Pure Indigo Publishing, $12.99, ISBN 978-0-9571352-1-5
The Renegade Wizard is published by what seems like an indie publisher, so it is probably understandable that the cover art is… uh, not exactly eye-catching, let’s just say, and there are no full-page illustrations typical of gamebooks published by mainstream publishers with bigger budgets for artists and such. If you can overcome any unfavorable first impressions you may have of this one, you may find that it isn’t that bad. It’s not amazing, but it’s not awful either.
Set in a country called Norland, a generic fantasy medieval Europe setting (think knights and evil wizards), you play Toby, a squire in the service of Sir William, a knight of Norland. As evil wizards tend to do, big bad Maudilus moves into the creepiest maze-like Temple of the Morrigan at the foot of ghastly mountains, surrounded by a spooky wood. The better for him to do the usual clichéd evil wizard stuff, of course. You accompany Sir William and his entourage to take down Maudilus, but alas, you are the sole survivor of an ambush that occurs shortly after the campaign begins. It is up to you to take down that ghastly stick-waver, but first, you have to pick a specialization. You can be a barbarian, a ranger, or… well, not exactly a wizard, but more of someone who can sense magic, read magical runes, and conduct minor spells like fireballs. Ta-da-dum, your adventure has begun!
In many ways, The Renegade Wizard is a welcome throwback to old-school gamebooks, without any overt MMORPG elements that can be found in more contemporary gamebook releases today. Of course, this may not be a good thing to a new generation gamebook player, heh. The combat and save system uses a die – the same old stuff, really. There are also the standard stats to keep track of, with the usual luck system modified into Hero Points, which can be earned by performing good or heroic deeds throughout the campaign. Reminiscent of the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, this one also requires you to do the right things and have the right objects – as per the script – in order to reach a happy ending.
And it’s not an easy campaign. In many ways, this gamebook has the excess of the less pleasant problems that plague the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks: a severe case of collect-stuff-or-die disease with some wander-aimlessly-in-a-maze side syndrome. It also suffers from a case of artificial difficulty. You start out with only 10 vitality points, and you will never be able to go above this amount. The thing is, nearly all your combat encounters will feature enemies with 10 or more vitality points, and each successful attack of theirs easily lops off a big chunk of your measly 10 points. One of the early combat encounters you will come across, in fact, features three horrible brutes with 10 to 12 vitality points each, each of them whacking off 6 points off your vitality with a successful hit! Things get better when you come across armors and protective gears that can reduce the damage you receive in combat, but that’s no consolation when Maudilus can easily take off 10 – yes, 10 – vitality points off you with a wave of his hand, no saving roll allowed. This gamebook disturbingly resembles a nightmare shaped by Jonathan Green after ingesting too many magic mushrooms.
Normally, such difficulty isn’t that bad if the proceedings are offset by an interesting and strong story, setting, or, ideally, both. While Mr Martin’s narrative has occasional chuckle-inducing displays of wry humor, everything about this campaign is too generic and clichéd for its own good. It is very easy to like the narrative, but that only makes up a small part of the gamebook experience. The immersion effect is weak due to the lackluster setting and the artificial difficulty setting is really tough without ample pay-off to make up for the frustration. If we can somehow cut down on the aimless maze-crawling tedium and nerf the difficulty of the combat encounters a little bit, this one would have been a far stronger debut gamebook. As it is, it’s a gamebook that is somehow more enjoyable if you cheat your way through.