Down Among the Dead Men review


The pirate instalment of the Virtual Reality series is set in an alternate world where Enya’s “Carib Blue” just wasn’t such a great hit. Perhaps the reason for this is that when someone managed to translate the Irish lyrics they turned out to be an endless ramble about penguins, but I guess we shall never know for sure. It’s also a world where magic wands work alongside pistols and where ghostly apparitions may line the side of a vessel just the same as rum-drunk privateers. I must admit that at first I was slightly doubtful towards the genre mixture of pirates and fantasy; I needn’t have worried, though I still find it slightly odd that several names of ancient real-world deities, places and civilizations have been included when the most obvious contemporary ones have been switched out.

Anyway! Once upon a time there was a pirate captain called Skarvench who was a mean and crafty old vulture. He particularly delighted in pressing well-adjusted sailors and scoundrels into service alongside his willing crew of black-hearted villains. One day Skarvench hatched the scheme of schemes: to magically assault and abduct none but the Queen of /E/n/g/l/a/n/d/ Glorianne herself and sell her off to the dastardly King of /S/p/a/i/n/ Sidonia. This plan was to be carried out when next Her Majesty arrived in the colonies, guarded by a fine fleet or warships. What arcane aces might the scurvy sea dog have up his grimy sleeve? Meantime, a group of four stole away in a jollyboat seeking to escape his piratical clutches and maybe avert the impending removal of royalty. One of these would-be heroes was YOU, meaning it makes even less sense to go on with this review in the past tense…

The story follows the outline on the back cover: first you make your escape to civilization, then you need to acquire a ship and crew, and finally you go after the villain. The first two thirds at least are impressively constructed to balance freedom and challenge: depending on your choice of routes and actions, different skills will come in handy, different resources can be acquired, and different options will open up. Towards the end of the book you are perhaps less likely to be sunk or skewered than you are to run aground on one of three successive bottlenecks which are navigated using items and/or codewords.

I have two gripes concerning these bottlenecks. The first one is perhaps not a proper gripe, as the bottleneck in question is quite logical: it’s just so trivial to get past it if you know the conditions ahead of time that it may feel correspondingly unfair and pointless if you are initially caught off guard. A more culpable case involves either making use of special items even if you should not reasonably be able to anticipate the results, or the natural world responding oddly to your character’s knowledge – if you’ve learned that the coconut dropper tree drops a coconut every day at five o’clock, then it drops a nut on the head of your enemy, while if you don’t, apparently either it wasn’t a coconut dropper tree, or it wasn’t five o’clock, or coconut dropper trees don’t actually drop nuts on schedule (as any half-civilized person would know).

DAtDM doesn’t have a background and plot quite as compelling as those of Heart of Ice, but it’s still way ahead of most gamebooks in these aspects and others. Encounters are inventive and interesting and often connect to some piece of lore. Options are logically presented, the ruleset is put to good use, most things you can possibly complain about would not stick out in any other book. Your companions are entirely believable and grow on you quickly, offering tidbits, tension and banter as appropriate. The system for determining the durability of your ship is well handled (maybe apart from the fact that it may be less likely to be of much relevance) and allows for one of the cleverest applications of choice and consequence I have seen. But the writing alone is really worth the proverbial price of admission. This is a rich and solid gamebook that should be played by everyone, especially those who’ve been put off by the rushed and flimsy stuff we know is out there.

Leo Hartas’ interior art is a mixed bag. He’s good with objects – and maps, obviously – but not so good with people: the natives drawn for 41 look fairly ridiculous, and the mermaid in no way improves on the image conjured up by Morris’ words. Ejada is in appearance, attire and demeanour the opposite of what she should be like. Mortice however is an exception in this department. The picture for 26 fails to represent “unceasing rain”, or any kind of storminess for that matter, whereas the sea in the picture for 172 has far too many waves to make a good “pane of glass”. The giant should probably be standing in the water instead of squatting improbably. The Jewel of Heaven is said to be a brigantine, but it is drawn with three masts, three gun decks and a three-storeyed sterncastle, which is at least one too many of each.

– Per Jorner