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On their covers, these books claim to be "[s]uitable for use with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and other role-playing games." Indeed, they use a detailed game system that resembles AD&D right down to the six core attributes, and they feature high-fantasy plots in keeping with the tone of TSR's product. The only difference is that only six-sided dice are used for randomization. Each story stands alone and features a different hero, but they all revolve around battles with the minions of the Darklord, an evil being who rules a dangerous land behind an enchanted wall of mist. Despite their apparent potential for use with AD&D, the books are peculiarly ill-suited for their complex game system. The books feature only minimal interactivity during their almost entirely linear storylines, offering very little opportunity to make use of any rules. Even though there are detailed character creation and advancement rules, the stories are so tailored to their protagonists that using a different character makes little sense. The book which gives the reader the most to do is the third title, which adds clerical spell-casting to the rules; in the rest, interactivity is largely limited to protracted battles (which consist simply of rolling three six-sided dice again and again and checking them against target numbers). The series is not without entertainment value, but it seems uncomfortable in its efforts to mix gameplay with storytelling.
Gamebooks1. Quest for the Unicorn's Horn
2. Quest for the Dragon's Eye
3. Quest for the Demon Gate
4. Quest for the Elf King
Swordquest's claim to fame is having a system "suitable for use with ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS and other role-playing games." That may be true, I'm not that into AD&D as a game so I can't say, but what it doesn't have is a system that makes it easy for the reader to become immersed in the world contained within its pages. Unlike other gamebooks in this vein (dice rolls to check skills, battle monsters, and statistic and inventory management), Swordquest seemed to decide that this compatibility with AD&D was more important than keeping the experience from getting bogged down, which absolutely kills the desire to stay with a gamebook.
The main flaw of Swordquest is its combat system, which is especially exasperating because every single book forces the player into battle in the very first section. The player is allowed to lose the first combat in the book and keep going, but always suffers some disadvantage for the rest of the adventure. Either a reduction in stats or losing (or losing a chance to get) a potent weapon. Losing the first fight in Quest for the Demon Gate is especially confusing as it doesn't say how many hit points the character should get back. Considering he wakes up hanging from a beam halfway down a well (excuse me, halfway up), giving them all back doesn't seem right.
To attack, each combatant rolls three dice and tries to equal or exceed a certain number "to hit," which tends to be annoyingly high, even with three dice. A magical weapon, naturally rare, might give a one or two point bonus to the roll. If either one hits, they inflict damage according to their weapon or demonic powers. Combats take too long to conclude this way, and the rules of combat in the beginning of the books before the actual adventure make battles even more confusing and difficult. Supposedly I should be adding three to an enemy's "to hit" roll if I'm not wearing chainmail, and another one if I don't have a shield. The designer didn't seem to consider what that would mean for character types besides the general fighter/knight, which is too bad because I don't see a character like a ranger or cleric, the protagonists of two of the books, sneaking around carrying heavy battle gear like that. Indeed, they aren't even given the opportunity to acquire full protective measures according to the rules summary. I'm talking about the first two Swordquest books I read, so I can't say I got a great first impression of how tight the rules were.
Another thing that Swordquest tries to do is allow the reader to "roll up" their own character and use them instead of a pregenerated one, but since the novels are written in the third person ("Alynn launches himself at the zombie" instead of "You launch yourself at the zombie") this tends to be an awkward proposition at best. I completed Quest for the Unicorn's Horn like that once, but I couldn't see carrying my character from book to book for the entire series. It was too much of a pain to insert a custom character into a story with its own hero who has his own background, especially in Quest for the Demon Gate.
This is all added onto long, wordy stretches of text, chronically low section count, and minimal interactivity. It might be immersive but for how the player ends up feeling like they have little to no control, which is exactly what a book of this kind should not feel like. I liked the fact that there was some continuity between the books and the rare creative moment, like hiding in a load of dragon dung, but it wasn't enough to redeem the books. This is a below average series and all but the most diehard of gamers should look elsewhere for kicks.
Despite its promising, flashy sword-and-sorcery aesthetic, the actual design of the "SwordQuest" series is all too often a blundering venture that lacks either the personality it needs to succeed nor attuned components which function as properly as they should. Whether or not the series happened to be a cash-in or not has been up for debate for years; the series' reputation has always been mixed to negative for a reason, and that would primarily have to do with the numerous flaws in the overall experience of each adventure's structural system. Most of the "interactive" elements are not as successful as they seem, making the gamebooks harder to get into than they should be, on top of the fact that the series fails to establish its uniqueness when driving its story along. Through this, it doesn't manage to be good enough to recommend (yet isn't outright bad). In what otherwise might have been a quick-wit, enjoyable experience, the finished product unfortunately never comes together - a shame considering its occasional moments of inspired fun and (inconsistent) excitement.