Finally, I’ve got around to JH Brennan. Let me tell you what it means first, in relation to my youth. This place is just as good to start with than any place, right? Feels right, feels like home, somehow.
Gamebooks from Mr. Brennan have always picked my curiosity, from an early age on. Of course, one might say all gamebooks from all authors pick my curiosity, one way or another. True. But there is something else going on with Mr. Brennan. A slowly growing obsession based on what was probably just coincidences early on. There’s no denying that Mr. Brennan has written plenty of gamebooks, mostly in the 80’s, if I’m not mistaken, and as such I used to always come across one of his, be at the library, a friend’s house or some bookstore, some when, some where.
They had mysterious or enticing covers, from the icy blue of Demonspawn to the badass French version of GrailQuest (much more serious than it’s original counterpart), with its improbable knight in full plate armour braving elements (on a boat in the middle of a storm! good luck buddy), beasts and undead. It’s not very surprising then, that I often found myself with one of them in my hands, tempted to buy, weighting my options, trying to judge from cover and what I could gleam inside if this or that book would be to my liking. Not an easy task to a naïve youngster.
But I always put them back on the shelf, somehow turned off by what seems like confusing and complicated rules. Illustrations sometimes sucked me in, sometimes not. But it was always, I remember, a certain fear of those unknown rules that would call to me and repulse me at the same time, sending me packing. Annoying paradox, really. I have hazy memories of trying one of his books, I can’t recall which one, or which ones, or if it was a JH Brennan book at all in the end. Must have been at a friend’s house or at a library, but who knows? All I remember for sure is getting confused by secret passages and getting stuck, and thus afraid of never being able to finish the book, just like The Warlock of Firetop Mountain would make me afraid of Zagor’s Maze, or just like Creature of Havoc would give me stomach cramps thanks to the glitch that made it impossible to win.
So now, many years later, through the used book shop circuit, mostly through Amazon’s marketplace especially (not plugging the name, just telling the how), I’m now rather proud to own all of the Sagas of the Demonspawn and the first 6 books of GrailQuest (not much hope currently of owning the rest, but we’ll see). But faced with the interesting dilemma of what to read/play next (along with offerings from Dave Morris, Jamie Thompson and other great authors) I needed a book, or series, that was complete and relatively small so that I could, for flexibility’s sake, go on with other books without having to wait months before doing so. Horror Classics, newly acquired and featuring a grand total of 2 books, seemed like a perfect candidate for the job (to better understand the why of my reasoning: I could have gone (and wanted to, it was my first choice) with the Golden Dragon series, but I’m still missing one of the books and even though they do not follow each other story wise, I wanted to own them all before starting, so(!), still waiting for Fabled Lands Inc. to release the final piece… TheWay of the Tiger is not quite finished yet from Megara Entertainment and Lone Wolf is taking it’s usual sweet time to get re-released in its entirety, so meanwhile I’m tackling other books, that parenthesis went long enough for y’all?).
So let’s talk about Dracula’s Castle, shall we? As of now, I’ve actually played both stories (oh yes, forgot to mention, each Horror Classics contain 2 stories, so that’s like, 4 books, man!!), the Jonathan Harker and Dracula side of the story. It’s a bit misleading, but I’ll come back to that.
I’m not quite sure how to feel about the story part of Dracula’s Castle. Certainly, JH Brennan has got quite a personality, an attitude that makes him unique and rather very interesting, but I’m wondering if this attitude isn’t responsible for some of the blatant problems witnessed in this book and most likely present in his other books (based on reviews and bits of forum conversations I’ve been able to gleam). Since I’m not yet sure how to express myself on this particular subject, I’ll go on right ahead and empty the old noggin on something I could never dwell much upon in the past: gameplay. Cause this time I actually tried to play the damn thing... by the rules! This should clear up a HUGE chunk of space up there actually. Perhaps then I’ll be able to focus on the rest.
As probably all who’ve tried a JH Brennan book could attest, the gameplay in his books (I’ve only played two so far, so I might not be the best of judge, but from what I’m hearing, things don’t necessarily improve in other series) is positively flawed. I would type the word flawed in capital letters but I’ve already done this trick a few sentences back and I don’t want to abuse it. But emphasis added, ok? There are mistakes in the text, missing, forgotten or never thought-of bits, rules conflicting with rules and an overall vagueness to some of them, and I’m sure I forget other qualifiers. To list them all would be madness. I’ll try to find some examples, but will leave them for the moment for a hereinbelow bitching section of sort. Because now is the time to come back to JH Brennan and his attitude, or at least the persona he adopts when writing the text of his gamebooks.
…which can be frustrating when trying to understand the vagueness of some rules or lack thereof or if a particular mistake was made on purpose or not (usually the answer would be obvious but that’s the thing!) as Mr. Brennan usually adopts a colourful demeanor; you could call it some light trolling at our expense, full of humour, something that scream and often points out how this is just a silly game and how we should stop taking this stuff so seriously. Which is no doubt well-intended and actually carries much truth to it. But doesn’t help one bit when you need clarifications. When you just need some answer; a simple yes or no.
