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Saturday 10 June 2023

Solitaire: The Gloom Dragon

You are a brave adventurer, a Swordsman. After a long apprenticeship with Swordmaster Krago and now armed with your magical sword Rilgist and a shield, you travel the land, righting wrongs, and making the occasional bag of coin for your services. Such is the stuff of legend and such is the stuff of solo adventure books of which there have been many over the past four decades. However, this is the set-up for The Gloom Dragon, which although being a solo fantasy adventure, is somewhat different to others of its type. Published by Peasoup ApS—a Danish publisher—The Gloom Dragon is what is known as a ‘Smart Book’. In a traditional solo adventure book, the reader and player will create a character and explore the world detailed in the pages and random paragraphs of the adventure book, rolling dice to see whether his character avoids traps or successfully attacks a goblin, for example. The Gloom Dragon does not do this. Instead, encounters and combats and other situations are handled via an app specific to the book. What the player does is read through the book, skipping from paragraph to paragraph and from page to page as determined by the story and the choices he makes in play. Then, when prompted, typically indicated by a ‘TASK’ instruction, he uses the camera on his mobile phone or tablet to scan the image alongside the page in the app. This will typically initiate combat with a foe.

Combat in The Gloom Dragon is simple and completely handled by the app. The player rolls three six-sided dice. These will either display a sword or shield symbol, or be blank. A sword symbol will inflict one point of damage, whereas a shield will protect the wielder from one point of damage. A blank symbol does nothing and a player can lock the symbols he wants to use as he roll rolls them in the app. A player can choose to roll or keep as many of these as he likes. The fight continues until either the player or the enemy is defeated. At which point, the player will often receive a reward, but will definitely be directed to another entry or chapter in the book. Not all of the challenges involve combat. Others include finding the right bottle, which might contain a useful potion, from amongst a pile of bottles of beet juice; picking some coins up, or interacting with a combination lock.

The setting for The Gloom Dragon is in and near the village of Randomia in the Pea Soup universe. The village is being regularly visited by Worm Deathtail, the Gloom Dragon, each time threatening to eat the villagers unless they give him all of his gold. Of course, our steps up to the task, and promises to stop the Gloom Dragon, and very early in the adventure, on its next visit to the village, confronts the great beast. However, this proves too much of a challenge for the hero, who is quickly swatted away with a swing of the Gloom Dragon’s great tail. So forewarned of the strength and capabilities of the great beast, much of the adventure concerns itself with finding the means to defeat and making the hero more powerful. This includes finding more gold to spend and finding magical items that enhance the hero’s health and increases the number of dice he rolls in combat.

The interaction between the app and the book is fairly smooth, and combat is quick and easy. In general, the puzzles are easy to operate, although moving the mobile phone around to view particular rooms for clues felt somewhat clumsy. Nevertheless, the package as a whole is easy to navigate and the player will find himself switching back and forth between book and app with relative ease.

The Gloom Dragon is not designed for the veteran player of solo adventure games who started out forty years ago with The Warlock of Firetop Mountain or Buffalo Castle for Tunnels & Trolls. This is not to say that they will not enjoy playing through The Gloom Dragon, though the entries in the book are relatively limited at just one-hundred-and-forty-seven and the sense of peril is fairly low. Instead, the target audience for The Gloom Dragon is the young reader, aged nine and up, who to date has been challenged by reading. The aim of the series—and The Gloom Dragon is the third to be released—is to encourage such readers to have a greater desire to read. To that end, both the series and The Gloom Dragon encourages this through its big, bold cartoon style artwork, clear instructions, and more immediate degree of interaction in the story via the app.

Physically, The Gloom Dragon is well presented. The book is clear and simple to read, the artwork is big and bold, and crucially, the format of the book is designed to facilitate the use of the app. To that end, it has a Euro binding which means that the inside of the cover is not glued to the spine. This means that it looks like the spine is broken, but it is by design and clearly says so inside the front cover.

The Gloom Dragon is a likeable and engaging affair, a classic fantasy tale of a lone hero facing a dragon. Veteran players of solo adventure books will be doubtless be intrigued by the combination of format, but for the intended audience, The Gloom Dragon will keep the player involved through both the text and the app from start to finish, and thus both reading and playing.

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