REVIEW: The Houses of the Dead by Jamie Thomson

At GBN we love reviewing books by veteran authors. In the past few years, we have offered our perspective on works by illustrious names such as Joe Dever, Ian Livingstone and Jonathan Green and have not been disappointed.

So when the chance came to review The Houses of the Dead by Jamie Thomson (the first of the VulcanVerse Solo Roleplaying Adventures) we stepped up, confident in the fact that we are ardent fans of many of the author’s other gamebooks such as his Fighting Fantasy collaborations Talisman of Death and Sword of the Samurai. We were also blown away by the first of Jamie Thomson’s Dark Lord books The Teenage Years (not a gamebook, but still…). 

Yet there remained a lurking fear; the knowledge that open-world gamebooks are quite different from the more linear gamebooks that GBN has reviewed of late, the best of which possess pacy narratives, well-drawn characters and crystal-clear objectives. It was also a concern that I (the writer of this article) have had a hard time with open-world gamebooks in the past, far preferring a more linear format where your character’s identity is more fully realised from the outset. Thus it was with some trepidation that I turned over the grim-dark hardback cover of The Houses of the Dead, wondering if my experience would cause me to double down on my aversion to open-world gamebooks, or become a convert. Much lay at stake…

From the start of the adventure, my concerns were eased. Much like an open-ended video game, The Houses of the Dead begins by allowing you to establish the sort of character you wish to be by offering a number of early-life choices that will affect the attributes of CHARM, GRACE, INGENUITY and STRENGTH and determine the classical deity to which you will be aligned (Ares, for example, the god of war, affinity to whom will result in increased strength). These attributes are critical for survival, as you will be asked to take tests at varying difficulty levels by adding your attribute score (anything from -1 to 5) to a 2D6 roll in order to equal or exceed a set number (difficulty ‘7’ for example). It is an elegant and economical mechanic that removes the need for multiple combat rolls and allows you to overcome in-game challenges by using – if you are so inclined – brains over brawn by emphasising your charm or ingenuity. During this initial stage, the reader is also introduced to a setting inspired by the world of ancient Greece – a land of fields, hills and vineyards that is admirably and immersively described. It is a gentle and dream-like introduction to The Houses of the Dead that is comfortingly linear and undemanding in its design. Once the plot contrives to hurl you into Hades, however, you begin to get a sense of what it means to play a massive open-world gamebook. If one word might describe the initial sensation it would be…disorientation.

Allow me to explain: at first you have no idea why you have been sent to the Underworld; you have no mission nor clear objectives, you really haven’t got a clue. This is where the going gets tough, as any attempts to explore Hades without at least moderately careful mapping are likely to see you getting hopelessly lost and increasingly frustrated. Lackadaisical adventurers may well find avenues of potential excitement curtailed by the absence of vital items such as Agamemnon’s staff or the state of being ‘grief-stricken’ (for entry, quite appropriately, to the Mourning Fields). Those finding themselves in such predicaments might well be forgiven for finding Jamie Thomson’s appropriately stark, spare and excellent prose describing the bleakness of Hades and its listless ghosts the final goad before – having gone in circles and gotten nowhere – slamming the tome shut in sheer despondency and casting the adventure aside with a curse for open-world torture. Such reactions are entirely understandable and perhaps (for the uninitiated) to be expected. This was after all exactly how I felt after my first ham-fisted attempt at taking on The Houses of the Dead. But there was no question of my giving up; I resolved to join the camp of toughies who ‘get going’, having played enough of the book to glean that what I had before me was a work of astonishing ambition, depth and scope. The fault lay with me and I resolved to do better; more to the point, to try harder. If you find yourself struggling with The Houses of the Dead and do the same, you will find that the adventure will (like most things worth having) reward a little hard work and effort in spades. 

Within a few hours of diligent gameplay you will uncover the purpose of your adventure (spoilers absolutely withheld!) and have encountered such a variety of classical heroes, villains, monsters, weapons and treasure that you are likely to come away from The Houses of the Dead far more learned in the lore of ancient Greece than before. This is well and good, for you will need to acquire a certain level of classical knowledge in order to solve a number of ‘annoying  puzzles’ (author’s own words!) that are critical for progression in the book. As such, some readers might find The Houses of the Dead a little bit too much like hard work, especially after a tough day at work or a rough night’s sleep. But for those with a bit of brain power and attention to spare, here is a gamebook to tackle head on. For those wanting even more, The Houses of the Dead interlinks with some (possibly all) of the other FOUR books in the VulcanVerse series (The Hammer of the Sun, The Wild Woods, The Pillars of the Sky and Workshop of the Gods) which you can jump across to at certain points in the adventure. Furthermore, the open-world gamebooks connect to the Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMORPG) also going by the VulcanVerse name in which players can purchase online real estate and transact in Non Fungible Tokens (NFTs). 