So, in the end, when faced with a dilemma and no possible solutions, you are left inventing your own, and therefor probably veering into the dreaded cheater’s territory. Which is something any self-respecting player who decided he was going to play straight would try to avoid at all cost, obviously. But JH Brennan forces your hand, and you can’t ever be quite sure if he intended you to do so, in light of telling you to chill, man, this is just a gamebook, fiction that you play with. Sure I get it, you start telling yourself, but at the same time you wonder: what if this attitude, this trolling by the author, is simply, in fact, a wicked sign of laziness? This laziness would at least explain why this gamebook ended up being (or looking like, at the very least) a rushed piece of rubbish. Sure it might not be that the author is to blame, I don’t claim to know what went on behind the scenes. It might be that someone else was to blame for all the shoddy work. Who did the proofreading? The playtesting? Anyone at all? I, for sure, wondered often why nobody ever gave feedback to the author. But hell. Does it mean that there’s no fun to be had? At all? No, but it definitely left a stink, for sure. But there are positives so let’s segue into that.
Like what? The attitude talked about above also leads to great humoristic moments, that’s what, and in fact, it could be considered the greatest aspect of this book. I hear that this is a common trait of JH Brennan’s personality as an author, and as I have observed this to be true in The Curse of Frankenstein, I’m tempted to believe it. I might be proven wrong later, but since that doesn’t change anything concerning this review, let’s keep going.
As I was saying, JH Brennan likes to troll the reader a little bit, and sometimes even adopts a condescending tone, but that’s usually reserved for the stupider decisions out there that one can make. Mind, it’s all done with great humour usually, with most of it hitting the intended mark. It keeps the proceeding light while still being dangerous and sometimes even nerve-wracking; not a small feat for managing to combine all those elements together and still remain effective. How can it be nerve-wracking? While the term might be a bit strong to some, it remains that the author does so by always commenting on your chances, or just commenting on the soundness of this or that decision. Mr. Brennan’s comments are what keeps the whole thing funny and original while keeping the doubts in your mind well alive. There’s nary a moment when a personalized comment isn’t employed to some effect. Out are the dry moments like: “You find yourself at a T-section. To go left, turn to xxx, to go right, turn to xxx”. Instead, nearly every decision is accompanied by thoughts from the author, often breaking the fourth wall and sometimes plainly stating stuff like: you must be crazy if you are actually thinking of doing this… Which, as it turns out, sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. So the author is not to be trusted, but the paranoia is kept at a high level, and while most choices are still left to pure randomness or a game of “guess what the author felt like at the time”, that said author questioning you all the time does make the process not only more lively, but indeed succeeds in making you ponder if you are headed in the obvious trap or not.
Now, before I head into bitching territory, lets tackle the story part of this book. First, as mentioned earlier, this book is two stories in one; you either play as Jonathan Harker, pitted against Dracula, or Dracula, pitted against… Harker? Well, not really. The premise of the book would like you to believe that. It’s a lie. This shit gets weirder. I mean, one part of the story alone is enough weirdness in itself, but if you try to make sense of it all, then… brain meltdown will probably be the outcome. Ultimately, I found out that shit in general always goes weirder with Brennan at the helm. Probably just as much a trademark of his as his humorous comments. It’s not quite the Sky Lord level of silliness or mind melt, but close. Fortunately, I’d say it’s far less frustrating, if you let go of the rules, in any case. The humour also seems to fit better, and be overall more clever, but this is all very subjective, so let’s move on since I already bashed Sky Lord in another review anyway.
Well, I tackled the Harker side of the story first. I attempted to play fair, following the rules to the letter, but after dying a few times, for lack of time (my time, in real life) and realizing that Mr. Brennan had a blatant dislike for explaining rules and rule variations, I invented my own, using the ones in the book as a basic guideline, and hoped for the best. I also cut short on the starting-over process for sanity’s sake, as the goal was to actually finish the book and not just play it once, since most of my deaths occurred due to bad dice rolls (and boy, I was reminded why I don’t gamble), and not because I chose poorly or failed at understanding or finding items (mostly, like I said, but JH Brennan isn’t above some old-school Nintendo-hard trickery, like letting your character open a door (or even worse, a waist-high picket fence door!), said character utterly failing to notice the huge chunk of the planet Earth itself missing right beyond it, and thus going splat at the bottom of a ravine like the coyote from a Roadrunner cartoon. Baffling, I know. I kept wondering where I put that damn YIKES! sign; must be in one of those infinite pockets of mine).
In any case, the book is laid-out mostly so that you can go back and forth and back again throughout most sections (which is one of the things that often breaks the rules; how to deal with repeat scenarios, health regeneration, etc.), so in that regard, it mostly eliminates dead end due to a wrong turn, lack of a key item, or an inexplicable genetic disorder that stops you from turning on the spot and go back the other way, as if all heroes were Derek Zoolander faced with “left” as the only option.
