Review: Zach Weiner’s “Trial of the Clone”
Howdy, kids. Today I’m here to talk to you about clones.
More accurately, the game Trial of the Clone. If that name sounds familiar, then you’re probably familiar with Zach Weinersmith. You know, the guy who does Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal? Which led to SMBC-Theater, the youtube series? From which most of us know our glorious leader, Jon “snack balls” Brence? Chances are, you’ve heard of it.
At any rate, Trial of the Clone is a gamebook that was recently created by the illustrious Mr. Weinersmith. You may have seen the Kickstarter campaign for it (which at the time of my writing this is still open and accepting donations, which can get you a copy of the book), and I seem to recall seeing something about it on Reddit a couple weeks back. But hey, this is a review. So I should probably start reviewing, huh?
Well, let’s just dive right on in. You may be wondering exactly what a gamebook is. Do you remember those books we all used to have when we were kids, where you’d read part of it and come to a decision? To kill Sally, go to page six, to tell her that she’s adopted, go to page ten? I’m not sure if I can legally say the name, because it’s copyrighted. But you know what I mean, right? The open-ended pathway books? Those are considered gamebooks. Except that Trial of the Clone goes places that those books never even dreamed of. The ideas and choices that we enjoyed as kids have matured and grown along with us, to something that we can now fully enjoy. Wondering how it’s managed to do that? Well, read on. I’ll explain in later paragraphs, unless I get distracted and start talking about bears.
Divided into five separate acts, Trial of the Clone is a story about…well, a clone. That should have been pretty damn obvious by the title. It’s even capitalized. You play the role of that clone, making key decisions in the life of your character as you try your best not to die in many gruesome ways. You fight bad guys (or good guys) and progress through the story hoping not to do anything too stupid. Be forewarned, you will do stupid things. Clones are just dumb like that. And when I say that you fight bad guys, I don’t mean something like “to stab the guy, go to page 34, to stare in a disappointed fashion at him go to page 12″. I mean a fully developed combat system. You’re probably wondering just how that works in a book like this. And no, there’s no dice to be rolled. Which, honestly, I was a little disappointed with at first, because I have a strange obsession with rolling d20′s. But the combat system actually works pretty well. Your character has a set of stats (oh yes.) that you constantly refer to whenever you come across the next obstacle in your path. These stats are fighting, wits, and charisma. Not all battles can be won by just punching things. Sometimes you have to talk to those things, convince them to punch themselves. Sometimes you have to talk to them AND punch them. These three skills will go up and down as your journey progresses, leading you to pick different choices in order to try to play to your strengths. For instance, the first time I played it, by act four I had great charisma, about twelve or so, but my fighting and wits weren’t so great. Particularly my wits. I was not a clever man. So I tried to pick choices that would lead me to talking to people and dazzling them with my charm, rather than jump-kicking them or challenging them to riddle contests.
To do the combat, you have to see what type of challenge you’re in. If it’s a straight-up fight, you take your overall fighting score, which will be your base score plus the bonus from weapons or items you have equipped. Oh, did I not mention you have an inventory? Because you do. There’s all sorts of neat items you can acquire. One of them is an “erotic ring”. It’s in Act one, and I haven’t yet figured out what path I need to follow to get it, but I’m getting that damn ring even if it kills me and everybody I know and love. But so far in three playthroughs, I haven’t found it. But I’ve gotten distracted! Once you have your fighting score, you’re ready to do battle with your enemy. Plenty of enemies to fight. At one point I fought a dog. Earlier, I fought a sleeping dude. The dog was WAY harder. So you take your fighting score, and keeping an eye on your current page, you flip to another, random page. Each page will have a small box in the corner with a number inside. These numbers range from zero to three. So you flip to a random page, find your number, and add that to your overall fighting score. That is the damage that you have just done to your opponent. Then you take THEIR fighting score and do the same process, taking damage yourself. Each enemy will be given a fighting score as well as a set of health points. You have your own set of health points as well, which you will have to keep track of. There are ways to restore them, such as reaching the end of your act, using certain items, or just coming across certain situations that see fit to make you healthier. This will not happen often, however, so be very careful when you are fighting someone.
