REVIEW: Steam Highwayman: Smog & Ambuscade

Martin Noutch’s impressive Steam Highwayman series is highly reminiscent of the open-world Fabled Lands gamebooks, incorporating similar player mechanics regarding structure, progress and navigation, and employing the same multi-book interconnection with other forthcoming titles. Similarly, you’ll also find the familiar codewords and tickboxes used to track progress, and it even replicates the two-column text format of the original large format editions of Fabled Lands. All of this intended resemblance results in an adventure that delivers the expected experience of many joyful and satisfying achievements (completing storylines and improving your character’s abilities), and a tedious amount of laborious travelling as you endlessly traverse its locations seeking information, money and other valuable resources.

A notable feature of such open-world adventures is that a lack of money, possessions and knowledge restricts the amount of available options, making early progress rather slow and uneventful. Thankfully, this is simply a by-product of the ‘go anywhere’ format, which (mostly) passes once you’ve played for several hours. To achieve the necessary progress you’ll need to piece together information, items, gained knowledge – and fortunate finds – to complete many of the tasks and missions that form the bulk of the game. These are often ‘fetch and carry’ quests, or requests to achieve a particular result for reward; many require significant travel and items/knowledge to trigger specific events, so there are always outstanding quests on your list to complete. This is a reactive, living world where you play as just one of many actors on a large, ever-changing stage. Success is linked to your ambition, personal outlook and choices, which then directly shape events and responses, altering the unfolding circumstances and the subsequent reactions of both friend and foe.

You are the Steam Highwayman, and you’ll be travelling the highways and byways of the region in the saddle of your Ferguson Velosteam (a marvellous customisable machine featuring semi-elliptical leaf-spring suspension and a slide-gearing mechanism), gaining wounds, performing great deeds and earning a reputation from your many adventures. You can choose to aid the oppressed and disenfranchised, serve justice on those you see as opponents or enemies, build friendships with important and influential people, earn a living from honest trade or lawlessness, or escape danger and the constabulary by using your wits, wisdom and your fast machine. Will you be admired and remembered fondly as a hero or a legend, or is your fate to be someone quickly forgotten, just another masked stranger to take the woeful slide into obscurity?

This is my first GBN review for a gamebook that I’m yet to complete, however, even though my adventures in Smog & Ambuscade are far from finished, I’ve already gained more than enough experiences to accurately detail what this gamebook has to offer. Some of my memorable, and diverse, experiences to date include: helping a crippled engineer to avoid poverty and homelessness; rescuing a young dancer from the advances of a street ruffian; assassinating an oppressive landlord, and then burning his manor; giving a hitch-hiking one-legged veteran a lift on my velosteam; sabotaging the Imperial Western Railway’s tracks by use of explosives; sponsoring an apprenticeship for a young man so that he could escape the misery of servitude and confinement; preventing the closure of the Wethered Brewery by assisting them to quickly brew a new beer; ambushing a priest’s private steam carriage, and then relieving him of his ‘travelling comforts’; and preparing a streamlined racing steamer for entry into the Spenser Cup.

You’ll need to take extensive notes of conversations had, information gained and locations discovered, or the reasonably complex map of roadways will remain a mystery, extending the time needed to unlock further content. The map can be frustrating at times, as it doesn’t show all of the book’s noted settlements, road names or significant features that would aid easy navigation. I often found myself double-checking/guessing my exact location and intended direction of travel on too many occasions, when it really should have been automatically obvious. As a result, my annotated map now features numerous updates to quickly help me find my way around and back to specific locations of interest.