But is the story any good? Well… it’s interesting, I guess. I mean, the story itself is a classic, the series is called Horror Classics for a reason, but what’s going on within this age-old story of good versus evil is anything but. As a whole, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, even more so when combined with the other “half” of the story, but as a bunch of eccentric vignettes tied together by some strained links, it’s not bad. Certainly it should keep the curious out there busy, especially if you are fans of weirdness (think some Lynchian dream sequences, perhaps) and can’t wait to find out what this crazy JH Brennan cooked up.
But what about some examples? How about a fight against a vampire apple? A Granny Smith. There’s perhaps an English joke in there that I don’t quite get, though the idea is absurd and funny without the need of further background information. And the only way to lose this fight is if YOU, emphasis added, take a bite out of it, since it’s poisonous. I don’t know, maybe the apple stuffed itself into your mouth in a suicidal attempt of Taking You with Me.
How about playing a game with the local mortician and his rigid attendance? Visiting Dracula’s Wax Museum in the middle of nowhere? Emerging into the Count’s most impressive medieval restroom? Beware of splinters as you sit on the comfort station. How about a battle against the Phantom of the Opera? All of these while being accompanied by Gregor Rasputin? Why not indeed?
This is dangerously overlapping the bitching territory, so let’s funnel into that. Let’s go back to that vampire apple, shall we? And to a certain slime creature lurking in a corridor that you absolutely must go through. Or all combats as a matter of fact. What’s wrong with it? Well, there’s a system for fights in the rules, sure. But it’s hardly used at all here. And when it’s used, chances are that with all your life points, compared to your enemy, as long as you’ve got a few remaining you can just go walk into an infinite loop to rebuild your strength (3 life points per Act). But lots of combat will kill you nonetheless. Because they don’t rely on the normal rules, they rely on killing you straight up if you make a bad roll. Let’s say double six. Or let’s say, anything above eight. You see the picture. Soon enough, you’ll roll the dreaded number and buy the farm. And some of those odds, too many of them, really, are not in your favor.
Take that apple for instance, it’s stupidly hard. It only has 15 life points, so you could kill it in one strike, but make that one bad roll and you’ve bitten into it, to add insult to injury. And game over. The aforementioned slime’s got only 20 life points, and doesn’t hit back, but one bad roll and you are dissolved. As for the big bad itself, very strong fella, but does it matter? You need to use PSI points to stake him; it’s an instant kill move if you do, but with a very slim chance of working. When you’ve used up your PSI points you need to pay a 20 life points penalty every time you try Stake Driving, and that while Dracula’s plowing into you, which, just so you know, also happens to possess a one-hit kill technique. To say it’s insanely hard is an understatement. But of course you could get lucky and get that roll right at the beginning, right? But just like with the lottery, you probably have more chances of getting struck by lighting - twice - than succeeding on your first try.
Life Points are also useless out of battle too: you’ll rarely loose them in traps or other misfortunes, those are very nearly always death traps. A live or die situation. So, if Life Points (of which the author probably thought he needed some in the books just because, you know, the Status Quo) are useless, what else is useless in this book? Well, I’m perplexed to report that items are pretty useless too. Wait, you don’t start with items in this one, they get stolen. You are fully equipped at the beginning only to lose everything. That means you’ll need to fight with your fists, but that’s okay, there are no penalties. Even against numerous supernatural beings. You get told you’ll need some stuff to fight Dracula, garlic perhaps (which I found) and a stake (which I got, damn you apple), why not? Fairly standard stuff. Is there any item check at the end against the big bad? Nope. I’m pretty confident you can Stake Drive Dracula with your bare hand. Jonathan Harker: Powered Fist of Bad-Assery.
You get to roll up for Gold Sovereigns (cash) at the beginning with a little economy and historical lesson to boot, all in good humour and mildly interesting. The author nearly lampshade in your face how you’re not going to need it, but you can roll it if you want (and pick some along the way). But he’s right: here again there’s no use for money; no merchant had the right mind to set up shop in this castle of the damn! Somewhere Livingstone is shedding a tear at the missed business opportunity.
Healing items also get the shaft. There are plenty to use, which is good, but you won’t need them, which is… also good? As pointed out above, most of the time, against creatures or traps, you’ll simply live or die, the rest of the time you can just walk away your wounds and illness. So, perhaps you’ll be using your healing items once or twice? Before Dracula? And that’s without counting on a certain Rasputin, Faith Healer, following you around, if you’ve managed to find him.
There’s quite a few red herrings too but otherwise, when you need some items to pass, you need all those items to pass, just one won’t do. And a few times, typically, the book will bottleneck and you’ll need to pass item check, just like at the airport and right thereafter you’ll probably meet something akin to a disc one end boss, like the slime waiting for you later, right after said bottleneck.
