There’s life in an old dog yet
For gamebook fans of a certain age, Gary Chalk is a name to conjure with. He got co-author credits for the illustrations in the early Lone Wolf books, probably the best loved of the many gamebook franchises that thronged bookshelves in the mid-eighties. Times have changed, and digital publishing is all the rage, but Gary’s art has not diminished and he’s here with a brand new outing, Gun Dogs.
This is the latest title in Tin Man Game’s Gamebook Adventure series and it shares a lot of mechanical similarities with its predecessors. You’ll read through a paragraph of text, often be presented with some choices at the end, and occasionally have to check one of your stats against a dice roll, or fight a monster.
Battles are decided by throwing a number of offensive and defensive dice and comparing the highest of each to see if a blow is landed. If so, the difference between the totals is the damage inflicted. I’ve never liked this system: it’s functional but leads to a lot of indecisive rolls followed by colossal sums of damage. But as the Gamebook Adventure series has gone on, Tin Man has found a number of ways to improve the basic mechanics. Here, as the title suggests, you have a gun.
But this is a fantasy adventure, so it’s a slow hand-loaded pistol. That’s used to set up a number of tense and interesting choices in the book where you might – or might not – have had the chance to load your weapon before venturing into danger. Whether you actually hit with your gunpowder weapon or not is, like many other things in the story, decided by a dice-based stat test.
Indeed the sheer number of these is something of a hallmark that sets Gun Dogs aside from previous Gamebook Adventures that I’ve played. In addition to shot and reload rolls, you’ll test your mental score often to see if you find hidden clues or items, and your physical attribute for more corporeal challenges. The book is constructed cleverly so that you’ll never fail your quest if you fail a roll, but continual misses will make your journey an awful lot harder.
The author has gone to considerable pains to ensure that there’s plenty to choose from and a variety of different paths to take through the book. This, along with Tin Man’s usual intriguing set of achievements to tick off, means there’s plenty of fun to be had taking repeated trips through the story.
However, although the book is well structured, the writing is often a little loose and pulpy. There’s plenty of pace in it, and this being an adventure game in book form, I wasn’t expecting Shakespeare. But Tin Man’s previous outing, Curse of the Assassin, showed us that gamebooks can benefit from top quality writing, and this doesn’t quite measure up.
It’s a pretty grim affair in which your character is fitted with a magical collar capable of strangling him if he disobeys orders, and gets sent off on a suicide mission. It’s a concept that’s been visited before, if not so much in the fantasy genre. The world that the book conjures forth is also a little lacking in imagination, being peopled largely with well-worn fantasy stereotypes. But there’s usually enough cheek and life in the plot to make them feel more like old friends than tired shadows.
Fortunately, what the book lacks in terms of quality writing, it makes up for in terms of quality art. Gary Chalk’s style is instantly recognizable, and very well suited to this sort of renaissance-era fantasy fare. With time, his work has gained a new level of subtlety and detail and the pictures are such a delight that I found myself going through the book several times just to try and find all the illustrations.
Whatever shortcomings Gun Dogs has in terms of mechanics and literary style, it has a bouncy, thrilling feel to it that keeps you turning pages and rolling dice. Rather than wading through pages of exposition, the action is punchy and immediate; and while it may not win any scholarly awards, it’s still a ton of fun.