I really wanted to like Askaryl’s Grimoire, but in the end, it didn’t quite live up to my high hopes.
Gamebooks, for those unfamiliar with the term, are very similar to the classic Choose Your Own Adventure books of days long ago, with the added bonus of multimedia content like music, hi-res images, and even occasional bits of simple gameplay. At first glance, Askaryl’s Grimoire looks like it will be an impressive addition to the genre, with an epic story of dark magic, betrayal, and war wrapped in glorious visuals and remarkably good music and sound effects. But looks, as we all know, can be deceiving.
The character creation screen sets a strong pace, allowing you to take a photo of yourself (or anything else) to use as your in-game portrait and then roll virtual dice for strength, dexterity, intelligence, stamina, starting health and inventory, and even select from a number of special powers. By the time you’re done, you might be wondering if you’re about to play a full-on RPG.
Once that’s taken care of, the story begins with the lengthy, rambling tale of Askaryl, the last descendant of the ancient, immortal Dalahars, whose rule over the Lands of Anarkom was brought to an end millennia ago when a pair of “demiurgic gods” unleashed Yorghash, the Demon King, upon them. Following the mysterious death of his wife, Askaryl became a hermit and created his grimoire, which ultimately proved powerful enough to halt Yorghash’s still-running rampage. Then a whole bunch of other stuff happened, the net result of which is that the grimoire was stolen by the forces of evil and only you, a young lad named Edhan, can get it back.
If I seem to be glossing over the details, it’s only because there are so many of them, and they come so fast and furiously that there’s no practical way to cover it all without doubling the length of this review. That’s the first problem with Askaryl’s Grimoire: The effort to create a grand, sweeping fantasy epic results in too much, too fast, too soon. Major events pile on one after the other, moving from one point to the next without ever pausing for breath. It’s overwhelming, and the writing itself is a bit on the clunky side in spots too, which may be a consequence of the author’s first language being (I assume) French, not English. It’s far from terrible and allowances have to be made for the nature of gamebooks, which are inherently faster-paced than the average Tolkien novel, but even so, the story would have done well with a little more polish under the eye of a good editor.
The interactive components are also problematic. Askaryl’s Grimoire is my first gamebook so I’m not terribly familiar with all the conventions and norms, but I was surprised to find that there’s a far greater emphasis on your initial character build than on the decisions you make while you play. A low dexterity score, for instance, can leave you virtually helpless in combat, even during the opening chapter, and choosing the “wrong” abilities can actually mean instant, arbitrary death at random points during the game. In one instance, I handily won a fight against some poisonous snakes but died immediately afterward because I’d been bitten and had hadn’t chosen the “Miracle Poison Cure Power” at the start of the game.
And death, when it comes, is final. There are three manually-set “bookmarks” that you can return to at any time, but going back a page or two when you make a choice that ends badly isn’t an option. Neither is re-rolling any of your stats during the character creation process, even though having a powerful character is vital to success, so if you decide that you don’t like how your character is working out, the only option is to scrap everything and starting over. Yet in spite of the obvious importance of the numbers, the game contains very little information about how things actually work; if you want to know why you’re missing so much in combat, for instance, the only option is to hit up the Hamnasya website.
On the other side of the coin, the production quality is absolutely top-notch. The font type and size can be adjusted, there are separate screens for character attributes, inventory and even your own notes, and the map of Hamnasya is the sort of thing I’d love to have framed and hanging on my wall. The soundtrack is outstanding, as are the sound effects that burst forth every now and then, and the illustrations, while not overly plentiful, are absolutely gorgeous.
As a slightly-long-in-the-tooth fan of fantasy who prefers bookstores to app stores, this is a tale that left me a little cold. The story feels just a tad sub-professional but worse, its telling is regularly interrupted by events that can easily lead to instant, unforeseeable death. Perhaps this is an appropriate reflection of life in a dangerous fantasy world, but I don’t play these games because I want a lesson in the capriciousness of fate. Askaryl’s Grimoire may keep younger readers enthralled – and on that note, I think it could be a great way to introduce technology-obsessed youngsters to the joys of actually sitting back and reading something – but I suspect that more seasoned veterans of the genre will find it lacking.