A 16-year-old farmhand earns apprenticeship under Saimea, the town's alchemist with mild dementia.

     This open-world gamebook appeared first on the 2015 entry list, and it fittingly describes how a gamebook works. It might also play the easiest, as players can explore the whole town and its surroundings in any order they choose. The writer presents gender neutrality in an interesting way:

“'I was just thinking I could use a new apprentice, and you look like a likely lad--lass?' She squints at you and pulls on some thick, cracked goggles. 'Whatever, I'm not picky.'”

     The depleting Energy mechanism limits strenuous tasks. The game lacks any other consequences. The protagonist simply mopes around town seeking ingredients, potentially forever, until he or she decides to get judged by the alchemist Saimea. Section 76 includes a clever way of restarting the game, but it needs clarity. Does it imply that players restart with all their items intact? If so, does Energy refill by the next day?
     While the aforementioned instructions, free-roaming gameplay, and easygoing rules seem friendly to gamebook newcomers, such players may struggle with interpreting the game's structure and repeating elements. The recycling of sections often feels like teleportation and forces the player's mind to fill plot holes. Getting sent from section 40 back to 10, for example, skips any description of the protagonist declining the cave quest, the ensuing reactions of the three adventurers, and the journey back outside. So we must presume nothing of interest happened. Sure enough, the trio's light still shines in the cave like on the previous read of 10, so it feels like time travel too. Then, the book allows players to reenter the cave, whereupon it immediately throws them into the quest. The text never describes the reentry and second dialogue with the party.
     Similarly, section 19 teleports the protagonist into the town bar, whereas most areas describe some travel. Rereading the characters introducing themselves feels exploitative. At worst, the whole town appears to have continuous amnesia. The player must constantly replace dialogue with his or her imagined banter wherein nothing noteworthy happens. This becomes draining on the necessary subsequent visits. Players carry around a huge gamebook wrench, when the writer ought to make the section transitions fluid. Skimmers will risk missing a keyword instruction which can lead to accidental cheating.
     In gamebooks with return points, like section 68, I wonder why the writers don't use a rounder number for aesthetics. Section 50 would make more sense to ease the scrollbar use. Also, I've always believed items can easily replace keywords in a system that already includes items. Another aesthetic issue arises on 14. I call this type of section a pit stop, just a wad of if/then statements with no real prose. The top of 77 reveals outcomes of actions never taken.
     Instead of just checking their character sheets, players prefer using skill in the decision-making parts. But vague choices like “a small house near a tree” and “the fields to the east” don't give many clues to players or flavor to the town.
     That said, the game does create a clever form of challenge. Players can't just visit all the areas and expect a good ending. They must return to Saimea and make potions. This takes players into the sort-of attic of the game's maze.
     And while tediously repetitious, the nameless town has a charm to it. Unlike a typical fantasy town, this one undergoes some curious changes. Glowing substances have appeared in some spots, outsiders seek a foothold in the region, and details like this occur:

“With the ongoing renovations to make the walls completely stone, it's slowly becoming an actual inn.”

Some places also hint that the masters step away, and the apprentices take their places. Much of the town's subtle humor works well, like the “fabled Hammer of Winds” joke. Some sentences have a touch of soul added:

“She grabs you by the shoulders and steers you out the door.”

I recommend that Evans elevate more of his sentences like this to add character. The premise provides little other motivation to keep the payer running in circles.
     Many sections, in fact, have the players feeling around because they haven't stumbled into the keyword needed. Alchemist's Apprentice becomes an exercise of trying to land on 68, among other sections, the fewest dozens of times. I can't help but wonder if millennials can handle this sort of trudge, this steady supply of fetch quests for bumpkins. We should keep in mind the increasing laziness of internet users in general. I don't like the trend either, but they do vote. Whether for likable reasons or not, this gamebook may have the highest single-playthrough longevity of any other entry.
     Its wordiness, though, makes the obligatory skimming even more difficult. On 37, Evans writes:

“It's the middle of the day, but at the same time it's not quite winter planting time yet, so there are some people hanging around the bar's common room.”

First, “the middle of the day” can become midday. I looked up the definition of midday and found this: “the middle of the day; noon.” Likewise, meanwhile means “at the same time.” Plus, we already know the common room has people from the previous section, 19. So, “people hanging around the bar's common room” can become simply loungers or the like.
     Take another example in the first paragraph of 68. The words that has been, their way, very, and of the field can all disappear without consequence. Also, by turning connections into connecting, one could remove marking out and between different. Try it and see.
     Other problems include the misuse and overuse of em dashes (where commas will do), semicolons, single quotation marks, ellipses, and exclamation marks. Put the latter in as much as you like; you just need characters who holler all the time. All the symbols have greater impact when seldom used. Think of too many keyboard symbols as a little punching bag rattling away in the air. Now think of just one well-placed punch to the nose that goes crack.
     Other things to consider trimming include qualifiers like well and very. The first paragraph of section 1 has the tautologies small village and long-standing tradition. On 65, formations forming looks blundersome. Section 96 has if you six times. It sounds like the song “Two Princes” by Spin Doctors.
     I also recommend standard use. The dialogue would look better in its own paragraph rather than bunched in with everything else. The extra spaces between paragraphs and lack of indentation feels a bit jarring.
     Word choice can jar the reader too. Consider the subject-verb agreement problem here, for instance: “You will be reading about the adventures of your character [singular] through their [plural] time...” On 40, startlingly should probably replace startingly, while longbow can replace long bow. And something went wrong with “Blinking wide eyes, it scratches its belly with long claws.” On 4, slings should become unslings. On a pickier front, consider the problems with “Unlike most gamebooks, Alchemist's Apprentice does not use dice.” Players, not games, use or don't use dice. Maybe require should replace use. And if you count the CYOA books, I don't know if most gamebooks require dice. Vague terms like things, stuff, good, people, and building riddle the prose. Readers want specifics.
     Finally, comma problems can wreck everything, like here: “The walls are lined with shelves laden with jars, roots and dried things hang from the rafters . . .” Even commas used right can go wrong: “She stops hammering and moves to a chair, taking up a wire brush and beginning to clean the object.” The sentence implies she does everything while moving to a chair, though it probably intended to mean she sits first.
     To give fair time to the other entries, I had to accept the worst ending. Thus, I can't critique the potion brewing and more advanced interactions of the game. I think some twist endings or a better coda would help make the errands more worthwhile, instead of a simple ranking. But if you want a long, albeit grueling, sandbox challenge, put on a pot of tea and try Alchemist's Apprentice.


 


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