Campfire Burning moves away from the grate and into his well appointed library to tell us a tale of adventure and derring-do.
Is this a story?” I said.
My friend took the book from the shelf and looked at the cover before pressing it into my hands. “No,” he said. “It’s an adventure.”
That was my introduction to the magical world of gamebooks, back in a time before Baldur’s Gate, Ultima Online and horrible, horrible puberty. The book in question was a Fighting Fantasy title – The Warlock of Firetop Mountain – and it changed my life. It inspired me to write. It inspired me to adventure.
A lot of water has passed beneath the troll bridge since then, and while board games, video games and tabletop RPGs have evolved in exciting contemporary directions it’s almost as if adventure gamebooks became trapped in their own haunted crypts. Only nostalgic geeks remember them now and when they do, it’s with a sigh and a certain sad sentiment that perhaps the past is best left buried.
But now, like a monstrous hand clawing its way through a coffin lid comes a gamebook that takes advantage of the thirty years of gaming innovation since Warlock was first published. It’s name is DestinyQuest, and it’s a modern day classic.
Your story begins as you gain consciousness amid the embers of a nightmare. You’ve lost your memory, blooded bodies are scattered around you like jackstraws and the only clue you have to your identity is a strange tattoo on your wrist. You meet a young soldier who’s been shot with a poison arrow. He’s dying and asks that you go to the town of Tithebury Cross, to seek help from a man named Avian Dale who lives there.
You promise him you will.
The kid dies, and when he does we begin our journey as all journeys should: with a vow on our lips and a map in our pocket.
Let’s talk about these maps. They’re gorgeous. There are three of them at the front of the book, used to navigate each of DestinyQuest’s three acts. To go anywhere you pick out a location and turn to the page number beneath it. Most locations have a quest attached to them, though before you go questing you’ll want to visit the local village to stock up on supplies and listen to rumours.
In Tithebury market place are three stallholders – an apothecary, a tinker and clothier who sell potions, armour and clothes respectively. Both the tinker and clothier also offer crafting services, and will cobble together new armour and robes for you if you have the constituent fabrics.
Wait, wait, wait. Clearly this isn’t working. By trying to give you a step by step review of this game I’m not doing it any favours. I want to make this very clear to you, because this is a product that deserves more than a simple review. This isn’t just another gamebook. Oh, it has its roots in Fighting Fantasy – any fool can see that. There’s combat and there’s dice-rolling, and there’s if you do this than turn to page 136 – there’s everything that comes to mind when someone mentions gamebooks and choose your own adventures. But this is something special. This is a revolution.
DestinyQuest is a gamebook that is not confined to its pages. It’s almost magical in that respect. It’s every poster you ever saw on a library wall as a kid, with Alice and the Mad Hatter, the Hungry Caterpillar et al leaping from the pages to whisk you away to their fantasy worlds. And it achieves this by being devilishly clever.
To start with there are the quests. You pick and choose quests as you like. True, you can’t zip straight to the difficult quests and hope to succeed – and if you did, you’d be cheating yourself of much the book has to offer. But being able to play the book in short sessions – as a series of skirmishes, or vignettes – is compelling. It makes you feel powerful. Too often game books feel unfair – you’re killed by a bad choice, or because you didn’t pick up a certain item at a certain juncture. You still make choices as to which path to take and which items to pick up, but doing so in DestinyQuest always presents you with a new route through the game, thereby avoiding frustrating dead-ends traditionally associated with gamebooks. If you somehow do manage to mess up, you don’t mess up the entire game but only a small part of it. Can’t get past a certain battle because your character’s too weak? Go back to the map, choose a different path and get more loot.
Oh yes, the loot. Like in a Blizzard Entertainment video game, loot is what drives DestinyQuest, and it’s everywhere. Kill a monster, steal its loot. Search a hidden path, find some loot. You can buy and craft loot at the marketplace, and find special ‘rare’ loot by taking new paths, defeating legendary monsters or beating challenges. Though every player starts DestinyQuest with the same useless sword, over the course of the book you’ll put together a character that reflects your own playing style by raising stats and gaining abilities based on the loot you equip. Without loot, you’re a zero-statted waste of space. With it, you’re a god.
