Holmgard Press, €16.99, ISBN 978-3-939212-61-4
The Storms of Chai is clearly meant to be the start of a new arc in the Lone Wolf saga, not that there was much of an arc in the previous eight New Order gamebooks . The publication of this gamebook was as dramatic as any campaign, with great vanguards, betrayals, failures, and epic comebacks galore, and – alas, it is also Joe Dever’s last published gamebook as he passed away in 2016.
As for this one, it’s pretty hard to get, due to Mr Dever initially selling the gamebooks directly, which means limited print run and exorbitant prices as well as shipping fees. Chances are, you’d be playing this when it is licensed free for use on the Project Aon website. Ishir bless those people, they are a bulwark when it comes to keeping the legacy of Lone Wolf and Magnamund alive.
Oh yes, the campaign. Do read the timeline of events first, as it tells an interesting story of the comings and goings after The Hunger of Sejanoz, especially with some familiar NPCs finally croaking – alas, the perpetually useless waste of sagging flesh Lord Rimoah is not among them – and, more interestingly, an intersection of legends as Grey Star, Banedon, and Lone Wolf finally meet and work together to repel a Shadaki baddie resurgence and establish a Kai monastery in the Isle of Lorn. Why aren’t these events part of the new campaign arc? The whole thing sort of reboots the setting, as many of the new ongoing conflicts would feel very familiar if you had been playing since the first gamebook, but there is enough drama here to cover a dozen gamebooks.
And then… this campaign officially begins. It’s been eighteen years since the previous campaign, but don’t worry. Like all Kai folks, you age slowly, so you probably still look like some hot teenager or twenty-something fantasy pinup, whichever is your fancy.
You are a Grand Master. You can play as the previous fellow you were playing in the last eight or so entries – this campaign assumes that you do. Although, given how that poor fellow was more of everyone’s janitor than hero supreme, you may be forgiven if you would keep the stats and possessions but change the name to something else. You are one of them left by Lone Wolf to be in charge of the Kai monstery in the Isle of Lorn, far away from the fun parties happening elsewhere, but don’t you fret.
Sure enough, Lone Wolf shows up you to tell you that Agarash’s minions are back and they naturally have the backing of the evil god Naar. They are going to throw wicked parties all around town, and he’s sending all you Grand Masters out to crash those parties before too many people are killed. Ugh, Lord Rimoah also shows up to announce that, oops, the High Council didn’t take these warnings of Agrashi stampede seriously earlier, so sorry. Sadly, bitch-slapping him with a megaton-powered Kai Surge is not an option. So now, because the Elder Magi once again proved themselves as useful as a toadstool growing out of a tree stump, it’s up to the Kai folks to clean up the mess.
You have to go back to Chai, to locate the Eye of Agarash, which is conveniently enough one of the gems in the ruler’s throne. The Eye, when paired with the Claw of Naar, would product a super-deadly weapon of mass destruction, so naturally the bad guys want it too. You have to get it before they do. It’s pretty simple – meet the ruler, the Khea-Khan Lao Tin, who’s your ally, and collect the Eye, before making your way back. Just don’t mind those crazy villains, monsters, and whatever in your path…
Alright, skip the next four paragraphs if you don’t want to be spoiled.
Still here? Alright, this campaign is basically a hack and slash fest, with several combat encounters that you cannot avoid, so if you want to make it through to the end with optimal efficiency, it should be obvious that you need to choose the right skills. Sure, you can say screw min-maxing, and play a bard Kai master who is also an expert in astrology and brewing herbs (ahem), but you will regret it the moment the campaign begins and right away you begin bleeding Endurance Points because you don’t have any of the usual must-have disciplines like Grand Huntmastery, Grand Pathmanship, and Deliverance. Honestly, if you haven’t taken Deliverance from day one, what the hell is wrong with you?
Oh, and when you meet the Big Bad, there is a random number selection that leads to instant death when you get a 9 – Grand Huntmastery is the only skill that can save you in that it deducts 2 from any number you pick, so you will never ever get a 9. So yes, having the right skill will make the difference between life and death here!
Also, given that you will be up against swathes of foes, it makes perfect sense to have combat-oriented and defensive disciplines such as Grand Weaponmastery, Kai-surge, Kai-screen, Kai-alchemy, et cetera. Some of these skills will help you stack up your Combat Score considerably, and more importantly, some of these skills will also allow you to completely avoid or reduce the amount of damage over time and other jolly fun stuff you will come across later. Some skills will also be a life-saver – literally. Oh, and Kai-alchemy still remains far more useful than Magi-alchemy. You can take both and play a pew-pew Kai Master, if you have enough slot for Magi-magic after picking other more useful disciplines – that won’t hurt, and it’s quite fun too.
Picking the right disciplines is not as terribly strict as it sounds, since you will be a Sun Thane by the time you have finished the previous eight campaigns. (If you haven’t, it’s okay, pretend that you have… or cry later, because some of the must-have skills only function optimally at higher Kai levels.) That means you can pick eleven out of sixteen disciplines, and assuming that you aren’t insane or determined to be that lute-playing Kai Master who likes to get high and stare at the stars, you will have the bulk of the must-have skills already. You will also have a bow and arrows ready, of course, because it’s always good to whittle down an enemy’s Endurance Points before it gets to you, but do make sure you put them at the correct spots, as during this campaign, you can lose backpack items and weapons slotted in certain positions just because. Oh, and buy and keep every potion you come across, because there may be moments when having the right potion means not dying on the spot. There will be some riddle games here that will give you enough gold to go on a shopping spree if you happen to be good at logic and maths, or know where to locate the answer, heh. Losing your bow will make you feel like crying, and losing your potions will make you bleed because of the frequency of combat encounters here.
Already, spoilers over. If you’ve been good and skipped the previous four paragraphs, just to sum it up: the structural weakness of this campaign is its reliance on certain core Kai disciplines to make it to the end; the newer skills introduced in the New Order gamebooks never really find their footing to be useful, except for perhaps Elementalism.
Aside from that, this campaign is unbelievably tense and exciting. It’s a throwback to the more exciting much early gamebooks in this series, with just the right amount of tension and suspense as you race against time to complete an urgent mission in order to save the world. There are some logistic issues here – after encountering a town demolished by fiends, for example, you will reach the next town which is as peaceful and can’t-care-less as you please. All the better for you to rest and restock, of course, but the whole thing doesn’t make sense!
Still, for the most part, this one is up there with some of the better gamebooks such as The Dungeons of Torgar or Fire on the Water. You may experience a rush of adrenaline as you charge ahead, and while your companions will die (standard trope – you should expect it by now), their deaths add to the urgency of the do-or-die mission of yours. When you finally vanquish the tough Big Bad, who will call for reinforcement if you don’t defeat him quickly, it will feel like a hard-earned, well-deserved victory indeed.
Then Lord Rimoah shows up after you’ve done all the hard work. Seriously, why isn’t he dead yet, and why can’t you kill him?
The Storms of Chai isn’t perfect, and most of the time, the choices you make will funnel you down a path determined by Mr Dever anyway. Still, playing it is likely to give you an adrenaline rush that reminds you of that very first time you came across these gamebooks and fell in love with them. Then, you realize that you will have to pay through your nose to get the next one, because apparently nobody wants to produce mass marketable gamebooks anymore, just overpriced heavy things that look better on coffee tables than being thumbed open and replayed often. Life can be tough being a Kai folk.