Thursday, 15 November 2012

Preview: Maelorum gamebook



There are a tonne of great gaming projects getting the Kickstarter treatment at the moment but one of the most interesting for me is Maelorum, a self-described 'epic gamebook' that's 10 years in the making. Created by William Fincher, Maelorum is a hugely ambitious project that combines the interactivity and depth of videogames with the nostalgia of the Fighting Fantasy series.

One of the biggest surprises that Maelorum presented me with was the choice of characters. This isn't like the new editions of Fighting Fantasy where you get to choose from a few heroes but you inevitably head off on the same story - in Maelorum each character has an in-depth back story as well as their own storyline throughout the adventure. There are three to select from: Edan Kain, the warrior and the king's favourite knight; Raevena Cantor the gypsy rogue; and the aptly named Bryn Morecast, a wizard. Each character feels three-dimensional, with their own history, emotions and goals. They also have their own stats that reflect how difficult they are to play. For instance, Edan Kain is essentially the amateur setting, while Raevena is medium and Bryn difficult; meaning Maelorum has replayability written all over it. Heck, there are even achievements you can earn such as 'Heroic' and 'CodeBreaker', meaning completionists will probably have a lot to go at.

In my playthrough I chose Edan the knight, favourite of King Riordan, who happens to be the reason he's sent out on a mission to investigate the possible return of Goblins in the Elderwood, a blight that could be devastating to the kingdom. So off I go, being teased by the other knights while I leave into the wild green yonder like a bad-ass.

It's not long until my horse and I are attacked in the night by a shadowy assailant who I choose to chase into the mountains, a decision that comes with the first stat change for Edan. This is a really cool idea - each character has intelligence, persona, damage and defence as well as hit points, but these stats can change depending on your decision. Effectively, your choice of direction on your adventure directly affects how your character evolves. Because I chose to immediately head off into the night after the assassin my intelligence was reduced (since it wasn't the best idea) but my persona increased (because of my force of will). This mechanic somewhat echoes features in computer RPGs like Fallout 3 and Mass Effect and it's an interesting way to handle a gamebook.


 Eventually I come to the Black Cloister, a seemingly abandoned wizard sanctuary, which is where I encounter my first combat - a wraith in the guise of a child. Combat is handled in a pretty ingenious way - first you roll to see if you get to attack, which occurs on a two or higher. If you do, then you take your damage value and subtract the opponent's defence value; the result being the amount of damage you do to your opponent. The enemy then rolls 1d6 and you consult its chart, which is unique for every creature. The number rolled determines what happens and how much damage it does. In the case of the wraith, a roll of a two means that it only grazes your arm, but if you roll a six the creature stabs your right through your armour, delivering some severe damage. This combat system keeps each fight exciting and fresh while also being really quick and easy. You eventually also incorporate an NPC into fights, which is resolved in turns, but it never feels at all complex.

In the cloister, I came to a hall where I could select from a multitude of doors. There was a full colour image to go along with the scene, showing the doors each with a number on them. This made it really easy to navigate the section and it's an idea that plays out really well throughout the adventure. This page also contained a little picture of a bookmark denoting that I should either stick a bookmark in there (unfortunately not possible with a PDF) or just record the passage number shown on my character sheet. This is testament to how huge this game is to need save points. Fincher actually states at the beginning that it would be a bit ridiculous to start the book again if you die because it's so huge. It would be like getting firmly into Skyrim and then having to completely re-do it when you're offed. It also means that you can run multiple characters through the book simultaneously, which is a first for me with a gamebook.

I continued my adventure, finding items, solving puzzles, overcoming traps, gaining experience and slaying creatures. Once thing that really stood out was the quality of the writing. While it's true that I was using a draft copy of the book and of course there were a few inconsistencies, it is an amazingly written book with a good story and fleshed-out characters. This definitely isn't just your everyday dungeon romp - it's a multi-levelled adventure where your character grows through both experience and based on your decisions. The options presented to you throughout are logical and plenty, and with multiple characters there's no way you'll be finished with Maelorum for a long time to come.

Maelorum has just hit its funding target, but giving it an extra boost will go far to make what is shaping up to be an amazing gamebook into an even better experience.

Fund Maelorum on Kickstarter. Thanks to William Fincher for sending a preview copy of the book.

-Scott Malthouse

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