Loot is ingenious in two distinct ways. First – and this is something you’ll only notice at the end of the book’s first act – is the combo system that comes with the various loot abilities. Yes, a combo system in a gamebook. Combat’s still made using your basic dice rolls, but abilities add layers of modifiers that can change your rolls for the best – it’s like you’re Neo and you’re rolling dice in The Matrix.
This is how the official DestinyQuest website puts it:
A good example of a combo is:
(combat ability) Deep Wound – allows you to roll two dice for damage
(modifier ability) Critical Strike – will change both dice results to a 
(modifier ability) Savagery – will add 2 to your damage score
(modifier ability) Sear – will add 1 to each dice, increasing damage by 2
Even with an initial roll of snake eyes that puts you at ten damage for every roll, plus the bonuses you get from your Brawl attribute.
The other brilliant thing about this loot system is that it discourages cheating. Back in my Fighting Fantasy days I was a serial page-holder. I’d cheat my way through fights just to continue the story. In DestinyQuest fudging dice rolls through loot abilities is part of the fun of the game. By not playing the game ‘properly’ you’ll miss out on loot abilities you’ll need to defeat enemies later in the book. If you cheat in one battle, you might as well cheat in them all – and since the game is so reliant upon battles, you might as well just skip from the first page to the last.
DestinyQuest’s quests vary in depth, and they all have their own individual character. They’re particularly strong when compared to the Fighting Fantasy storylines of yore. Because each has its own individual plot they take can place in disparate locations, at different times of the day or in different weather conditions, all of which helps make the quests tremendously atmospheric. They’re cohesive in a way Fighting Fantasy stories never were – encounters never feel random – you don’t just blunder into ghouls, clockwork soldiers and giant spiders; though the game does have its share of giant spiders (and maggots, bats and centipedes) they’re positioned in a way that feels – for want of a better word – organic. Climb down the village well to save the Elder’s son and you’ll battle wiggling monstrosities burrowing through the soil. Offer to help a wizard trapped in his tower by magic gone awry and you’ll fight elemental demons. On top of that, not every encounter is a straight-forward fight to the death. Sometimes monsters will be immune to certain abilities or attacks. Sometimes different events will happen part-way through the fight, and sometimes you’ll even be rewarded bonus loot for defeating a monster in a certain fashion. From quest to quest, you never know what’s going to happen next.
The only problem with the quests is that, once you’ve cottoned onto their individual themes, some of them can be a little predictable. Certain quests are built around fantasy clichés – an early quest influenced by Little Red Riding Hood is replete with a granny who’s not everything she seems and a Big Bad Wolf. Characters tend to be painted in broad strokes, possibly because the game’s aimed at a young audience. DestinyQuest is a frothy read and therefore doesn’t have the substance older readers might prefer.
But you know what? To heck with those guys. As a reboot of the gamebook phenomena, DestinyQuest: The Legion of Shadow is phenomenal. It’s a bright book with an intricately balanced game system that’s as much fun to play as any of its forerunners, if not more so. It’s the kind of thing you might – and should – pick up for your kids and end up buying another copy, so you can keep one for yourself.
DestinyQuest – just think about the title for a moment. Like HeroQuest and WarhammerQuest, it’s a name destined to go down in gaming history. It defines a genre that doesn’t yet exist – the twenty-first century gamebook – by blending fast-paced video game combat and collectibles with all the thrilling adventure you’d expect from a book like this.
There’s much more to say about DestinyQuest – while playing I wrote several pages of notes I haven’t even touched upon while writing this review. But all really you need to know about it is this: DestinyQuest is the new Warlock of Firetop Mountain. You don’t get higher praise than that.
Campfire Burning? Yeah, you know him. You should email him too. Get him at firstname.lastname@example.org – and if you want more information on Destiny Quest, check out the official site at http://www.destiny-quest.com/