Review: Heavy Metal Thunder

By Dave Neumann 05 Sep 2014 0
A game with read character (sheets). A game with read character (sheets).

Back when I started writing for Pocket Tactics I mentioned something to Owen about growing up in the 80’s and playing a ton of gamebooks as a kid. Now, to be honest, the only reason I told Owen any of this was because I was angling to review Sorcery! from inkle Studios. Now, normally I’m not a very convincing person but for some reason on that fateful day in May, Owen bought it. No wait, he didn’t just buy it, he embraced it, and here I am writing another review of interactive fiction. [Break's over, back to the IF mines. --ed.]

This time it’s the apocalyptic sci-fi pulp-fest Heavy Metal Thunder from newcomer Cubus Games and, spoiler, it’s pretty damn good.

You're fired! POW! The whole book is full of stuff like this. You're fired! POW! The whole book is full of stuff like this.

Heavy Metal Thunder is a gamebook similar to those from Tin Man Games. That is, it looks and acts like a real book. There’s no fancy maps or strange combat modes, just a lot of prose and the occasional rolls of 6-sided dice. After the brilliant genre-redefining interactive fiction of 80 Days and Sorcery!, it’s hard to get excited about screen after screen (after screen) of text and yet I never felt bored during my stay in this universe. The writing can be way over-the-top and author Kyle B. Stiff can try a little too hard trying to make the lead character more badass than Jules Winnfield and Max Rockatansky put together. Bet you never would have guessed that from the title.

This gamebook exercises already-exhausted tropes like an amnesiac protagonist and invincible enemies hellbent on humanity’s destruction and it reads like a mashup of Battlestar Galactica, Mad Max, and probably a dozen or so other sci-fi staples but, even so, the author manages to capture a sense of danger, bravery and violence that is just plain fun to read. Speaking of violence, this book is loaded with it, and graphic violence at that. Don’t accidentally let your 9 year-old read it like someone I know.

Home, semi-exploded home. Home, semi-exploded home.

The frame that holds up the story is a fairly simple and recognisable RPG system. You have 5 stats (Strength, Dexterity, etc.) that you can add points to. You can pick skills to flesh out your character (Computers, Navigation, Handguns, etc.). On top of that, you have a standard inventory where you can hold only so many weapons and so many items. Nothing about it is revolutionary, and that’s not a bad thing here as it allows the story to read like a story. Sure, every now and then you’ll have to make a Strength check or fight something, but everything comes down to rolling two 6-sided dice and trying to beat a target number.

This role-playing system in the game can be pretty opaque. What does another point in Strength get me? Why is the target number for this check 9, when the last one was 7? What exactly does my skill in Handguns get me? No idea. Once you get over that, however, it’s a simple enough system that will have you cursing at a bad roll or silently rejoicing when you roll double sixes.

Combat! How exciting is this? Those minor deconstructors will never become major deconstructors if they don't read their Derrida.

The book has five chapters as well as a prologue that explains some of the game systems and an epilogue that leaves the door open for Part 2 of the story. Even without a part 2 coming, Heavy Metal Thunder is fairly lengthy and full of choices that make discovering everything in the game in a single run incredibly unlikely. For example, Chapter 1 has 496 sections, of which I’ve only explored 145. Chapter 2 has 133 sections, and I’ve only seen 60. The book also does a fantastic job with making your chosen skills and current inventory important. Nearly each page will have at least one choice tied to a skill or inventory item, which most of the time you will not possess. What would have happened if I had the computer skill or navigation? It’s definitely one that you can play through multiple times, with the caveat being you are only allowed one saved game. Want to start over? All your previous information is lost. It’s a shame considering that it appears you can carry characters over to future installments.

Heavy Metal Thunder doesn't raise the bar for interactive fiction. The writing is too full of Saturday-morning cartoon bombast, and suffers especially from its release proximity to the wonderfully-written 80 Days. But it's a big sweeping pulp sci-fi story of impossible odds and encroaching insanity, as well as a good old fashioned (text) shoot ‘em up. The dice rolling mechanic can mean that bad luck can ruin a game, but that’s been the case in gamebooks since The Warlock of Firetop Mountain was frustrating nerds in 1982. I had a lot of fun with Heavy Metal Thunder, and look forward to future installments. If nothing else, it will definitely fill the gap until Inkle releases the next Sorcery!.

Review: Heavy Metal Thunder

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