If you lose the fight, you die. Unless it says otherwise. Some encounters have alternate options for failure. Some enemies you simply aren’t meant to defeated, and some fights will lead you to different outcomes based on whether or not you can succeed. But for the most part, losing an encounter (be it fighting, wits, or charisma) means that you have lost the game. Your trial is over, and you apparently suck. Now, this is an ample opportunity to cheat and go back a choice or two, or maybe “forget” what your health was and realize that oh, no, you’re not dead. WINK. In fact, the instructions in the start of the book suggest that if you intend to cheat your way through it, to dog-ear some of the pages of the book that have higher numbers on them. A couple of three’s can take you far in this book. Unfortunately, I was using a PDF copy of the book, so instead of dog-earing pages, I would use the scroll wheel to find me a random page. Combat would work much better (in my opinion) on an actual physical copy of the book, so if you really want to try this out, I would suggest going for the actual book rather than the PDF. Not to say that the virtual copy isn’t a blast to play, because it definitely is. Also pretty easy to navigate, either by scrolling or jumping directly to whatever page you want to go to.
So that’s fighting. There’s also battles of wits and charisma, which both play out the same way, but slightly different than fighting. You take your score in either statistic, then flip to three random pages. If your base score plus ONE of these three random pages beats the goal, then you’ve won. But remember, don’t add them all together. I found this type of battle to be much easier, since there are more chances to get lucky and get a three. And also since by the end my charisma was so high that I could pretty much instantly win any encounter with it. But I had to be careful with my battles of wits. Whereas with standard fighting, you would take health damage based on the enemy’s fighting ability, if you lose with wits or charisma, it’s game over. Unless the game is feeling merciful and gives you another option. Of course, there are sometimes ways to temporarily boost your scores. I had a pill that let me triple my wits score for one encounter. I used that up pretty quickly trying to survive.
So that’s how the game’s combat works. You go through challenges, try not to die, and pick your choices to get to the next challenge. Just like real life, except you’re playing as a stupid clone with really, REALLY bad eyebrows. You are also constantly raising or lowering your various statistics, finding new items or aspects to help you along the way. Aspects are similar to items, except they stay with you as you go instead of being used up. So every time you play through, unless you are either completely boring or completely predictable, will end up being very, very different.
All right. We’ve gotten this far in, and so far I’ve just described the core mechanics of the game. I haven’t even gone into the story, hilarity, or awesome pictures (courtesy of Chris Jones) to go with it. And even if the mechanics of a game like this are good (which in this case, they are), it’s pretty meaningless without a good story to be following along. And this is where the book shines. This thing is funny the entire way through. The whole damn thing. There are jokes even in the opening pages explaining how the game works. I was literally crying during Act Two because I was laughing so hard. The story is an homage to classic science fiction works like Star Wars and Star Trek and probably other things with Star in the title that I’m not even aware of. There’s plenty of funny references to the franchises, and even more original and hilarious jokes and situations.
The problem with talking about the story of the book is that I can’t really get too into it without spoiling things. And I certainly don’t want to do that, because the story will actually take you pretty far. There were more than a few times that I was surprised at how things turned out, twists and turns that I definitely did not see coming. So even though the book is designed to be a vessel of dick jokes and non-dick jokes, the story is actually good. Which is a HELL of a lot more than I can say for any of the books I read when I was a kid that had me jumping around pages like crazy. But if you want to get a proper feel for what the book is like, check out the Kickstarter page, there are a few bits taken directly out of the book. You can witness the writing first-hand, rather than just taking my word on it. Although, you can totally trust me. I’m a Duke.
So really, this book is an incredibly open science fiction adventure, filled with comedy, fun gameplay, and good story. I had an absolute blast playing through it, even though I had to resort to cheating more than a few times. And chances are, after the amount of time and effort you put into a character, you’ll cheat too. And that’s not a bad thing. That just means that you’re engaged enough that you don’t want to stop. Gotta keep going to find that next joke, be it a dick joke, a horrible pun, or something more clever and subtle. If you enjoy the comedy of SMBC and SMBC-Theater, I can assure you that you will enjoy this book. If somehow you’re here and you don’t know about SMBC, then check it out. See if the humour is your cup of tea. It’s got some of the wittiest dick jokes this side of the internet. If you’re a fan of SMBC, then I encourage you to check this book out. You can get the PDF copy on the Kickstarter page for ten bucks, and for a little more you can get a physical copy of the book. It’s over two hundred and fifty pages of assorted mischief and trouble to get into, with dozens of methods to win or lose along the way.
