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Down Among the Dead Men (Critical IF gamebooks) Paperback – 30 Sep 2013
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About the Author
Dave Morris is a game designer, comic book creator, scriptwriter and top-selling author. He has written more than two dozen choose-your-own style gamebooks, including the acclaimed Fabled Lands series and a Kirkus-star-winning interactive version of Mary Shelley's classic Frankenstein.
Dave created Dragon Warriors, the seminal dark, gritty, low-fantasy British RPG of the 1980s, and is co-author with Leo Hartas of the ongoing all-ages fantasy comic book Mirabilis: Year of Wonders.
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For your character you can choose six professions or you can build your own by picking four specific skills, ranging from Marksmanship to Spells as well as Seafaring and Folklore. These skills, and any items you can find along the way, are used to help you get out of all the scrapes along the way. You have limited health, so you must avoid too many dangerous situations, and some are so deadly that you will die instantly. Indeed, this is pretty unforgiving, although there are many routes to success and it shouldn't take too many attempts to find at least one.
The Kindle version easy to use with proper hyperlinks and sections. Minimal bookkeeping is required (use a piece of paper or a phone notepad app), so it is possible to read on the train or plane without any fiddly dice. Despite it being originally released 20 years ago, it still is fun and doesn't feel aged at all-well worth reading.
The VR Adventures were a gamebook series distinguished by a non-random system, unusual settings and an emphasis on story and character. The series started very badly with "Green Blood" but evolved to produce a true classic in "Heart of Ice", as well as the fantastic "Necklace of Skulls" and "Once Upon A Time in Arabia". DAtDM marks a mid-point in this development.
As a Book:
The story is roughly divided into two halves. The first, on the jollyboat, is very much an endurance tale like Mutiny on the Bounty. Once you reach port and get a chance for revenge things start to feel more swashbuckling.
The writing in the VR series is a sabre cut above other gamebooks and DAtDM is no exception. The characters and scenes are memorable, especially your three companions on the jolly boat. The encounters won't amaze you with their originality but are written with verve and humour.
The book has plenty of salty flavour and many of the encounters (e.g. with vampires) are elevated by nautical details. There is an impressive sense of maritime brutality. For example, you can steal the Captain's pet monkey and, if things get desperate, eat the poor beast! This is a stark contrast to the preachy tone of "Green Blood" and "Coils of Hate" in the same series.
Best of all, Skarvench the pirate king is a true antagonist, rather than just an abstract and distant enemy to be offed for quest purposes. You can meet him several times during the adventure, rather than just at the end. I found myself really hating him and wanting revenge.
The only thing that disappointed me is that the book supports you in playing an antihero right up until the end, when it assumes your rharacter cares about Skarvench's plan to kidnap the Queen (rather than just wanting to get revenge).
As a Game:
One gets the impression that Dave Morris was still feeling out how to make the non-random system work. It feels quite arbitrary and some abilities are a lot more useful than others (e.g. CHARMS seems to save you every other paragraph whereas CUNNING is useless). By "Heart of Ice", all abilities were referenced in roughly equal proportions and the skill as a player was in choosing a route that bought up their best uses.
That said, the skills and decisions are logical, unlike Green Blood. As far as I can tell, you are never penalised for having a skill unless your use of it is clearly foolish (e.g. engaging a vampire with your fists).
The book seems quite difficult. The first half tends towards attrition, the second half towards sudden death. In my second attempt, I made it to the final showdown only to have victory whisked away.
There seem to be two obvious paths through the book but the use of items and codewords is very clever and gives the game some depth. My third attempt ended very suddenly due to the unforseen (but very entertaining) consequences of a certain item.
As a Kindle Product:
All the links work and there don't seem to be any typos. However, I was cross that none of the illustrations from the book were used.
Set in a world strongly reminiscent of the Caribbean when Europeans fought between themselves to obtain colonies at the expense of the local populations, the adventure is roughly divided into two sections. In the first part the adventurer must escape from the pirate ship upon which he is basically a slave and find his way back to civilisation. Once there the second stage of the adventure begins which involves obtaining the support and a ship necessary to stop the schemes of Skarvench and his allies. These two are not mutually exclusive, however. The route and method of returning to civilisation and who you encounter and what you find whilst doing so are deciding factors in your success during the second part.
The first part of the adventure can be a lot of fun. It can also be very frustrating. There is a wide selection of interlocking routes and a vast variety of different encounters. They cover the stereotypical elements you might expect from a Sinbad style adventure and the journey back to civilisation carries a vague influence of the Odyssey, there is even a Circe type figure. This section can be a bit tricky and disorientating but a successful acquisition of items and information can make the second half of the adventure much easier.
Skarvench works well as the major villain. He's the typical evil pirate but the various encounters you can have with him throughout the adventure always make it seem as if he is an active part of it, rather than just being the main antagonist you face at the conclusion. It is a shame really that your final fight with him is a little abrupt in the text. Mirabilis, however, lacks a large enough role to give him much of a character.
The Virtual Reality rules work reasonably well here. There is a good balance of items and skills necessary to win and the lack of a combat system hinders this adventure less than some of the others in the series as there are still some good fights against a variety of opponents. It is well written, reasonably challenging and includes enough different routes and methods to success that there is certainly scope for re-reads.
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