REVIEW: Rise of the Shadow King

As our own world increases in complexity and continuously demands more from us just to survive the unending grind of daily life, it’s often welcome to escape our modern difficulties by embarking on a relatively straightforward journey that recalls the simplicity of gamebooks of old, where your main tasks were to fight monsters and find items to ease your passage to a final, heroic conclusion. Rise of the Shadow King is an old-fashioned adventure that often reminds me of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain – even when travelling outdoors through forest and swampland environments, rather than just the darkened underground corridors of the classic Fighting Fantasy gamebook. The game rules, battle system and structure of Rise of the Shadow King are all easily understood and the gameplay is satisfyingly direct, with plenty of opportunities to battle against the denizens of Mantica.

An ancient evil now spreads from the northern lands, and the dead have begun to walk again. An old king awakens and you are tasked with locating the ruins of the Shadowfort: a hidden fortress in the foothills to the north, where G’laron-tza – the Shadow King – has been temporarily trapped by powerful magic, banished from the world he once ruled in a reign of terror lasting for hundreds of years. The magical seals holding G’laron-tza are weakening, and soon to fail. You must suppress this rising darkness and stop the dark lord from ever returning, saving Mantica from further misery and death.

Rise of the Shadow King uses an uncomplicated system of preset game values to represent your hero’s abilities. Speed (athleticism, movement and reflexes) is used to test your capabilities and reactions; determining success in situations such as avoiding danger or immediate injury, or creating the opportunity to fire a ranged weapon. Melee and Ranged represent your fighting skills with standard and ranged weapons, and Defence represents both your natural toughness and any armour worn.

The fighting process incorporates each combatant’s Melee and Defence values, after rolling a number of 6-sided dice equal to their Attacks value, which then determines how many hits are landed on an opponent. If the Defence value is equaled or beaten on 1d6, the attacker reduces the defender’s Health Points by 1. This process works well, however, it can lead to extended battles when the dice roll doesn’t meet the required minimum number and an attack fails.

You have the choice of playing Rise of the Shadow King as a human, elf or dwarf. These three character types are differentiated by minor value bonuses or reductions based on a character’s inherent attributes, and the elf also starts with a bow and 8 arrows for ranged combat. I played as an elf: a character type widely regarded as being highly proficient with a bow. The ranged weapon mechanic requires you to roll 3 or more on 1d6 (the elf’s Ranged value), followed by another roll against your opponent’s Defence – if you’ve managed to score a hit with the first roll. My success at achieving an arrow strike throughout my adventure was alarmingly low – so low that it was almost impossible to cause any damage with my bow. For a character type historically talented with ranged weapons, it was a frustratingly poor return for a player choice that should have given me an above-average advantage when attacking from range.

Fate Points are another unique component of the game system that may ultimately determine the outcome of your adventure, particularly when encountering difficult hazards or opponents, or when your Health Points are dangerously low. Using your Fate Points (you start with 3 regardless of character type) will allow you to automatically: hit your opponent in combat, or cause them to miss; pass a Speed Test; or wound with your ranged weapon without rolling dice. Rise of the Shadow King also incorporates Special Skills (Crushing Strength, Elite, Vicious) that modify combat by reducing the Defence of an opponent, or by allowing the attacker to re-roll specific dice. These Special Skills bonuses are hidden throughout your journey and are available to both you and your numerous opponents.

Rise of the Shadow King is an entertaining gamebook, written in a style that can best be described as ‘early Fighting Fantasy’. Encounters with undead opponents are quite frequent (although no single path is overloaded with battles), numerous helpful/harmful items are scattered throughout, knowledge can be found to access or avoid future events, and there’s a nice shift in objectives to be discovered during your journey that may alter your approach to the task of halting G’laron-tza’s awakening. Many of the written sections have that classic Ian Livingstone style of briefness, or simply act as a link from one section to another without actually progressing the story. There are quite a few of these to be found within the 400 sections, however, it doesn’t affect the overall length of your adventure, and the atmosphere generated via the provided content is more than suitable in both form and function.

Interestingly, Rise of the Shadow King doesn’t incorporate money as a Character Sheet item for you to track. You will have the opportunity to spend a few coins on equipment, items and food, but this is only a one-off opportunity to prepare yourself for the journey ahead, and beyond that there are no further instances where you can gain or spend any coins.

Your health is a consideration to be fully aware of and to correctly manage. Without adequate food (to recover Health Points) you may find yourself in difficulty at a relatively early stage. Food can be found at some locations throughout the various paths, however, any over-reliance on pick-ups (as noted above, these will not be purchases beyond a specific point) could lead to an early demise if you encounter too many of the tougher enemies, fail to pass certain Speed Tests, or fall foul of traps and other health-reducing dangers.

