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Item - The Orchid of Life

Series: Proteus — no. 20
Contains: Treasures of the Cursed Pyramid (Gamebook)
Author: Brunskill, David (actual author unknown; David Brunskill's name was used without permission)
Illustrators: Ward, K. (cover and poster)
McKenzie, Colette (interior)
Date: 1988
Ed's Thoughts: Visiting a clichéd fantasy tavern, you find that it has changed from the lively, crowded sort into the half-empty, ominously quiet type. Then an Elf greets you and reveals that this is a gratuitous sequel to issue 7's adventure, The Sceptre of the Elvenking. No, they haven't lost the sceptre again. This time what's been stolen is (can you guess? Wait for it...) the Orchid of Life, a bloom with magical powers, which flowers just once a century. And has been stolen by a necromancer named Liknud. The next flowering of the Orchid is imminent, and if Liknud still possesses it at that time, his powers will be increased to the point where he can do really bad things rather than the more mundane bad things to which he has thus far been restricted. Needless to say, he can be thwarted if you find an assortment of items that should be available between where you are and where he is. Exciting stuff, no?

No.

The sequel aspect is pointless, as none of the significant NPCs who survived TSotE reappear - all you get is one superfluous continuity reference in the 'Your Quest Begins' section. And if any newish reader were so enthralled by TOoL as to want to read the adventure from which it vaguely follows on (unlikely, but you never know), that's just tough, as there's no indication of which issue it was in (and even if they could find out, it's sold out, so they can't get it in the back issue sale advertised elsewhere in the mag). Oh, and remember how TSotE dared to make all its Dwarves evil? That deviation from bog-standard fantasy has been forgotten, and the non-jolliness of the Dwarves glimpsed in the YQB is an indicator of how dire things are. Well, actually it is, but not in the way that Brunskill intended.

Moving on to the adventure itself, it looks awful. On more than one occasion I've observed that it looks as if they got it by locking David Brunskill and Colette McKenzie in an office with a manual typewriter, a few pens and a mound of blank paper. The art is variable, some of it not bad, some of it almost as awful as John Pickering's worst. It takes a peculiar talent to make a Tyrannosaur look so spectacularly unmenacing.

Appearances aside, the adventure proper is disappointingly generic in view of the improvement Brunskill had shown in his last couple of adventures. The closest this gets to providing a surprise is the revelation that some of the items you seek turn out to be non-essential (though useful none the less). You plod through a forest, occasionally fighting creatures, possibly passing through a subterranean complex, and then you reach the villain's lair. Following an ambush handled with none of the style of the one in EFS, you enter the lair, where you spend a while wandering around corridors, killing guards, and probably dying because you lack various items you were never told you'd need. If you survive all that (and the arbitrary Instant Death if you go the wrong way at the last junction, which, to add insult to injury, is one of the most clichéd traps ever), you get to fight Liknud. Or die horribly because you didn't find the only weapon that can harm him. That weapon, as you will probably have learned by this stage (unless you were feeling particularly dense when presented with an obvious data-gathering opportunity), had fallen into Liknud's clutches, and he'd ordered it to be taken away and guarded. Quite how it wound up in the possession of a being who'd give it to you if you proved yourself worthy of it is never made clear.

To get back to the wandering around, TOoL is a classic example of one of the more trivial yet cumulatively annoying absurdities of many gamebooks: the excessively meandering path. Is there ever a non-lethal direct route from where you start to where the villain is? Often there's no direct route anyway, but even when it is possible to just go north (or whatever the default direction may be) at every turning and head straight for your objective, to acquire the items necessary for survival you're likely to have to take side trips. In the worst examples, you wind up having to zig-zag all over the place. Well, not quite zig-zag, as you usually only get to turn right angles or go straight on, but you know what I mean. One of the things you need is in the extreme east, another the extreme west, then you probably have to head back east for a bit, and so on. It's so artificial. Real people tend to take the most direct route from A to B, or if they're trying to find somewhere, they use a more methodical approach not possible in most gamebooks because of the 'no going back in the general direction from which you came' rule. Occasionally it gets tiresome having to follow such circuitous routes, and there's not enough of interest in this adventure to distract me from it here.

Then there's the padding. While not as blatant as it was in the earliest issues of Proteus, it's pretty hefty. Apart from devoting three separate sections to the same Instant Death, Brunskill also chooses to structure a sequence of item acquisition in such a way that what could have been fitted into 3 sections instead takes 12. There are also various pointless encounters, only there to bulk out the adventure to 200 sections. To be fair, it's not all bad. Liknud's Dexterity is only 10, and there's the possibility of a Fighting Power bonus (not Dexterity, which is another good point) during that combat, so all but the feeblest of characters have a shot at success if they follow the right path, ludicrously meandering though it be. While a rubbish opponent stats-wise, the alligator-headed wolf you have to fight at one point is a bit more inventive than most of the rest of the adventure. And anyone who has trouble with puzzles should be pleased to hear that it is possible (though difficult) to beat TOoL without having to solve any of them. Not that they're particularly challenging, but I know that some people don't get on well with maths.

As for other bugs, the options given in section 92 lead to 94 and 90, and that's far from the only example of such sloppiness. The illusionist's name is misspelled when you first encounter him. Actually, the typo's a bit less tacky than his real name. The magazine also contains a reprint of Treasures of the Cursed Pyramid and a mercifully brief illustrated story, Christian & Josuna by Christopher P.A. King, which is not much cop.

And that's it. The very last Proteus. An ignominious end for a series that, despite a few turkeys, had more good than bad in it.

More reviews by Ed

Special Thanks:Thanks to David Brunskill for pointing out that he didn't actually write this one.
Users Who Own This Item: Ed, kinderstef, Malthus Dire, Robert Mammone, Sir Olli
Users Who Want This Item: Gartax, twar, waktool, yermither

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