by Dominic Covey, sci-fi/horror (2011)
RPG Objects, $12.95, ISBN 978-1935432-55-5
The Program is a solo play spin-off of the role-playing game Abandon All Hope. While the other items on the catalogue are familiar tabletop RPG materials, this one is a gamebook, which is why it gets to be reviewed here, heh.
Firstly, let's take a look at the setting. Abandon All Hope is deeply rooted in survival horror, set as it is in a dystopian and claustrophobic colossal prison hulk called Gehenna. Gehenna is the brainchild of the 27th century global government of Terra, as the perfect solution to remove all those nasty criminals and other dangerous people from society and send them - literally - into outer space. However, things soon go wrong, and Gehenna does an Event Horizon, entering another dimension and attracting the attention of alien lifeforms drawn to the negative vibes of the Gehenna.
Your character in The Program don't know all this, however. You wake up one fine day, with no recollection of your past, in what seems like an abandoned building. With only your wits and whatever items you can find along the way, you are going to make it out of this mess alive.
Despite being billed as a Choose Your Own Adventure-style gamebook, The Program requires die-rolling - the campaign recommends a twelve-sided die, but there's nothing to stop you from using two normal six-sided dice, of course - and tracking of inventory and stats. Combat isn't so complicated, however, as it involves the usual "your Attack roll against his Defense Roll" procedure.
There are quite a number of stats to track. There's the usual Health, and then there's Despair which is, weirdly enough, linked to Insanity. Every ten points of Despair adds one point of Insanity, and ten points of Insanity renders your character totally cuckoo and incapable of continuing the adventure. Other stats are standard ones related to combat abilities and such. You can also learn "traits" along the way that boost your current stats.
There are also four "tags" to keep track of: Egocentric, Connective, Cognitive, and Behavioral. Interestingly enough, the campaign awards points for any of these tags depending on the kind of action you choose to take throughout the campaign. Therefore, you are actually building up your character's personality trait as you go along, and the tag scores play a role in determining the outcomes of several incidents in this campaign. That's pretty cool, actually,
If all this sounds complicated, it's not, actually. Things become clearer once you start playing, and the rules turn out to be quite simple to follow.
The setting is pretty interesting. Unfortunately, this campaign turns out to be more of an exercise of random dungeon-wandering and number crunching. While it is easy to locate a map containing the layout of the place, it doesn't help much. Most of the time, you will be making random guesses as to turn left, right, up, down, whatever, and there is nothing, not even the map, to help you get any idea of where to turn to. The maze-like elements of the campaign are annoyingly artificial too - you will find yourself going through the same handful of entries until you finally locate the correct way out. As a result, this campaign feels overly padded with "go there, go here, oops, back to there again" moments of frustration.
While your character has amnesia of sorts, and therefore it is understandable that things are far from clear early in the campaign, it becomes frustrating to keep wandering around while still knowing nothing about the setting or your past. Things would have been more interesting if, for example, a number of the useless "go here or there?" paragraphs were excised for scenes that allow your character to discover clues about the place and your past. A build up of suspense, with clues dropped in here and there, would have made this campaign an interesting and suspenseful one.
As it is, The Program spends too much time making you wander aimlessly through some bland wallpaper dungeon turns. It's a pity, as the setting holds many intriguing promises. The pay-off isn't satisfying either, as you are told that your character is now ready to play the RPG game hardcore. If this is going to be nothing more than a sales pitch for the Abandon All Hope RPG game, Mr Covey could have at least made it a fun one.
This book at Amazon.com
This book at Amazon UK
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