David Tant’s first book of The Legends of Skyfall series is something of an enigma – a puzzling contradiction where simplicity and complexity unhappily coexist. Monsters of the Marsh is boldly promoted as ‘An Advanced Fantasy Gamebook’ – an adventure where those employing logic and intelligence are duly rewarded for their skill and reasoning. Unfortunately, this stated claim is poorly implemented within the game system, and is then bewilderingly diluted even further by a dull and repetitive story structure that quickly generates a high level of frustration. How could a setting as rich as the world of Skyfall – an untamed planet where a race of intelligent Lizardmen inhabit an extensive network of swamps and rivers – produce such a lamentable result?
The author is a Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master, who has adapted material developed for his tabletop gaming group into a solo adventure. It appears that something substantial has been lost in this conversion process from multiplayer campaign to gamebook, as a significant portion of this book is wholly unexciting, tedious and mystifyingly substandard. What’s especially puzzling is that within all of this detrimental content enough tantalising quality does exist to suggest that a truly absorbing story could easily have been told.
You play as a young adventurer seeking to discover the fate of your father, who has mysteriously vanished during a journey through the dreaded marshes where the dangerous Lizardmen roam. The setting of the kingdom of Delta incorporates three types of magic – Arcane, Clerical and Druidical – however, you will rely on traditional weapons to resolve conflict, using a diceless system to decide your own fate. The Skyfall series utilises a heads and tails coin-tossing mechanic for its combat procedure, and to also resolve situations involving chance and luck. Similar to the Fighting Fantasy system in practice, this ‘unique’ feature actually offers nothing specifically different, and can easily be replaced by dice for those, like me, who fail to see any reason to locate and throw coins instead of dice.
Something that will soon become unavoidably apparent with this gamebook adventure is that mapping your journey is a must. The reason for this is that Tant’s structure – and a mostly colourless writing style – will quickly result in a failure to simply comprehend where you are in the environment. This annoying shortfall of understandable directions is made decidedly worse due to the various rivers of The Dunmarsh being confusingly written as sections where you can travel in both directions. You will spend a considerable amount of time traversing these mostly featureless rivers, streams and channels, finding that there is little to see or do, and ultimately discovering that there is surprisingly limited interaction with the denizens of the marsh – a total failure for a fantasy adventure where fantastic creatures are suggested but rarely encountered. Also, many of these waterways lead to uninteresting dead ends, and you are then required to record your travel time for such ‘entertainment’ – an utterly pointless system of unwanted record keeping that I soon dismissed as unreasonable nonsense.
Thankfully, once you do clear the majority of these endless navigational difficulties to reach the latter stages of the book, your journey regains lost momentum and the promise hinted at when you began your adventure has a welcome opportunity to reveal itself. It’s unlikely that you’ll completely forgive all of the earlier missteps with the game system and content, but the book does finish with a more enjoyable structure and story flow.
So, how exactly did it all go so wrong? The greatest errors involve a lack of awareness regarding likely player progression and the encounters then available along any chosen path. Too much of the book’s content is trifling and unstimulating, with a disagreeable amount of travel along featureless waterways that only form a tiresome network of insipid and complex routes. A genuine sense of adventure was lost during the conception of this gamebook, replaced by illogical busywork and a distinct lack of imagination. I also found few opportunities to employ actual logic and reason during my adventure – a journey that I had to walk away from for some time as my progress was halted by the confusion of the information presented. It was only a stubborn determination to not be so frustratingly beaten that finally resulted in me picking up from where I’d stopped to carry on and complete my journey.
Monsters of the Marsh is therefore useful as a valuable warning to all gamebook writers. It shows how important it is to thoughtfully plan and then execute your type of adventure as originally intended – particularly if you boldly claim to offer something beyond the norm or of an elevated format. The player’s individual experience must be considered at all times throughout the presented journey, otherwise a mediocre result such as this will surely arise. It’s a shame that these overwhelmingly negative thoughts define this book, as there clearly is an enjoyable fantasy gamebook hiding deep within its perplexing pages.
STORYLINE: The mystery of a family member lost within an unmapped and hostile environment is of genuine merit, however, the poor execution of this plot is soon exposed as you aimlessly travel along innumerable waterways, desperately seeking a way out. Skyfall offers plenty as a game setting, with some unique and unknown opponents lurking in the depths of The Dunmarsh. A promising story unfortunately wasted.
GAMEPLAY: Defective game mechanics, a dull structure that generates ongoing confusion, and a lack of helpful indicators to aid progression – ingredients that can only lead to extreme disappointment. The diceless system offers little of real value and you’ll soon tire of all the unnecessary record keeping and time constraints, and the uncertain rules regarding health and provisions. Overall, it’s not particularly advanced.
PRESENTATION: The design and layout is of a decent standard, with the cover image a notable standout. Interior illustrations vary from very good to unimpressively average, with enough highlights within the set to tip the balance in a favourable direction.
REPLAY VALUE: Only the very brave and patient, or those without any other gamebooks available, would surely embark upon further adventures here. There are few alternative routes worth seeking out and even fewer missed encounters worth going back for.
Review by Michael Reilly