebook world and so I'm writing posts about current events all the time (awesome)!

Anyway, I loved Avenger!  so much and I'm a sucker for titles with exclamation points, so I decided to continue the Way of the Tiger series and move onto Assassin!

In our last installment, I have just killed three of the most powerful villains on Orb in a guard and monster filled castle and obtained the scrolls of Kettsuin.  My god Kwon has appeared before me and granted me an extra skill (thanks, Kwon!) and I begin Assassin in the keep with a horde of guards crashing up the stairs to do very nasty things to me (you could have given me a lift home, Kwon!) and there's no rebel bird men here to fly me home, so I guess I'll just have to get myself out of this mess.

Oh well.  The gods work in mysterious ways.  On with the review!

Theme 5/5

We're still in Orb (plus) and we get to explore even more of it (bigger plus).  This installment lets you explore even more than the last one as this time, there are no incorrect routes to take.  You can go through the goblin infested mountains, the sea full of sea elves of a nearby city infested with monks of the Scarlet Mantis.  You carry on to many more wondrous places but its also the people you meet that really stand out.

I especially loved the group of adventurers who you help against an undead monster.  They have a wizard with them who messes the battle up with the wrong spell then gets befuddled about what to do.  I'm sure that kind of thing happens all the time.

I also got to face three of the biggest villains in Orb who had managed to kill me many a time in my first gamebook, Tyutchev, Cassandra and Thaum.  In an epic battle, I managed to blast Thaum with a magic ring in revenge for all of his imaginary ogres, fireballs and blinding lights and give my best against Tyutchev and Cassandra. 

And this is where are start using the word awesome a lot again.

I thought killing these three super villains was about as awesome as it can get, but once again, I could not deal the killing blow because the battle was interrupted by none other than the son of the god Nil.  The three scoundrels fled and left me to face the son of a god.  I managed to defeat him and collect some more blood of Nil, which was useful because I had used my last dose to kill Honoric. 

I thought that I had reached the finale of the book.  After all, where could Mark and Jamie go from there? But it was not so.  I wasn't even half way through and I had already escpaed from my enemy's castle, killed a goblin king who owns a dancing sword, fought an undead spirit, three powerful servants of Arnachil, god of Chaos and a son of Nil, god of the Void.  OMG.

Afterwards, I fought an O Bakemono and an ogre, narrowly avoided a facehugger and then died to a rival ninja.

The plot regarding your father is left a little aside until the very end, but you will be so busy desperately fighting the evils of Orb, you won't have time to think about it until then.

So there's even more awesome in this book than there was in the last one, if that is possible.

Illustration 4/5

Once again, I love the illustrations, especially the one of the ninja of the way of the Scorpion.  It is also nice to see more pictures of Tyutchec, Cassandra and Thaum up to their old tricks.

Gameplay 4/5

The book loses out on gameplay a little bit.  I might be being fussy in order to give another huge score out again but I died to the rival ninja because I didn't have the right skills.  There was no way that I could have survived this book, which was a slight annoyance. 

On the plus side, feign death and immunity to poisons have a lot more uses than in the first book, redressing the balance within the skills.

The book also provides you with plenty of options and gives you places to explore so this book is in no way linear.  It is very convergent. 

Exposition 5/5

Once again, the exposition is brilliant.  Smith and Thompson's love of the world of Orb really shines through.  I hear that they created this world when playing DnD so they already had a lot of detail to fit in.  I'm glad that they wrote gamebooks to share this world with us.  In this book, you see the more dangerous side of Orb as you have to avoid civilised areas and lie low in the wilderness.  You see that while humanity is enjoying its cities, there are creatures living in the mountains and under the sea, all with their own lives and cultures.  Brilliant.

Rules 5/5

I don't think I had a good enough appreciation of the rules when I played the first book.  There are plenty of decisions that you can make in combat, such as blocking, throwing or using inner force which are not just nice add ons that you can do when you get bored with punching and kicking.  Rather they are essential to your survival in this book.  Every opponent has been well thought out and you must think about which stratefy you need to approach them with.  This has been thought through very carefully as there is a time and a place to use all of these approaches but you need to think about the circumstances in combat.  For example, you may have to use inner force or you may have to throw an opponent before trying to hit them  I loved the rules before, but I love them even more now.

Total - 23/25 

Once again Mark Smith and Jamie Thomson deliver another awesome gamebook where they show off their believably fantastic world of Orb.  Once again, there are a few mistakes with gameplay but overall Assassin is another awesome gamebook.  Next time, you find out who your true father is...

