Sci-fi protagonists never have it easy, and that holds true in gamebooks just as much as it does in theaters. Gamebook Adventures 8: Infinite Universe (Out Now, Free Trial and $3.99 as IAP) casts you as Joe or Joanne Bloggs and thrusts you into a thirty-first century battlefield, unable to tell ally from enemy thanks to a memory wipe. False friends, alien assassins, and laser-shooting robots will eventually take you down no matter how lucky you are with the dice, but thankfully death is only the beginning of the twists and turns you’ll find in Tin Man Games’ latest!
Infinite Universe is the first gamebook I’ve reviewed since Megara Entertainment’s Fabled Lands adaptation, and a comparison is worthwhile because these titles occupy very different niches within the genre. Whereas Fabled Lands conveys its story with text and art stills just about equally, Infinite Universe relies much more heavily on prose to paint its characters and environments in the player’s mind. Infinite Universe pulls it off handily, although the rush of description leaves it prone to grammatical awkwardness and outright errors on occasion — it would definitely benefit from one last fine-tooth combing by an editor.
That said, Infinite Universe fares comparatively better as a game in several respects. When at its best, it serves up an astounding flurry of choices and it’s always clear how your previous decisions impact your options at present; if you already used your only smoke bomb or chose not to develop a bribery skill, consider yourself in for some fights or traps you might have slipped out of otherwise. Based on the proficiencies the player’s character has developed over time through a skill and achievements system, it’s always clear which decisions are risky and which actions will take advantage of the character’s strengths. The player may review the protagonist’s skillset and resources at any time, not to mention a handy encyclopedia describing the gamebook’s universe.
When fisticuffs can’t be avoided, there’s a nice strategic element to the gamebook’s otherwise luck-driven battle system. The single most important thing that happens when you create your character at the outset is the determination of his or her “Fitness” stat. This is used up little by little for in-battle advantage at the player’s discretion, so you can pick fights more liberally if your character is well endowed in this area. Also rationed by the player are bookmarks doled out according to the preferred difficulty level. Set these at major decision points and you’ll be able to rewind if you don’t like the outcome, which is pretty groovy. Otherwise Infinite Universe saves the player’s progress automatically; what the bookmark system does is let you revisit the past a limited number of times in lieu of multiple concurrent saves.
Infinite Universe kicks off on very strong footing with a wonderfully action-packed introduction as far as gamebooks go — and you get this part for free, by the way! I completely recommend the free initial download if you have the slightest interest in gamebooks or visual novels, because Infinite Universe’s whirlwind intro is a great show of how exciting the genre can get with a thoroughly fleshed out choice structure. On the downside, later portions of Infinite Universe can stretch on at much lower intensity as the focus shifts to the narrative, and here the need for text revision weighs the experience down. If you choose to dive in beyond the free intro, it will help immensely if you’re already a hardcore sci-fi reader and can forgive the occasional foible.
I’m a real sucker for great artwork, so I can’t help but feel it’s too bad more pieces didn’t make it into this gamebook. You certainly have options for managing its text though: it can be resized and the font changed through an on-the-fly config menu. I also found myself itching to get into battle just for the music change. The story track is a somber violin piece and brilliantly suited to the gamebook’s mood on average, but a fuller soundtrack could have done wonders to flesh out the experience. Infinite Universe is friendly to external music in any case.
iFanzine Verdict: Infinite Universe begins on such a strong note that its intro sequence is liable to draw you in even if you’re not a gamebook buff just yet. If the first chapter shows off the genre’s strengths, then subsequent chapters also reveal one of its weaknesses: any time there’s a lull in the action, the player will be tempted to keep flipping pages unless the writing’s absolutely riveting, and Infinite Universe still has some work left on that front.