REVIEW: Beowulf Beastslayer

In the land of the Danes, there’s a monster abroad. One too powerful for ordinary warriors to withstand; a fen-beast who can smash oak timbers aside like driftwood, and rend men limb from limb. A devourer of flesh and bones, a drinker of blood and a hater of mirth. He’s a real piece of work, and he’s made the Danish King Hrothgar’s mead-hall his target, marking the hapless banner-men within as his meat and drink.

Enter Beowulf, sword-thane of the Geats, and welcome to Jonathan Green’s Beowulf Beastslayer, a re-imagining of an Anglo-Saxon epic poem that is both reassuringly familiar to fans of the genre, and hugely ambitious in its scale, scope and learning.

There’s so much going on in Beowulf Beastslayer – the fourth instalment in the Ace Gamebook series – that reviewing it proved particularly challenging. However, the one thing that is obvious from the outset is its dense, dramatic and richly descriptive alliterative writing style. Everything within this adventure is rendered with extraordinary vividness and detail, from its high-minded kings and queens, to its brave banner-men, untamed lands, and hideous monsters. Marvellous treasures are counter-balanced by cursed items, vengeful ghosts, and swords that might snap in the heat of battle, while each awe-inspiring natural wonder has its match in enclaves of darkness and death.

The arch-fiend GRENDEL himself serves as a good example of the immense descriptive effort put into this gamebook, for he is not only a glistening FEN-BEAST, but the FLESH GRINDER, the HAG-SEED HORROR, the MIRTH-HATER, the DEVOURER OF MEN, the NIGHT-STALKER, and perhaps my favourite descriptions of all: the GUZZLER OF GIZZARDS and the GRINDER OF GRISTLE!

And GRENDEL is far from the only horror you must face. If explored fully, Beowulf Beastslayer will pit you against all manner of powerful adversaries that includes SEA-DRAKES, venomous WYRMS, OGRES, ambitious rivals, and even a mighty fire-breathing DRAGON. If any of these enemies seem too powerful for a hero even of Beowulf’s semi-divine capacities to overcome, then fear not, for there is often help at hand. This may be your trusty crew, or an ally who will fight by your side and aid your survival in testing times.

Accessing routes through the story that take into account the presence of a companion or an acquired skill will sometimes require you to pay attention to symbols, such as that of a helmet or a fish. These symbols appear beneath relevant paragraph headings, thereby informing you that it is time to add or subtract a certain number (of which you should have made a note) in order to follow an altered narrative.

You will also need to note your Kennings (two word phrases such as wave-watcher or shadow-fast) that accrue depending on actions you take. These will affect the turn of future events, and give you access to sections of the adventure that might otherwise remain hidden. For example, if you instantly attack a watchman, you may gain the Kenning war-hasty that will have implications further into the adventure. Win the trust of that same watchman, and you will receive a different Kenning that will alter your reception by the watchman’s friends. However you choose to play, it is easy to slip into the spirit of playing a high-born hero of myth and legend.

Beowulf Beastslayer encourages you to act as heroically as possible by awarding Hero Points. These stand alongside the more familiar attributes of Agility and Combat (which are basically sub-divisions of the Fighting Fantasy Skill rating) and Endurance (Stamina). Hero Points can be spent in two ways: to win combats against powerful enemies, or to automatically pass life-or-death Combat and Agility tests. Thus, it is incumbent upon you to behave as a hero should. Do so, and you will gather sufficient Hero Points to triumph in your struggles, thereby gaining even more of this powerful commodity. Act in a manner unbefitting your station, on the other hand, and you will lose Hero Points and be forced to rely on the vicissitudes of your 2D6 rolls. Dare to behave dishonourably, and you may even find yourself being scolded by the narrator for attempting to cheat, or for refusing a friendly offer!

This gamebook also employs the clever technique of taking you on ‘adventures within an adventure,’ all of which either flesh out Beowulf’s heroic exploits of the past, or allow you to take on an entirely new heroic persona of some legendary figure. During these flashbacks, you cannot die (after all, the events you experience have, in principle, already happened), but Hero Points are at stake, and you’re also treated to some exciting scenarios that see you embroiled in epic challenges and quests. It’s a clever way of adding additional material to the adventure without forcing the reader’s hand, for whether you pursue these digressions or not is entirely up to you. The effort of doing so is well worth the effort, however, for who would want to miss out on the chance to participate in a swimming contest lasting seven days and nights, or taking on an entire band of OGRES with the aid of your crew? Also, claiming victory in these mini-quests helps build your heroic status, which may well be useful in the later stages of the adventure…

