Book Review: Dim Spirit – Curse of the Golden Spear: Part 2 by Jonathan McAnulty and Rite Publishing

In any trilogy, I’ve found that regardless of whether the first part and the third part are spectacular, the middle has to hold up its part of the bargain. Kind of
like a soufflé now that I think about it. Even if the outside of the soufflé is perfect and the slightest thing goes wrong, the middle falls and some people think of it as “ruined.” (Anyone who knows me knows I hardly ever miss a chance at good food, so I’d probably enjoy the soufflé regardless of whether the middle fell or not. Just more for me!)

When I reviewed The Gift – Curse of the Golden Spear: Part 1 in June, I knew author Jonathan McAnulty and Rite Publishing were on to something big. The Gift starts with a merchant’s request for aid delivering a gift to the Daimyo, Lord Hachiwara of Tsue-jo of the island nation of Kaidan. The Daimyo’s nation is a land of horror and mystery strongly influenced by Japanese myths and legends, with a dark secret shrouded by the thick clouds that surround Kaidan lands.

Now, in the case of movie trilogies sometimes you can start weak and end strong. The Evil Dead trilogy started with a film that wanted to be scary (weak), had a film in the middle that was awesome (strong), and ended in a war with the Deadites (epic). Most movie trilogies typically go the other way, starting strong, following up with a good (but weaker) second act, and then losing focus in the conclusion. So I was curious to see if the Curse of the Golden Spear could hold the center with a strong second act…

By the end of The Gift, you have a better understanding of many different aspects of life in Kaidan. It’s class warfare during and even after death, which adds a completely different angle on the afterlife. And when you’re talking about Japanese spirits – the yokai/yurei – it adds yet another dimension. When there’s a great chance you’re going to be reincarnated and and an even better chance that you’ll be reincarnated as an evil or insane crazy demon (yurei or tamashinaki), that tends to motivate you to live a bit longer.

So for the first part of a trilogy, the series opens strong. By the end of the first chapter the PCs are just about ready to help their employer, the merchant Marl Tyro bringing a gift to Lord Hachiwara. All is good, right?

[Insert evil laughter here.] Of course not! Where’s the fun in that?

If the first part sucked the PCs into the Kaidan world, the second part is meant to show just how deep in trouble they actually are. Dim Spirit – Curse of the Golden Spear: Part 2 opens with the party delivering the gift and ends with them alone and on the run. Don’t you just love it when something so simple like delivering a package goes so far awry? Here we have the middle of of the trilogy that holds up it’s part of the bargain – not only should it grab your players and shake them like rag dolls, but it’s the setup for an epic conclusion.

Oni in pilgrim's clothing. Tokugawa period. Ha...

Image via Wikipedia

What’s beautiful about this series is how subtly it’s constructed. Each chunk starts gently and should get under the PC‘s skins. Kaidan is filled with people who have been suffering for years under the corrupt rule of Lord Hachiwara. And the fact that even the dead aren’t able to rest drives that point home. Sure there are good people left fighting the good fight, but after generations how do you continue with no hope in sight? This is psychological horror working away at the PCs the longer they’re in Kaidan, with some good old-fashioned monsters thrown in for good measure.

The fun part for me is how open this whole series has been. Sure, there are some key events that will occur to drive the plot forward. But the PCs are free to go wherever they want and explore Kaidan’s many secrets. Dim Spirit continues that trend amazingly well, from the opening scene to the final battle with Hachiwara’s Death Squad and the corrupt Oni tainting the water for the village of Kitsumura.

So though there’s a bit of railroading, it’s not a bad thing in this case. I think it keeps things moving forward gently (if “gently” means by repeated attacks by roving bands of guards seeking to capture or kill the PCs) while still allowing enough flexibility for the party to explore various side treks and subplots.

If the party is dead set on plowing straight ahead, they’ll miss much of what’s going on around the main plot. So hopefully they take the time to help the villagers and the blighted lovers Minako and Akihiko now separated in death… They really should stop to smell the corruption dead things roses!

Just like with The Gift, I found Dim Spirit a well-written adventure that would be fun to GM and play. So if you’re in the mood for something different for the Pathfinder RPG, I heartily recommend checking out the Curse of the Golden Spear series from Jonathan McAnulty and Rite Publishing. And I’m looking forward to checking out the third part – Dark Path – to see how the trilogy concludes!

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