That sure was an experience.
Before I say anything else, I cannot stress enough how the first half of this book was a breath of fresh air among ‘gamebook’ fans.
Rather than book after book of fighting your way through dungeons, this book actually took the opportunity to give you (the reader) the chance to make choices about something apart from which sword to use during a fight.
Strategic decisions (no matter how simplified) about government were simply AWESOME and formed the basis of a much more engaging book.
The one downside of this was that once (after a number of tries) you knew the correct path through the government route, the book became less of a GAMEbook and more a simple list of correct choices through the ‘perfect’ story.
The second half also had many strengths. It was incredibly atmospheric, and the penetration of the Ninja lair conjured up visions of a great action movie. In particular, the different encounters with the various ninjas and traps on the way to the ‘final boss’ made for a beautifully suspenseful sequence.
The extended battle with the Grandmaster of Shadows was a fantastic extended chain of choices, with the numerous options which managed to balance rewards for strategy against the fear of the unknown.
The only minor quibbles with the book were the points where a single unavoidable dice roll formed the difference between life or death. As every reader of this playthrough knows, the encounter with the Horned Cyclops was, in a number of ways, fundamentally broken. You can’t avoid this encounter and, if you don’t have the Escapology or Climbing skills, you must make two dice rolls, each of which has at most only a 60% chance of success, to survive. This isn’t atmosphere, it is simply attrition by dice roll.
Less questionably, the fight with the Grandmaster of Shadows has a narrow path for success. It is interesting that, if you don’t have Shin-Ren (as anyone who hadn’t played book 3 would definitionally not have) you MUST at one point succeed in a Fate roll in order to survive. I would love for there to be an alternative, particularly one that rewarded strategic thinking.
Although it doesn’t get mentioned as much, I was particularly impressed with the last quarter of the book. It involved difficult encounters, but ones which could be avoided or minimised through wise choices, either at the time or earlier in the book.
Fair warning – I have very limited memory of the next two books, and I’m both especially anticipating and dreading Books 7 and 0 because I have no memory of those at all….