The various creatures roaming the lands of Mantica are genuinely interesting to encounter and battle – and are highly appropriate for the undead storyline – but I was a little disappointed by their overall lack of uniqueness to this fantasy world, and also that many of them offered nothing other than a direct fight. Their design and implementation reinforced the feel of the early Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, where monsters seemed to simply coexist without a broader plan, and where the battles provided few alternative strategies, techniques or clever/lucky avoidance measures. You’ll encounter ghouls, skeletons, trolls, zombies, ogres, human adversaries, and others – unfortunately, many of the enemies defeated in battle will not provide any items or bonuses, so if you’ve chosen a route that includes a significant number of opponents, you may begin to tire of this lack of reward.

As a finale, I found the encounter with G’laron-tza to be rather uneventful, particularly in comparison to the excellent pregame build-up. If you’re able to collect the required information and items to use against the Shadow King – and have sufficient Fate Points available to aid you – this battle will diminish G’laron-tza’s abilities to the point where he is no longer a particularly dangerous adversary. His defeat then leads directly to 400 and the end of your adventure, so it can be a swift ending. Of course, this is similar to many of the early Fighting Fantasy titles where it was also possible to encounter a weakened ‘boss’ character, through the application of knowledge or beneficial items.

Rise of the Shadow King is an enjoyable adventure and a well-packaged gamebook, made even more attractive by the interior illustrations from Boris Samec. His character images have a loose, energetic style that captures the undead denizens in deliberately awkward, threatening poses. It’s great to see a new gamebook series following the much-loved tradition of full-page line art illustrations; here they add a significant amount of visual identity to the overall book.

I personally enjoy a traditional fantasy adventure that offers much of the charm of the early classics that previously defined the genre back in the 1980s. Thankfully, Rise of the Shadow King doesn’t repeat the mistake of including numerous instant death situations – there’s only a few to be found within its pages, and you’re far more likely to perish via various methods of misadventure or poor fortune. There’s so much to explore following any one path that repeat playthroughs will see you experiencing a notably different adventure, particularly through the middle and latter parts of the journey where numerous pathways split and converge as you edge closer to the location of the Shadowfort.

It would be remiss of me not to mention that Rise of the Shadow King didn’t ‘click’ for me for quite some time during an initial reading. There’s a simplicity and directness to both the writing and the game’s structure that may not appeal to all, with much of the early part of your journey lacking the variety of paths and player options that appear further on. This is in no way a major flaw – and is only a personal observation – but the book does grow from relatively humble beginnings as you move deeper into your adventure, expanding from a rather linear narrative to one with greater choices, consequences and exploration opportunities.

For those who enjoy this style of adventure, you’ll likely find plenty of timeless adventuring that genuinely satisfies in an uncomplicated and highly entertaining manner. Rise of the Shadow King doesn’t attempt reinvent the genre, it simply delivers a piece of interactive fiction that understands gamebook history and traditions, and delivers a journey worthy of your time. Ultimately, that’s more than enough achievement.

STORYLINE: An excellent plot for this type of gamebook, featuring an ancient evil that desires to rule the land once again. Undead creatures have begun to spread from the north, causing fear and death – you will meet many of these reanimated monsters as you seek the hidden location of the Shadowfort in an attempt to stop the Shadow King’s planned return. This is a classic setup with plenty of interest to see and do before the final encounter.

GAMEPLAY: A unique set of understandable rules that never seriously interrupt the gameplay flow. I enjoyed this system’s overall simplicity despite my annoyance regarding the elf’s ranged weapon ability. As per the classic Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, you’ll be searching for hidden information and items, battling terrible creatures, and attempting to avoid traps. Adventuring through the landscape of Mantica is entertaining and rewarding.

PRESENTATION: As a standard-sized paperback, Rise of the Shadow King looks and feels like a classic gamebook adventure. The book design, page layout and illustrations are all of a high quality, suitably enhancing the adventure without any unnecessary visual distraction.

REPLAY VALUE: Once the adventure develops and multiple routes begin to appear, any individual journey will bypass many other paths, encounters and hidden rewards. The replay value is very high, and repeated playthroughs are recommended (especially for those who want maximum value from any gamebook purchase), as there’s a lot of content within the pages to be discovered that adds alternative aspects to the storyline and the player’s experience of this fantasy world.

Review by Michael Reilly

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