Apparently Season Two of the Attack on Titan anime is out now? I know, it was news to me too. I didn't even realise that it was on until the second episode had already been broadcast. It's a sad and grey reflection of what once was going to be the Next Big Thing that would inspire an anime renaissance in the West - from the very first explosive bar of its rightfully renowned knock-your-socks-off opening sequence Attack on Titan was a barnstorming success of action and passion, scale and spectacle that blasted through all barriers... but sales figures for the UK crashed back down again the very next year after the series' Blu-Rays came out and in the four whole years that have passed without a follow-up even the most barrelling momentum has puttered out to an exhausted stop. When the Attack on Titan anime first came out there was excitement, there was anticipation, there was attention - but today there is contrastingly an almost total lack of even the slightest buzz. The iron has cooled, the chance has passed, the fire has died, the opportunity is lost.
As I said in my review for the early volumes of the manga version all those years ago, it took the anime version to dignify and improve on the scrappy scribbled art of the original, and on the back of the anime's success partner publishers Kodansha and Vertical built a tottering tower of print media - to this day whole stacks of the manga section in a bookshop are given over to Attack on Titan. They've sought to keep up flagging interest in the franchise with a strategy that could be called diversification, or desperation. Kodansha Comics & Vertical Inc. have done their utmost to keep the show on the road, bolting on whatever they can over the widening cracks to keep the rickety ship from falling apart altogether. Spin-off manga. Spin-off light novels. Spin-off manga of the light novels. Two different parody versions. Big-size reprints. Western comic adaptations. Live-action movie novelisations. Anime episode guides. A flippin' colouring book. There's even Science of Attack on Titan, which had me rolling around on the floor of Forbidden Planet doubled up in laughter when I saw it on the shelf. The latest twist on the title attempting to keep Attack on Titan screwed together is the Attack on Titan Choose Your Path Adventure - Year 850: Last Stand at Wall Rose. The full title is a bit of a mouthful but its job is more prosaic - will the new shot in the scattergun that is Attack on Titan publishing hit its mark or is the attack finally running out of ammo?
In the Attack on Titan Choose Your Path Adventure the protagonist is not Eren, Mikasa, Armin, or any of their other friends or rivals - instead you, the reader, are not watching events from afar but are right in the midst of the action. The book asks you to imagine yourself as one of their comrades from the 104th Training Wing, the unit they were all part of once joining the army after the fall of Wall Maria - and where they were all together in the Trost District after the sudden reappearance of the Colossal Titan and new and terrifying bloody invasion of the Titans. Attack on Titan readers might think they already know this story, but in this telling of it things could play out differently. Now that you're here as part of events, the decisions you make and the actions you take could influence how the battle is fought, and won - or lost. Can you choose your path through this adventure and survive to see it through?
But what is a "Choose Your Path Adventure"? Hands up, who here has climbed to the peak of Firetop Mountain? Any British man in his late twenties and early thirties today will remember Steve Jackson's & Ian Livingstone's Fighting Fantasy series, thrilling fantasy adventures in which YOU are the hero! While not the first in the 'choose your own adventure' genre, they nonetheless were the popularising force, a publishing sensation that inspired an explosion in the popularity of gamebooks and probably did far more than any school curriculum to impart literacy to a generation of boys who had scorned reading. My own first experience with gamebooks in childhood was a set of Sonic the Hedgehog titles from Penguin, and major franchise merchandise taking this form shows just how wide an influence they had - they covered such range I even owned some Famous Five-branded ones! Gamebooks' presence eventually faded as the increased interactivity of videogames overtook them, but alongside tube socks and Slinkies they're a quintessential artefact of the Eighties and the genre has had regular nostalgic revivals in the decades since (Ian Livingstone even has a new Fighting Fantasy book, Port of Evil, coming out later this summer). I was indeed struck by that selfsame surge of nostalgia when this book caught my eye in the bookshop and that swept me along to the checkout... so congratulations to Kodansha Comics for an excellent business strategy to keep Attack on Titan going, if nothing else! Even if you're a young reader who's listened to more Houkago Tea Time than Spandau Ballet and who's never enjoyed the privilege of delving the Deathtrap Dungeon, gamebooks (the back matter here says that the original Japanese was charmingly a Gemmu Bukku) should not be an inaccessible or unapproachable subject as their multiple-choice branching-path narratives of course have a strong correlation to the visual novels (and their multiplicity of Bad Ends!) with which anime watchers and manga readers have more familiarity.
