Review: Attack of the Clockwork Army
For the unfamiliar, Choice of Games is a platform for multiple-choice text-based games. Something like classic Choose Your Own Adventure books with added character stats. As someone coming to choice-based interactive fiction via Twine or visual novels, Choice of Games' no-frills text presentation can feel a bit stark, but there are positive sides to such a pure focus on story. Everything here rests on the writing quality and choice structure.
Felicity Banks' newly released Attack of the Clockwork Army, hosted on Choice of Games, is set in a steampunk version of colonial Australia. Which sounds pulpier than my usual tastes but I couldn't help but be curious what that would look like. I decided to go into this with my fun goggles on.
I can't help but briefly mention that US spelling feels weird to me for this story, but understand that's unavoidable on a US-focused platform.
It's obvious a lot of worldbuilding has gone into the setting, and most of it could only be lightly touched on in this particular story. I suspect Clockwork Army might work better in conjunction with upcoming novels set in the same universe. As a standalone experience it's at least intriguing, but leaves a lot of unanswered questions. "I want to know more" isn't exactly damning criticism and I did enjoy myself here despite the hasty aspects.
Explaining a complex fantasy world in a short story will always be challenging. Possibly even more so in a choice-based format where players/readers need enough information to make decisions for themselves. This leads to some unfortunate but understandable info dumping. Magic in particular suffers from needing to be introduced quickly. The world contains a metal-based magic system reminiscent of Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn novels. In a book series the use of various metals can be introduced gradually through meaningful examples. Here we need to understand too much upfront to get that luxury. This is one case where reducing the number of choices available to the main character at the start might have felt more natural.
Thankfully, the story does settle in. Banks has a knack for keeping a story moving, quite literally here in a tale primarily about journeys. First sailing from London to Melbourne, and then the trip inland to reunite with a long lost sister. It's a lot of ground to cover, and it feels like we're introduced to a large cast of characters for the story length. Plot and characters are handled smartly enough to be able to keep track, but there isn't much time to dwell or dig deep on anything. Some more downtime would have added welcome variety to the pacing and helped with some fleshing out.
Romance is one aspect where more quiet moments might have helped to believe in a connection between characters. There are a variety of possible romances with the player character, including same-sex options and racial diversity. But I would have liked to know a bit more about these people and see some more organic relationship growth, instead of making a choice and immediately falling for each other.
This version of early Australia has both suffered and prospered from steampunk technology. Our abundant resources are obvious, and I appreciated the realistic tendency towards urban sprawl and heavy resource use. The things you do when you can get away with it. At the same time, industry has devastated the environment, and harvesting rainclouds has exaggerated this to the point that Melbourne has turned into the kind of desert landscape more typically associated with the country's interior.
I have to wonder why even a desertified Melbourne would suddenly have red soil, but it does suggest this version of Australia could have even richer mineral resources to go along with the increasing importance of metals. And maybe that helps justify the different power dynamics, with a colonial uprising now giving Australia the war of independence we never had. I have complicated feelings about that choice and struggled to pick a side, though of course if there's a clockwork army there's probably a war somewhere.
After travelling for so long the finale has some genuine drama around choosing to side with or against various friends and family members. The suddenness of being faced with those decisions is effective, but did have some feeling of making decisions with insufficient information. It helps to know exactly what you're fighting for, beyond vague ideals like freedom. But there's some good tension and dramatic moments that feel worthwhile, and an impressive range of details that can vary in the final outcome.
Note: I was provided a free copy of Attack of the Clockwork Army for review purposes.