The Heart Of Fire
by Michael J Ward, fantasy (2012)
Gollancz, £16.99, ISBN 978-0-575-11877-5


After the success of the first DestinyQuest campaign, The Legion Of Shadow, that book and this sequel were picked up by Gollancz. That explains why this gamebook is nearly double the price of the independently-released edition of the previous campaign, heh.

The campaign in The Heart Of Fire stands alone well even if you hadn't played the previous campaign. Here, you are some kind of prophet, blessed - or cursed, in this case - with the ability to see the future. Alas, the ability won't help you much here and you don't remember much about your past.

Feared for your abilities, you are imprisoned in the dungeons run by the inquisitors of the One True God in Fenstone Moors. When the campaign opens, you manage to taste freedom during the confusion of what seems like an attack of the Wiccans, natives of the area who are waging war with the inquisitors over the land, and that's pretty much the premise. Similar to the previous campaign, you wander in an artificial sandbox, doing various quests while slowly discovering more about your character's nature.

This campaign has a similar gameplay system to that of the previous campaign, only, this one is now even bigger than before, often to the point of unnecessary bloating. For example, there are so many abilities listed in the appendix that are actually the same ability given several different names. Is such a bloat necessary? Either Mr Ward is being paid per word or he secretly delights in seeing poor players trying to juggle so much information. This campaign would delight rules lawyers, but the average gamebook player may find it less cumbersome to just boot up The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim if they want to experience a sandbox fantasy role-playing game.

The structure of this campaign, just like the gameplay system, is similar to that in The Legion Of Shadow. The whole thing is divided into acts, and you are free to explore at your own whim, although each area is color-coded according to difficulty. Each area opens up a mini-adventure of sorts, and this time around, Mr Ward brings in party members (many of whom predictably become collateral damage eventually) and there is also the introduction of a multiplayer element for the really tough bosses. Never mind how you will find three people willing to fork out £16.99 each for a copy of their own - you can always create your own party members and roll them during combat yourself. It isn't cheating if nobody calls you on it!

The marked resemblance of DestinyQuest to a typical fantasy role-playing video game is still present, and here, there is even less need to make choices, as most of the choices here only lead to differences in the loot you will get in the end. It's all hack and slash here, with min-maxing being high on the agenda, with storytelling a low priority.

Mind you, there is an unusual story here, and the epilogue is quite... intriguing, let's just say. But getting there requires mostly going to the relevant entry numbers, taking down the enemies and picking the loot, adjusting the details in the character sheet, and repeating the whole process until boredom sinks in. Some puzzles here and there break the monotony, but they aren't very challenging. As a result, playing The Heart Of Fire is like playing a Diablo game - just hack and slash all the way - only, this particular session requires me to record a collection of code words, turn constantly to the abilities listed in the appendix for reference, and keep track of various stats while rolling die and what not. At least with Diablo, the brain doesn't feel like there is an army of rules lawyers sitting on it.

Mr Ward also breaks a cardinal rule of role-playing games - he doesn't allow much role-playing here. Your character has a predetermined personality. There are many "cutscene moments" when you are forced to just sit back as your character does and says things without your say in the matter. It can be quite annoying if, say, you'd like your character to be a reckless type only to read and discover that your character agrees with the clichéd cowardly party member about wanting to flee a scene. Your character also shows an acerbic kind of wit - at least, that's what Mr Ward is probably hoping, as the end result is more akin to your character speaking like a spoiled brat defying his parents in a "Did not! Did too!" manner.

While this is a big gamebook and some errors are to be expected, it's also obvious that inadequate effort had been made to proofread things for consistent grammar, spelling, and such. The most egregious boo-boo can be found in entry 229:

One of your party members grips their chest, looking down at a blossoming wound. You see green venom bubbling between their fingers. With a gargling cry, they drop to the ground dead. There is no sign of a weapon or even an attacker.

All things considered, The Heart Of Fire no longer has the novelty factor of the previous gamebook to cover its shortcomings, and boy, do things become tedious and monotonous fast in this campaign. The distracting narrative blunders don't improve matters, and neither do the linearity and lack of actual role-playing elements. But hey, this big and heavy gamebook will make a great paperweight!

One oogie! One oogie!


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