Have I bitch enough yet? I’m nearly done. I think. One thing I haven’t mentioned yet are the secret doors concept. Any time you are in a new Act, a new paragraph, you can roll your dices to see if you can check for secret passages or doors. Once you succeed you check on a chart to see if there is something. It’s sometimes amusing, sometimes deadly, sometimes necessary and overall irritating for mappers, which I’m not one of, as mapping while sitting on the toilet is a pain I don’t want to get used to. Already rolling dices on the bathroom floor is not that user friendly to start with… But beside that point, I liked the concept, except that once more you are left to the whims of luck as you hope to get that particularly difficult dice roll. And when you factor in the search for something more precise but don’t know where to look for, this could become quite grating. Hopefully the critters you killed stay dead. Something we don’t know as the rules are vague.
You also have PSI powers, 3 different for each characters, apparently stuff you can do that goes beyond what a normal human could do, like making yourself more resistant, or stronger, or able to drive a stake through a vampire’s heart …what? You telling me that I can’t do that without some kind of magic? Well, perhaps when fighting it takes some special skill to do it with killing precision, but still. In any case, I never had much use for my PSI abilities (that’s in both story of this book and the Frankenstein ones so far) so I don’t mind them much, I see them more as some weird options, common stuff in a JH Brennan book.
The drawings by Tim Sell are okay, but not really my cup of tea, overall. I never was much of a fan of his work, except some disturbing pieces in House of Hell. This is not the bitching section anymore, but still I must say, I imagine Mr. Sell is the type of artist most authors choose last, when no-one else is available. I shall not push any further on this delicate and subjective matter, as some might be harboring better sentiment for the man. Beside, this is not that interesting.
The cover is pretty, well-done, serviceable. It’s basically a mug shot of Christopher Lee’s Dracula, with some “embellishments”, which probably pleased Hammer fans out there. Unfortunately, it is not credited on the inside pages (fear of being sued? Dunno) but one can decipher a name that reads like Pierto (sorry if wrong spelling and such). This guy did good enough, and maybe should have done the inside illos as well if is forte isn’t just pastiche. Though overall I’m rather cold to the cover mug shot, as some of you will know I’m not too fond of the typical Dracula design, though I sure like Christopher Lee.
On to Dracula’s side of the story, then. I’ll keep it short, as this review is huge already, but some things needs to be said all the same. For one thing, if you thought that Harker’s side of the story was hard, then you ain’t seen nothing yet. In today’s gamer lingo, Harker’s side would be normal mode and Dracula’s side would be hard mode. Or perhaps Raving Mad Mode. Perhaps Mr. Brennan thought that such a powerhouse like Dracula shouldn’t get things too easy; after all, such a powerful character adventuring on his own turf should be the equivalent of a stroll in the park, right? Well, JH Brennan’s answer to that was to turn everything on its head.
First, you’re hemorrhaging life points like crazy. If memory serves right, 2 points every action you take, meaning every Act you turn to, not just moving through a room, but let’s say, deciding to look up at what’s on a shelf, for instance. And you’ll be going in circle a lot in this adventure, revisiting rooms constantly in different orders (it’s absolutely necessary if you want to find everything) so unless you are hardcore at managing steps, planning and mapping, and lucky enough to find health safe zones (be back on this soon), then chances are you’ll eventually fall flat on your face, out of your undead life, just like that, instead of being killed by some unknown hero or danger. Just imagine yourself being pursued by Dracula in, let’s say, your own house. You flee in terror, out of mind, through the rooms. Eventually you end up cornered in the bathroom, as is the usual habit in such dramas (in the upstairs bathroom, of all things), you scream in terror, look for anything you can defend yourself with; blinding shampoo; razor blades (but all you’ve got is an electric shaver and some cheap plastic Gillette razors, not any of those nifty old blades people used to slit their wrists with); too late, Dracula comes crashing through the door, teeth bare and eyes alight with the eternal flames of damnation and then! He crashes on the floor with a deep gurgle and in the blink of an eye turns to dust, leaving you gasping for air and coughing ashes, utterly breathless as you realise how close to death you were, but hey! You look on the bright side and pat yourself on the back for your clean victory: another outrunned vampire! Tonight is a good night and tomorrow you might have to run again, but you’re healthy, with no broken foot or leg. After all, only the cripples or old folks fall to the evil vampires! Everybody knows that.
Okay, but on a more serious note… Oh right! That would be for another book. Alright, that was quite anticlimactic for an ending, right? But that’s apparently the way JH Brennan envisioned powerful vampire Lords. I can’t imagine what goes on with the weaker specimen of the species. Giving them a reproachful glare might be enough to stake them. Line a few of them in a row and you might one-shot kill them all, who knows? C-C-Combo. Now, as if the walking around and not dying part wasn’t hard enough, there’s more.