The key game mechanics are relatively simple yet deceptively comprehensive and perfectly functional for this type of adventure. Your skills are represented by six natural abilities: Ruthlessness, Engineering, Motoring, Ingenuity, Nimbleness and Gallantry. Initial scores for these are determined by your chosen history, and can be enhanced by modifiers and unique items. Ability rolls test your individual abilities, where the roll of 2d6 is added to your score – success is awarded when a total greater than the set difficulty is achieved. Combat incorporates weapons, with guns having an Accuracy rating, and others a Parry value. Opponents engage in rounds attempting to inflict Wounds (again using 2d6) with a limit of five wounds before incapacitation. Wounds can be treated once you’re in a safe location or by paying for assistance; they then convert to Scars (which affects your final score upon retirement) or sometimes into intimidating scars (which add 1 to your Ruthlessness). The overall system is pleasingly quick and efficient.

Money (the gaining and spending of!) plays a large and important part in your adventure. You’ll regularly engage in transactions involving pounds and shillings, plus paper money (guineas, which cannot be spent normally and must be deposited or exchanged for hard money), and will need to be canny with any investments or the procurement of valuable items. The long-established Coulter’s Bank provides the opportunity to deposit your savings (regardless of its provenance) allowing you to stash your wealth where others cannot reach. As expected, your precious velosteam can also be upgraded (increasing your chances of passing a Motoring ability roll) and badly damaged, so you’ll need to have some spare money available for modifications and any urgent repairs. Knowing where to get it repaired is equally important, or you can fix it yourself – if you have the required Engineering skill and materials.

My one major gripe with the rule set is the 12-item limit for possessions held within your saddlebags. So many quests require a variety of specific items (and you’ll also want to purchase items that act as ability modifiers) that I found this limitation to be very tiresome. Opportunities do exist to pay for rooms, or build hideouts and shelters where you can leave items and money, but this simply results in too much back and forth travelling to manage your needed possessions. There’s just so much item collection and frequent travel within Steam Highwayman that I soon ignored the undesired grind of this restriction and instead focused on making timely progress without it to better enjoy my adventuring.

Smog & Ambuscade is a large, neatly designed and well-illustrated gamebook of 1021 sections. Unfortunately, my first edition Kickstarter-backer copy features quite a few minor typos and formatting oversights – plus incorrect or missing section numbers, which of course create critical, game-ending issues. This unfortunate situation has been helpfully corrected by an online erratum on Martin Noutch’s website, where known errors are listed, allowing players to rectify any mistakes in their copy.

If you like plenty of content in your gamebooks – and therefore abundant gameplay – then this series will certainly deliver. However, you will need to invest a considerable amount of time and effort into these adventures to get the most out of their breadth and depth, so be prepared for a lengthy commitment. Thankfully, the eventual return on investment will be more than worth the effort, and highly memorable, as you’ll create your own unique path through the world of the Steam Highwayman, composing a tale that is distinctively your own.

I look forward to my continuing journey in this enchanting world, exploring and exploiting Volume 1’s secret-filled environment for every little moment of gameplay before moving on to the upcoming volumes. As a genuine fan of steampunk fiction, bygone technologies and alternate histories, this series contains all of the desired elements – and then some – that could be expected. Huge steam engines haul freight, barges ply the rivers, constables and tax collectors seek those wanted, and intrigue brews in every back alley and behind many closed doors. Pistons churn, labourers toil, and billowing steam and smog constantly fills the sky – it’s a spellbinding mix of elements that collectively deliver an atmosphere overflowing with thrilling possibilities, ripe for lawless undertakings. Smog & Ambuscade is a triumphant success, and a treasure trove of hard-earned delights. Can you hear the midnight road calling?

STORYLINE: Adventure through an alternate 19th century England that never was, undertaking an exciting life of choice and consequence. From the privileged to the poor, this steampunk world is populated by a wide variety of intriguing characters and their associated circumstances; all may receive your support and assistance, or a deserved – and fatal – vengeance. Martin Noutch has created an authentic and believable open-world setting, where steam carriages and freight wagons, airships, punchcards, Guilds, Co-Operatives and revolutionaries combine to produce a complex, player-driven narrative. Become a people’s champion or a notorious villain – or almost anything in-between – riding the highways on your steam motorbike.

