Thursday 31 December 2020

Lone Wolf 31: The Dusk of Eternal Night | review by Rafe McGregor

Lone Wolf 31: The Dusk of Eternal Night by Vincent Lazzari and Ben Dever

Holmgard Press, hardback, £19.99, December 2020, ISBN 9781916268036

If I enjoy a series and the latest instalment isn’t up to the standard of its predecessors, my usual policy is to avoid reviewing it.  Perhaps that’s what I should do with Lone Wolf 31: The Dusk of Eternal Night, the penultimate instalment of the late Joe Dever’s Lone Wolf cycle of fantasy gamebooks, which was released in time for Christmas by Holmgard Press.  Having invested so much time and energy (and a not inconsiderable amount of money) on the franchise as well as reviewing all of the New Order series (Lone Wolf 21 onwards) to date, however, I feel it would be a cop out.  Also, notwithstanding my criticism below, I will be buying the last in the cycle – Lone Wolf 32: Light of the Kai – on the basis that I am in my fifth decade of playing the books and have a need to know how it all ends (I began shortly after Lone Wolf 1: Flight from the Dark was published in 1984).  For those interested, I’ve discussed the trials and tribulations of the franchise – including why the publication of the cycle has taken so long – here, here, and here.  So let me begin with the bad news and my harshest criticism: Lone Wolf 31 simply has too much dialogue, too much description, and too little gameplay.  It’s as if the authors forgot they were writing a gamebook and wrote an experimental young adult fantasy novel instead.  Now one may think that this hybrid model of gamebook-novel is an improvement on the gamebook-only model or that the change of direction is precisely what the cycle needs for a spectacular conclusion, but I have been playing these books since the eighties because they are games.  If I wanted a novel set in Magnamund I would have collected the Legends of Lone Wolf series (novelisations of gamebooks 1 to 8, published from 1989 to 1994) – and, indeed, I did try the first and decided that they weren’t for me.  I genuinely hope that most if not all readers of this review disagree with my evaluation and if you don’t want to be put off Lone Wolf 31 please don’t read any further.  Just buy the book, read it, and make up your own mind.

The New Order series focuses on a new protagonist (whose name is randomly-generated, leaving me with “True Friend” for mine) and combines campaign and standalone adventures.  The standalone adventures are Lone Wolf 23: Mydnight’s Hero and Lone Wolf 26: The Fall of Blood Mountain.  There are four separate campaigns: books 21 and 22; books 24 and 25; books 27 and 28; and the final four books.  The final campaign began in Lone Wolf 29: The Storms of Chai and was continued in Lone Wolf 30: Dead in the Deep, which was the first gamebook published after Joe Dever’s death and was written by Vincent Lazzari and Ben Dever (Joe’s son), using notes that Joe literally wrote on his deathbed.  (On which note I should add that the story of the creation and publication of the franchise is well worth reading in its own right, even if one has no interest in gamebooks.)  In my two previous reviews of the final campaign, I noted that Lone Wolf 29 seemed to take the saga in a particular direction – the cataclysmic destruction of Magnamund by a hitherto unknown force for evil – from which Lone Wolf 30 then seemed to depart.  First and foremost, what I wanted from Lone Wolf 31 was a contextualisation in which the progress of the interplanar conspiracy was discussed even if the power behind it was not disclosed. In this, the gamebook succeeds, although I was disappointed to discover that the cataclysm is being engineered by two of Lone Wolf’s traditional foes, reincarnated on or resummoned to Magnamund.  Perhaps there is more to the conspiracy, to be revealed in Lone Wolf 32, but I thought the choice of enemies lacked originality.

The refighting of old enemies was a curious choice because in other respects the gamebook is highly original – a more positive spin on my critique is that it is too original – while the gamebook-novel hybrid didn’t work for me, I don’t deny that it is both inventive and innovative.  The first part of the gameplay is also creative and entertaining, with True Friend in command of an army at a full scale battle (reminiscent of AD&D’s Battlesystem, published in 1985).  In addition, Lone Wolf 31 begins to tie the cycle up by gathering together companions and allies from the previous New Order books, from The World of Lone Wolf miniseries, and from the various Bonus Adventures (there is no Bonus Adventure in this book).  This has a climactic feel and one of the successes of Lone Wolf 31 is the way in which it anticipates the end of the cycle, heightening the excitement that long-term fans like me are already experiencing.  Regarding gameplay, however, it is not only that there isn’t enough of it (where there are options, many of them rely on the random number table, i.e. luck) but that as a game it is too easy.  True Friend has of course undertaken every one of the New Order adventures so far, which means that he holds the rank of Sun Prince, has the powers of a demigod, and a very high Combat Skill and Endurance (the mechanics upon which the rules of the game are based).  He has also picked up some impressive weapons and armour on the way and is, especially when in the company of his allies, much harder to kill than his silly name suggests.  He had a much harder time of it in both Lone Wolf 29 and Lone Wolf 30 and invulnerability is not a virtue in player characters.  Let me conclude on the most positive note I can… at the risk of using a cliché I’ve already used once this year, this is the ‘marmite’ Lone Wolf gamebook.  It is distinct from the previous thirty and I suspect that players will either love or hate the novelty.  I hope they will love it and hate this review.  I also hope that Lone Wolf 32 will see a return to the form of Lone Wolf 29 which is, in my opinion, the highlight of the entire cycle.

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