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“The Lost Legion” is the second volume of the “Dangerous Worlds Gamebooks” series, by Marc J. Wilson. In it, we will command a group of soldiers in a hostile and unknown land, looking for the mysterious 17th legion, a previous expedition that travelled to the same place in the past looking for riches.
As you may remember, about six months ago in this same blog I reviewed the first volume of the series, “Restless Heart of Evil“. The story was centered in the populous city of Deva and outskirts. I was pleasantly surprised, not only with how well developed was the background of the story – that city of Deva full of nuances and secrets – but also with the superb writing style of the author, way beyond what is usual in gamebook writers. If we add to that a fascinating plot full of unexpected twists, you will understand why even today, “Restless Heart of Evil” is one of the gamebooks I’ve enjoyed the most in recent times. That’s why, when Marc Wilson sent me “The Lost Legion”, my expectations couldn’t be higher.
As I summarized at the beginning, the story is set on a virgin and unexplored land, and we will be in charge of little more than a hundred soldiers, almost criminals in their city of origin. We will be exposed to disease and to the dangers of the jungle, with the goal of finding the trail of a previous mission, that of the 17th legion, in which only one survivor arrived to the city of Deva. That survivor, a mean-spirited and sadistic pigmy called Butu, will be our guide in this savage and inhospitable land. Our and our men’s survival will depend on the choices we make, and on how much we can trust the advice of our evil-minded guide.
It is very different as a story to “Restless Heart of Evil” in more than one sense. Starting with the environment, a hostile land full of dangers and disease, barely inhabited, in contrast to the urban and populous setting of the first part. Also, the kind of protagonist we will be guiding is very different. In fact, we will act as a group of people during a great part of the story, our men, and we will have to take care of their numbers and their motivation in order to reach a good conclusion. But at some points we will switch to an individual character when, for whatever reason, we get split from our soldiers. In fact, many areas in this story can be explored in both ways.
The treatment of the story of this expedition is also different to the usual in these kind of tales. If we take “Temple of the Spider God“, from Tin Man Games, as an example of a similar story, we will notice how in “The Lost Legion“, nature and its dangers will be depicted with a much more somber, hostile and realistic touch, not as close to the mere adventure tale as in Jonathan Green‘s gamebook. Here we will be facing real moral dilemmas, we will deal with amoral characters, like our guide Butu or the officer Lodeiro, and even many of our options will reflect the harshness of a historical period very different from our own; like the fact of being able to select slaves as part of our ship’s cargo. I was surprised to find out how a certain object that gives access to some of the most interesting encounters in the game, can only be obtained after taking a horrible decision; to gift our slaves to a non-human tribe, condemning them to a certain death.
It is a much closer reflection of how real expeditions, like the one of Hernán Cortés, could have been during the XVI century, very different to the romanticized version of them we got through adventure novels.
The world we will be exploring is fascinating, nonetheless. Full of strange cultures and ancient ruins, maintaining always a solid internal logic though, and giving out subtle clues to make us better understand the ending of the story. It is not usual for a gamebook to entice me to replay it, to uncover all of its secrets, but it happened to me with this one; I really recommend reading it multiple times, looking for different paths. The amount of different possible stories that “The Lost Legions” is capable of telling us is overwhelming. Even after a good number of playthroughs, when I believed I had seen it all, when I talked with the author, I discovered there was a whole new series of encounters I hadn’t explored.
I’ve mentioned the ending of the story. If there was something in “Restless Heart of Evil” that somehow devalued the whole, was the ending. Here it is completely the opposite. The reflection that the author makes through the last section of this book is what gives sense to the whole story. It turns this gamebook, in my opinion, along with Heart of Ice by Dave Morris, in one of the few that not only wants to “entertain us” and be “fun to read”, but actually aims to be a much deeper, almost philosophical, statement. That “other land” that is revealed at the end, a place that is at the same time a blessing and a threat, reminds me of the “desired paradise” central to all religions and ideologies, and reflects a view from his author that is also a reflection of our world, full of contradictions and injustices, but eager to be transformed into a better world.
I can only recommend this “The Lost Legion” for what it is; one of the best gamebooks I’ve played in recent times, a work aiming a different kind of reader, a more critical and more mature one. A reader who not only aspires to get entertained, but expects to go a bit farther than that.