‘Normal Club by Philip Armstrong
Warning! Review may contain spoilers!
I’m reviewing all of this year’s Windhammer Prize entries alphabetically, and I’m feeling a bit bad reviewing ‘Normal Club. I’ve put it in the category of N, rather than ‘ (and it’s clear that ‘ is alphabetically superior to any other character). So I am hoping to get away with this belated review. The gamebook is a highschool paranormal mystery adventure, and it’s a good one.
The mission is that our rival school has a big scoop this year, a discovery that will put our skeleton with fangs glued on to shame. We need to find out what they are up to and present this discovery as our own. On the way we are dealt clues and missteps and other adventures. The game goes as follows: we visit various locations to find out where the rival school is heading, then we can head them off at the pass and claim the discovery ourselves! It’s a nice idea, and playing a game where failing a dice roll doesn’t mean instant death but a potentially bad clue is refreshing.
To start off we need to select a team of investigators. To be fair, presenting a chupacabra called Jim Morrison as an optional playable character isn’t really a choice (despite being told that choosing him is the same as choosing “hard mode”). I don’t consider myself a strong gamebook player but Jim came anyway. “Jim! Get in the van! You’re leading this mission! Also driving.” As we’re playing hard mode, we’ll have to use the tried and tested system of breaking rpgs by ruthlessly specialising. I choose Xander and Anna, because they sound cool and they stack their bonuses with artfulness. There’s also a point in intimidation and steuthiness. Apparently this is not a real word, but this is more of a failing in the english language.
Jim, Xander and Anna then head off around various location of their town. The skill system seems fine, you are given a difficulty and add on your combined scores for that particular attribute. You then have to roll under or equal to that number. It works well, and despite rolling some really terrible dice I survived. This was also nice. You get clues at each location. Depending on how difficult it was to get the clue, and how well you rolled, should give you a hint on how to interpret the veracity of that clue. Overall, it’s a really nice detective game with some mini-games along the way. There’s a suduko type game (I don’t know the proper name for it, I can only find pic-a-pix which is neither as cool or absolute as the word sudoko) where you have to shade in various boxes to build up a picture. I recommend firing up ms-paint for this task.
The “Just Say Nope!” skatepark was built by the city to provide a safe, temptation-free place for
teens to come to after school and, like, hang out or whatever. The presence of cigarette butts and
empty beer cans littering the grounds is a testament to how well that plan worked.
The writing is exceedingly good throughout. Even the rules are packed with humour and a whimsical nature. As for the game itself, failing a dice roll doesn’t mean sudden death and choices seem logical. I love how you pick up clues to find that final location. I also like how you can pick your three starting characters. If I have one criticism it is a consequence of this. Throughout the text, you are given little icons and if your character corresponds to that icon, you have additional text to read. This is a brilliant idea, but perhaps does not work in static text form. It is far too tempting to read the bit of text even if you do not have the character because it is printed inline with the paragraph. This is where the book would work much better in a digital, dynamic format. As a side-note, the winner of this year’s competition has their game converted to a mobile game. This has a massive chance of claiming that prize. It could also help where the book awkwardly refers to a generic “the team” or “the team member”.
As for this little scooby gang, well we failed quite a lot of roles, but the clues we did manage to gather were pretty great. From these, we lucked out on selecting the correct location. Another series of adventures ensued, but we finally lucked out once again, unable to “channel our mojo”. It was a shame to end like this, but an enjoyable experience was had throughout. Recommended.