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Heavy Metal Thunder by Kyle B. Stiff

Heavy Metal Thunder is a brilliant Kindle gamebook by Kyle B Stiff set in the far future where you are an amnesiac freedom fighter trying to get home.

The book is available for Kindle for £1.94 or $3.04 and at that price you would have to be mad not to buy it. 

The Kindle edition is hyperlinked so that you do not have to search through the book making gameplay very convenient, so you can be happy about that.

On with the review!

Theme 5/5

The story is set in the Solar System in the far future where every possible thing has been discovered and every possible style of art, music and culture has been tried to all of their possible permutations and so humanity has fallen into a state of decadence and apathy thus allowing themselves to be easily conquered by a horde of invading aliens. 

You are a member of the resistance, a conditioned and highly trained super soldier who awakes on a station with no memory of who they are.  This book is all about returning home and on the way, you encounter all kinds of insanity from the manager of the space station to poetic navigators to the man who tried to kill you.  You manage to earn yourself a new name (no more Mr Wiggles for you).

The book is written with much madness and humour but none of it detracts from the gameplay which is a huge difficult to avoid trap where humour in gamebooks is concerned so Kyle should get a great mark for that alone.  However, there is so much more in this book.  The skills and and stats also fit in well with the universe presented, allowing you to take such skills as xenology, navigation and piloting. 

Immersion 4/5

The cover image, by Oliver Wetter is very badass and it goes very well with the badass title.  There are no other illustrations but there is plenty of backstory to get immersed in.  The book has a very detailed history of humanity and also gives a lot of detail of the space stations you visit or ships that you are on.  There are also a lot of great descriptions of battles.  Combat is well thought out and is logical within the universe of the book. 

Gameplay 4/5

You have plenty to explore in the book and you have plenty of choices from exploring the station at the beginning to exploring the strange objecct in space to giving interviews to people who want to be on your space ship crew to fighting the final battle.  Some choices are better than others but there are no arbitrary deaths done for the sake of a joke, so you have the freedom to explore.  Kyle also adds regeneration points so if you die, you don't have to go back to the beginning of the book and tells you that using the rules aren't necessary if you just want to play the book like a Choose Your Own Adventure book.  The book is very convergent as you play through certain set pieces before coming to the next point in the book and this makes the book very replayable.

Exposition 4/5

the book is full of madness and humour, some of it crude but all of it funny, and, as I have already said, none of the jokes are made at the expense of the gameplay.  Paragraphs are nice and full with plenty of description and interaction with the various characters thet you will come across in the book. None of them are flat - everyone you come across will have an interesting story.  The set pieces are all very enthralling whether you are exploring an abandoned space station, commanding a ship or fighting in the final battle where you meet the man who tried to kill you.

Rules 4/5

The rules system is extensive and covers stats and several skills.  There are several stats and skills to keep track of, but  I can tell that Kyle knows gamebooks, because he tells you that you can throw all of these rules out and play the book as a Choose Your Own Adventure book.  He also lets you have regeneration points that you can go back to if you die.  The rules also allow progression and customisation of your character.  If you do play by the rules, there is lots to keep track of, but you don't have to if you just fancy a read and that is very considerate of Kyle.

Conclusion 21/25

Heavy Metal Thunder is an excellent gamebook with a great setting, larger than life characters and a fast paced storyline set in a mad universe.  The best bit of it is that it is the first in a series and so there is plenty more to come.  It was a brave move by Kyle to make a gamebook full of humour but Kyle manages to pull it off in a way that the humour does not lead to frustration.  This is an excellent gamebook with a great storyline and a wonderful system and it only costs £1.94!

The book is available for Kindle for £1.94 or $3.04 and at that price you would have to be mad not to buy it. 

Kyle's blog is here so check out his other writings :)

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Avenger! (Way of the Tiger book 1) by Mark Smith and Jamie Thomson

I'm really sorry for the delay, dear readers.  I've been doing this April A to Z thing on my other blog and loads of other stuff and my review kept on getting shoved to the bottom of the pile.  It's here now, though!

Everybody knows that ninjas are awesome. In the Avenger!, the first book in the Way of the Tiger series, you play a ninja.  25/25 See you next time.

Jamie Thomson and Mark Smith have created a highly detailed and immersive world to place your character who, unlike some gamebook protagonists, actually has a lot of back story and  gives them an epic quest that also has many human touches.  Yes, I loved this book which has many more virtues than just the fact that it contains ninjas.  And what is better is the fact that this book is the first in a series of six books but it was probably going to be more based on how the sixth book ended.

