REVIEW: The Legion of Shadow

The evident computer game influence within Michael J. Ward’s DestinyQuest: The Legion of Shadow stands boldly at the forefront of what it is that differentiates this series from many other gamebook formats. Within its pages we find individual quests (which can be undertaken in any order), no permanent death and a multitude of collectible items (clothing, weapons, items, armour etc.) that improve attributes and add bonuses to enhance your chances of surviving battles. All of these features mirror the hub structures, save/respawn mechanics and progressive enhancements found in modern computer games (particularly in the RPG genre) that allow the player to proceed and customise as they wish, without the frustration and fear of lost progression.

As a game mechanic it works well, without significantly diluting the common (or expected) gamebook experience. The freedom of player choice and movement when selecting the colour-coded quests introduces the opportunity to increase the challenge for those who wish to tackle the harder quests before they’ve had an opportunity to acquire improved gear and bonuses to aid their character. This also means that any quest proving to be too difficult can be returned to later when the player feels suitably equipped to now effectively overcome the level of threat it contains. These self-contained mini-adventures are typically not too long (the Legendary monster quests are very quick battle challenges) and together they provide background information and player experiences that then form into the larger story being told.

Your hero exists in the world of Valeron, a kingdom currently under siege from the sinister Legion of Shadow – a destructive force of abominable men and vile creatures from another world. You are a Nevarin: an immortal servant of the Legion of Shadow, formerly enslaved by this powerful and unstoppable force when they claimed your home world in an act of war. You begin the adventure with no memory of who you are, where you have come from or why you are here. As you embark on quests and progress the narrative, various aspects of the story will become clear and several important revelations will be unearthed. As befits an epic fantasy adventure in a magical world, your personal destiny is one of considerable influence and importance to the unfolding events, and your undiscovered powers will ultimately decide the fate of many.

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My interest in computer gaming, classic board games and the gamebook genre was a key influence in choosing to play the DestinyQuest series, as I was keen to see how Ward’s approach changed, or added to, the standard gamebook structure I was most familiar with. My opinion of the experience varied significantly while playing The Legion of Shadow, shifting from a bewildered level of frustration to a satisfied sense of pleasure as I encountered the various positives and negatives that exist within its considerable amount of content.

Unfortunately, the combat mechanics of Ward’s system ultimately disappoint, as it is either too difficult to win battles (particularly very early on) or simply too easy (once you’ve acquired enough bonuses to become all-powerful). As per the battle system in the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks – where a high SKILL value is of significant benefit – the DestinyQuest series effectively requires you to seek a high SPEED attribute over all others. Once your SPEED is elevated to a level that matches or surpasses that of most enemies, your combined Attack Speed should allow you to comfortably win a majority of combat rounds – particularly if you’ve chosen a good balance of special abilities. You should now also possess the capability to stop some opponent attacks, which can then be countered with your own retaliatory strikes, making it even easier to totally avoid damage. With all of the available attribute enhancements and special ability modifiers in play during combat, battles become predictably easy, to the point where you’ll regularly defeat enemies unscathed. This is a system flaw that makes many battles dull, lengthy and inconsequential dice rolling exercises, providing limited threat with no real, or decisive, strategy actually being implemented. It’s a shame that the system has such a heavy dependence on this one attribute, and that success without it is seemingly very difficult to achieve. Thankfully, the story itself remains unaffected by this weakness, but for a gamebook containing a lot of fighting it is a notable lowlight.

I can clearly understand why many other reviewers and online commenters have written negative opinions and direct criticism. DestinyQuest features a system and style of adventure gaming that will divide opinion due to aspects that either satisfy or fail individual expectations. Both the story approach and play mechanics can disappoint, but Ward’s book does provide an interesting merging of formats, fusing the distinct aspects taken from separate forms of entertainment into a solo product that will undoubtedly please many fans of epic fantasy gaming.

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STORYLINE: Enjoyable and suitably grand in scale, both the individual quests and the evolving story impress with their range, written style and attention to detail. Ward’s fantasy world offers almost every iconic element expected in such a ‘lost memory’ adventure, with enough inventive twists to satisfy even the most jaded reader of this type of adventuring.

GAMEPLAY: The game system and fighting mechanic are both simple and easily understood, however, all of the item and equipment options, and the many special abilities do require a significant amount of attention, requiring you to constantly update your ever-changing Hero Sheet. Anyone disliking a gamebook heavy with record keeping may soon find that they are undertaking an undesired amount of busywork. The combat process can also quickly become tiresome to complete as there are numerous extended battles against opponents with many unique modifiers – each one requiring you to implement or track individual conditions. There is a LOT of dice rolling in DestinyQuest and often multiple enemies to battle in succession, which unfortunately makes these lengthy combats little more than a dull grind. Frustration may soon become your most destructive enemy.

PRESENTATION: This is a very substantial book of many sections, made even more physically bulky due to the large text size and generous spacing that excessively increases the overall number of pages. Book design and layout is of a professional standard, although it does suffer from a lack of illustrations – only featuring small line-art fillers that are very basic and add nothing to the finished product. The attractive colour maps and illustrations are of a high quality.

REPLAY VALUE: Whilst there are a decent number of options available within each quest, many only offer a minor variation on the general theme and do not create a significantly different experience. Hidden secrets and bonus items may be discovered though, so there is value in searching for rare loot to enhance and individually customise your character. The three available career paths do provide a different focus to both your personal characteristics and the overall adventure, so choosing a different career will create a fresh outlook when undertaking further playthroughs.

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Review by Michael Reilly

3 Comments on "REVIEW: The Legion of Shadow"

  1. This was one of my very favorite gamebooks along with its sequels. Great writing, interesting quests, wonderful story and the sections are more than a couple of paragraphs. Plus unlike some other gamebooks that have come out recently *cough* Beyond the Morning Mountains *cough* the combat system was simple and easy to follow. The quests were interesting, the layout was fun…and no dead ends that require you to find the one true route to get the special key/secret password/arch-villain’s mother’s maiden name to win like the classic Fighting Fantasy books.

    • You’re completely correct about the writing, length, lack of ‘one true path’ etc, but my experience with the combat system was as described. The issue I’ve noted in the review doesn’t affect any of the positives about the overall adventure, but it did dilute my experience and wasn’t something I could simply ignore. Every review is a personal opinion – as is yours regarding BtMM.

      • *nod* and I did enjoy BtMM, it was a fun gamebook though I would have liked the combat a little simpler mechanically and I’ll definitely get the sequel if/when it comes out.

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