Overflowing with grand ideas, gloriously vivid locations and compelling circumstances, Malice from the Middle Vale is both very familiar and excitingly different – an engrossing combination of old-school features now enhanced with new and noteworthy game mechanics that have been carefully woven into a thrilling, coming-of-age quest. Set in the author’s fantasy realm of Yarnia, Malice from the Middle Vale is the first part of the Scythe-Bearer Trilogy of gamebooks. This fascinating post-apocalyptic world of men and monsters is rich in imaginative detail and deep in cosmic lore, building a comprehensive fantasy setting that’s brimming with mystery and magic, and is highly rewarding to experience.
You play as a young farmhand from the village of Breetun, eager to explore the lands beyond your home now that you’ve reached the freedom of your 19th year. However, your desire for adventure is soon forgotten as a coven of witches attack your family’s farm, dramatically altering the direction of your travels – and your life – as you attempt to chase down these monsters and defeat their leader, Malice Varicella-Zoster, the Irgin Crone of Gungingeth.
Malice from the Middle Vale immediately impresses with the depth of its storytelling and the accompanying complex history of its gods, peoples and Fell creatures. Dave Sharrock has crafted an exceptionally detailed, living world, where the story never falters nor assumes secondary importance to the game’s rules and procedures. The writing is evocative, lively and always interesting, producing a tale that has innate energy and great charm. Split into six chapters, Malice from the Middle Vale is a substantial journey (without being overlong) that constantly reveals new inventive locations and encounters. Intelligent and immersive, this is fantastical fiction with the added bonus of direct interaction.
This is also a gamebook where I would often pause to carefully consider my available choices, ruminating for an extended period of time on possible outcomes and implications – not because Malice from the Middle Vale is particularly difficult, but due to my personal investment in the storyline and key characters, and a desire to find the most rewarding path. Alternative choices provided throughout the book are equally satisfying and meaningful, offering further consequential actions that will affect the short- and long-term success of your journey. These options create the opportunity to role-play as you wish, allowing all readers to act and respond differently, and genuinely shape their experience. It also adds substantial replayability.
Malice from the Middle Vale is full of many unique and interesting characters – both friendly people and foul creatures – that add great spectacle and structure to your unfolding adventure. You’ll meet engaging characters such as: Brighd of the magical tavern Brighd’s Warming Hearth; Droguehammer, Beast-Master of Xenolith and Scourge of the Solent; Aeon Lividstone, purveyor and acquirer of cathartic orbs; Steel Jackdon, weapons training provider; Hench Redhorse and the Loremasters of Lorel; and Glyph Schema, Weaver of Anglia. The many grotesque creatures are also highlights, particularly those with damaging Conditional Effects like: Fug, the blue-fleshed Horned Ogre; the monstrous and revolting Spleen; and Gluttog Glewsmog, the Canyon King’s unbeaten arena champion who ‘relishes nothing more than the dark secrets of human evil’.
The game system in Malice from the Middle Vale mirrors the nature of Yarnia itself: elaborately constructed with understandable logic and a touch (or two) of inspired genius. Your six core Characteristics have both a Set and Adjust value, and in combat these are directly related to the six sides of a dice. All of your Set values then form the basis of Essence, which represents your spiritual and physical vitality – Hit Points (HP) are equal to your Essence and will fluctuate as you are either injured or healed. The Adjust value notes any improvements or reductions applied during your journey, therefore reflecting your character’s current, inherent ability. Added to this are bonuses gained from equipped items, which boost one or all Characteristics, or provide an Armour Bonus to reduce incurred damage. The combat mechanics are solidly entertaining, producing fluctuating fortunes depending on which Characteristic is active for each round and how combatants are then affected by the rolled results. Add Magic and Spells to this framework and the battles immediately become tactically varied and even more enjoyable.
Yarnia is a world where almost anyone can gain the knowledge to use magic derived from so-called Spell Stones. Sprites, will-o-wisps, faery imps, sylphs and pixies encountered in the Yarnian wilderness will transform into these gem-like objects once touched, providing an opportunity to use their inherent powers. Unfortunately, the magical effect within a Spell Stone cannot be cast without Empowering Stones, as these are needed to provide Magic Points for your character. Also, you will be rewarded with a Soul Stone when any Fell creature is killed. These raw nuggets of chaos can be kept in your backpack, or transformed into energy to raise your Essence or HP, or a reduced Adjust value can be raised to match its Set value.
