iPhone Game Review: Gamebook Adventures 5: Catacombs of the Undercity Reviewed by Tim Harvey
Growing up in the 80s had its share of positives. On a normal Saturday I'd wake up, pump up my high-tops, moonwalk to my friend's house for some Colecovision and then later, when I got home and didn't have my own console to play, (since my parents were late on the NES bandwagon), I'd get out a gamebook instead. Yes, this was the pinnacle of fun for me in 1987, and even in 2011 it's something I can go back to and enjoy on my iPod Touch thanks to the thriving gamebook genre that has seen a revival thanks most of all to Tin Man Games? Gamebook Adventures series. The series is now 5 deep, with Catacombs of the Undercity reminding me just how engrossing good gamebooks are.
The easy explanation of the gameplay in Catacombs of the Undercity, as with all the Gamebook Adventures entries is to call them ?Choose Your Own Adventure books with RPG elements,? but I?ll go a bit more in-depth than that for the uninitiated. First you choose the difficulty, which basically boils down to how many bookmarks you?ll get, which allow you to start back from a particular section where you?ve placed them, and how your attributes are calculated. Next you select your character?s name and roll dice to determine your attributes: vitality (hit points), and fitness (which is similar to luck?more on this later). You also have offensive and defensive values that are determined by your gear, which can be upgraded in a variety of ways. Once you?ve started, you?ll basically be reading until you get to a point where you have a choice to make which leads to different paths, some more treacherous than others.
At times, you will need to fight enemies, which is done via dice rolling. You will attack first, and you get as many dice to roll as your offensive value, while your opponent gets as many dice to roll to defend themselves as their defensive value. After your turn attacking, your opponent will attack you, and so on. Outcomes are calculated as defensive dice that have higher values to offensive dice result in no damage being taken, whereas defensive dice that tie offensive dice cause both the offensive and defensive dice in question to cancel each other out. Obviously, if offensive dice values are greater than the value rolled by a defensive die, then damage equal to the total number rolled will be inflicted. It?s a good system that works seamlessly in action, and while some people simply do not take to the random nature of dice-based combat, tabletop RPGers of old will feel right at home. You?ll also encounter events that require fitness checks?basically you?ll roll and hope for a value that is equal to or lesser than your fitness value. These fitness checks can mean life or death, sometimes in an instant, and sometimes through measures as you find yourself losing vitality with a misstep.
Gamebook Adventures 5 departs from the previous entries in the series by also including random roll events, which means that at certain junctures you?ll need to ?roll to determine your fate.? It?s an interesting design choice in that with these rolls you have no control over what happens, and no amount of planning can prepare you for when you roll the number that causes you to, for example, lose your pack and all your supplies. It adds another layer of randomness to the game, and for that reason I find it enjoyable and exciting, although some who are seeking to complete the gamebook in a more systematic manner might find it a little cheap. The experience is deepened in that you?ll be able to collect information, money, and items that can affect your vitality and status, and which paths you?ll be able to take. You?ll also find yourself afflicted with a variety of ailments at times. In many ways, the gamebook really emphasizes the ?game? aspect, since it?s all-in-all a very interactive experience. The ?book? part of the equation is really well-done too, however, with a very well-written story and some interesting and compelling characters.
Although there are several different gamebook or interactive book series available for iOS, Gamebook Adventures really thrives above all the others in how well-adapted it is for the platform. The visual quality of these apps is unrivalled and each entry has a very distinct visual feel to it, as different artists have contributed throughout the 5 gamebooks. Catacombs re-introduces Pirkka Harvala, from Gamebook Adventures 1, whose clean and realistic art style really lends itself to portraying the world of Orlandes. The UI also looks great, and is very user-friendly. As the game supports retina display, fonts are clear and explicable, and even the virtual pages have a nice variety of styles to choose from. You can collect in-game art as achievements to view at any time, and there is even a large map of the fantasy world that you can pore over to unlock some of the mysteries of the world you?re being immersed in.
I find the sound of the pages turning oddly satisfying. So too do the dice have a nicely realistic clatter to them, and the music is quite good, conveying a dark and moody atmosphere via orchestral trimmings. It does, however, play in an endless loop which, after an hour or so, starts to make my mind reel. Fortunately, the app does support iPod library play.
I?d like to think that gamebooks could lead the charge back to story-driven game experiences, although there seems to be little indication that they are having any real influence in mainstream gaming for now. Nevertheless, for old school gamers who value a good yarn, gamebooks are coming back in a big way, even if they?re something of a niche product at the moment. I highly encourage anyone who wants more complexity in their game stories to check out gamebooks, and for iOS gamers who fit this bill I?d suggest Gamebook Adventures as the best starting point, with number 5, Catacombs of the Undercity, being as good a place as any to start since you can read them in any order.
Ratings (scale of 1 to 5):
Graphics: - 4 - Excellent original artwork and menus look gorgeous on a Retina Display enabled screen. Sound: - 3.5 - Excellent, if ultimately repetitive, music and very good sound effects. Controls: - 5 - Kind of a non-issue, since this is not a game that will require anything but tapping on icons and swiping to turn the pages, but hey, it does those things flawlessly! Gameplay: - 4 - An excellent mix of compelling story, branching choices for exploration and replayability, fun RPG elements and lots of random outcomes to keep you on the edge of your seat! Overall: - 4 - A great starter for anyone who is a fan of gamebooks, Choose Your Own Adventure books, fantasy literature, RPGs or adventure games with deep stories, or anyone who is simply intrigued by the idea of a gamebook.