“Restless Heart of Evil“, by Marc J. Wilson, is the first volume on the series “Dangerous Worlds Gamebooks“. It has been another example of a gamebook series having used a crowdfunding platform successfully (Kickstarter, in this case) managing to obtain 3427£ of an initial request of 2000£.
What Marc J. Wilson proposes with this series is adapting the gamebook media to the current age of their readers; if gamebook series back in the decade of the 80s were destined to young readers, with this series Marc aims to adapt the same themes to those same old fans, who have already reached the thirties. The characters of these stories aren’t “sons of kings or great wizards”, but simple adventurers struggling in grim worlds of dark fantasy or dystopian futures, just to survive in many cases. Also, the content pretends to be more “grown-up”, not shying away from descriptions of violence.
Does this “Restless Heart of Evil” honor those objectives? For starters, the story places us in the role of an ex-mercenary and ex-slave with a hard childhood – his mother died when giving him birth, and he discovered as a child the corpse of his father, a merchant, who hanged himself after loosing all his possessions on a shipwreck – that was bought on a slave market by the professor Hyeronimus Kroos. He provided him with the education he was always denied, and turned him into a trusted servant and friend. When the story begins, the professor has sent a letter to our protagonist asking him to bring some volumes from his library to the city of Deva. And there we go by ship when the narration starts.
This gamebook uses a diceless system, similar to those of other gamebooks, like “Necklace of Skulls” or “Heart of Ice” by Dave Morris, where the result of our actions is totally deterministic. It depends on the character creation process, where we divide some points between attributes, on the gifts (special capabilities) we have selected, our decisions and the objects and knowledge we have been able to obtain throughout our adventure. Personally I tend to prefer these kind of systems, to those where some bad dice rolls can play havoc with a whole series of good decisions, although here the preferences may be different depending on who – for example, Marc. J. Wilson has already announced that the next volumes on the series will use a different system using dice, at the request of most of his readers.
The background of this story, the city of Devas, is very well constructed. Here we aren’t talking about a world of generic fantasy, with heroes and villians. The city is a place of deep inequalities, corruption, and many different factions fighting for power. A city with an interesting history – it was an ancient elven city abandoned by their original builders, and there are still traces of the old elvish buildings and, as we will discover later on, their dangerous catacombs.
It’s a city that feels alive, evolving all through the book. Several events will change the places we can access to, and what we will find when we arrive to them. As we go deeper in the plot and discover the sinister conspirancy that will put at risk the destine of the city, we will know also its darkest aspects, and we will live the horror and violence on the streets, described with all detail.
The writing of this work is excellent, allowing us to bring ourselves to this complex, dark and violent world. If only, at some points it tends to abuse stereotypes when describing its characters. But it is forgivable when the experience of the story gives us the sense of having lived a complex and epic tale, full of unexpected turnarounds and interesting revelations. The ending felt a little bit dissapointing, with that new suggested complication – maybe aimed at giving cause for new stories set in the same world – that reminded me too much of american horror movies and their “final scare“.
As a side remark, I would add that the illustrations included in the book, by Edmundo Garing, are some of the best I’ve seen in any gamebook.
To sum up, a very good gamebook, showing how the genre has evolved since its “golden decade” in the eighties, aiming to a different kind of readers, and without any doubt a very appealing adquisition for the library of any lover of the genre.