Harker’s side of the story already contained a few items to find that were needed to succeed, really just like most gamebooks out there, no better nor worse, but Dracula’s story brings the fetch quest to nearly Livingstonian magnitude. It’s not quite there yet, but close and very unforgiving. And you know what? At a certain point, when some statistics that spell doom every time you try to play are attained, then it doesn’t matter if you keep piling up chores to do, items to get, beast to slay. When the glass’s full it’s full, adding water won’t change anything. So, that’s where we are in this situation. How’s so? How about 12 keys (12, count them) to find? All absolutely vital to your success, some of those hidden in pretty devious fashion? Oh, I think there’s one key in the lot that has a double, thank you JH Brennan for the load off!! Though that could have been a mistake…
So now you see how you pretty well might die walking around in those rooms, looking for elusive keys… You might not die from combat alone, there’s plenty of help you can get that will gladly lend a hand, so that part isn’t so bad, but coupled with the walking bit… yeah. Like I’ve said above, if you’re really good at mapping, planning and are very patient, you could plan your route through the castle, as there is a few secret passages that will lead to your resting place, your sanctuary, and that will refill your health completely. With such trip to the safe zone, you might just be able to make it, but you’d need to find where to access those safe zones in the first place, that requires some thorough searching and luck, and then, there’s planning your steps while hoping to get good rolls on your fights…
Now let’s talk about the story itself a bit, shall we? So, contrary to what the book leads you to believe in the introduction, mainly, while Harker gets to fight Dracula, riding in a coach to the castle's main gate, it isn’t Dracula riding in the coach at the beginning. So that’s a little cheat right there. Drac is fast asleep in his coffin, and wakes up when that stranger arrives at the door, none other than his nemesis, Van Helsing. It’s pretty cool, if you ask me, even though I felt like this was a cheap trick for a cheap twist. But Van Helsing is cool, and probably far more challenging than Harker, right? Right. But you cannot yet understand how much of a hard-ass he’s going to be. A right pain. Certainly, you won’t be able to believe what he can do, that’s for sure.
I mean, how cool is battling Van Helsing? Very cool. How mind-numbingly stupid his apparent God-like qualities are? And how annoying? You can guess my answer. Here’s a man, a hunter, and (as I’ve learned in this book) a powerful warlock(!), who comes uninvited (remember, at the start of the game, he is at the front gate, just out of the coach, nothing more) and in a record time, not only set-up shop in the castle, but physically changes it (it’s all through magic, you see?) to add rooms (a whole first floor of rooms I might add), install traps and set loose countless minions (serving the purpose of good) in your corridors, all to get you killed one way or another. Amazing. And I, on the other hand, teleported out of my crypt, but the old Warlock still beats me to all parts of my domain. He even went so far as to lock the front gate so that I would be trapped in and unable to run away to the nearest village or something. The front gate! The bastard! You know, bars of steel, stone posts, climbable stuff? Hmm. Locked in, no choice but to face my nemesis.
Pretty awesome, that Van Helsing, right? He’s pretty stupid, too, or burdened with a strange code of honour. For example, if you don’t have all twelve keys at the end, you are dead, killed by one of two traps designed/installed by Van Helsing. But somehow Van Helsing seems to want to give Dracula a chance, if ever so slim, to win, as there was nothing from stopping him, really, to just apply the same death trap trick concept to the door even when you’ve got all 12 keys. I mean, these traps are lethal and unavoidable, why not use them? Sure, it’s a dick move, but doesn’t the end justifies the means? As such, why even wait until Drac’s got the 12 keys? Why not put such a death trap behind each of the 12 locked doors, or even common doors for that matter? Why the need to set up a big game? Why give a chance? Of course, I understand the author’s reasoning for the gamebook itself, we need something to do, I guess, but that still doesn’t excuse the lack of thoughts behind such a narrative device.
Again, this poor idea is not the only thing lazy with the book. Many mistakes have been made, one of the easiest to spot being when faced with a deadly trap installed on one side of the double doors barring the entrance to the castle itself. If you go through those doors from the outside, you spot the mechanism and promptly destroy it. The text then informs you that you can ignore the consequences of said trap if you ever go through the same doors from the inside. Except that changes absolutely squat, as it only means ignoring your death with no other options but to turn back to the last Act, assuming you’ve kept your finger on it, and choosing another option, instead of having the possibility to go outside as you thought you could. Nope, nothing. If you want to go back outside (which is very likely as it’s doubtful you’ll find everything at once the first time) you’ll still have to climb up to the parapet and then climb down the wall, hoping your luck doesn’t fail you, making you fall to your doom. And yes, there’s probably more mistakes, but this review needs to end!
So, with all those flaws, is it still possible to enjoy the book? A rather good question. I would say yes, but under conditions. You need to be able to enjoy the author’s humour and you need to be able to let go of the rules a little, if not a lot, up to the degree of making your own (like maybe Dracula doesn’t bleed so much while walking, maybe only once every few rooms). If you can do that, there’s certainly quite a lot of fun stuff to be experienced. Otherwise, frustration will arise quickly and the book will depart your hands, most likely to Act 14 where new stats will stay forever unrolled.
