REVIEW: Sete-Ka’s Dream Quest

The rich history and mythology of ancient Egypt, and the influential importance of their many deities in Egyptian society, present limitless fantastical material for gamebook adventuring. In Sete-Ka’s Dream Quest you follow the story of the young Sete-Ka, Prince of Upper and Lower Egypt. Called upon by the goddess Bast during a terrible fever, Sete-Ka is to face a series of challenges within the spirit world – a Pharaoh’s test – to decide his suitability to claim rule over Egypt. If he passes this ‘dream quest’, he will be king; fail, and the prince will never return to the mortal world.

This first book in the Paths of Doom series offers an adventure that despite obvious limitations in scope and mechanics is both effectively engaging and atmospherically enjoyable. Totalling just 125 pages of story, Sete-Ka’s Dream Quest is only a short CYOA-style book, written as a third-person narrative by author James M. Ward. This style of writing differs from the second-person point of view found in most gamebook series, however, it neatly fits the nature of an ancient Egyptian tale, and in Ward’s capable hands is implemented well.

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Sete-Ka is tested by Set, the ten-foot-tall jackal-headed god of darkness. The young prince is pursued by the dark god throughout the story, with Set attempting to add him as a new minion to serve his nefarious activities. During your adventure Sete-Ka may face attacking Nubian tribesmen; answer the riddle of a Sphinx; encounter an evil spirit in a burial crypt; join an epic battle between lion-headed and cobra-headed skeleton warriors; command a warship against a foreign fleet; converse with a talking hawk; or fight and ancient king cobra in the spirit world. Each scene is suitably descriptive and respectful to the accepted knowledge of ancient Egypt, with enhancements to aid storytelling and deliver significant moral choices. Unfortunately, the logic involved in some of these decisions eluded me and I felt that quite a few choices were nothing more than arbitrary, rather than a conclusion reasoned from considered thought or noble actions.

One of the greatest strength’s of Sete-Ka’s Dream Quest is the generous length of most sections, often filling several pages – particularly those describing Sete-Ka’s failure to successfully complete his tests. The optimal path (resulting in a return to his sleeping body) is only one of many conclusions, and almost all of these various endings – both good and bad – are commendably given long descriptions detailing the young prince’s fate in the spirit world, his direct affect on situations, or his ongoing influence upon events throughout Egypt. This positive feature of Ward’s numerous story threads offers fair resolution for an untimely ending, and mirrors the mysterious and inscrutable manoeuvrings of the gods, which often result in dire, but understandably deserved consequences. It also provides a superior level of replay value in comparison to many other gamebooks, where abrupt endings without explanation are annoyingly commonplace.

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For a book first published in 2006, Sete-Ka’s Dream Quest oddly appears as a gamebook printed back in the early 80s. There’s an obvious lack of sophistication to the design of the covers (although Alberto Dal Lago’s cover image is of a decent standard) and the basic interior layout is only sparsely illustrated with black & white artwork. Most of these interior illustrations are disappointingly unspectacular, which is a shame for such iconic, and highly visual, subject matter. Overall, the simplistic quality of the product resembles one of the many ‘me too’ series launched by publishers desperately wishing to profit from the boom times of the 80s gamebook fad. The general technique of Alberto Dal Lago certainly cannot be questioned (check out his recent works for the Italian editions of Joe Dever’s Lone Wolf and Freeway Warrior series) so it appears that this series simply required greater creative direction to raise its dated standard of presentation.

As someone widely interested in both Egypt and gamebooks, I was pleasantly surprised by the depth of this tale involving the gods and spirits of the ancient world. The fine quality of the storytelling, and the memorable impression that it created, surpassed my early expectations and elevated Sete-Ka’s Dream Quest above the visual restrictions noted above. It’s certainly not the longest adventure, and only offers a limited form of gameplay, but the journey presented is always interesting and well crafted, with enough Egyptian mythology to appeal to anyone with an appreciation of, or attraction to, this time period of ancient gods, dark arts and brutal conflict.

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STORYLINE: A young prince must prove his capability to rule Egypt, undergoing a journey through the spirit world where he faces challenges devised to test his suitability. This is a tale well told, featuring various gods and spirits of ancient Egypt – some are helpful to the quest, others desire only to further their own schemes. The high-quality writing delivers an engaging atmosphere throughout the full adventure, with many memorable moments.

GAMEPLAY: The ‘pick your path’ style is little more than functionally simple. Choices are generally limited as the book offers only a short adventure, however, the attention given to the many alternative endings is a notable highlight. Unfortunately, a number of decisions seem to rely on fortuitous choices, rather than deliberation based on wisdom gained from known facts and expected consequences.

PRESENTATION: The visual presentation of the book is sadly rather dated and lacking any genuine style. Most of the interior illustrations are unremarkable and disappointingly sparse. The page layout is satisfactory but shows no imagination to support the themes of the story and provide suitable adornment.

REPLAY VALUE: The many story threads, and the interesting nature of these alternative endings, provide significant replay value for those wishing to follow the prince’s fate to the varying conclusions. In fact, it would be quite difficult to recommend this short adventure without the appearance of this content.

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Review by Michael Reilly

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