Malice from the Middle Vale helpfully includes a sizeable amount of backstory, world lore and embellishing details, both within and outside of your quest. The included information about Yarnia provides the type and quantity of details that really add meaning to the setting, creating a believable fantasy world with a fascinating past and a troubled future – in which you play an important role. Reading about the mighty god Mot Elyeth, the black pillar Yrmynsyl and the bottomless chasm of the Gungin Gap (from where the Fell emerge) increases your understanding of these remarkable characters and locations, giving a greater sense of awareness and connection. However, as noted by the author, you may ignore almost all of these peripheral details if your preference is to ‘crack on with the main adventure’ without delay.
It’s always pleasurable to review a gamebook without major flaws or annoying inconsistencies and errors, or one that simply falls short of its stated ambitions. Malice from the Middle Vale maintains a high standard in both content and presentation throughout its many pages, delivering wonder and excitement without any of the unwanted distractions associated with poor execution. I’m yet to encounter any game-breaking issues, troubling anomalies or repeated mistakes of any kind, which is surely an accomplishment for such a substantial gamebook that contains plenty of intricacy and originality.
There’s something elusively pleasing about Malice from the Middle Vale – a feeling not unlike the experience of reading the most memorable tales and fables of old. There’s a playful, charming quality to much of your adventure, yet darkness and corruption constantly surround you, and the only way to resolve your situation is to head directly, somewhat unprepared, to where you would otherwise avoid. I’m certainly well beyond 19 years of age, however, I had no difficulties in accepting the role of the young Scythe-Bearer, seeing the wider world for the first time and facing numerous difficult decisions as someone without experience or substantial knowledge of the many threats beyond my homelands. My belief is that it’s the overall combination of fine storytelling, choice and subsequent consequences within Malice from the Middle Vale that then creates this rewarding impression, as I immediately identified with this character’s plight and had no disconnection as I moved about Yarnia as the young farmhand, attempting to achieve the given task. Interactive fiction should generate these relationships and wholly connect you to their imagined world, however, there’s definitely a magic formula required for creators to successfully accomplish this difficult undertaking as many fall well short of the abundant and admirable qualities present in Malice from the Middle Vale.
This is a must-read gamebook that should delight any reader of interactive fiction. Never dull or unrewarding due to an entertaining cast of characters and a limitless selection of critical decisions, the story arc presented here offers fantastical adventure and profound escapism, where peril is often waiting around the next corner and it’s up to you to adeptly navigate these monstrous threats. I’m keenly looking forward to the following two volumes of this epic tale – Nemesis of the Nin Witch and Quest for the Quintessence – as my story is as yet unfinished and I know that there’s still much to see and do. I’d urge you to begin your own journey through the magical and mysterious realm of Yarnia – it’s a quest of substance and great craftsmanship, and a story that every true hero should experience.
STORYLINE: You are the Scythe-Bearer, eager for adventure in the wild lands beyond your protected home. Events suddenly become dire and urgent so, equipped with your farm tool, you begin a quest that will only end when Malice Varicella-Zoster, the Irgin Crone of Gungingeth, has been challenged and defeated. This epic trilogy of books sees you travelling throughout Yarnia, facing endless difficulties including the many abominations that crawl out of the fathomless pitch known as the Gungin Gap. Exceptionally imaginative and featuring plenty of memorable encounters, Malice from the Middle Vale is an accomplished piece of fantastic fiction.
GAMEPLAY: The game mechanics are highly creative and very effective, producing a system that operates at a high level and is never cumbersome or difficult to understand. Combat employs a unique and entertaining ruleset that allows for great variation and player strategy, something that’s not always easy to achieve within the structure of a solo gamebook. Choices are meaningful and build individual dynamic stories, and there are always viable options to consider rather than inconsequential alternatives that only offer scant reward or death.
PRESENTATION: Malice from the Middle Vale has the classic look and feel of an original Fighting Fantasy gamebook (it’s the same ‘small’ dimensions of the Puffin series) but with significantly more content and a superior layout. Unfortunately, there are no full-page illustrations within the adventure, however, the book does contain some quality filler illustrations and many maps. The text layout is very professional and therefore easy to read and use over the many hours you’ll be adventuring with it.
REPLAY VALUE: You’ll bypass many options either through choices taken or via a lack of available time, and no single playthrough will see you experiencing everything within, so there’s a wealth of great material still to be discovered after your first journey comes to an end. I was quite disappointed when the conclusion was reached, as I was eager to continue progress and extend my adventure – you’re likely to experience a similar reaction, resulting in a strong desire to uncover every secret within this enchanting book.
Review by Michael Reilly