This pdf is 49 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page combat & initiative tracker, 2 pages char-sheet, 2 pages mini-sheets for monsters, 1 page advertisement and 1 page SRD, leaving 41 pages of content for the mythic bane of NeoExodus, so let's check them out.
The book starts out with the sentence "Everything here is a lie" - and rightfully so, for the first ones are the enigmas, the boogeyman, the dark specters from NeoExodus' Past, always ready to reclaim their once established choke-hold over the races of this world and subsequently have their machinations span over several minions, plots and...well. That could be a lie, too. In fact, this review could offer nothing but false information to lure unwitting DMs into the clutches of the First Ones' machinations. Confused/disquieted yet?
The writing is quite clever in that is does not portray these mysterious races as the ultimate truth of the first one, but rather as a fleshed out (and at least partially) real possibility, so, who are the first ones? First, we get 5.5 pages of general history of the first ones, their alliance (called "the Combine"), as well as their legendary subterranean refuge, Kayen'Te. There is also a rough sketch of Kayen'Te provided. After that, we're introduced to the first of the races that make up the first ones, the Aneishi.
The Aneishi are spider-like, highly intelligent and almost emotionless compassionate schemers and their history of the first ones' defeat and exile in Kayen'Te reflects that. "Their version"? Yep, turns out that each race, somewhat similar to our own history has its own narrative of the exile, what happened and negotiates this "truth" with both themselves and other "historical" narratives of their exile. VERY COOL. The typical Aneishi is granted a CR 7 statblock. Next are the Exodites, one of which you can see on the cover of the book. Exodites? Yep, they actually don't have anything to do with drow and are extremely obsessive, lawful being that devote their time single-mindedly t o a vocation or task and thus often excel at their given fields in tremendous ways. A CR 7 standard Exodite is given and DMs also get racial modifiers to make their own Exodite characters. Next up are the Khaynites, extremely decadent, vile somewhat human-resembling, elitist aberrations that can cross-breed with just about anything and have a sadistic, mad streak. Their sample statblock sets them at CR 8 as either oracles or sorcerors with quite deadly arrays of spells. I love them. Next are the Kobura/Sobeka, actually 2 kinds of reptilian creatures, one snake-like (Kobura, sample stat CR 5, get racial abilities for DM to make characters) and one crocodile-like (Sobeka, CR 8).
Right now, we have 4 different histories of the First Ones and their exile, serving to further the theme of ambiguity and canon-yet-not-canon the book tries to convey - uncertainty and a lot of hooks, with the truth probably being somewhere beyond all the official versions. On the crunch-side, we get 25 new feats or the First Ones, all right up the racial/monstrous feat alley and have distinct, evil/corrupt touches -Khaynites can e.g. take "Masochistic Ecstasy", which nets them bonuses when they are hit hard in battle. While the feats are definitely nothing for players, they serve to enhance the alien, dark feeling of the First Ones. After a brief discussion on their relationships with other races, outsiders etc., we get 2 new exotic weapons for Exodites, a special saddle for Kobura, 4 new poisons and an amulet that lets Scythians enhance their natural bone-spur attacks. Scythians? Yep, they are also in this book and while the rank and file foot soldiers of the First Ones have their own book, they are included in the last section of the book, in which we get to know their servants:
From awakened black puddings (CR 7), to fungal rust monsters (CR 4, includes the fungal template), the Koleos (Beats-of-Burden Human-beetle crossbreeds by the Khaynites), the Scythians, the Taliki (quite deadly goat/chicken-hybrid flying steeds) and the Locari. Oh the Locari. let me tell you about them: The Khaynites have engineered these creatures from a hybrid of insect and reptile and created something truly terrifying - a swarm of highly specialized, individualized killers that breed fast, true and are somewhat reminiscent in both skills and artwork of Giger's Alien or Warhammer 40K's Tyranids. The newest, prime achievement of Khaynite fleshcrafting, Locari are deadly and range in CR from the lowly CR 2-drone over CR 3,4,5,6,9 and CR 6 swarms till 15, which is the queen. Oh yeah, and then there are the living siege-weapon behemoths, clocking in at devastating CR 20 and 22, respectively. Have I mentioned that 21 hive niches are given, I.e. special mutations for specific tasks Locari can choose from? Or that any divination aimed at them is unreliable at best? I LOVE these creatures and hope to see more of them - much more. Their potential and coolness, both in design and implementation, just rock. Oh yeah, and they are their own subtype of the first one subtype.
Layout is beautiful full-color and adheres to the two-column standard, as I've come to expect from books by LPJr Design. The artwork is stunning with 3 minor gripes: The Taliki-artwork falls short of the Paizo-level-quality of the others (it's still a nice picture), the Keleos don't get their own piece of artwork and the sketch of Kayen'Te is a rather pixilated and simplistic b/w-drawing that feels oddly out of place in the otherwise STUNNINGLY beautiful book. A good sketch, possibly by one of the cartographer's guild or other talented folks would have helped there. However: Me nitpicking at the art is nitpicking at the highest level - just take a look at the cover's Exodite and you can glimpse at the quality all other pieces of artwork in the book have. I especially loved the twisted Khaynite-picture and the Locari - nice work there! Editing, while not perfect, is good and only sports some punctuation errors. I noticed no formatting glitches. The pdf is extensively bookmarked, which is nice for a file of this size - however, at least in my version (and I tried re-dling), they don't work.
When I first saw this book, I thought "Oh no, they'll take away the mystery of the First Ones". Thankfully, I was wrong, as the "nothing is true"-angle of the First Ones and the writing in this book makes it possible to consider this a canonical source for First One lore, but not THE truth, still leaving the enigma and potential for DM creativity. That being said, I consider the angle the book takes, smart. However, after reading the book, I somehow felt that it lacked the je-ne-sai-quoi to make the book truly exceptional - after some careful consideration, I managed to put my finger on it: The crunch of the First One races, namely the Aneishi and the Khaynites - While I especially love the Khaynites as a take on the trope of decadent flesh-crafters, they lack e.g. a non-cater-version or a racial progression and the same unfortunately holds true for the Aneishi, making them less versatile as races than they could have been. Especially in contrast to e.g. the Locari.
That being said, the book manages to evoke one sentence in my mind "Through a mirror, darkly" - the First Ones, as depicted, are a dark reflection of the intrigues and backstabbing in the Imperial Alliance and their Combine serves as both a dreadful reminder of the slippery slope on which the politicians and conspiracies might yet lead the world. The execution is smart, the twisting of the classic subterranean races is expertly done and even the twisted tropes, just as this "dark reflection"-theme further serve to enhance the uneasy, nagging feeling, that the First Ones want you as the DM to believe the content of this pdf. Being a clever and cool book, that somewhat could have been even better, I'll settle for a final score of 4 stars - if you're looking for some nice twists of classic arachnid, drow-like, reptilian or fleshcrafting creatures, you might enjoy this book, even if you don't use NeoExodus. For fans of the setting, this book is obligatory anyway.
[4 of 5 Stars!]