Wizard Books, £4.99, ISBN 978-1-840468-07-6
Fantasy, 2007 (Reissue)
Meet Jonathan Green. He hates you. He does. Spellbreaker, his first published gamebook in the Fighting Fantasy series, is so unfair and even broken at places that you will be foaming at the mouth and wishing to introduce the sharp side of your broadsword up where the sun doesn’t shine on Mr Green at the end of the day. Were not for the fact that Mr Green clearly hates you – did you run over his cat? – and wants your character to die multiple times for the sins you must have committed on him in the past, Spellbreaker may be a very good gamebook. Okay, so it has a stupid plot, but it also boasts vividly drawn settings, well-crafted atmosphere of horror and fantasy, and complementing readable prose.
Let’s start with the stupid plot. You are an adventurer making a pilgrimage to your homeland Ruddlestone when you find yourself in the company of a kind stranger one stormy night. The both of you seek shelter at Rassin Abbey, where you realize to your dismay that the stranger is actually an evil wizard, Nazek, who used you to get the monks to invite him into the Abbey. Now, he has killed a monk and stolen the Black Grimoire (don’t ask me why the phrase is in italics, I’m just following the convention set by the gamebook).
Worse, the Black Grimoire will be used to summon Kurakil, the Infernal Beast, into this world in four days time. I’m not sure why Nazek will want to summon a demon to destroy the world, but I guess he needs an excuse to be the bad guy here. Despite the fact that the monks are holding an item that can destroy the world in the open, without any magical security system in check, you are blamed for the theft, so it is up to you to retrieve the Black Grimoire, kill everybody that stands in your way – the usual.
Ruddlestone is a nicely drawn setting, displaying a good blend of fantasy and horror elements. The author adds in elements inspired by real life witch-burning rituals and religious inquisitions and the end result is a campaign with gripping scenes. The setting is easily the best thing about this gamebook, because the campaign surely is one you most likely want to forget. The thing is, despite the fact that you have only four days to prevent the world from coming to an end due to the stupidity of some monks who won’t even give you decent stuff to start out the campaign with, you need to make all kinds of detour to solve the ills of the villages on your way and collect some items and clues needed to win the campaign. And this is where the problems start to arise.
For a start, you have a limited amount of money to start with. So unless you cheat, you will most likely miss out on buying some items in a marketplace early in the campaign due to limited funds – items that you will need or come to an ignoble end. Having no money can also lead to plenty of dire consequences, so you are already screwed from the beginning since you have to buy the correct items and still have some money left. Even better, you will most likely die if you don’t start out with maximum stats, since there are plenty of opponents here who will crush weak heroes with their insanely overpowered stats. Let’s just say that Mr Green believes in diplomacy – even minions deserve to have high stats usually reserved for the final boss. But you absolutely need an item to survive early in the story… an item that you will only get if you are insanely lucky and fail an easy roll, no mean feat if you have high starting stats in the first place. You will need an item later on as well to deal with a witch, an item that you will obtain only if you happen to do an un-heroic thing earlier in the campaign. See what I mean? Mr Green hates you.
If you still don’t believe that Mr Green thinks you are a despicable scum who should be killed in his beautifully sadistic campaigns, wait until you meet the so-called good guys who not only grab an item you plunder after a hard fight without permission, but will also kill you if you cannot solve a puzzle. Mr Green loves to show off his counting skills, you see, and clearly you are unworthy to live if you don’t appreciate his genius.
If all those nonsense aren’t enough, the story is also littered with inevitable death scenes if you can’t read Mr Green’s mind and, say, take the left turn instead of the right. Failure to follow the script means humiliating failure at every turn. And when you finally meet Nazek and ends up this close to death after stopping his summoning ritual, Mr Green who hates you decides to bring out the demon anyway for a fight. After hemorrhaging skill and stamina points like an incontinent person faced with a ghoul pack, you then have to deal with Nazek. At all these points, you naturally need the correct weapon to face them or die. And finally… finally… you triumph… only to have Mr Green laugh evilly as you fail that final Test Your Luck roll and everybody, including you, dies.
Spellbreaker could have been a good campaign if it wasn’t created by the DM from hell. The setting and world building are fine, but the gameplay design is pure garbage. All things considered, I’d give one oogie for the world building, and that’s only because I’m in a generous mood.