Saturday, September 20, 2014

Windhammer 2014 - Castle of Spirits by Tammy Badowski

I just wrote that the satire in Problem? doesn't feel as fresh as it should as the sort of gamebooks it mocks are old hat. Well here comes along Castle of Spirits to show that Problem? is fresher than I had assumed. Everything that Problem? ridicules is present in Castle: a narrow true path, arbitrary choices, T-intersections, a list of required items (including numbered keys of all things), and game-over passages out of the blue. A bit of fun that even Problem? didn't burden the player with are roll-or-die events. There's several points where if you don't succeed on a random roll you lose (or make the game unwinable), one of them necessary to see the end. An arbitrary choice often feels like you're making a random decision, but literally pinning success on a dice roll is a bit on the nose.

Castle plays like old-school game and has an old-school story to back it up. You're a random adventurer wandering about to find a quest. You stumble upon a dozy in the town of Everlasting where the local lord has turned all nasty, kidnapping townsfolk and turning them into zombies and such. “He is after the blood, the blood which covers our eyes, fills our cups and drizzles down our throats.” "“He took my daughter, I will never see her again, for her blood will no doubt seep into the river too like all the others before her. You don’t know how much her mother sobs…” say a pair of villagers while casually playing cards. Indeed, I have to wonder why the townsfolk stay when they're being menaced so. Sword in hand, you set off to the lord's castle to stop the bad vibes.

"The odour struck you at first when you entered the village. It was the stench of death, but there were no corpses to identify the smell. But as you approach the castle you soon discover what was causing all the fuss, you have thought too soon, for you see humans erected on poles, sticking out of the ground, unmoving, not breathing. The ground is littered with human heads, hands, feet and eyeballs. Ravens pick gruellingly at the rotting meats and flutter away as your step closer. Someone has made a banquet out of this terror before you, for you spy a clothed table adorned with silver chalices still full with blood and tears. A mean person has sat here dining upon torsos, singing lullabies and warning those who were forced to watch to be careful how and where they tread. You assume it was the lord of this wretched place and deem now to put a stop to his schemes. How dare he bully such people, he has no right."

Castle is a serious attempt at horror, but the imagery is so over the top and the sentences so poorly constructed that it undermines itself at every opportunity. Rooms are coated with blood or piled high with corpses to little effect. You're menaced by zombies, spooks, and even a lion (?), but there's no flair to the encounters. Rarely, there will be a spark of a neat idea, like the hollow skin that daces around in the castle's catacombs. But again, the prose is so purple that even the best encounters are rendered absurd, and the rest of the castle is a bland trek through a cheap amusement park ride.


Gameplay systems are serviceable. There's detailed rules for ranged combat and armor, but only one reference in the whole book provides access to such equipment. You are given a three Magick points to cast spells, but you can only cast spells when instructed and because there's only three such points the stat is superfluous. A Sanity score is occasionally reduced when you're exposed horrific sights, but it's only in service of a gate point. In one section you're asked to check how much you have left. If you don't, it's game over. Navigation down the OTP discourages exploration, as you can't lose more than three points. But then you do have to find a handful of required items, creating a tedious experience.

Combat is the one aspect of Castle is nicely handled. As you damage enemies they become easier to beat. Aside from an early encounter with a skeleton, battles aren't difficult. But in every playthrough that skeleton reduced my Health low enough that other enemies became threats. I liked the balance and this was the one part of the game that worked for me.

If you're in the mood for an 80's experience and can stomach the prose, Castle of Spirits gets the job done, but aside from that narrow achievement it's hard to recommend.

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