It's hard to be critical of a product like EREBUS: CITY OF SHADOWS because it clearly wants to be something new and different. For the most part it succeeds, but ultimately low production values and a few areas of sketchy logic hobble it.
Brought to market by Dan Bayn, the mad genius behind WUSHU: THE ANCIENT ART OF ACTION ROLE-PLAYING, EREBUS is a (mostly) system-free exploration of a new setting, one that strives to combine pulp-style gunslinging, horror, fantasy and magic in a kind of genre blend that hasn't been seen since the heyday of PLANESCAPE. Like WUSHU and its supplements, EREBUS is a strictly bottom-dollar affair that relies on ideas more than editorial polish. Unfortunately, EREBUS needs more than that to really work.
The eponymous city of Erebus is a classic staple of fantasy fiction: the free city caught between greater forces. There's a strong undercurrent of Lankhmar-esque intrigue running through EREBUS, with mysterious factions, strange beasts and so forth. Most of the supplement is taken from in-character writings and describes the major power brokers of the city in language that's also evocative of fantasy gaming/fiction. This is by itself not a bad thing, but the atmosphere of fantasy that drenches EREBUS makes the modernistic elements a bit harder to swallow.
This isn't helped by a few internal inconsistencies along the way: one passage claims that the advent of firearms pretty much saw an end to melee combat, but swords and armor abound throughout the setting. The firearms themselves are quite primitive, which also doesn't seem right when there are Wild West-style gunslingers roaming the streets. GMs are, of course, free to modify however they wish, but it would be nice to see the technological and fantasy elements better integrated.
It's also difficult to get a handle on the city itself. Because of the in-character passages and the general tone of the fantastic in EREBUS, it's easy to form a mental picture of a standard (albeit somewhat darker) fantasy city. Like PLANESCAPE before it, EREBUS needs art to sell its particular vision. Certain sections of the city are blended into the surrounding jungle, for example, so let's see that. Artwork can sell even the most bizarre vision, and Bayn's work could benefit greatly from the inclusion of even a few pieces that let the reader see all the elements of Erebus existing in concert.
Those familiar with WUSHU will find the usual assortment of misspellings and grammatical errors in the 96-page document, though the ugly portrait format of the WUSHU products has been replaced by a far more attractive and readable landscape arrangement. But as mentioned, people come to Bayn's products for the ideas, and there are plenty in EREBUS: mysterious snake people, powerful magicians, skinwalkers (AKA werebeasts) and more. And the stage is set for even greater expansion, as Bayn has included a Creative Commons license that allows others to create derivative works without a fee.
It would be unfair to call EREBUS a failure, because it's not. Dan Bayn set out to do something totally new in the roleplaying. Of course he hit a few bumps on the way.
[3 of 5 Stars!]