The premise of The Frankenstein Wars is that the protagonists are involved in a republican war using Frankenstein’s technology to resurrect the dead, creating stitched-together “Lazarans” — not zombies. The Lazarans have a memory of what came before, but sometimes are wearing someone else’s arms and legs: this is a scenario more like extensive organ donation than anything else. Together, they’re fighting against Charles X of France, the last of the Bourbon kings, who in our timeline was ousted in the July Revolution of 1830.
As protagonists, you control two brothers, the sons of Henri Clerval in Frankenstein. Other characters both real and fictional come in as well: Frankenstein’s monster (fictional, we trust); Byron’s brilliant daughter, Ada Lovelace (real, but heavily mythologized here); Percy Blakeney, the Scarlet Pimpernel (fictional); assorted real French political figures. There was something a bit League of Extraordinary Gentlemen about all this, albeit a few decades earlier. The Byron connection is a little twisty given that Byron was friends with the Shelleys, and Mary Shelley had the original idea for Frankenstein while on a trip to Lake Geneva with Byron (and others) in the summer of 1816; so any narrative universe that contains Byron would seem like it ought to include Mary Shelley was well. Mercifully, the story doesn’t wink at the reader about this, just takes it as a baseline fact and rolls on.
It’s not at all necessary to know the relevant history to play. It’s not even particularly necessary to be deeply familiar with Frankenstein, though it’s maybe worth noting that the original idea for the story came from Dave Morris, who did a Frankenstein project with inkle. The actual writing is by Paul Gresty (author of The ORPHEUS Ruse and Metahuman, Inc for Choice of Games).
There are a number of clever or unusual things going on with the interface, and even if it weren’t for its other merits, the game would be worth a look on those grounds alone.
Weather in key scenes is randomized, but what you see is a flickering alternation of cloud and sun, and you tap to land on the outcome for the rest of the scene — an effect like a coin flip or a roll of the dice. Certain tense sequences of combat are on a real-time timer, which I found made me a bit anxious about how fast I was reading and choosing, without actually ever being in serious danger of running out. As in the Sorcery! series, some sequences are associated with a geographical map, and you wind up selecting your next point of attack that way rather than with a verbal choice. Sections of text are also interspersed with portraits and landscape images.
Battle and fight scenes are difficult and may need several tries to win. The use of the maps and the sections focused on tactical choices give the game a you-are-there immediacy that’s sometimes lacking in choice-based work.
Beyond the interface and gameplay choices, though, Frankenstein Wars also makes some ambitious storytelling moves. The brother protagonists have reason to be at odds with each other from the very beginning, a point that the game does not let you opt out of. Their personalities can be shaped to a degree, but not nearly as much as in, say, a Choice of Games piece. Most of your important decisions are instead about their loyalties (to each other; in matters of politics) and beliefs (especially about the right and wrong of creating an army of additional Lazarans). I found Anton more memorable than his brother Thomas, but pitting the two against one another as antagonists, and giving each one a clear personality, avoided the issue one finds in some IF where the protagonist is the blandest character in the story.
On that last point, I felt the game started asking me questions before I knew enough to have a really informed opinion. But that’s a fact I’m willing to forgive: some players might well come in with well-formed initial ideas about whether such a technology would be right or wrong. The politics felt a little sketchier: the characters all know what’s going on, but the story doesn’t (or at least didn’t for me) build a strong set of pros and cons about the merits of different sides. I might externally have a few views of my own (mostly “Napoleon was not a good guy and I’m skeptical of anyone trying to claim his legacy”), but I didn’t feel that the narrative really helped me explore the implications of one or the other side winning.
Still, this is a comparatively petty gripe. Overall, this is a solid piece of work. It probably took me a couple of hours to play through once, counting the battle replays, and I could have taken a little longer over it. I suspect from the range of achievements and the number of seemingly key choices I made that there is a fair amount here to support a replay — though I didn’t immediately feel a need to dive back in myself. My story outcome was not entirely happy, but felt suitable. I’m inclined to let it rest there for now, rather than immediately trying to go back and achieve a different outcome.
Possibly also of interest: Stuart Lloyd’s interview with Paul Gresty.