In a gamebook or a 'choose your own adventure' book the story does not simply proceed straight onwards from page one but is divided into hundreds of short non-sequential chapters (adjoining segments are thus separated by multiple pages so a wayward glance to the next paragraph doesn't tip the hand of what happens next). At the end of each section you're asked in the place of the protagonist to decide what to do next, with each action directing you to flick forward and backward through the book to another numbered chapter. The decisions you make may carry you through to the final page... or if you choose poorly you might find your journey cut short partway through when you find yourself at a dead end with nowhere left to go. What distinguishes a gamebook from a plain 'choose your own adventure' book, or the style of a visual novel, is that progress through the story is not just by selecting which way to go down a branching-path narrative but also by including a sort of analogue RPG in the experience. Back in the day you had to read Fighting Fantasy and their ilk with a pencil and dice beside you, as you assign points to determine your character's attributes, fight enemies and collect items before reaching the goal. Attack on Titan Choose Your Path Adventure is a sort of halfway house between the two. It asks you to mark up a notes page with items obtained and clues gleaned over the course of the book, and you can also tally a score with certain actions earning 'Affinity' with other members of the cast which influences the ending you receive. However, there're no dice and no random elements in the Attack on Titan Choose Your Path Adventure. I don't doubt that many readers will praise this as being more 'balanced' but I dislike it strongly. Git Gud, casuals! 'Balance' is hardly a factor in a gamebook, where the most challenge-averse readers don't have to trudge half an hour back from the last save-point if they suffer a Game Over as in a videogame but instead just have to keep their finger on the last page they were at so they can flick back in a second if they chose wrong. Titans are aggressive, dangerous, powerful and surprising monsters as well, so submitting yourself to the capricious will of the dice gods is more thematically appropriate, too. Your pro-active rolling brings you closer to the action, and it also remains that if you're going to invoke the childhood nostalgia of gamebooks, why wouldn't you go all the way with it?
While I may quibble about the level of interactivity that the Attack on Titan Choose Your Path Adventure offers, is the path it leads you down at least an interesting one? There are ways in which this book significantly improves on the gamebooks of old - a flaw of many of the Fighting Fantasy books was that there was really only one right decision to make each time which led you to the Good End with everything else taking you into a Game Over, whereas Attack on Titan has multiple routes to multiple endings both good and bad. Interestingly this book even makes a decent stab at translating open-world exploration to the unalterable page, with free options to go exploring Trost District at your own pace before the Colossal Titan arrives and the action kicks in. Although you're re-fighting an event from the manga and anime, and so fans of Attack on Titan should already know what's going to be happening next, the fact that you are controlling a background recruit and not any of the named heroes means that you're not always directly involved in events that prior viewers would already have seen and so the right choice to make to progress isn't necessarily always an obvious one - it's a good design decision which means that even Attack on Titan veterans have the opportunity to invest some thought in the experience.
The actual construction of the adventure itself however is rather more flawed. Maybe I'm just too old for this sort of thing nowadays - gamebooks were after all for kids - but the book is very badly written with bland simplistic prose throughout. It's straightforwardly readable, certainly, but not even slightly imaginative or evocative nor does it do much to convey the fury or terror of mankind's most desperate battle. One way in which the book makes up for this is by also keeping up a kill-counter - reminding you about the lethality of the situation by telling you to cross out characters on the notes page as they are killed off. This is however rather clumsily implemented, as you go back and forth between encounters it's possible for characters who've been killed to reappear again alive and well in the text - the book lamely and inadequately asks you to pretend "this is you imagining what they would have done had they been there". The book also has a few shout-outs to the wider Attack on Titan library - one ending casts the entire adventure as being a daydream of the Attack on Titan Junior High parody manga; that's harmless enough, but the references can also be a bit insensitive to people who've only watched the anime as one of the 'serious' endings also flashes-forward past it to an actual manga incident where the Scout Corps has been accused of treason. There are alarmingly also some major errors - one decision told me to go to chapter 233... which is missing! This isn't just in a small side-route either but after you rescue Eren after defeating the Titans attacking the headquarters, a major point which a lot of paths lead towards - it brings the story to a crashing halt and it's a disastrous fault that urgently needs correcting if there are any more printings of this book. If you've already bought the Attack on Titan Choose your Path Adventure and have hit this roadblock yourself, I had a root through the book trying to find a chapter which sounds like this missing section would have linked to and I think you can get back on track at chapter 186 on page 148. My input here should make this incident survivable, but it is a serious problem will stymie anyone else who isn't aware of it.
(Kodansha Comics have since produced an official errata for the gamebook which you can read at this link - Ed)
There are numerous illustrations over the course of the book, a mixture of panels cut straight out of the manga and also some original pictures as well. The original pictures quite clearly are drawn with a completely different style to Hajime Isayama's manga art, and there are two types - manga-style art which looks like it was there for the original Japanese publication, and art done in a faux-Bayeux Tapestry medieval perspective which looks like they were redrawn new for the English version of the puzzle pages. For the manga-style art, while they're not used for any of the action scenes and more often just for portraits and quiet scenes of the characters, they're nonetheless quite attractive and effective and I'm happy to have them there. The puzzle pictures however are entirely perfunctory. The how-to-play instructions at the start of the book puff these up a lot, saying "they are shown abstractly, demanding your powers of discernment and your ability to observe the battlefield" as if they're deep conundrums. What this amounts to though is just picking up a blindingly obvious "Go To X" instruction on the picture that is often printed plain as day - the most thought I had to put in was turn one picture upside-down. Maybe a kid with lower reading comprehension would find this more exciting but an adult reader won't be checked by them at all.
That last remark leads us into the final question - if Attack on Titan Choose Your Path Adventure is pitched at child readers that's fine in and of itself, but how many young kids are reading Attack on Titan when the anime has a 15 certificate from the BBFC? This book is a nice idea - I like the gamebook concept, I did have fun hunting all the endings, and if you have a friend who's an Attack on Titan fan I'd happily agree that this new spin on the story makes it a decently novel present. However, it urgently needs better proof-reading and a looser script, as from dull text to damaged mechanics there are serious problems with its implementation which prevent it from transforming into a genre titan.