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17 September, 2014

Heavy Metal Thunder Review - A Wild Ride Through The Cosmos

You wouldn't be the first gamer to look past a title like Heavy Metal Thunder in the belief that the gamebook, as a genre, was something from a bygone era. But this relic of the eighties has never had it better, using the touchscreen interface of mobile devices to reinvent itself for modern audiences in exciting and dynamic new ways. And like I discovered with Motley Crüe, Dungeons & Dragons and jogging, playing Cubus Games' Heavy Metal Thunder has proven that some things from the eighties are still worth your attention.

You begin Heavy Metal Thunder as an amnesiac who has just woken up groggily on a dying spaceship, something of clichéd premise, but one that still works a treat in engaging you with the mystery that drives the story. As is the genre's way, you read through the narrative, before being presented with options on how to proceed next, effectively "choosing your own adventure." It's almost a bit survival-horror in these early stages, as you begin to explore the ship and fill your inventory with seemingly useless objects like history books and lockets, which you'll be tempted (perhaps mistakenly - no spoilers here!) to discard for the likes of medical supplies and repair items. 

Without giving too much away, there is a point early in the game where you find yourself alone, rocketing through the void of space. It was here that my disregard for seemingly extraneous items came back to haunt me. Skill points are achieved and revoked through unique in-game events (e.g. gaining strength through feats of physical endurance or improving your charisma by avoiding confrontation with your silver tongue), many of which can only be reached by making the right (or wrong) choices. Slowly, as my character longed for some throwaway reading material, I watched my willpower deplete one point after another until my character was at his wits' end, ready to top himself. To be honest, I'm surprised I survived the trip. Managing these skills and your inventory can drastically alter the chain of events in Heavy Metal Thunder, abruptly ending your story or prolonging it just a little longer, a mechanic that if found deepened the gamebook experience admirably. 

As your character, oddly named Mr Wiggles, begins to piece together fractured memories of the events preceding the game, it becomes your mission to alert the military ship you came from of the pursuing "invaders," a horned alien race hell bent on the destruction of your human allies. This doesn't come easy, of course, and your adventure transports you between strange alien locales and even stranger human colonies. From here the action ramps up quickly, as you spend more time fighting the antagonistic aliens through Heavy Metal Thunder's easy to grasp, but tense and thrilling battle system. The tide of battle is decided by a dice mechanic where you and an enemy invader must roll above a designated number to successfully land an attack. To begin with, it's all a game of chance, however, but I enjoyed the way acquiring a variety of deadly weapons and soldier garb could swing the odds in your favour by lowering required result of your roll. If the isolated narrative was my hook for this game, then the combat and upgrade systems were my hold.

Unfortunately, as the action begins to takes centrestage, the narrative begins to suffer. There are some cheesy one-liners, like "your pulse races with fiendish delight, for you are about to kill something," - humour is obviously intended, but for me it didn't quite hit the mark. Just like the action movies from the gamebook's heyday, the story begins to thin out and some characters are reduced to hollow stereotypes. A case in point is the only female character I was offered as a crew member for the ship I commandeered. Visually, she shared similarities with Daryl Hannah's replicant from Blade Runner. I was intrigued by her mysterious personality and I suspected that my character's over-confident hubris would lead to some kind of betrayal on the newcomer's behalf. This did not come to fruition, and the character dissolved into an excuse for unwarranted sexual tension.

Character portraits like these make up the bulk of Heavy Metal Thunder's art. But it's the portrayal of particularly harrowing scenes, such as the dismantling of an enormous ally ship, where the artist's sketches have the most effect. Heavy Metal Thunder's dishevelled art style is haunting, and my only criticism in that department is that there wasn't more to go around. Images are dispersed sparingly throughout long bodies of text, and I found there were some key moments that would have greatly benefited from the artists atmospheric visuals. Recent gamebooks, such as Inkle's 80 Days and Tin Man Games' Appointment with F.E.A.R., have set the bar high with their striking and stylised art. We have been spoilt for choice lately with other likeminded titles offering page after page of vibrant illustrations, so going back to walls of text is slightly jarring at first. As I progressed, however, I soon forgave this disappointment, too engrossed in the rewarding shoot out sequences and odd characters.

As engaging as it is, there aren't many reasons to replay Heavy Metal Thunder. For the completionists out there, Heavy Metal Thunder alerts you to the amount of "sections" you've missed on account of your many choices, so there is some desire there to go back and experience every branching pathway. But the lack of post-game rewards makes it hard to want to start again. These points aside, one crazy trip through the cosmos with Cubus Games was enough to sell me on this magnificent gamebook adventure and Heavy Metal Thunder will satisfy sci-fi and RPG fans alike. And if you've been enjoying the influx of gamebooks on the App Store as much as we have, then Heavy Metal Thunder is a title you cannot miss.

Grab the game here.

* Note: For more, we recently interviewed Cubus Games' co-founder Quim Garetta, and also detailed The Top 10 Gamebooks on iPad in Episode 6 of Grab It, alongside a huge feature with the masters of the genre, Tin Man Games. 

Brodie Fogg

     - Heavy Metal Thunder
     - 80 Days
     - Appointment with F.E.A.R.
     - Episode 6 of Grab It

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