Oh yes, nearly forgot, did this (and The Curse of Frankenstein) finally cured my obsession with JH Brennan? A little. But my real obsession has always been with Sagas of the Demonspawn, so until that’s read and played, we’ll see. Onward, then.
The End! (I'm sure some of you will appreciate this, my Curse of Frankenstein review should be shorter, I believe)
I suspect that you're not going to be too happy with Sagas of the Demonspawn. The series has little of Brennan's trademark quirky humour, but takes unplayability-by-the-rules to a whole new level. Here are a few plot spoiler-free quotes from my blog posts on the series:
the first challenge: character creation. There's the odd bit of dry wit in there - describing death as 'usually a bit of a nuisance' in the real world, and noting that the first five characteristics all relate to 'the popular human occupation of fighting' - but it essentially boils down to repeatedly rolling two dice and multiplying the results by eight to generate percentages (not that percentile dice are ever required when playing the books). Fire*Wolf's starting Life (these books are third person narrative) is equal to the sum of all the randomly generated stats (plus Skill, which is this game's term for Experience Points). Clear?
Combat is a barrel of laughs. Initiative is determined by a dice roll, modified with Speed, Courage and Luck. Once it's been established who gets to strike first, their attack is determined by a dice roll, modified with Skill and Luck. If the blow hits, damage is derived from the number rolled for the attack by means of subtraction, multiplication, and the addition of an eighth of the attacker's Strength (plus any weapon bonuses). Damage is subtracted from the opponent's Life (minus any armour bonuses), and if the opponent isn't dead, the opponent gets to hit back. And so on until one combatant is dead or the player loses the will to play on (except that every so often, Fire*Wolf has to miss an attack owing to fatigue).
The thing is, the rules don't actually say how healing occurs. They state that it can happen, and that it can never raise Life above the total of all the other stats, and that's it.
The rules governing gaining Skill become that bit more confusing, but explaining why would take at least half a dozen more lines of text than I can be bothered to write on the issue.
I'd be interested to see how these books would come across if somebody were to change the system to something less cumbersome and more playable. There may be a decent saga in here, but it's not easy to get invested in the adventures of a character whose chances of survival are so poor.
As usual for Sagas of the Demonspawn (to the extent that anything about the series can be described as 'usual'), the 'Fire*Wolf is no more' section offers the possibility of restarting at a point other than the beginning. [...] (I would not have had the patience to reroll his stats that many times if not for the fact that my gamebook manager condenses the lengthy process into one click of the mouse)
Not the most enjoyable gamebook series in my collection.
Oh boy. Thanks Greenspine. It does seem like it's going to try my patience a lot. Well, once or twice, until I modify the rules or end-up throwing them out the window, I suspect. I'd like to say I've beaten one of those books by the rules one day, but don't you hate it when people get scared of you screaming at abstract rules? Yea, me too, so that's why I stop before I do.
Seems like the load, indeed. I actually remember reading those blog posts of yours (I read all your posts, for that matter, I don't comment often, but that doesn't mean I don't enjoy them, au contraire) and thinking, well, not so much thinking as feeling my soul shrivel a little.
You want to know what I fear more than Sagas confusing rules? The Cretan Chronicles one. I sat down once and read them all, and tried very hard to understand, but with apparently one hundred and one rules and permutations, it made me very scared indeed.
I was supposed to play those next, but now I'm wondering if it is wise. Maybe some french stuff, maybe some Demonspawn, maybe Arcana Agency, not sure.
By the way, is GrailQuest easier to play? Or is the humour making it all more tolerable?
There it is! Been quiet at the job, so I've used this opportunity the best I could. But without further introduction, the review will "speak" for itself:
THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN
The second and last book of the Horror Classics series (or is it the first? They were both released the same year, 1986) and also my second JH Brennan book. This is also two stories in one, the mad doctor on one side and his creature on the other. As of this moment, I’m not yet done with the second story, which I chose to play as the creature, but I expect I will be by the time I’m finished with this review. In any case, I believe I’m close enough to the end to judge appropriately enough. Let’s get this review on the road!
So, back in my 10 pages Dracula’s Castle review, I’ve touched upon how I have obsessed on JH Brennan in the past, and how it culminated with me buying lots of his books, all second hand unfortunately but what can I say? They don’t make them new anymore and my DeLorean’s busted. While I must say that the used copy that I bought online for this book is in such a pristine order that I doubt someone ever played it (no complaint there from me, the spine isn’t even cracked!), you wouldn’t have caught my younger self dead buying a copy, even if I had unlimited funds, while it was fresh off the printer and on the shelf, smiling at me with the grinning copy of Karloff’s green monster. Okay, maybe with unlimited funds, I’ll give you that. But I hated classics monsters like “Frankenstein” so much that I doubt it. I would always avoid such with a wide berth. Probably didn’t even know this was by JH Brennan in the first place.