In terms of character and inventory management, The Houses of the Dead excels with its adventure sheet. The ability to earn glory, titles and scars allows intriguing possibilities for developing your hero, while you are permitted to carry a quite generous number of possessions and accrue large sums of cold hard coin (or rather the in-world currency, pyr). Additionally there are locations (such as the Vault of Vulcan and no less than your very own villa!) where you can deposit and retrieve items even after death and resurrection. It is all rather ingenious and extremely well balanced, but be warned: foolish mistakes can result in a sort of permadeath where you are told to start from Section 1 minus all your items. Such fates never feel arbitrary or unfair. Rather, they seem fitting ends for reckless mortals traipsing footloose in Hades!

The Houses of the Dead skilfully conveys an empty, bleak and sorrowful atmosphere, but there are moments of mischievous humour, such as when you are accused of being a ‘dung-brained spawn of arse’, or pick up stains after falling into excrement. I loved it when my character channelled his inner Odysseus by listening to the song of a Siren while bound to a mast, only to discover that the fey creature had anything but a beguiling voice! It is in moments like these when the wit of the author – which will be familiar to readers of the Dark Lord books, or those who heard him speak at Fighting Fantasy Fest 3 – really shines through. This is not only desirable as an end in itself, but communicates a subtle message: that (with perseverance) even Hades can be fun!

Such is the quality of the writing, game mechanics and lore found in this adventure that you can’t help but feel that The Houses of the Dead would have benefited from more (and better presented) art. It is not that the internal illustrations aren’t great (although there is a simple child’s drawing at Section 528 – take a bow Owen Bolton! – that I’m sure there is a story behind), it’s just that they are on the small side and – though in colour – seem a little…well, dark. Even the cover of my copy of the book depicting an erupting Mount Thanatos is a shade too dark for my liking, notwithstanding the fact that the volcano is meant to be in Hades. Whether such issues were the result of a deliberate choice to help set a gloomy mood or the result of technical challenges is anyone’s guess. Either way, the overall aesthetic of the The Houses of the Dead is clean, satisfying and more than adequate to the task; just a little less epic than it could have been…

Surprisingly for a gamebook written by a veteran author, there are a handful of minor typos scattered throughout the text, a shortcoming that few readers will mind too much in a 832 section adventure. What is unsurprising is the sophisticated tick box codeword system that The Houses of the Dead employs in keeping track of your character’s progress. There is also a ‘current location’ box on your adventure sheet that is essential for recording how far you have progressed towards your ultimate goal in the Underworld. It is all incredibly clever and, for me, something that proved near impossible to reverse engineer. 

Trying to unpick the technicalities of The Houses of the Dead felt a bit like looking at the innards of a perpetual motion watch and trying to work out what exactly is going on. In the end you might well give up trying to comprehend the subtleties of design, but that doesn’t really matter because the whole thing works so smoothly. And that – for mere mortals – should be more than good enough!

STORYLINE: YOU have been summoned to Hades by the god Vulcan and both the fate of the world and your own lay in your hands. It is simple enough to fall into the depths of hell, but can you get out again?

GAMEPLAY: With a streamlined and intuitive adventure sheet, highly evolved combat and skill test mechanics and the virtuoso use of tick box codewords and a current location box to keep track of progress, The Houses of the Dead is a masterpiece of game design.

PRESENTATION: Even though the dark and gloomy colour illustrations do justice to the setting of the Underworld and the text is well ordered and cleanly formatted, the presentation of The Houses of the Dead is less magnificent than its writing and gameplay deserve.

REPLAY VALUE: This is a massive open-world adventure  that interlinks with other (at times even more massive) gamebooks in the VulcanVerse series. Populated by numerous characters with satisfying backstories and plenty of quests, there is endless replayability to be found here.

Article by KJ Shadmand

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