Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus tells the cautionary tale of Victor Frankenstein, a gifted man of science who develops a process built on the principle of life to imbue vitality into previously inanimate matter. His humanoid creation is a truly hideous ‘abhorred monster’ with intelligence and humanity, who pursues and punishes Dr. Frankenstein for denying him a right to happiness. In The Frankenstein Wars, set in Revolutionary France, 1827, you play the dual roles of the Clerval brothers, Anton and Tom, who know the secrets of Victor Frankenstein’s resurrection process: a grisly reanimation of dead flesh and bone. As explored by Mary Shelley in her classic novel, the game asks many difficult questions about gods and monsters, honour and duty, and the nature of life, death and rebirth.
This is a thoughtfully devised and skillfully executed interactive novel where the abolition of a permanent death haunts those on either side of the struggle between the corrupt King Charles’ Royalist army and the Zeroiste movement: a war of idealist revolutionaries bolstered by the ‘never dead’. The physician Henri Clerval – Anton and Tom’s father – has, upon death by execution, left journals detailing his work with his friend and teacher, Victor Frankenstein, to his sons – valuable notes describing the ‘lazaran’ process to bring the fallen back from death. This prized information will change the course of the revolutionary battle, but has an ethical line already been crossed in pursuit of such miraculous technology?
The Frankenstein Wars is an interactive story without skills, stats or other gameplay infrastructure. It uses wonderful illustrations and location maps, and realistic character portraits of the key protagonists to navigate the numerous storylines within the game, shifting you between the Clerval brothers as your decisions impact the unfolding events and the war escalates. The limited mechanics in use here correctly position the story at the forefront, allowing its central themes to resonate deeply as you confront circumstances where unalterable consequence – and possible regret – asks questions about your chosen responses and actions.
The game regularly poses moral conundrums about the ongoing struggle to understand and accept the lazaran process. These near-humans are imbued “with the spark of human essence” via a liquid called Vivum Vittorium – the main chemical component involved in reanimating the dead. Those who undergo this process and are then reborn experience their ‘first death’ and become more effective killers on the battlefield after gaining a fearlessness having already faced and conquered eternal rest. The lazarans are patchwork constructions, often using the body parts of multiple people to form a restored individual. They have a grey pallor to their skin and many have obvious surgical disfigurements or enhancements, and they move and endure in a way that is not normal for someone untouched by reanimation. Their presence is debatable and often disconcerting but their effectiveness in times of conflict is undoubted.
The Frankenstein Wars will ask you to balance the immediate political needs with those of your family, whilst determining your personal reaction to the escalated use of lazarans and the future fate of such disturbing technology. The Clerval brothers neatly represent the scope of this complex dilemma, providing viewpoints and experiences that converge and/or diverge the narrative of this fascinating alternate-history tale depending on how you decide to make progress throughout the game. It would be unwise to say too much specifically about the storyline at this point, as this tale really should be personally experienced and explored without significant prior knowledge.
Narrated battle sequences do appear within the game at different points along the story arc. These tactical encounters require you to move and position your men in an extended series of steps, strategically countering your opposition and using knowledge and resources to outwit or outmanoeuvre enemy forces. These combats are also influenced by your use of the lazaran technology – have you sufficiently increased your numbers prior to battle, and have you positioned the required reanimation equipment close enough to the skirmish to ensure a timely turnaround of the fallen?
An aspect of The Frankenstein Wars that may displease players is the use of timed sections within some of the chapters. These instances arise when urgent flight or time management is required, and although this mechanic suitably achieves the goal of increasing tension, it is in conflict with the overall tone of the game, where a slower pace is demanded to absorb the reflective nature of the story and carefully assess the likely implications of any strategy or act. I feel that the inclusion of this feature is somewhat misguided, however, the reality during my playthrough was that the time allowed in each of these sections was rather generous and I easily completed them without penalty.
Cubus Games have already built a very interesting and diverse portfolio of digital gamebooks. The Frankenstein Wars surpasses even the best of these prior offerings with an impressive story of universal appeal, providing human drama, intense relationships and horrid circumstances with a tangible sense of momentous weight and repercussion to almost every decision. For those desiring greater diversification and fresh experiences in interactive fiction, The Frankenstein Wars should be very high on your purchase list. It’s exciting and dramatic, and deals with themes that touch on common fears regarding scientific advancement and human engineering in a world where politics and power cause men to seek any advantage regardless of the true cost involved.
STORYLINE: Revolution and war, the implications of troublesome scientific discoveries and family conflict – the key components that define the drama found within this tale. Paul Gresty has crafted a memorable storyline of numerous possibilities, building personal interaction and real choice into a work of detailed, thoughtful fiction. The game has truly delivered on the great promise shown during its development.
GAMEPLAY: The story is the king here, so everything else supports that critical component. The location maps that link scenes within a chapter neatly allow you to implement choice or tactically plan your movements, without ever removing you from the game’s world. Although some text choices only offer a minor variation to the storyline and have no significant impact on following events, you do directly shape the story arc and are free to play the Clerval brothers as you wish: sympathetic, cruel, dutiful or generally unsure and aloof – the choice is yours!
PRESENTATION: Visually strong overall, with beautifully executed illustrations from Rafater that capture the mood, characters and events with great skill. The occasional musical passages and sound effects are also very effective, adding an extra layer of immersion to the drama. Minor glitches: I noticed the lower edge of a few text panels flickering for a second or two when they first appeared, and was annoyed by the timer panel that automatically covered the first line of text on my iPad.
REPLAY VALUE: An adventure of choice where your story can turn in one of many contrasting directions. It’s impossible to discover all of the included content in any single playthrough, so there’s plenty of incentive to reload and then play situations differently to see how new decisions affect your game. Also, with written content of this quality, you’ll likely be encouraged to spend some more time exploring its every secret anyway.
Review by Michael Reilly