Fabled Lands Publishing, $8.99, ISBN 978-1-909905-02-3
Fantasy, 2013 (Reissue)
Necklace of Skulls, previously published in 1994, is given a new cover and a new opportunity to win the hearts of people everywhere. It’s inspired by Mayan mythology, but it is also set in a region with a vast and inhospitable desert. Interesting.
You are Evening Star. Your twin brother Morning Star was an ambassador of your people of Koba to the Great City. Unfortunately, only one member of the entourage came back alive, and that person wasn’t your brother. You learned that the entourage found the Great City destroyed, and Morning Star had some kind of vision that an evil sorcerer, Necklace of Skulls, was responsible for the destruction. He set out to investigate the matter alone – that’s what smart people do, after all – and nobody saw him since. You recently had a dream that he might be alive, however, so you decide to travel to the Great City and get to the bottom of things yourself.
Like other gamebooks in the Critical IF series, this one is more like Choose Your Own Adventure with fight scenes. There is no need to roll dice – all you need is to keep track of your Life Points, inventory, and code words. It’s all flipping pages, in other words. You also choose four skills to help you.
The way this campaign is designed, however, makes some of the skills vastly necessary compared to others. Because combat encounters are so few compared to everything else, combat-oriented skills are not useful at all. Sure, they help reduce one or two points of damage now and then, but you would lose more Life Points here in non-combat situations. The final combat takes a huge chunk of your Life Points, and the few scenes leading up to that point can be brutal as well. Combat-oriented skills can be useful, but they are situational. Compare this to some other skills like Wilderness Lore that are actually practically compulsory, and this creates an obvious imbalance when it comes to the skills.
This campaign can be easily mistaken for one designed by Ian Livingstone, Either you have a set of necessary items, or you have the skill to make up for the lack. Failing all this, you lose. The campaign allows you the freedom of taking various routes to find Necklace of Skulls, but given the very tight set of requirements needed to get the best happy ending, the campaign is more restrictive than it seems.
A high level of frustration is fine in a gamebook if there is a strong storytelling element. This is why gamebooks like The Way of the Tiger and Blood Sword are fun. Necklace of Skulls, however, has a disjointed feel to the whole setting. There are some fantasy elements, but they seem to be inserted in a manner reminiscent of checking off a laundry list. Things happen, often conveniently, when the plot requires them to happen, and there is never a strong, coherent sense of place here. The world building is flimsy, so it’s hard to get emotionally invested in this setting or the campaign, or to muster up the enthusiasm to discover what other options in this gamebook will lead to.