The book was released in 1985 and has a lot of similarities with Lone Wolf, released one year earlier - you are a member of an order of monks, you have special skills and you gain a skill when you finish this book.  However, there are many differences such as the combat system, lack of random character creation and a different story where your order is still around.

Theme 5/5

The book is set in the detailed world of Orb, a place of many cultures defined by which of Orb's many gods they worship.  There is a very pretty coloured map on the inside cover showing  you part of the world of Orb and diagrams of the martial arts moves that you perform in the book.  You also get the background to your order and  throughout the book, you are given details of the customs and character of the places you visit as well as the gods that these people worship.  

The Ninja's Covenant is:

'I will vanish into the night; change my body to wood or stone; sink into the earth and walk through walls and locked doors.  I will be killed many times, yet will not die; change my face and become invisible, able to walk among men without being seen.'

You also have your own backstory.  You were washed up on the Island of Tranquil Dreams as a baby, sporting a strange birthmark.  You do not know who your real father is but you were taken in by the worshippers of the god Kwon and taught the way of the ninja.  You had a foster father Naijishi who taught you much but he was killed by Yaemon, a monk who worships the god Vile.  Yaemon stole the scrolls of Kettsuin from the monks and now he plans to use them to trap Kwon in some eternal fire.  Your mission is to stop Yaemon, avenge your father and save Kwon.

The other characters in this book are just as awesome (if not more awesome) than you are.  There are no nameless mooks here.  Despite the thoroughness of your training (which makes you feel awesome just reading it), your allies and opponents all have their special skills and makes every combat a challenge.  Glaivas, an ally of yours is an expert swordsman and ranger.  Honoric is a mighty warrior with a fear inducing, magic suppressing sword.  Manse the deathmage can kill you with a word and Yaemon is an unparalleled martial artist.  Even the 'mooks' have a sense of individuality such as the heavy two headed giant that you can't throw, Olvar, a barbarian that can make lightning bolts and ogre with a huge spiked hammer.  You need to come up with a new strategy to defeat all of them.  Thomson and Smith have left no stone unturned with their distribution of individuality.

Basically, this book oozes with flavour.  You get the sense that Orb is a living breathing world and not a bunch of set pieces that are there just because you are.  You usually end up in the middle of some crazy situation such as witnessing a soldier decapitate a priest or getting captured and forced to fight in an arena.  

You also have purpose and backstory in this book, going way above the 'kill generic sorcerer, steal treasure' theme that Fighting Fantasy was going for.
Illustration 4/5

Bob Harvey's dynamic illustrations really make an impact.  Most of the illustrations are of some of the best moments in the book such as the decapitation mentioned above, an ogre boarding your ship and a crazy chaotic barbarian about to bring his huge sword down upon you.  The cover presumably shows you dressed in your black ninja costume at the temple of Kwon, ready for action.  
Gameplay 4/5

The route to victory is quite wide but there is an optimum path with the minimum of danger.  Many of the choices you have to make can also be helped by clues that you can pick up from the text, such as when you listen to Honoric boasting to Manse.  The consequences of other choices are quite logical such as what happens if you try to throw a giant (do you really think you practiced on a a giant in the monastery?)

The power level skills are a little unbalanced in this book with the climbing, acrobatics and poison dart skills being stronger and the immunity to poisons  and feigning death skills being weaker.  However, this may be redressed in future books.  Not having a skill is rarely deadly and you will be given a choice or a die roll to get out of danger if you lack the skill you need.  The random elements of the book are very well balanced and there are no unfair combats or unavoidable luck based deaths.

There is one error in the book.  You may be able to get a magic suppressing sword but if you go to a particular location then the book forgets that you have it later on.  This might actually prove fatal quite late on into the book and it can be frustrating.

The final battle against Yaemon is a little anti-climatic.  Instead of rolling dice, you have to choose a move to perform and you either will or will not inflict damage upon him.  The same move will not work if you try to do it twice in a row but if you try another move and go back to your successful move, then you will inflict damage again.  This means that if you find two different moves that inflict damage, you've automatically won.  Thomson and Smith must have learnt from this mistake because in their book the Citadel of Chaos, you have a limited number of moves and if you damage your opponent, the Overlord, you get a mark.  If you have that mark, you can never perform that move again.

Besides those two issues, Avenger has a great level of gameplay, especially from the option based combats, which, along with the diagrams at the beginning and the exposition during the combat, make for some exciting times.
Exposition 5/5 

Smith and Thomson have a good sense of the awesome and the epic and the writing really comes to life when they are describing a battle scene.  Take this little gem:  

With a punishing sidekick, you knock a new attacker to the floor where he lies inert.  Another huge wart faced Halforc lunges at you with his cutlass.  With incredible speed, you clap your hands together, trapping the blade between them, inches from your face.  He has time to gape in astonishment before you smash the top of your right foot into his temple. 

