Shadows Over Sylvania by Jonathan Green – Adventure Gamebook Review [Bellarius]
Moving from traditional literature to the realm of Adventure Gamebooks, Bellarius takes a look at Jonathan Green’s Shadows Over Sylvania.
“A vibrant tale of bloodshed which should satisfy many a Vampire Counts fan.” – Bellarius, The Founding Fields
The fourth title in Black Library’s Path to Victory series, Shadows Over Sylvania marks another recent foray by Games Workshop into the realm of gamebooks and this website’s first proper look into the genre. Despite having long been associated with the Fighting Fantasy series, this is one of a small number of books which have really begun to utilise the rich lore and settings of the two Warhammer universes. Interestingly despite the grim style of the universes, this is also the only one which permits you to play an innocent stabbing “I’ll swallow your soul!” villain right from the very start.
Set a few scant after their failed attempt to conquer the Empire ended with the death of Vlad Von Carstein and a severe depletion of their armies. As a result of the massive power vacuum, the major vampire factions have gone to war, attempting to forge a single dominating figure once again. A deciding conflict in this matter is not far off, and questing champions have been sent out to find the artifacts which might secure their masters’ victory. However, the unlike of the vampires is not the only darkness which now haunts these lands, as these champions will soon discover…
Serving as a large fetch quest, your objectives are relatively straight forwards. Go to each location in turn, survive long enough to get the items you require and then return to your bloodline to participate in the battle which will decide who emerges dominant over the land of the undead. What makes it interesting is the flexibility involved when it comes with the choices and decisions the player makes as they attempt to complete this task. These range from the order in which you hunt down the items and visit certain locations in turn, to how they react to facing certain monsters. For every grotesque creature which needs to be simply put to the sword, there are others which can be outsmarted, escaped or even turn into an asset.
How many creatures react to you, especially those who retain at least some semblance of sanity, depends heavily upon two details: The degree of taint within the character, a statistic which is built up over time and reflects the level of power and corruption within them, and their choice of bloodline. Rather than being simply limited to a single faction of vampires, you are given the choice of starting with one of three groups.
While unfortunately, if understandably, the Strigori are not a viable option, these consist of the Blood Dragons, Von Carteins and Lahmians. Each has their own opportunities and limitations which open up as you proceed through your quest, along with very different starting equipment. The Blood Dragons are a durable choice and offer a number of very beneficial options in certain places, but are often limited to the most direct approaches to problems thanks to their code of honour. The Von Carsteins have a long and lauded history which often comes into play in many areas, as do their shape-shifting capabilities, but this can create just as many enemies as allies. Finally, the Lahmians are powerful practitioners of magic and subterfuge, but lack the physical prowess or connections of the others.
While each does not significantly alter the story to any great degree, they do present more options and certain aspects which do not appear elsewhere. As such they allow for people to both play to their preferred strengths while also offering a degree of replayability to the story upon completion.
As for the story itself, it’s heavily steeped in Warhammer lore. While it introduces certain elements in a way not so overly intrusive they might put off new readers, many units, historical events, organisations and ideas are all present. These range from Chaos worshipers utilising travelling circuses to move around (a nice nod back to Mordheim) to the mentions of organisations and shifts in power thanks to wars, giving the book an idea of the world around it. That said, it’s never done so intensively that a reader without exact knowledge of the lore is at a major disadvantage. It’s mostly added to give flavour to the place and the many locations you visit, with enemies ranging from Empire forces to rival vampires and Skaven.
The core gameplay mechanics surround the Weapons Skill, Strength, Toughness, Wounds and Attacks of the creatures involved, with some modifiers based upon situations or equipment at hand. A fairly simple system, it allows for most fights to be easily fought and resolved without much hassle, though it does read as if it has been written to appeal primarily to Warhammer fans, lacking a few elements which made the Fighting Fantasy books so effective. The lack of a Luck and Stamina stat in particular is irritating and the system, while simple enough to pick up, does lack some of the versatility found elsewhere.
Further problems exist within the setting and some aspects of the structure. While the Gothic setting of Sylvania is a good locale to begin with, it does not offer much in the way of variety and unlike famed titles such as Island of the Lizard King most areas tend to blend together. It’s hard to truly distinguish or single out a truly memorable event and, while the art does occasionally offer a nice look at the monsters, there is nothing which truly depicts any of the major locations. While Green’s occasional descriptions do offer some decent insights into crumbling castles and half completed fortresses, it just feels oddly lacking at times. It’s not the writing itself is bad, but it lacks some of the emotional punch of when you slay a creature when it comes to descriptive language.
The final criticism to really level at the book is the endings. While these cannot be discussed in depth without spoiling a major part of the tale, it just seems that there is not enough to them. The choices involved might be good and two major events allow your decisions to have noticeable impact upon the story, but the endings themselves just feel as if they lack real finality. There is no major end boss who emerges, instead a series of foes and monsters during a huge clash between armies, and each ending consists of a small paragraph at most. For all the fun you might have getting there, the conclusion might leave you feeling unfulfilled.
On the whole Shadows Over Sylvania is a decent title, making use of the potential within its setting and offering good ideas, but there are better books out there. The ease of getting into the system, novelty of playing vampires and the opportunities involved are what helps hold it up and do overshadow its flaws. Fans of the setting should be happy with this one and it’ll keep you entertained for more than a few hours.