I think that about sums up the review. I’m not going to assign it a score out of ten or something. Or stars. I hate those. Not stars. Stars are all right. But those generic scores, bleh. I’ve told you how the product works, whether I think it’s worth the money (since I don’t know if I’ve explicitly said it, yes, it is worth the money), and that sort of thing. I’m definitely going to be going through the book again. Especially since I need to find out how to get that damn erotic ring. You will be mine, ring.
But for people a little more interested in how the story progresses, I’m going to add to the end here my experience with the first couple acts. I’m going to keep things decently vague so as not to give away anything big story-wise. Thankfully the first couple acts are probably the most open-ended, so there’s a chance you won’t even come across some of the decisions that I did in my first playthrough. But even so, better put up a big warning.
MINOR SPOILER WARNING AHEAD. PROCEED AT YOUR OWN RISK. OR DON’T, IT’S ALL GOOD, MAN.
So I started off the game, as everyone does, as a clone. That seemed all right, though I was not pleased with my eyebrows. Early on, I got the choice to pick what type of career I wanted to go for. There were three choices. I could be a fighter, a medic, or an engineer. Fighting scares me, and I’m not keen on blood, so I went for the engineer class. I got through the first bit of story, then wound up in an engineering exam, which I promptly failed. Luckily it was one of those failures that doesn’t end the game, and instead allowed me to pick either a medic or a fighter instead. My fear of being punched in the face outweighed my dislike of blood, so I decided to go with medic. Further still, I was given the choice between becoming a surgeon, or going into pediatrics. I didn’t trust myself with a scalpel, so I picked the other one. Which didn’t stop me from having to fight off patients, but oh well. I was happy with my new career choice, as somehow though I wasn’t qualified to fiddle with machines, working in a hospital and dealing with people and disease was fine. I ended up having to perform surgery even though I’m not a surgeon, because hospitals are stupid, but that’s okay because I met the president and the vice president. The vice president being one of the single manliest being in all fictional creation. Seriously, some of the pictures of him in this book illustrate just how much of a badass this dude is.
Then somehow I went off to war! I guess there was a war brewing out there, and hey, wars need doctors. I figured it’d be just like M*A*S*H, and I loved that show. I was hoping to be Hawkeye, but ended up being Klinger instead, and somehow those idiots decided that it was a good idea for me to pilot one of their ships. I was okay with this, since that would take me off of the front lines, where there were people who wanted to kill me. Instead, it took me into outer space, where there were people who wanted to kill me, but at least I had giant laser guns at my disposal. This point gets a little fuzzy to me. I seem to recall blowing some things up and getting into some fights. I managed to survive, which was pretty cool. I may or may not have consumed gasoline as a makeshift alcoholic beverage. Or maybe that was a later Act? I dunno, man. When you start drinking gas, everything gets a little hazy. Point is, I drank gasoline and flew a spaceship. Go me.
Yeah, I don’t really want to go into too much detail about the next couple Acts, as that’s where things really start to go crazy. If you want to see where it goes, check out the book for yourself! Seriously, I highly recommend it. If I had assigned this game an arbitrary score, it would have been a damn high one. It’s funny, it’s fun, and it’s not expensive. AND since the Kickstarter campaign hit the fifty thousand dollar mark (despite setting out with a modest fifteen thousand dollar goal), Zach Weinersmith is going to acquire a “geek celebrity badass” to do an audio book. If you donated over seventy-five dollars, you would then get the audio book for free. Otherwise, I’m not sure how much it will cost. Not sure who the geek is going to be, but I’m excited regardless.
I guess that’s everything. I do not have a clever way to end this review. So I’m just gonna go now. Thanks for reading, folks!