Troubador, £9.99, ISBN 978-184876-542-9
Whoa, this is a big gamebook indeed! The Legion of Shadow is the first gamebook in Michael J Ward’s DestinyQuest series, and it’s easily one of the biggest recent gamebook release that isn’t a Fighting Fantasy or Lone Wolf reissue. This is interesting, because instead of reprising old-school style of pencil and die gaming, this one instead chooses to feature elements that are more prevalent in hack-and-slash fantasy video games. Indeed, The Legion of Shadow has more in common with Blizzard’s Diablo games than the author’s favorite Fighting Fantasy gamebooks.
Set in the kingdom of Valeron, you begin the campaign as a novice warrior who has no memory of your past. You have a distinctive mark on your upper arm, but who you are and even where you are going, you have no clue. You wake up to what is clearly the aftermath of a brigand attack, and you manage to get a brief idea of what happened in the last few days from a dying young man near you. Before he croaks, he tells you that he is a graduate from the academy and he was on his way to Tithebury Cross to become the apprentice of the great Avian Dale. Since he’s going to die, he tells you that it is fine if you want to take his place and seek out Avian Dale. And so, with his sword and letter of introduction, you head over to Tithebury Cross, hoping that this Avian Dale will help sort out your fuzzy memories. Little do you know that you will soon be a major player as one of the defenders of the land against the rampaging Legion of Shadows who seek to cross over from their world into this and conquer everything they come across.
Like a typical MMORPG, this campaign sees you starting as an apprentice-type, hacking and slashing your way into a level where you are allowed to specialize in a class. Here, you can be either a mage, a rogue, or a warrior. If we want to compare to archetypes typical in MMORPGs, then the mage is like a mix of cleric and wizard, specializing in magic attacks. Strangely enough, the warrior is like a giant subset of archetypes that comprise paladin-like tankers to squishy rangers. You’d think rangers would fall under the rogue class, but this campaign’s rogue typifies the assassin archetype, and in this setting, this is the most overpowered class to date as they excel in fast attack speed and dishing out spurts of huge damage. The die-roll game mechanics allow characters with high Speed score to win a combat round and inflict damage, and the rogue profession allows you to wear equipment with generous boosts to Speed and access to skills that dish out hefty chucks of immediate damage as well as significant damage over time that, unlike that in the Mage and Warrior classes, is not restricted to one use per combat encounter.
As you level up higher, you will be given the option to upgrade to a second-level profession. For example, if you are a mage, you will find options to specialize further into archetypes such as medic, necromancer, pyromancer, and such. Each archetype gives you only two special skills, but for some classes, those two skills are good enough to bolster an already impressive array of damage and speed modifiers. I personally have played a wizard who opted for the medic profession and later a rogue who turned into an assassin. The medic is available only in endgame, sigh, but after getting that profession, I had the time of my life because I had a hard time losing. Okay, my damage could be better as I deliberately chose equipment that allowed me to have stacks of heal and other defensive properties, but I was laughing at the most challenging monsters as I healed my allies. But then I played the assassin and… oh my. I was taking down enemies like a hot knife cutting through butter. If you want an easy mode class, go for rogue. Warrior is a bit of a touch and go – they have slow damage-per-second but you can tailor your build to either dish out damage or become a tank. As you can tell by now, this campaign allows a great degree of build customization.
Like a typical MMORPG, in this game you have free rein to visit various parts of a location in each of the three maps. The difficulty of the combat encounters in a particular region is indicated on the map, so you’d naturally head over to the easier locations first as you go. Each location offers a mini-quest that is pretty much a linear set of encounters. Each successful venture – and it’s very easy to succeed, as I’d explain later – yields loot with stats that will, hopefully, boost your preferred build to greatness. Each map also indicates the location of mini-bosses that you can take down to obtain more elite gear, but be warned: these monsters are tough. And I do mean tough – they not only have greater stats than your average foul fiend, many of them have abilities to inflict damage while ignoring your armor, cause painful damage over time, or possess immunity to all kinds of attacks. Have fun with Malcontent in the third act – he heals from each successful attack round – and with the Hydra, who heals completely if you fail to take it down within three rounds. I haven’t played a warrior so I’m not sure how that class will fare against these bosses, but my assassin is pretty good at boss-killing thanks to good gear, good damage and insane attack speed, while my healer-mage yawns at the face of danger as she slowly hacks the enemy down while healing every round.
Oh, and it’s quite easy to succeed in this one because, again like an MMORPG, when you die, you respawn at the nearest town and you are free to go back and have at it another time with the opponent who toppled you down the first time around. The author’s excuse here is that your special gifts make you essentially immortal, so there is no repercussions for being foolhardy and dying as a result. Since this game doesn’t have an experience system to level up, you don’t even lose any experience as penalty. So, just go ahead and charge!
Having said all this, let’s look at the entertainment value of The Legion of Shadow. I suspect that your enjoyment of it depends greatly on how you love your MMORPG games. If you want a strong storytelling element, you won’t find it here. Now, let me make this clear – Mr Ward’s narrative is very easy to read, packed with ample amusing humor and a strong sense of braggadocio. The three acts are very well-defined too. Tithebury Cross is reminiscent of Titan’s Old World, as it is a village haunted by mysterious going-on and, some say, devils on the losse. The second act is all about pollution and sad fae folks – not my favorite type of setting but it’s well-drawn nonetheless. The third act… well, it’s non-stop action. Too bad it has the least number of mini-quests, because this act is the most memorably action-packed one where you actually fight with your allies instead of hacking it all alone. But because this campaign is essentially chunks of mini-adventures with dramatic cut scenes interspersed here and there, the story never goes deeper than the initial “mysterious hero saves the day” premise. Old school fans of tougher gamebooks may also feel that this one is unnecessarily lenient, as you don’t really need to have specific items to triumph. If you are lucky, some items you collect along the way can give you access to bonus loot, but you won’t die if you don’t have those items. The Legion of Shadow is as far from a typical gamebook by Ian Livingstone as you can get. Here, what determines your victory is your gear, your build, and some luck.
Seriously, this campaign is an MMORPG set to paper and Mr Ward’s greatest success is his ability to ensure that the transition actually works. As someone who plays MMORPGs, I have no problems with those elements in this campaign. In fact, the novelty of how well they translate here contributes a big part of my enjoyment of this gamebook. It’s nice to “play” an MMORPG with a memorable setting and some interesting customization options. I do miss the player cooperation function, but to be fair, this gamebook can’t have everything. Plus, unlike an MMORPG game, there are no obnoxious kids to gank everyone with their cash shop-bought prowess, so there’s much to be said about going back to basics. I’ve had fun – lots of it – and I’m looking forward to the next entry in the series.