Necklace of Skulls review


Necklace of Skulls is another excellent Virtual Reality adventure by Dave Morris. This time you play a daring Mayan youth travelling from your home town (Mexico) to the western desert of evil werewolves (also Mexico) in order to save or avenge your twin brother, whichever may be appropriate. Possibly taking the route across the Carib Sea, which is teeming with pirates in any century.

Mesoamerican cultures don’t feature too often in fantasy, although creatures have been borrowed from the various mythologies as from every other part of the world, and there is the odd prominent exception like D&D’s Maztica component of the Forgotten Realms setting. Here, elements from the Popol Vuh have been borrowed, revamped, fleshed out and mixed with other ingredients that I assume are not all specifically tied to Mayan sources but which mostly have the mythical resonance that Morris does so well. Despite the word “Mayan” appearing once or twice, I get the impression we’re looking at a slightly warped fantasy version as in VR2 and not “only” a reimagining of the real world as being true to mythology, although the effect is more subtle when you’re already expecting weird stuff to go down.

The protagonist seems to be gender-neutral apart from general expectations born of historical context and precedent (something similar holds for Down Among the Dead Men), which of course shouldn’t stop anyone from imagining a female lead if they want to. You can be recognized as your brother’s sibling, which is not entirely unthinkable even if you aren’t identical twins (the fact that the recognition is not immediate can perhaps be sufficiently explained by the person in question being dead at the time).

Unlike the hero twins of Mayan myth you’re not going to skateboard through adversity making up random magical abilities as you go along: NoS is easily the most difficult VR adventure so far. There are several places where you can end up dead if you don’t possess the appropriate skills or items, and your Life Points as well can easily drain away, making it hard to live through the final parts or even to get that far. I quite enjoyed this level of difficulty: there are many types of resources, some of which have several uses and some of which have only one, and figuring out which assets are optimally useful on each path makes for a meaty puzzle. There’s a dirty trick you can pull to make the book much less challenging in this department, but it doesn’t guarantee you’ll find the way to ultimate triumph. In addition to the usual skills, items and codewords, there are some devices that play with the rules set, like an item that supports two skills at the same time, or with the gamebook format itself, like an item that gives you a one-time chance to read all the references among your current options before choosing which one to proceed to. If we overlook a few regrettable errors (detailed below as usual), I would say this is the best VR I’ve reviewed so far, gameplay-wise.

Flavour-wise it is also a success, as you’d expect. The writing is more expansive than in Down Among the Dead Men, and on rare occasions delivers a startling simile (e.g. a voice that “thunders” like “the shriek of an eagle”), but mostly serves to instil in the picture of a long-lost civilization and its encompassing wilderness a confident authenticity, helped along superbly by the art. You’ve got actual dialogue, ghosts and demons, nasty creatures, hostile environments, and a worthy enemy (although I was a little disappointed to learn that the villain is not called Necklace of Skulls for actually _being_ the skulls). There are no truly intriguing companions or side characters (although the giant is pretty cool), but the nature of the story means this has to be primarily a one-sibling quest, and what’s our point of reference anyway, Chaim Golgoth or Zoot Zimmer? I give this book my virtual stamp of highest recommendation, and we can only dizzyingly imagine a world in which there’s a series of fifty-nine of these things.

– Per Jorner