For those of a certain age there are two types of people: those who never bothered with ‘choose your adventure’ games, and those who remember a time when a trip to WHSmiths meant hungrily eyeing up a display wall showing book spines, each one bright green, with imagination-inspiring titles such as Deathtrap Dungeon or The Rings of Kether.
This was an age before the geeks inherited the earth and it was acceptable – even cool – to enjoy roleplay games. In fact, fantasy games are now so popular that Wizards of the Coast are making more money for Hasbro than all of its other games and toys combined; but back then many young people who might have wanted to share the fun of a game of Dungeons and Dragons didn’t know anyone else who would be interested, and so had to settle for ‘choose your adventures’, or gamebooks, as they are also called.
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There were a wide range of different products available, and you would often see popular franchises releasing their own ones. However, for the discerning gamer there were a more limited number of real choices. Catering for readers who chose to eschew simple stories where all you did was turn to a specific section, instead these books used game systems, often involving dice and the need to track information on character sheets printed within the books themselves. Hugely popular series include the Lone Wolf and Grailquest series, but the first, and without a doubt biggest and most influential, were the Fighting Fantasy Books. These were the green-spined worlds of wonder so many were entranced by.
Dracula: Curse of the Vampire, released by Snowbooks as part of their Ace Gamebooks series, is very much in the style of these Fighting Fantasy books. The author, Jonathan Green, has previous form having written seven Fighting Fantasy titles, and almost everything about the book feels like one of these classic books. The artwork created by Hauke Kock, who picked up the reins after the tragic death of the original artist Martin McKenna, also manages to evoke memories of classic reads whilst still remaining contemporary. The fact that when leafing through pages one occasionally glimpses spoilers of what you’ll be facing only enriches the experience and nostalgia.
Where Dracula: Curse of the Vampire differs is the complexity. Traditionally a Fighting Fantasy book would have 400 entries and was around 270 pages long. Here we’re faced with a mammoth tome of almost 650 pages and 1,000 separate entries. Part of this heft is brought about due to the sheer level of complexity.
The reader has the choice of playing as either ‘human’ or ‘Dracula’, but there is more of a twist. If choosing human, there are three humans to pick from, with each one walking a unique story. It’s further complicated by allowing the reader to change the human they are playing as at certain points thought the book. (For clarity, we played through as Dracula and also as the humans, cycling through each of them at every opportunity present.)
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The gaming system used by Ace itself will feel familiar to anyone who’s played a Fighting Fantasy gamebook, though there are a few added extras, which make playing the humans or vampire feel slightly different. In addition to the dice you’re also given the option of using a regular deck of cards – which any stat monkey who’s played one of these books before will baulk at straight away – or simply just assuming one wins every challenge.
But is it any good? Yes, it is. The sheer magnitude of this project is impressive. Earlier I mentioned two types of people, but to that we should probably add a third: those who didn’t just play through a gamebook, but mapped out every path and eventuality, determining the most efficient way through and exploring every possible choice. This book is for the adults those children became. With four different characters this game calls for a lot of different coloured pencils.
It’s not perfect. First off there are some technical issues. As is common in these books it’s made clear that certain stats can only rise above their starting numbers if the passage specifically says so, yet early in the book one character has the chance to raise these stats. It’s impossible for them to have dropped below their starting point no matter what choices you make to get there, and thematically it makes sense to be able to go above starting numbers, yet there is no specific instruction to do so.
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Secondly there is a printing mistake which has resulted in the second digit of a three digit number being obscured whilst the third had not printed at all. With only ten possible options, this wasn’t impossible to overcome, but it also does not reflect well. Another unique aspect to crafting these books that does not exist in traditional narrative is story threads coming together before they diverge again. When this happens, one of the banes of gamebooks is a result that makes no sense; when you have to go back to the entry that sent you there and reread it because it doesn’t seem right. There was one case where this happened which leaves the reader feeling like a choice has been made on their behalf.
The stories themselves are very good, and broadly follow the plot of Dracula, though they also throw in references to other elements of vampire fiction, both written and filmed. You may want to have wiki at the ready whenever a name crops up. The Law Firm of Hawkins, Oldman, & Lee tips the hat at the kind of feel this book will have. But even within the storytelling there are issues. Firstly, there is little incentive to explore the huge and detailed world created by Green, especially if you are a human. It’s fair to say that almost every decision made by the protagonists in the original novel leads to a rather nasty outcome and here it’s no different.
The reader learns very quickly that following anything other than the safest possible path isn’t just folly, it’s brutal. This is a shame, as a casual reader is unlikely to enjoy any of the richness of the world Green has given us. At other times the narrative does feel padded. As an example, the sea journey from Transylvania to Victorian England would have been long and tedious, but I don’t need to feel that in a gamebook. There are only so many times a vampire can return to their wooden crate after feeding on a hapless sailor before the reader puts the book down to find something else to do.
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Flaws aside, this is a wonderful book, with Green’s passion for and dedication to the subject, and mastery of the genre mostly overcoming the other niggles. We’ve reviewed the paperback here, and at a very reasonable £9.99 RRP it’s a solid recommendation. Also available is a gorgeous looking hardback. Considering the time likely to be spent on this book and the damage flicking back and forth can cause to the spine, the £25 investment might well be worth it. After all, you’re an adult now, you don’t have to save up your pocket money and no one’s going to tell you to read a real book instead.
Dracula: Curse of the Vampire is out now from Snowbooks.