GAMEPLAY: An acquisition-driven solo RPG where you determine exactly where next to travel, Smog & Ambuscade invites you to explore Marlow and its surrounding region to locate items and information that may then unlock brief tasks or much longer multistage quests. Marlow is a place of secrets, puzzles and mysteries, offering a diverse range of gameplay that’s skilfully brought to life by Noutch’s colourful descriptions and detailed plotting. The situations uncovered and characters met are rarely dull, adding plenty of eccentric old-world atmosphere to your adventure, particularly when tackling some of the trickier assignments. As just the first of six connected volumes, Smog & Ambuscade teases with many broader plots and places as yet unable to be reached – the series holds great promise as it expands to deliver the full experience offered.

PRESENTATION: The visual link to Fabled Lands is an agreeable feature of the book. The large, two-column format allows for plenty of content on every page, effectively reducing the page count – and therefore the overall size – for what would otherwise be a very hefty tome. Regardless of the miscellaneous formatting errors present in my edition, the page design is neat and easy to read, with attractive cover and interior illustrations provided by Ben May. The spirit and style of the steampunk aesthetic is nicely captured in May’s line-shaded technique, an approach that reminds me of the renowned American illustrator Franklin Booth, whose superb pen-and-ink style mirrored that of beautiful woodcuts. May’s full-page images have a similar charm in their lines, forms and solid shadows, and they help to expand the imagination, directly transporting the reader into this engaging steam-infused world.

REPLAY VALUE: It’s almost a never-ending adventure, so you’ll happily spend countless hours within Smog & Ambuscade before exhausting its many opportunities for further adventuring. I’d estimate that I’m probably 30 hours in so far, and feel that I’ve barely scratched the surface of everything hidden within its pages. This is a great strength of open-world gamebooks, especially when they are linked to an expanding world map. As with the Fabled Lands series, it’s all about your individual journey and the various life-altering experiences discovered along the way, not just the concluding destination.

Review by Michael Reilly

4 thoughts on “REVIEW: Steam Highwayman: Smog & Ambuscade”

  1. Gaetano Abbondanza

    I had high hopes for this title. Great concept but rather poor execution. Just way too much time spent driving back and forth looking for action. And to top it off, as you mentioned, the map is less helpful and intuitive than it should be. This title seeks to emulate the gameplay of the Fabled Lands series; it would have been much better and more enjoyable if, like a Fabled Lands title, there were a multitude of easy to find quests. Hopefully future titles will incorporate that element; otherwise I doubt I’ll be purchasing another.

    1. My experience of Fabled Lands – particularly with ‘The War-Torn Kingdom’ – is much the same as Steam Highwayman: plenty of travel and it takes time to really get going with tasks and quests. At the beginning of TWTK I had the same issue, so I wouldn’t say that there was a ‘multitude’ of easy quests available in that volume. SH may be a little less direct, and not as forthcoming with its deeper content, but I wouldn’t describe that as poor execution – more of a difference in its general design and subsequent implementation. As my reviews states, I’m not disappointed with it, even though there’s plenty of ‘looking for action’. Thanks for your thoughts.

  2. Gaetano Abbondanza

    That’s an interesting response. I think the later Fabled Lands books took a little longer to find quests, but TWTK is chock-full of encounters and character-specific quests. It certainly doesn’t take anywhere close to the “several hours”(!) needed in SH to really get going.

    I think your review was very detailed and fair – you definitely mentioned both the strengths and the weaknesses of this title. For you, the detailed story and quests outweighed the tedium of repeated back-and-forth trips. For me, it was too much.

    1. You’re correct, Gaetano – for me all of the overall positives certainly outweighed the negatives of repeated travel. Interesting that you don’t view TWTK as having an equally slow beginning. Many new players note that they make little progress initially in FL books (especially in TWTK), so quickly seek help online to beat the boredom and really get their game going. That was certainly my experience – plus an early death – when first playing TWTK, and does seem to be an experience repeated by many others.

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