Paths of Doom
Ward, James M.
dal Lago, Alberto
1931567700 / 9781931567701
|Number of Endings:
|Sete-Ka, an Egyptian prince, falls into a coma so that he can be tested by the gods; if he succeeds, he will grow up to rule Egypt, but if he fails, he will die.
It's no secret that this series seeks to emulate Endless Quest in some ways, so it's pleasantly unsurprising to find that its debut volume is written by an author who contributed to that earlier, classic series. James M. Ward is certainly not my favorite gamebook author, but he can put together solid work when he has to, and this is a reasonably enjoyable, if rather unambitious, adventure.
I describe the book as unambitious mainly because it is structured as a series of largely random, unrelated events -- the various tests that Sete-Ka must face. While some of these encounters build on one another, there's not much sense of progression as the reader moves forward through the book, and this somewhat diminishes the satisfaction of reaching the conclusion. The use of Egyptian mythology is also fairly unimpressive -- a few gods and monsters are featured, but nothing is portrayed particularly vividly. The illustrations aren't much help, either; while most are quite good from a technical perspective, and a few would even look right at home in a Fighting Fantasy book, the majority have a certain air of blandness to them, and many suffer from having no background drawn in. While drawings of monsters floating on a blank white field work well as small-scale filler art, they look strangely unimpressive when used as full-page illustrations.
As far as game design goes, this is reasonably successful. The "one true path" approach of this series appeals to me, since I generally prefer a consistently-designed, objective-oriented adventure. Of course, this sort of thing can become frustrating quickly if the choices are too arbitrary. While I didn't follow the reasoning behind every single choice, there are enough decisions with logical but non-obvious results to keep things interesting. My eventual success felt like a fairly balanced combination of luck and skill, and there was just enough skill in the mix to make victory satisfying. It would have been better with a tighter plot, but I'll take what I can get.
Overall, the book doesn't stray too far from its classic roots -- there is nothing here that would have seemed out of place in a book written twenty years ago. That's not to say that it feels especially dated -- the Ancient Egyptian setting makes the whole thing fairly timeless. Sure, the characters are awfully stiff and formal, spending more time praising gods than doing just about anything else, but that's kind of what you expect from this kind of fantasy literature. It works about as well (or as poorly) now as it did in the eighties. Really, the most jarring thing at first is the third-person writing, but I didn't find myself missing the more traditional second-person writing as much as I thought I would. For a book where the protagonist is so clearly defined and identification of the reader as the hero is less important, it doesn't make much difference which approach is taken.
This isn't quite the rebirth of Endless Quest, and I can't really recommend it as being anything more than a workmanlike effort, but it's not a bad start. There's enough good here to keep me interested in future volumes, and I hope the series keeps going long enough to attract some other veterans of the genre.
This is the first entry in a series of pick-a-path books by Margaret Weis Productions released in 2006. The series resembles most closely the classic Endless Quest series by TSR, mostly because of the fantasy themes and the length of text sections (most of them span several pages; it must be said however that Paths of Doom books appear to have more text per page than the original Endless Quest books had). Furthermore, two of the writers involved in this series, James Ward and Jean Blashfield, have written books for the Endless Quest series (and Margaret Weis had a go at it herself as well). The great enjoyment found in the first Endless Quest series, and the millions of copies it sold worldwide, mean that this book will most likely be met with a very high level of expectation. Fortunately, in my opinion not only does it live up to the challenge; it also surpasses previous Endless Quest books in several respects.
I found the setting for the adventure novel and endearing. This is a fantasy story set in the spirit world of Ancient Egypt, and thankfully the usual fantasy orcs and bearded wizards with bad breath which had become way too common in previous D&D-based gamebooks are nowhere to be seen. The setting is atmospheric in an effective way, and the gods, spirits, and original fantasy creatures, while not spectacular, nonetheless manage to contribute to said atmosphere. The writing also deserves mention. While it avoids the minimalism which had become a norm in the Fighting Fantasy series (especially in the earlier titles), the text flows with good pacing and the text sections never become tedious (unlike some terrible entries in the second Endless Quest series from the middle nineties). James Ward is no Margaret Weis by any means, but this still is miles away in quality from the horrendous Night of the Wolverine in the Marvel Super Heroes series. And while too many comparisons may not be a good thing, I absolutely feel I have to mention this book reads and plays a lot better than other similarly-themed books from the days of yore, like Secret of the Sphinx in the Dragontales series and Curse of the Pharaoh in the Golden Dragon series.
While not perfect, I found the gameplay and design to be good enough. There is only one optimal ending, and only two narrow paths lead to it. One of them is longer and more convoluted than the other, and rather tricky to find, but the choices demand more careful thought than is the case in the majority of gamebooks I've read. Kudos to the author for taking a critical approach to earlier interactive fiction and avoiding many of its clichés. While I'm a big fan of Endless Quest, nonetheless I admit that earlier series became tired and repetitive towards the end, since after reading a few volumes the player would easily realize that making what seemed like the most noble or brave choice at every point would be enough to breeze through many of the books. Sete-Ka's Dream Quest, on the other hand, poises tough logical challenges, and makes the player resent the impact of wrong choice-making. I could only find this approach to design rather pleasing to say the least.
The choices needed to find the second successful path, unfortunately, feel much more random and arbitrary, and I wasn't as pleased with them. However, a tough and clever riddle at the end is needed to prevail along this path, and this kind of saves it.
Despite the narrowness of both paths, the book is enjoyable as a whole because the author made a conscious effort to design it so that non-successful paths are also enjoyable to read. In your typical Choose your Own Adventure or Endless Quest book a wrong choice is usually greeted with an abrupt one-page ending, which is the equivalent of telling the reader: "see what you've done, you miserable sucker. Now go back to the start!." In this book, however, very often a wrong choice still means an interesting story follows, as the player is still offered choices and the consequences of failure may be a bit lessened if the reader applies good judgment. Furthermore, not all endings are horrible deaths, and the player character's fate depends on how well he fared in the adventure (along several paths, for example, it's possible to become one of many possible underworld spirit-servants of the gods, and the corresponding ending sections are lengthy and beautifully written). This way, reading the whole book is an engaging experience, and the reader is not limited to reaching the successful conclusion in order to enjoy the adventure.
While I found the design effective for the most part, it nonetheless shows flaws here and there. The section of the adventure which plays like a dungeon-crawl is unnecessarily repetitive and uncreatively designed. Also, there are some parts which feel rushed and badly thought-out, like the naval battle which could have been an excellent exercise in tactical choices for military command, but instead is undeveloped and feels like a pointless waste of time and space. Despite these rough edges, the book as a whole is worth a read, and reaching a successful conclusion may take a while.
While the illustrations are often amateurish, they nonetheless capture some of the feel of the old Endless Quest series, so I wasn't displeased by them (note I said the feel, not the talent).
Overall, I must say again that I'm very pleased with this book. Instead of trying to write the next big blockbuster which would shake the gamebook genre from the commercial impasse it has been in for several years (which would have been a foolish undertaking), James Ward demonstrates here a thorough knowledge of gamebooks. As a result, he has succeeded at deconstructing what has been previously published and combining his original ideas in a very effective whole, thus making a worthwhile addition to the gamebook canon instead of just trying to emulate past glories.
I definitely recommend this book, especially if you're a fan of either Choose your Own Adventure or Endless Quest and would like to try something different without losing the feel which made those series great.
|Thanks to Margaret Weis Productions for the review copy and cover image and to Ken G. for the back cover scan.
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