You also get the feeling that the writers are really into the world of Orb as they lovingly describe its peoples, gods and landscape.  There are some bits that also made me laugh (perhaps unintentionally) such as this bit:

The old man calls a girl's name and his acolyte appears, a surprisingly pretty girl of no more than eighty seasons.  Whilst you wonder what she is doing with the stooped old man in a chapel that is too small to hold twenty people, he produces a long and wicked looking sacrificial knife.

Rules 5/5

The rules have the rare accomplishment of being quite simple, fitting for the setting (luck on a spaceship?) and versatile.  They are more complicated than most gamebooks but not too complicated (they are still nowhere near RPG level) - you have modifiers for punching, kicking, throwing and fate, an inner force score which allows you to double damage dealt in combat.  You also have an endurance score to keep track of.  Combat is innovative and provides you with many options, unlike the purely luck based combat of Fighting Fantasy and Lone Wolf.  You get to choose to punch, kick or throw to attack, each maneuver having different advantages and disadvantages.  You can also block an opponents attack if you sacrifice some offensive power later on and use inner force to deal double damage.  You need to experiment with how each move works against each opponent.

Total - 23/25

Avenger! certainly is a grand feast.  There is tons to get your teeth into from the backstory, the scenarios, the interactions with the NPCs and the experience of the world of Orb.  The book is challenging but not impossible and you get a real sense of achievement when you kill three of Orb's most powerful villains and get a personal visit from your god to congratulate you.  It's a must have for any gamebook fan.

Friday, 30 March 2012

The Forbidden Gate (Knightmare gamebook 5) by Dave Morris

Once again, Ill be reviewing a gamebook based on an existing franchise.  This time, it is The Forbidden gate, the fifth gamebook based on the Knightmare TV series.  There are six gamebooks and one puzzle book in the Knightmare series.  Dave Morris wrote first one jointly with Tim Child (the creator of the Knightmare TV show) and then wrote the remaining books alone.  The gamebooks (not the puzzle book) are all preceded by a novella about Treguard's adventures which are also very entertaining.

For those of you who don't know about the Knightmare TV show here is the concept:  A team of four children are pitted against a dungeon full of monsters, traps and strange characters.  One of them is the 'dungeoneer' who has to survive the dungeon while wearing a huge horned helmet that obscures their view (this is so that they do not see the blue screens used for the effects backdrop).  The dungeoneer's friends guide them through the dungeon.  Unlike many childrens' TV gameshows it was a very sophisticated game with a high failure rate but that made success all the more sweeter.

It is interesting to read the gamebooks in chronological order as they gradually move away from the format of the TV show where you have to find your way through a three level dungeon to a more open setting where you travel across the land and interact more with people.  I guess that one issue with transferring the format of a TV show to the format of a gamebook means that things will get lost in translation and things that work for TV don't work in the gamebook (thankfully, in the gamebook your vision is not obscured by the helmet of justice.  That would make for boring reading similar to doing the Colossal Cave with no brass lantern).

Anyway, on to the review...

Theme 3/5

The aim of the gamebook is to steal an earth dragon's egg from right under its nose.  Now that's a dangerous task and the reason why you have to go into a dragon's lair and steal its young is not clearly given.  Maybe Treguard wants to train one up for the Knightmare challenge.

However, as in all Knightmare gamebooks, it is the journey which is important and not the destination.  You spend very little time on the dragon's island - most of your adventure involves getting passage on a ship and then surviving the journey.  The ways of succeeding the challenge involve acting as a true knight - with quick wits and chivalry.  So the dragon's egg is really some macguffin to prove to Treguard that you are worthy to be a knight.  It's a bit like the end of Midnight Rogue where the gem is a fake but by overcoming your trials, you have proven yourself to be part of the guild.

As Treguard says:

'The path to chivalry is long and arduous' he says 'Now you must prove yourself worthy.'

Illustration 2/5

The cover illustration, intended for the novella shows a lovely forest with a castle on the top of a hill in the background and Lord Fear's eyes in the sky.  It is a nice picture, but I don't think that the colour scheme befits a Knightmare book (the previous ones all having black as the dominant colour).  It seems more suited to an elvish glade rather than a forbidden gate.  Even the menacing eyes don't seem that menacing as they are a lovely shade of azure and drawn like clouds.

