Call of Khalris is an entry that received a lot of mixed reviews this year, but I really liked it. My perceptions were colored by the fact that Stuart himself told me before I read it that he felt it was a little bit uninspired. But in my opinion, the only way this story is uninspired is just that it's a fairly "typical" sort of premise. It can still be done well, and it is.
In this story (if you haven't read it yet) you're journeying deep into the desert to the abandoned city of Khalris, in search of treasure and glory. Or just because you feel the "call." I really liked that "call" from a descriptive point of view; it gives the sense that though this place is clearly dangerous, a mythos has built up around it in the minds of the people that consistently lures adventurers there. It's partly due to the promise of treasure and glory, and partly due to the danger, just because it's a nut that's remained uncracked for so long, but a mystique has grown up around this lost city that keeps drawing people to it. The Call of Khalris.
Not necessarily original, perhaps, but unique in it's interpretation of the old tropes, and has a certain appealing flair.
All things considered, this was a very solid gamebook that hearkened back to the earlier days of gamebooks, when you kicked in doors, killed monsters and looted the room, and nobody through twice about it. It's well constructed, polished, with good writing and good challenges.
I think there are things I excuse here because of the setting and premise that I wouldn't excuse otherwise. For example, I typically rail at what I call "Which Door" choices (or, as I'm starting to call them, just "blind choices" because the other term is a bit cumbersome). Stuart clearly gives a blind choice in forcing you to decide which quadrant of the city to explore. But this is one of those rare special cases where I think it's OK.
The reason for that is that we already have basics established: we have a setting, the city of Khalris, we have a character and motivation, to answer the "call," and to find glory and treasure. You already have done some basic scouting of the city to see what you can find. It makes perfect sense to me that at that point, you've taken all due diligence, and the next step is just that you have to decide which tomb to break into, and there's really no clues what's going to be in there or which is the "right" choice, if any.
Sometimes you have to make a choice without knowing what the consequences are. That's part of life, and that's perfectly fine for it to appear in gamebooks--when it's appropriate. This is a time when it's appropriate.
For contrast, see the frequent choices which way to go or which item to explore given in Day of Dissonance (sorry David!). A great example is when you come out that door and you have to choose whether to go right, toward the boy's room, or left, following the bloody footprints.
This is an interesting example, because you do have some information, but it still feels to me like a "Which Door" or "blind" choice--and the reason is that you don't know what you're looking for. You don't have a goal.
I assumed at that point in Day of Dissonance that my goal was to get out of the burning hospital. But not only does the character seem to quickly forget that this is his motivation, instead being inspired to poke his nose (and occasionally hands) into all sorts of grisly corners, but the very presence of the hospital as a burning threat quickly vanishes. Was it on fire at all? Do we actually need to escape? No indication that that's still the case after the first few paragraphs.
Anyway, while you do have the choice to go toward or away from the bloody footprints at that crossroads in Day of Dissonance, the decisions is almost wholly meaningless because neither path gives you any clue as to what will help you achieve your goals.
On the other hand, while in Stuart's choice in Call of Khalris, which tomb to explore, none of them give you any information over the others, but it doesn't feel like a disappointment, because I know what the character's goal is and I know that to achieve that goal, there's a certain amount of risk and uncertainty, and it's time to cast my die, take my chances, and see what I find.
There was also one moment in Call of Khalris that I found extremely effective, and that was when the character's hand start growing scales. I had been filling out the journal as I went along (as you saw yesterday, if you've been following) so I was feeling very in character and looking at the world through my character's eyes. When I started growing scales on my hand... for some reason that was so undermining to my basic sense of self--even though I was in no overt, immediate danger, that was a true moment of "horror" for me. That moment, and the moment toward the end of the Introduction to S. J. Bells' Evil Eye, when I'm ready to leap out of my chair to go find and punch in the face whoever stole my wife, were the two most personally powerful moments of this Windhammer competition, for my two cents. These were both times when I forgot I was reading a story, and instead I was really there. Kudos to you guys.
I did find that the ending was a little bit challenging and confusing. I was delighted by the re-appearance of the camel. So fucking creepy when you see that fucking camel there all of a sudden OMG just chewing it's cud as if everything is normal! But everything is not normal! Everything is not fine! Don't approach the camel for the love of god DON'T APPROACH IT! *shudder*
But later on there's random directional choices you have to make, and suddenly all these zombies for some reason. I don't know... I think the actual ending could have maybe been done better. I lost track of what I was doing and why, and this is the only time in the gamebook that I found some blind choices (in an annoying way) coming up.
At the end of the day I think this was a very solid gamebook. It was a fairly trope premise, but executed with a lot of craftsmanship and generally well done. Furthermore, though there were only hints of horror, those hints of horror were actually more effective to me than the blatant "in your face" horror of any of the overtly "horror genre" pieces, largely because it was subtle and understated. That just made it very effective. All that said, in a crowd as dynamic and vibrant as this year's, it didn't quite stand out as "a cut above." Instead, it was one of a number of excellent gamebooks.