I had opportunities though, as I saw that book and its other Horror Classics brethren often enough (that and most likely FF’s Vault of the Vampire, an easy mistake to make for a rookie). But now that I am over my repulsion and embracing all things gamebooks, here it’s now in my hands and I can now judge it for what it’s worth, not what I assumed it was. So let’s get cracking.
Let’s get those illustrations and cover out of the way first. As for Dracula’s Castle, Tim Sell is at the helm for the inside illos and some Prieto guy did the cover, again no credit given inside, which is a shame. The cover is another good-looking one, with Frankenstein’s creature in his Boris Karloff manifestation adorning it, not something I’m much fond of, but again I expect fans of the original Universal monster movies will appreciate the nod. Tim Sell does what Tim Sell usually do, which means draw some goofy-looking illustrations that are more likely to make you laugh than scare you… or impress you. Again, I don’t want to be too mean against the guy, I’m sure there are some that like his style, I’m just not one of them. So let’s move away from this subject matter.
The gameplay here is as wonky as ever (well, in my case, in reference to Dracula’s Castle, at the very least), with vague rules still firmly in place. They are similar overall with only minor differences and in all fairness, this book did seemed better at respecting the rules and making sense than its Horror Classics sibling, but not by a huge degree. For example, there are no secret areas in this book (and it makes sense, seeing as you are mostly wandering the frozen north, not enclosed in a single location), but we are presented here instead with a grid maze of sort representing the Artic landscape, very easy to get lost into with minimal and repetitive descriptions (reminded me of some parts in Dracula’s Castle which were lazy copy/paste of the same description, the biggest offender being no doubt the astrological rooms), a bit of a bore really and offering plenty of opportunities both for healing and experiencing the same dilemmas and dangers over again and thus, puzzling over the rules. It did feel overall slightly easier than when playing Dracula’s Castle, especially as the Baron’s creature, as I was lucky and rolled a beast of a monster, with nearly all sixes, and then was lucky enough to find two items (well, one I had to fight for, but still) making my life even better. One of those items, at least, was easy to discover so I supposed someone with a bit of luck and medium stats could still do quite well. For that matter, it also felt to me as if the creature’s side of the story was the easiest of the two, with less tricky spots, though of course I may be influenced by my good rolls, here, and my overall luck with choices (for example, once in the caves I was lucky to stumble on my last octagonal coin and a map of the place, and having played as the baron I pinpointed where I had to go and went straight for the door, avoiding lots of deathtraps in the process, no doubt).
Forgot to mentioned that by that point in this review, I am finished with both stories in the book, with minimal cheating too, so I’m not completely talking out of my ass, here. Just to be clear on what I cheated upon: some fights basically and for one puzzle, when I realized that the author cheated against me! (Basically what happened is that I was offered a riddle with numbers, found the right answer with some mental arithmetic, found out I was wrong, looked for the right answer which couldn’t be too far from where I thought it was, found it, and then found out that the book’s answer was actually using different numbers than the one I was first given. Genuine author mistake or for the evulz trickery?) So, I cheated some bad rolls, or instant-death kills from an enemy by simply rolling again to save time. I ended up noting on my adventure sheet the alteration and result instead of starting up again, like writing that such attack would have killed me, or stuff like: this or that battle was harder, might have been killed or left seriously maimed, or: cheated a little, might have been hurt a bit more but no biggie. But in all seriousness, and not to save face, you might be surprised by how often the mention “no cheating involved” appears next to encounter entries.
Item usage is also a bit better now. The Baron’s starting list is utterly useless safe for the health potion and lots of what he’ll pick up along the way will be useless, but some are absolute must-have key items. The ending is particularly harsh on this, with a necessary item in the hands (claws?) of a dangerous trick enemy, which can only be defeated by being extremely lucky with dices. For the Monster, surprisingly (and uniquely for the Horror Classics series), the starting list contains key items that must be with you if you expect to win. Well, actually, only two of those are necessary (and you only need to use one of those two, making it slightly fairer) while 2 others could get you out of a tight spot and further give you access to a clue which could be, depending on your situation, redundant or useful.
Psi powers again seems like mostly an afterthought, a way to make things more random, be it beneficial or detrimental. I remember nothing in game being in need of any Psi power whatsoever to progress. I found that for the Baron, Mad Science was a gamble with too many high risks of killing yourself and the Creature’s ones were mostly attribute enhancing but with such high roll as I had they became useless. So, again, the option to use those is there for players who want them, but they could just as well not be there.