The interior illustrations of the gamebook are all quite small and done well enough - there just aren't many of them.

Gameplay 4/5

Dave Morris demonstrates his skill in this area.  Despite being only 97 paragraphs, Morris manages to stretch it out by having the range of skills and having the player try to find the optimum path for your chosen skill.  Morris has also put situations in the book which could allow you to succeed very well.  for example, you can get an extra skill and a spell in the book if you do particularly well.  There is also a very clever ending situation where if you make the right choices (which appear to be the wrong choices at first), you are able to free some slaves in addition to stealing the dragon's egg, giving the player a kind of bonus ending to work for.

As in previous Knightmare gamebooks, Dave Morris also rewards the player for reading the novella before hand as it is a good idea to know the 'morality' of the gamebook.  There are certain ways of thinking that the gamebook encourages - for example, using weapons is rarely the best way out of a problem.

The tricks that Dave Morris uses do help make the most of a short 97 gamebook and even though it is still too short to get lots of play out of it, it certainly stretches it out and marks should be given for ingenuity.

Exposition 3/5

I have always found Dave Morris's writing very eloquent (sometimes too much so when writing the dialogue for a barbarian).  The world here is one of chivalry, sorcery and roguish opponents.  There are also moments for humour such as a golden malicious apple and the scene where you return to Knightmare Castle by accident to find Pickle and Treguard eating sandwiches and drinking coffee.  It is a good mix of evocative drama with a touch of light heartedness.

Rules 3/5

The rules are vaguely linked to the rules from the TV show.  Your health is measured in Life Force grades.  You start off unwounded with a green grade.  If you lose a grade, you go down to amber and if you lose antoher one, you go down to red.  If you are wounded while on red life force, you die.  You can restore life force by eating food on paragraphs marked with an *.  This makes the idea of resting to eat more realistic than Fighting Fantasy's rule of 'You can't eat when in combat.  You can eat when running, climbing, swimming, talking or falling but not when in combat.'

You are also able to learn spells.  When you are given the chance, you are given the name of the spell which may or may not be self explanatory.  Spells are not items and you may only use them once.

You may carry up to 5 items.  Dave Morris does something very clever with the encumbrance limit towards the end of the book.  If you get into the dragon's lair, you find two different varieties of eggs, but since they both count as 3 items, you may only take one egg.  Nice touch.  You may carry 50 gold pieces as one item.  You also have the choice of one skill to choose from the following list:  Acrobatics, Fisticuffs, Gambling, Seamanship, Swimming, Swordplay, Thievery, Trading.

Those of you who are familiar with the Virtual Reality series of gamebooks will find the last set of rules very familiar.  Indeed, it seems that this book (published in 1993) was a precursor to the Virtual Reality series (published in 1994).

The rules work well enough - however, the short length of the book makes the skills only useful in a few situations.  The only use of some skills is to obtain passage on a ship to the either by getting money or by making your skills useful to the captain of the ship.  However, as the Virtual Reality series has shown us, such a system is very good for longer gamebooks.

Total 15/25

The problem with all of the Knightmare gamebooks is that they are too short to showcase the skill that Dave Morris has.  The Quest for the Dragon's egg quest is the shortest Knightmare quest at only 97 paragraphs and it seems that Dave Morris put a lot of effort into making such a short gamebook replayable.

In tiger terms, is a decent snack. It seems that Dave Morris was given a very small piece of meat and told to make it palatable. He added plenty of other tasty stuff to bulk it out and cooked it as well as he could.  However, it is still a very small piece of meat so it won't satisfy for long.

One good thing about this book is that it may have been an important experiment for Dave Morris which may have led to the Virtual Reality series - this book certainly demonstrates that the game system is a good way of improving gameplay and increasing replayability.  It is a good reminder that gamebooks and other art forms should never be looked at in a vacuum but rather as a smaller part of a larger creative process.  The Forbidden gate did very well as a Virtual Reality precursor and it may have been the deciding factor in bringing us the series.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Stormin' Sonic by Marc Gascoigne and Jonathan Green

It's a testament to the popularitiy of gamebooks in the 80s and 90s that eventually, companies started making spin off gamebooks of their products.  There were gamebooks based on boardgames, gamebooks based on toys, gamebooks based on TV shows, gamebooks based on comics and gamebooks based on computer games so since Sonic the Hedgehog was such an icon to children everywhere in the 90s that it was only a matter of time before he also got his own gamebook series.

