With the Gamebook Adventures series winding to at least a temporary close, Tin Man has opted to release the last couple of volumes at the same time. I’m not going to fib, I’m a pretty big fan of this series and the fictional world of Orlandes it uses as a setting. From a story-telling standpoint, it’s great to have a well-realized setting that players can take so many different perspectives in. On the gameplay side, the Gamebook Adventures gamebooks are usually fairer and more enjoyable than the paper gamebooks that inspired them. They’re written knowing the player isn’t having to stick a thumb in the pages and keep track of their inventory with a pencil, and they’re stronger experiences for it. That we only have these last two volumes to hold us over for the time being makes each of them precious. That’s why it kind of breaks my heart that I don’t like Songs Of The Mystics ($5.99) more than I do.
The set-up here is interesting, with you playing as a Mystic who is forced to go on the run from your people. Your character is the daughter of the Earth Queen, and is able to make use of magical songs that can perform a variety of effects once you’ve learned them. There are a lot of different routes to successfully finishing the game, as well. Even from the very start, you can go in a variety of directions that lead to completely different paths before forking back into the main one. More punishing gamebooks will often present you with choices where you can only succeed by holding one particular item, but Songs Of The Mystics will almost always present two or three different selections, improving your odds of having something to help you get through. It’s a big, complex adventure with a fair bit of replay value, enjoyable prose, and some nice illustrations peppered throughout, all done up in Tin Man’s usual style.
There are a few things about Songs Of The Mystics that drag it all down, however. I think it’s a bit too complex for its own good, for starters. Unless you’re incredibly lucky, you’re probably not going to be able to solve this one on your first run through, no matter how careful you are. Not only are there situations where only knowing the outcome will help you make the right choice, such as the often unpredictable outcomes of using particular songs, there are also points in the game where your next step is chosen by rolling the die, with no hint whatsoever as to what lies behind each possible outcome. Personally, I don’t like it when a game has me feeling like I missed something critical at the mercy of a random number generator, and it gnawed at me enough that I almost wanted to take advantage of the Free Choice option the Casual difficulty setting would have offered me.
I also didn’t enjoy the story as much as I thought I would at the outset. While the quality of the writing is good, bringing the wide variety of scenes and characters to life with vivid detail, the overall plot feels aimless, mostly due to its branching structure. Escape is a good enough incentive at the beginning of the game, but once you’ve accomplished that, it feels like you’re just bouncing around loosely-connected episodes. It’s even stranger when on certain routes you’ve figured out your main goal and your character doesn’t seem particularly focused on achieving it. Depending on the way you travel, there’s a good chance you’ll just stumble on the situation that resolves the impending apocalypse. It’s less like a climax and more like a mailbox you happened across on your way to the store that reminded you of the letter you needed to send. Some branches handle this better than others, but the odds aren’t in your favor.
While the game doesn’t connect its threads as well as I would have liked, and the ending just sort of happens, the mini-scenarios that make up the bulk of the story are fairly engaging. As usual for this series, the character work is very strong. You’ll meet a lot of memorable friends and foes on your travels, and even the ones you encounter briefly on certain threads manage to distinguish themselves in some way or another. No matter which route you take, you’ll eventually run into a particularly enjoyable group of traveling entertainers, and depending on how early in the story you meet them, you might get to know them very well. The story tries to make a connection between your character and one of the troupe members, and how well that works really depends strongly on the circumstances you meet him in.
I suppose that’s the problem, isn’t it? Songs Of The Mystics gives you a lot of potential paths from your forest home to the ultimate conclusion and unless you hit the right sequence, the story falls apart. I’m mixed about this, because it certainly is incentive to replay the game several times to get all of the angles, but if you hit a particularly nonsensical thread on your first run through, as I did, you might come away feeling like you don’t want to play it again. I’m not sure how this issue could have been tackled, given the limitations of the format, but it definitely feels like a design that pushed against the boundaries of its medium and spilled all over the place.
In the end, I’d say Songs Of The Mystics is probably most likely to appeal to gamebook veterans who are willing to put up with its somewhat messy design and appreciate what it’s trying to do, even if it doesn’t quite pull it off. You’ll also have to be willing to deal with a few luck-based branches that you have little control over unless you play on the easiest setting. Fans of the Orlandes setting should also get a kick out this game, as your travels on Isla des Misticos expose you to many interesting bits of lore in a land populated by the unusual style of characters you’ve come to expect from the Gamebook Adventures series. Just be prepared for the possibility that you might have to run through the game a few times before you’ll get a successful run, let alone a coherent, satisfying narrative to go along with it.