For all of its remarkable achievements, there are (rare) moments when Beowulf Beastslayer feels a little too much like hard work. This has nothing to do with the simple mathematics, careful note-taking and verbal reasoning you will have to employ to make the most of this gamebook; features that are the hallmarks of what is a rigorous and impeccably-designed gamebook that hits the sweet spot in terms of difficulty and challenge. Rather, it is the runic translation work that you are occasionally invited to perform that runs the risk of causing irritation and frustration. This is done by converting Anglo-Saxon runic messages you encounter in the text into Romance letters by consulting a runic translation table near the back of the book. You then convert each English Language letter into a number (based on its sequential position in the alphabet), before adding them all up to reveal your next paragraph number. Sounds straightforward enough? It is, but it is also laborious, mechanical and painstaking, especially if you consider that some of the longer runic passages are comprised of some three dozen characters! Should you make an error in your addition, then it will take you about as long to work out where you went wrong, as it does to simply start from scratch. And if you are anything like me, you may find that rune-rage has you setting down the book in annoyance before you complete the task!

‘Brains as well as brawn. Time for a little runic homework?!’

To be fair, you do not have to attempt the translation work unless you wish, and failing to do so does not doom you to failure. And of course, it is admirable to see Beowulf Beastslayer possessed of such an educational and learned spirit. There may be readers out there who discover a taste for Old English, as a direct result of playing this gamebook. If so, wonderful! But there will be some for whom the translation work will simply not appeal. For me, the idea of Beowulf scratching his head while trying to work out a runic message did not fit with the monster-slaying and fame-building themes of the rest of the book. Far from making me feel like a strapping Geatish hero, poring over Old English characters reminded me of what it felt like to be a schoolboy fretting over his Classics homework!

But let me retreat from nit-picking and return to high praise by discussing the artwork of Beowulf Beastslayer. Ah, the artwork! It will come as no surprise to learn that Russ Nicholson has done a spectacular job with the illustrations in this book. His incredibly detailed line art is not only reminiscent of his work in the classic Fighting Fantasy and Fabled Lands books, but represents the Anglo-Saxon world with a historian’s sympathy and authenticity. I am no expert in this age, but the weapons, armour, raiment, longships and architecture found in Mr Nicholson’s illustrations look like objects that could really have existed in 7th century Scandinavia. His depictions of monsters seem to glare, caper and roar with malevolence, and the secondary illustrations of Viking helmets, swords and decorative goblets look as if they may have been inspired by objects found at the burial at Sutton Hoo. Then there is the fact that hidden within the internal artwork are the faces of individuals familiar to the gamebook community. The thing the portraits have in common? They are all representations of high level backers of the Beowulf Beastslayer Kickstarter campaign; fans who have been seamlessly immortalised into drawings of banner-men and attendants by the artist’s accomplished pen. The entire book has been produced to a very high standard, with stunning covers and substantial, cream-coloured inner pages that make reading through its 500 paragraphs a tactile pleasure.

Like the Anglo-Saxon epic on which it is based, Beowulf Beastslayer is dense, descriptive, challenging, and not to be approached with a pensive heart. But for those willing to commit themselves to a hero’s work, this is a remarkably historic, immersive and masterfully designed gamebook. A fresh and fearless addition to the interactive fiction universe that has every chance of forging a legend of its own!

STORYLINE: YOU are Beowulf, a sword-thane of the Geats. With a band of trusty banner-men, you must breach the whale-road with your longship, and seek the lands of the Danes. There, you hope to defeat the mirth-hating and man-eating fen-beast Grendel, thus liberating King Hrothgar and his people from twelve years of suffering and slaughter. But you will soon find that Grendel is but one trophy that may be yours to take!

GAMEPLAY: This adventure combines familiar gamebook mechanics with some innovative touches that encourage you to explore what it means to be a mighty hero. The gameplay hits the sweet spot when it comes to difficulty, and offers a riddle-solving introduction to Old English for those with patience and persistence.

PRESENTATION: With its high quality covers, durable internal pages, and stunning internal and external art by the legendary Russ Nicholson, Beowulf Beastslayer is a treasure that any gamebook fan would be proud to own.

REPLAY VALUE: This is a substantial adventure with much to explore. Numerous pathways, the risk of sudden death, and the sheer scope of the story means that there’s plenty of replay value. In fact, so much research and thought has gone into the rich descriptions and illustrations, that it’s almost worth reading this book from cover to cover, like a conventional piece of prose!

Review by KJ Shadmand

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