There are six Sonic the Hedgehog books written by various authors.  Stormin' Sonic, the sixth and final book in the series was written by Jonathan Green and Marc Gascoigne.  I never played Sonic when I was a little 'un (cue tales of woe involving working twenty seven hours a day down pit) but I wanted to see what I had missed out on.

One interesting thought I had about this book and all gamebooks based on a tie in to an existing product is how much of it is dictated by the product's existing rules and story.  For example, did Jonathan and Marc have to make Robotnik the enemy, include characters from the game and base the game rules on rules from the computer game?  And do such things change a gamebook for the better or for the worse?  I would like to hear peoples' thoughts on this.

Theme 3/5

The weather on Miobius has gone nuts and you need to set it right.  The perpetrator is Robotnik (obviously) and you need to travel to different zones on the planet to collect clues in order to track down your arch enemy and stop him.  This plot invloves the theft of a chaos emerald and the inevitable appearance of Knuckles the echidna and the inexplicable kidnapping of Sally Acorn only to have her disappear just after she is rescued.  I'm sure a weather based story is almost inevitable in any long running adventure series or cartoon series (I'm talking about TV film and games, not just gamebooks) so it is not the most original of themes.  However, the four areas that Sonic and Tails explore are pretty fun with many opportunities for cool things to happen.

An interesting side note is that I think I'm starting to see how certain authors' ideas evolve.  The basic story of Stormin' Sonic is that a crazy individual has created a flying machine crewed by mechanical creatures in order to control the weather and take over large areas of land or even the entire world.  The hero has to explore four areas in order to obtain the means to defeat his opponent by getting on board his ship, defeating him in combat and then trying to excape from the ship before it is destroyed.  Does that remind you of any other gamebooks?

Illustration 2/5

 The many simple, cartoonish illustrations give me the impression that this book is aimed at younger readers; maybe pre-teens.  They are serviceable, pleasant to look at and do not have too many details.

Gameplay 2/5

After an introductory scene where Sonic finds out what is going on, we then move onto a hub where we choose one of four places to go. Once we have enough clues, we can then go on to save Sally Acorn and defeat Robotnik.  This then leads to the final scenario where we face Robotnik and his minions.  Most of the branches lead of to an area where you could get some rings and then return to the main path.  This makes the book quite linear as most of the choices revolve around how you will fight enemies as you will probably have to go to all of the locations anyway, your only choice is in which order you do so.  There is also an annoying section where if you have found Sally Acorn's scarf, you drop everything and end up in the final area without the option of exploring other places.  This caused me to lose my first play through, so I made sure that I went in another direction.

There are also a few occasions where Sonic will not let you take a certain course of action despite you choosing it.  These choices involve you being particularly cowardly.  If you choose them, Sonic will scold you and do the thing you didn't choose to do.  The idea behind this was probably to have someone kids look up to tell them how they should act and to make sure that they don't do naughty things like leave their best friend to roll down a mountain in a giant snowball or teleport back home before you have sorted out Robotnik.  The effectiveness of such a program of moral instruction has yet to be determined.

Who can resist the lure of the
mystery box?

One thing that I liked amongst the options was the occasional option to try 'something else' to overcome the problem.  Intrigued by this option, I had to choose the 'something else' option every time - the mystery box of gamebooks.  I was not disappointed, especially when the option involved Sonic and Tails putting on an ice skating display to impress some robotniks.

Exposition 3/5

The writing sees to be aimed at pre teens and the language takes me back to the 90s.  I'm sure that I would have enjoyed it more as an 11 year old Sonic fan, the targeted audience for this book.  Marc Gascoigne and Jonathan Green write conversationally, informally and sometimes break the fourth wall in order to connect with the reader.  Here is a paragraph from the book to highlight the writing.

As they plod through the sandy wastes, Sonic and Tails suddenly spy on the horizon a large pyramid built from stone blocks.  'Woah!' Sonic exclaims 'Where on Mobius did that come from?'

'I don't know,' Tails admits 'but let's go and explore it.  We might find the treasure of the fairies!'

'That's "Pharaohs" you dweeb!' Sonic sighs.  Should the pair act on Tails' suggestion (turn to 137) or keep on moving (turn to 113).

'Dweeb' is a very 90s kids' word and many others show up in the book such as 'dude' and 'cool' which are used in non ironic ways.

Rules 4/5

The rules system is very simple, has some nice exposition with it and is quite fair.

Sonic's stats are speed, strength, agility, coolness, quick wits and good looks.  You can allocate one of these stats a value of 5, one a value of 4, one a value of 3 and the others a value of 2.  Tasks and combats are resolved in a similar fashion - roll on die and add it to the stat that the book states.  If it is equal to or greater than a difficulty stated in the book (set between 6 and 10) then you succeed.  If not, something bad happens.

