Jeffrey Dean’s impressively elaborate and skilful world-building has already been on display throughout the preceding volumes of his ‘Road Less Traveled’ series: both Westward Dystopia and Spire Ablaze have delivered detailed story-driven adventures overflowing with an assortment of interesting and complex characters, memorable environments and unique situations. Book 3: The Lords of Benaeron continues his established benchmark of imaginative settings and interconnected human drama as the series now focuses on the machinations surrounding the ruling gentry in the city of Benaeron – one of the last remaining civilisations in this wasteland world.
You play as a member of the Branded: a resistance movement seeking to overthrow the ruling elite of Benaeron and free its subjugated people. After initially escaping from interrogation and making your way into the city, you’ll embark on a series of missions and quests to gain intelligence and improve your Army Strength (your attacking force of allies required for an assault on the Lords’ palace); undertake quests to solve puzzles, mysteries and crimes; assist the troubled citizens of Benaeron to gain rewards; form alliances with other groups within the city who also desire change; and build your reputation to improve your chances of unseating the tyrannical lords.
These missions and quests range from quick affairs lasting only a few sections to lengthy multi-part undertakings where you’ll need to gather specific items or keywords to then initiate the next stage. There’s a good level of variety in the circumstances and challenge involved, with some dependent on a fortunate dice roll to successfully gain access and complete. Once this part of the story begins the adventure gains significant momentum and you’ll regularly be asked to decide exactly who to trust, who to be wary of, and how to best prepare yourself for the coming fight for freedom.
A written keyword system documents your progress throughout your adventure, recording choices that affect circumstances within the game world and triggering options or responses when exploring or undertaking missions and quests. This mechanic is neatly implemented as a way to determine the individual path you’ve taken, and you’ll soon be searching keenly for wanted keywords to advance your options and gain strategic advantage.
The majority of the book features a central hub structure – the Branded’s underground base of operations – from where you’ll begin missions, attend briefings and debriefings, and move the game forward as you attain the required knowledge, tools and people to undertake the final attack. You’re free to explore the city yourself outside of the set missions, gaining a wider perspective of the various troubles and conflicts within the city, and learning more about past and present events of importance. It’s not a prerequisite to have read the previous two books, however, you will gain a greater understanding about this world and the overarching plotline of the series if you have read them, particularly as events and characters from both books make reappearances here.
One of the greatest features of The Lords of Benaeron is the enormous amount of absorbing content included within its pages – it’s absolutely packed with hours of adventuring, scheming and conflict. My journey to completion consisted of about 15 hours, and I know that I missed plenty during that time. There’s so much to do at any point in the game, with numerous missions or quests to trigger or follow-up on, unexplored areas to visit, items to find, and friends/foes to meet, greet or send to an untimely death.
Combat is not a key element within this gamebook – although it features quite often – and due to your remarkable mutant ability to manipulate electrical energy, you’re a powerful weapon not easily overcome in battle. I had no problems defeating adversaries during my adventure, and after successfully assembling a suitable fighting force (and discovering various help to safely navigate my way inside the palace), found little genuine resistance during the final assault. As with all of Dean’s gamebooks, the focus in The Lords of Benaeron is on mature storytelling and realistic personal interactions within a world full of technological marvels, philosophical conundrums and questions regarding what it truly means to be alive. The characters presented in the narrative are often severely flawed, aggressive, highly conflicted or mentally unstable (due to a range of internal and external influences). These are troubled people operating in circumstances that would test most to their limits, and therefore demand careful evaluation. As content for a gamebook where reality is knowingly temporary and illusory, this presents a wide range of player options, resulting in complicated choices requiring moral decisions on how you wish to interact and proceed, and asking for a personal determination on what you’ll accept as necessary force or a deserved fate.
I’m deliberately not being specific about the overall plot of the ‘Road Less Traveled’ series as I think the bigger picture of Dean’s creation deserves individual discovery by readers without too much prior knowledge. It’s a complex tale that touches on many interesting aspects and it’s told in a way that deserves praise for both style and quality. Westward Dystopia and Spire Ablaze both presented different types of adventures, building a solid and broad foundation for a gamebook series of high imagination and great merit. I thoroughly enjoyed my time exploring the city of Benaeron and discovering new aspects about this fascinating wasteland world. It’s a substantial and highly engaging gamebook that deserves to be read and appreciated – and a series with something genuine to offer to all fans of the genre.
STORYLINE: A tale of rebellion against tyranny is certainly nothing new, but it works well here and also represents a broader theme relating to the personal struggles of your central character. Dean’s musings on technology, control, history and inherent human weakness form a solid foundation for his futuristic wasteland world, building detailed plots that equally entertain and inform, offering food for thought on issues that continue to plague our own world.
GAMEPLAY: The focus here is on story, not game mechanics. The hub structure and mission system create the opportunity to include a huge amount of content, and then also allow an open-world approach that further enhances player involvement. The simultaneous combat system is appropriately easy to understand and play, and there are numerous items and keywords to collect. Be prepared with plenty of paper to record your progress though – you’re gonna need it!
PRESENTATION: Layout is neat with only an occasional line illustration or basic graphic to break up the text. Tony Hough’s cover illustration is another fine piece of art for the series, featuring a selection of elaborately costumed Benaeron lords and ladies, offering hints about the nature of the tyrannical elite ruthlessly ruling the city.
REPLAY VALUE: You’re likely to miss quite a lot of content on an initial playthrough, so the replay value is very high if you’re keen to find everything on offer. Also, numerous events encountered will direct you toward specific outcomes (sometimes resulting in actions unintended from your initial selection of options), so you may be curious to discover what would have happened if you’d made a different choice. The city of Benaeron is full of many intriguing secrets – it will take some time, even for an industrious adventurer, to uncover them all.
Review by Michael Reilly