The enjoyment of a gamebook is derived from many interlinked parts, including: mechanics, story, choice, interaction, imagination and presentation. These factors then create an overall experience that is based on the quality and style of each component. Heroes of Urowen can claim success with its setting, structure and storyline, however, these positive features are unfortunately undermined by the poor translation of this English edition.
I can only imagine how difficult – and expensive – it must be to self-publish a foreign language gamebook, so can personally accept a limited level of translation errors when the true intention was to deliver a professional product for a new English audience. Conversations with the author have revealed that he has been sadly misled, as his chosen translator possessed the required language credentials but appears to have lacked the necessary craft and commitment to conscientiously complete the task. As a result of this substandard conduct, the published text is riddled with instances of bad grammar, broken and confusing sentences, incorrect or inappropriate word choices and basic typos. On most occasions these issues do not directly affect gameplay or the reader’s ability to understand the book, however, there are some instructions and a few individual combat rules for specific encounters that are annoyingly clumsy and confusing, and therefore require rereading for clarification.
My own exploration of Urowen was not overly impacted by these abundant errors, although they do clearly diminish the quality of the adventure. I was still able to enjoy the book regardless, viewing the numerous flaws as if they were the natural result of translating a difficult native language from Urowen. Many readers will not share my creative personal outlook, and I would expect that the poor standard of writing will be seen as nothing other than highly disruptive and frustrating. Therefore, those interested in perusing the gamebook before purchasing should download the free ‘First pages’ sample from the author’s website to see for themselves exactly what type of translation issues are included.
Originally released in Spain as Héroes del Acero in 2012, David Velasco’s Heroes of Urowen broadens the scope of his fantasy series The Manuscripts of Neithel, set in the mythical Lands of Urowen: a continent full of magic, many tough adversaries and dangerous creatures, and where you will now face the beginnings of war.
As noted in our earlier preview, Heroes of Urowen features unique character types that are based upon three player races and their nationalities, and seven career options. Your choices for these then affect starting attributes and directly influence the use of magic, your skills and your ability to wield weapons. Heroes of Urowen also features very solid game mechanics, centred around the four attributes of Strength, Skill, Magic and Perception. The starting points for these attributes can then be increased during the game by earning Experience points, which allow you to personalise your character and focus on exactly which of your characteristics you wish to increase or ignore. Experience points will also automatically increase your Life points (health) and Power points (magic) once enough have been earned from the completion of missions or by surviving encounters.
The four attributes are also a key component of the combat system, where one of them will become the base value of your weapon. Combat uses a single dice, which is added to the weapon’s base value in an opposed attack: the winner then rolls 1d6 to determine the location of any damage inflicted. Protection from armor covering the body (legs, trunk, arms and head) will reduce the loss of Life points, so it is important to find or purchase protective gear during your adventure to equip yourself with enough armor to counter the damaging attacks of your opponents. Many of the adversaries encountered are serious threats, often bringing their own Special abilities to the battle, providing them with highly damaging or elusive capabilities. This combat system is easy to understand and implement, and is a genuine strength of the book, delivering tense – and extended – battles that regularly entertain. My playthrough included 52 battles, which perfectly illustrates exactly how much fighting can be expected.
Heroes of Urowen focuses more on story than choice, constantly returning to the narrative so that you follow the required story threads through to their conclusions. Although there are player options to choose from along your route, they generally only deliver minor story alternatives, encounter variations, uncritical background information or item/bonus pick-ups. You’ll soon realise that you’re regularly redirected to the main plotline throughout your journey, with only the ending sequence offering a real choice that will determine your final outcome. This linear structure then directly lengthens the game, providing a considerably long and detailed journey featuring many additional events and story twists during your adventure. One of the interesting plot turns introduces a novel threat to your health and sanity, which may cause you to fail in your overall mission unless a specific cure can be located. This escalating threat soon impacts on your combat abilities, so it also incorporates significant changes to the combat system, resulting in a power up effect while you’re influenced by these abnormal circumstances.
At times you’ll enter hub locations within the cities of Verinfes and Bälkaar, where you’re able to freely select missions (the difficulty and importance of each is noted). These locations also function as Base camps (think ‘save points’) where you can restart from if your adventuring has resulted in an untimely death. This hub structure introduces the opportunity to undertake a range of activities and tackle short missions, or you can choose to ignore certain options and directly progress the main story. I’m a fan of this system within other gamebooks, and it’s implemented well here, adding variety and depth to expand your experiences in this world without any unnecessary wandering.
A few of the notable (and unusual!) experiences that may be found within Heroes of Urowen include the opportunity to: use a warhorse to gain a height advantage in battle; bet on a confrontation between a tarantula and a scorpion; gain a helpful canine friend; prevent a rape; take part in a drinking contest; join a merchant’s caravan; help a young girl and her cursed mother; storm a tower full of amazons; engage in pleasurable activities with your choice of partner. Unfortunately, the ‘other pleasures’ sections are disappointingly dull interludes that miss an opportunity to include something genuinely adult in nature and/or consequence, instead of the totally random results determined from these very basic liaisons.
For numerous reasons, both good and bad, Heroes of Urowen is a memorable gamebook. Enjoyable despite the many written errors in this edition, there’s an entertaining quality to its storytelling, world-building, game mechanics and frequent action that rewards those prepared to overlook the noted translation issues. I enjoyed my time adventuring in the Lands of Urowen and hope that David Velasco continues to write gamebooks set in this world – with the assistance of a far superior English translator.
Important note: The Special ability details given for the Duÿmor in section 377 are incorrect. His final ability, Duÿmor rage, states that his strength should increase by 6 once his life points decrease under 20. This should actually state that the Duÿmor’s STR increases from 5 to 6 – not by 6.
STORYLINE: Beginning your journey without any indication of the exact purpose of your adventure, you’ll soon discover the main storyline and the tasks required for completion. There are some inventive plot twists along the way, a number of mini-missions to tackle, and a choice of endings. A story-based gamebook that offers numerous highlights, many deadly adversaries and some unexpected moments of drama and intrigue.
GAMEPLAY: Plenty of engaging gameplay here: my journey was 10+ hours, which included a considerable number of lengthy battles. The unique game mechanics are very solid, from the gaining of experience and skills to the battle system’s weapon attribute value and the location-based process for protective gear.
PRESENTATION: Cover and page layout is of a high standard. Unfortunately, there are no interior illustrations in this English edition, other than a map and a puzzle, which results in a book that would benefit significantly from at least a few visual highlights within its pages.
REPLAY VALUE: The character/career choices and included storyline options do provide plenty of opportunities for further playthroughs under different conditions and circumstances. Also, the author has included five difficulty levels, and a bonus ‘hardcore’ mission for those who have successfully reached a suitable combat level – ideally attempted after the book has been completed. These features extend the adventure and create extra value, giving players an opportunity to test themselves as they fully explore this fantasy world.
Review by Michael Reilly