REVIEW: The Curse of Saltash Mine

Unusually for a fantasy gamebook, The Curse of Saltash Mine is a sweet and soothing adventure that sees you – a naive young seaside villager – journeying across the lands of Brighthelm on a mission given to you not by a monarch, wizard or community in need, but by your very own grandfather. Neither is your quest motivated by the usual goals of glory, treasure, vengeance or fame. Instead, you are tasked with checking on one of your grandsire’s old friends to see whether a letter he has written (insisting on the rise of some ancient evil in the swamp-lands of Hatcheria) reflects a genuine threat, or are simply the rantings of a senile old man. It really is a toss up between the two, for as your grandfather himself says, old Alf Blomwell’s ‘been close to cracking up for years!’

Thus you set off on a heart-warming errand, the performance of which will take you trudging from your seaside home in the village of Baileytown into unknown wildernesses, dangers and strange towns. Along the way, you will gather gems, tools and weapons. You will gather or purchase ingredients to cook up powerful Recipes, and encounter all sorts of characters, landscapes, villains, and beasts.

Immediately, The Curse of Saltash Mine will strike you with its bold and striking artwork, which is drawn in lines and dots of ink, and coloured with vivid shades of blue, green, yellow and red. Coastal villages are brought to life with wide vistas of sparkling emerald seas and pristine beaches of sand and rock, while inland areas are depicted with luscious trees, barren hills and snow-capped mountains. Gazing upon these scenes, you will feel your stress levels drop as you absorb all the tiny details of these illustrations, which include towers, bridges, clusters of houses, jutting rocks, and even a partially sunken pirate ship!

The book is also produced to a very high standard, and has a fabulously dense, durable and tactile feel, which in combination with its vibrant artwork induces a sense of relaxation and calm. The simple layout is easy to read and enhanced with illustrations, parchments or symbols on almost every spread that makes Brighthelm feel like a living, breathing world.

Paul Stapleton’s eye-catching illustration style works less well for bringing to life the characters and creatures of Brighthelm, if only for the fact that the cheeriness of the palette and the quaintness of the art robs the evil entities of this world of any real sense of menace (with the possible exceptions of the LIZARD MEN and the SEA BEAST, which are central to two of the best scenes in the book). But then, this gamebook seems not so much about menace, but rather more about coming of age, common decency, kindness and forgiveness.

And heck, The Curse of Saltash Mine is incredibly forgiving! So much so that you will find it’s almost impossible to die by any means at all!

Combat is decided by rolling a D6 for yourself and your opponent, adding your strength attributes, then comparing the result. If you score higher, you generally kill your opponent outright; but if you lose, the consequence is far less onerous, involving the loss of a health point or two (or Hearts in this system) or some other unpleasant, but non-lethal penalty, before the round is repeated until the enemy is slain.

It is a somewhat unbalanced combat system that is made even more one-sided as you grow more powerful thanks to your Experience. This you gain by defeating foes or accomplishing tasks, and at certain milestones your Experience permits you to increase either your number of Hearts or your Strength attribute (used for combat and other physical tests). I found that losing Hearts was such a rarity that I was able to sink all my experience bonuses into my Strength score. This meant that I became powerful within a fairly short time and that few enemies could stand against me (aside from a troublesome DRAGON towards the end of the book) – not even the more powerful late-stage monsters such as a BONE KING and a hulking red DEMON.

In addition to the act of increasing your statistics as you level up, there are many steps you can take to increase your combat prowess. You can spend gems to have a chance to increase your D6 combat roll (by using the ‘Lucky Charm’ power) or find swords that increase your strength or allow you to re-roll 1s. But most powerfully, you can make Recipes that act as powerful combat buffs, such as ‘Ranger’ (provides a 50% chance of softening up opponents with an arrow), ‘Rock Skin’ (may give you the opportunity to shrug off wounds), or ‘Might’ (adds to your Strength).

Some Recipes bestow special abilities that make you even more powerful against certain enemies. These are triggered at particular stages of the story, allowing you to incinerate enemies with dragon-fire, banish or weaken the undead, unlock doors, run superhumanly fast, or swim through water very powerfully, like a whale. The ingredients for these Recipes are widely available and can be scavenged or purchased from chemists – and the powers they create will give you even more of an edge!

Add these to Recipes for added flavour and special powers!

Much as you are unlikely to fall foul of any of the monsters or bandits in The Curse of Saltash Mine, you are at zero risk of taking the wrong path or missing any vital items. The adventure is very linear in its design, rapidly returning you to common node points that then take you further along the story, regardless of the decisions you make. This makes the story less of a puzzle to be cracked and more of a gentle fantasy yarn that takes you on a guided tour of Brighthelm, while demanding very little of the reader. Though this may be a boon to more casual enthusiasts, seasoned gamebook veterans looking for a challenge may well be left feeling untested and underwhelmed.

I must admit to having found myself drifting into the latter category. Once the novelty of this alluring new fantasy world began to fade, I found my curiosity waning as the adventure became a little too generic and predictable. It is as if The Curse of Saltash Mine attempts to include too many characters and creatures into its 350 paragraphs without really developing any of the encounters to a satisfying degree. NPCs and monsters begin to come and go without much to meaningfully distinguish them, and the end of the story is a little anti-climactic. These apparent shortcomings make more sense, however, if you consider that this gamebook is less intended to be a purely stand-alone adventure and more intended to act as an introduction to Paul Stapleton’s intriguing and equally colourful board game Pauper’s Ladder (which I have yet to play!). As such, the gamebook may well be striving to introduce as wide a variety of characters, monsters and locations as possible, at the expense of development and depth.

But all in all, The Curse of Saltash Mine does a very fine job of piquing the reader’s interest in the beautiful and beguiling world of Brighthelm. It takes you on a gentle wander through a charming fantasy world, leaves the vision of glittering seas and the sounds of gentle waves and gull-cries in your mind, and may well leave you wanting for more!

STORYLINE: You have been sent by your grandad Dagris Screbin to check on Alf Blomwell, one of his old friends who lives in the far-off swamp town of Hatcheria. Has old Alf really uncovering the stirrings of some ancient evil, or is he just having a senior moment?

GAMEPLAY: The simple D6-based combat system, where you gather experience to boost your Heart and Strength attributes, is straightforward and effective to use. However, the gameplay is a little disappointing as it’s extremely linear, without any real challenge or meaningful freedom of choice. Ultimately, this is an adventure that’s almost too forgiving and wholesome for its own good.

PRESENTATION: The book is beautifully presented, with Paul Stapleton’s highly colourful artwork used effectively for both the cover and interior pages. The high production quality of the printed book makes The Curse of Saltash Mine a pleasure to read and own.

REPLAY VALUE: Though you may find yourself repeatedly leafing through this book to enjoy the impressive and soothing artwork, the focus on an extremely linear storyline offers little replay value.

Review by KJ Shadmand

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top