On to the story, then. There’s a nice piece at the beginning, an excerpt from Baron Frankenstein’s journal retelling how the Baron came to discover his monster’s bloody escape, following his trail to the docks, so on and so forth. Setting the tone. Very serious and dark. The tone, serious and dark? Once you’ve set foot on the Artic ice, better throw all that seriousness out to sea. Tie it with a stone so that it doesn’t float back to the shore. It might be hard to believe, but the story, what little there is - let’s name it the adventure instead - is actually weirder and more insane than the one told in Dracula’s Castle. The gameplay might have been toned down from its absurd height, but the adventuring makes up for this, by sending you not in a Lynchian universe, but in a melting pot of influences and clichés, surrealism and you know what? I can’t put a name on this thing. Let’s just say that reality takes a backseat, and you’ll find yourself stuck in situations and/or confronted by stuff that in no way should be in the Artic, or sometimes even of this Earth.
I mean, I could start by how ill-prepared the characters were for the trek through the cold wasteland (it doesn’t matter who you choose, but Frankenstein’s monster at least’s got an excuse, although it is shown to be very intelligent), but you (the player) won’t ever suffer the consequences, unless, for some weird reason, you’ve thrown your clothes in an acidic thermal pool, finding yourself naked and unable to find clothes, be they magicked from a Gnome and thus invisible or cut-out from the hide of a Polar Bear. But all that would be a bit boring, now would it? Or, perhaps I should start with how about just any animals on Earth’s kingdom can be found roaming the endless snow just as long as you’ve put Polar in front of its name. But no, let’s focus instead on some of the wildest things out there.
Okay, this is not the wildest yet, more like a big batch of cringe worthy clichés all rolled into one… stuff that was probably already wrong in 1986 but played here for laugh. But whether you’ll laugh (or cry) at Eskimos and their raw blubber diner or salted flipper, or the (apparently) legendary persistence of their (unwanted, read: ugly) women when seeking an husband; so desperate that they would need to hit on a giant freak; remains to be seen.
As for the wildest stuff, well just about everything but the kitchen sink get’s thrown in (I actually suspect the kitchen sink to be in there, somewhere, I just haven’t found it yet): How about an Arabian Genie straight out of his lamp? The background setup is even made to look like Arabian turrets and minarets. Yes, we are still in the Artic, why you ask? You rub the lamp and the genie will come out and offer you a wish… hell no, he’ll actually punch the lights out of an enemy for you - cool! - but that’s only if you can beat him first, which probably won’t be the case as he’s really nasty and you have to beat him twice in a row in a dick move from the author, thank you very much.
How about a Chinese Dragon? This dragon, coming to life from a small jade figurine carried by a Yeti (if memory serves well, don’t ask), is very cool, it will follow you around, even in death (yes, if you die you can actually roll up new stats and keep the dragon with you and for once something can have an influence over your next life other than a spontaneous innate knowledge of maps and traps) and will eat up a die roll of ghosts every time you meet them in Xanthine. Confusing? How about a Chinese Dragon? Did I mentioned that? How in hell? Never mind.
How about a visit to this Xanthine, a lost city of… Polar Mayans? Not sure, there. They didn’t seem extraterrestrial, from what I could gather. One of their secret passageways was guarded by a pair of Centurions and most of the last temple was inhabited by Ape-like albino beings, but who knows? Does it matter? Too much different fantasy thrown into my face all at once, I can’t make it out anymore.
But it’s okay, because JH Brennan lampshades this fact now and again, in fact, just any occasion he gets, so that’s supposed to make it all OK (with a pat in the back). Oh good, I was getting worried there. But if you take it all with a bit of good will and can find inside of you a giant heap of tolerance lying around for goofy humour, than it all goes down so much smoother. Better be in the mood too, otherwise you’ll sigh when you notice that the geography of the Artic is totally bonkers from one story to the other. Sure, the map is roughly the same, but stuff inside the map moves around, probably to create some sense of surprise and make things less easy on the player who’s just played one story and now delves into the next. It makes sense in a gameplay context, but that’s another strike against reality, and sanity, generally speaking.
So the landmarks are shifting, a giant wall there becomes an abyss filled with Lovecraftian horrors there, blizzards becomes fixed entities and a giant impenetrable fog settles over multiple game squares (what? kilometres? I don’t know, you think JH Brennan would care to explain such details?). But it’s okay because we’re simply playing a game, right? Seems the overall intent of the author, in any case. Entertainment first. I can get behind that, for sure. Forewarned is better though, because otherwise watch out for migraine. I had fun after all, though I cringed a bit too much and I would have preferred something a bit more grounded (wondered how it would have gone, pondering if it would have ultimately end up boring) but there you go. That’s what it is and I must stop, cause I feel a headache coming.
Onward with another adventure! (but what will it be?)
I had the Dracula one and all I remember about it was the Vampire Apple. I closed the book shortly after that.
PS. I've just finished reading the 'real' Dracula and thought it was rather boring and pompous, not a patch on Frankenstein.
Author of 'Hellfire', 'Riders of the Storm', 'House of Pain' (sequel to House of Hell) and 'Deathtrap' (prequel to Deathtrap Dungeon). All are available for download here or at: www.ffproject.com/download.htm