In the case of combat, your opponent will have a rating.  If you get equal to or higher than the rating, you beat your opponent.  If you don't, they can take a swing at you by rolling one die and adding it to their rating.  If they obtain a score of higher than 10 you will lose all of your rings or a life (just like in the game).

I found most of the die rolls to be fair and the consequences of failing are never huge.  The worst thing that can happen is that you lose all of your rings or a life.  You start with one of three lives and you may be able to gain more of them if you find one or if you get 100 rings.  There are a couple of instant deaths but they occur at the end of the book if you have not fulfilled all of the tasks.  This means that, with the correct choices and a little luck in combat, you should be able to make it through the book with a minimum of cheating (or even no cheating).

Total - 14/25

I found Stormin' Sonic to be a fine gamebook that hasn't aged well in terms of language and theme.  I may think this because I never was a huge Sonic the Hedgehog player and I am now a lot older than the target audience.  The gaming side of the book is fine with some great scenarios and good use of the rules.  However, the gameplay experience will not differ too much between plays as you will still have to explore every area - the main choice is the order.  In tiger terms, I think the word leftovers is a good way to describe Stormin' Sonic - it would have been perceived as much better by a Sonic the Hedgehog fan in the 90s but it hasn't aged well and so it has gone from being a decent snack to leftovers.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Have your own Extra-Terrestrial Adventure by Douglas Hill

The genres of science-fiction and gamebooks have always been something of an odd couple. Fighting Fantasy flirted with sci-fi on and off during its early run before terminating the relationship following the enigmatic Sky Lord, and the only series to really make a fist of it was Mark Smith and Jamie Thomson’s Dr Who-esque Falcon sequence that finished after just six books. This mismatch is even odder when you consider the glut of youth science-fiction being published at the time (presumably riding the Star Wars wave), and one of the leading exponents of this genre was Canadian author Douglas Hill, with his Last Legionary, Huntsman and Colsec series. At some point however, Douglas was obviously encouraged by Sparrow Books to hitch up to the burgeoning gamebook bandwagon of the early eighties, and the result was the solitary though intriguing Have your own Extra-Terrestrial Adventure (henceforth: HYOETA). This erudite tome was traded around my Year Six classroom in Hong Kong with some alacrity, so having acquired a copy for the reasonable sum of A$2.50 over the Christmas holidays, I was keen to wallow in nostalgia and revisit those days of yore.

Theme - 4/5
In HYOETA, you the humble reader play the role of Del Curb, interplanetary investigator and an amusing amalgam of Sam Spade, James Bond, and The Stainless Steel Rat, with the extravagant sartorial leanings of Cugel the Clever thrown in for good measure. Don’t believe me? Check this out:

That day I was wearing a canary yellow, one-piece suit, trimmed in terra cotta and sky blue at the collar, shoulders and wrists. My belt and boots, made of the multi-coloured hide of a Frygian sand-dragon, were almost conservative. As for the rings on my fingers, the jewelled pendant around my neck and the jewelled headband that held back my hair, they were modest compared to the decorations of most city folk.
(Hill, 1983, p. 6)

Del Curb is clearly the main man! He’s also the man the Federation Police (Earth Division) turn to when they need an unofficial ‘splat job’ carried out on one of the planets that form the Federated Human Worlds.

The intended target for this attempted capture/terminaton is an alien (or “exter”) called Rimeq the Renegade:

He came originally from a distant planet, Kalgor. There he had joined a vicious terrorist gang and begun to prey upon his own world, which gave him his nickname, the Renegade. Later he moved on, to look for new prey on other exter worlds and in the Human Federation. Interplanetary criminal, terrorist, mass murderer – that was Rimeq. He was probably insane, and was certainly the most savage, bloodthirsty killer the galaxy had ever known, who had left a trail of slaughter and destruction across hundreds of planets.

Rimeq was a humanoid exter – that is, he had the same number of arms and legs and heads and so on as humans have. But really he was a monster, and was said to be a mutant. He was big and powerful, with a scaly, mottled, purplish hide as thick as armour. He had claws like steel hooks, fangs like daggers, and red eyes set deep in dark sockets that glowed like torches in haunted caverns. He looked like the demons that ancient Earth people used to believe in. And maybe he was, not just because of his bloodthirsty ways, but because of his other powers. For Rimeq had an eerie mental ability, like dark magic. He could grasp and move physical objects with his mind...
            (Hill, 1983, p. 7)

Cover by Ian Craig (from Hill, 1982a)

Rimeq the Renegade has developed a nullity bomb and will use it to destroy Earth, unless given his own personal planet to rule. You, as Del Curb, have two days to scour the galaxy (or maybe just two planets in the galaxy), and stop him! Dare you accept the challenge?

Immersion -3/5
I like the cover by some unfortunately nameless science-fiction artist, and while it’s very typical of science-fiction art from the late 70s to early 80s period, it has nothing at all to do with the adventure itself. Inside the book there is no artwork, but the immersive quality of the writing more than makes up for this. You start with a choice of two planets to explore in your search for Rimeq: a swamp planet called Hallipor, which bears more than a passing resemblance to Dagobah, or the free world of Xyry, whose capital, the Labyrinth, appears like a giant version of Mos Eisley. In fact, Hill is an imaginative writer, and the story is replete with strange alien creatures, explosive weaponry, and barbaric exter mercenaries. A brief sampling:

‘The man who killed the spymaster of Aldebaran, and trapped the kidnappers of the Callitee princess?’
(Hill, 1983, p. 5)

For a while I wandered slowly through [the gambling den], acting like a tourist, placing a few small bets – one on a fight between two toad-like Myterean tree-killers, another on a race among tiny, hundred-legged crustaceans from Korbel III.
(Hill, 1983, p. 19)

Five problems, in fact – five exter guards, ranging from a squat, metal-skinned Brygonian to a spidery, ten-limbed thing from Dree.
(Hill, 1983, p. 83)

Gameplay - 2/5
The structure of HYOETA is that of simple branching chapters, with two only onwards choices per chapter. No chapter revisits an older one, so that essentially it forms a continuously branching narrative, albeit a fairly short one. There are nineteen chapters in total, of which ten chapters are final endings, though all are successful. As a result, while the different endings detract from the overall story-consistency, within each chosen narrative is a short but gripping and internally consistent yarn. Where this scores over a similar style in The Forces of Krill, is that there are no wrong choices and thus no ‘Gotcha!’ mentality common to other gamebooks. In addition, the variety of endings can only contribute positively to replay value as you return to this book to try out all the other choices (and their consequences) that you could have made.

Cover by Terry Oakes (from Hill, 1982b)

 Exposition - 5/5
Even though, or perhaps because this is self-labelled as Children’s Fiction, I find the writing in this book to be superb. It’s a perfect blend of science fiction and film noir, and has a looser feel to it that Hill’s more serious proper fiction. One might say HYOETA is over the top and tongue in cheek, but it’s also imaginative, fun, and the sort of cracking read that makes you go back and read through all the other options. If you’re thinking of writing a science-fiction themed gamebook, you couldn’t do worse than scan this book see what you should be aiming at in terms of the power of your prose.

A sample:

I had spent a quiet morning fiddling with my new miniature therm-grenade. It had cost more than I could afford, but it was worth it. Though it could turn an ordinary room into a charred ruin, it was small enough to be set into a ring, like a jewel. And that’s where I carried it – along with several other rings – which were only a few of the mini-weapons scattered about my person.

It’s not that I’m a violent man. I’m more of a careful man. In my line of work, I find that it’s usually other people who get violent. So I like to be ready for anything, any time...
(Hill, 1983, p. 5)

Rules - 1/5
There are no rules for HYOETA, thus garnering it the minimum score of 1. This is a bit of a shame, because the writing is so good it makes you feel like bolting on the Fighting Fantasy rules from Starship Traveller, (and padding out the choices), which would make it a million times better than that book ever was.

Total: 15/25

Have your own Extra-Terrestrial Adventure is a great story hampered by both brevity and lack of a decent rules system that would have bred suspense and added to the narrative. Its final ranking of ‘Decent Snack’ reflects this premise adequately, and if you have any interest in science-fiction gamebooks, the works of Douglas Hill, or the quirky approaches that gamebooks took in their early Golden Age, you should check this out. It’s difficult to find on eBay, although BookFinder and Amazon (UK) seem to stock a fair few cheap copies. My tip (and this is how I came by my copy over the Christmas break), is possibly only valid for Commonwealth countries with good second-hand bookshops: basically, wander into any such emporium and look for Douglas Hill books in either the science-fiction or children’s fiction sections. If you find one, buy it, as it’s definitely worth a read!

Hill, D. (Editor) (1982a). Alien worlds. London: Pan Books.
Hill, D. (1982b). Young legionary. London: Pan Books.
Hill, D. (1983). Have your own extra-terrestrial adventure. London: Sparrow Books.