Sunday, 5 February 2017

The Malthus Dire YouTube Channel

As a companion to this Blog page I have created a YouTube channel to try to assemble various disparate gamebook-related videos from around the internet and get them all in one place.

There is no real limit to its scope, but so far I have assembled:

  • The three known circulating episodes of the LE CHEVALIER DU LABYRINTHE, the French version of KNIGHTMARE
  • The five known circulating episodes of the EL RESCATE DEL TALISMAN, the Spanish version of KNIGHTMARE
  • The only known circulating episode of KNIGHTMARE's immediate successor, the aptly-named VIRTUALLY IMPOSSIBLE
  • A short clip (again, all that's circulating) from the beginning of Tim Child/Broadsword's CYBERZONE
  • A few very brief snippets (yet again, all that's circulating) of an episode of Tim Child/Broadsword's TIMEBUSTERS
  • The original TV advert for the LEGEND OF ZAGOR boardgame
  • Three walkthroughs of FF ZX Spectrum adaptations: REBEL PLANET, TEMPLE OF TERROR and THE FOREST OF DOOM
  • Two episodes from Series 1 of BBC1's slightly over-ambitious interactive fiction experiment WHAT'S YOUR STORY along with a short profile of the series
  • Excerpts of an episode from Series 2 of WHAT'S YOUR STORY
  • The 4 1/2 circulating episodes of BSB's hardly-watched, rather awkward, and remarkably dull Sci-Fi spin-off of KNIGHTMARE called THE SATELLITE GAME
  • Videos of the two panel discussions from 2014's FIGHTING FANTASY FEST - The History Of FF and The Art Of FF
  • ...with more to come hopefully

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

You Are The Hero - A History Of Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks


Jonathan Green

Reviewed by Mark Lain

It is now well over two years since this book came out and, as the dust seems to have finally settled, enough time has now passed to be able to take a more rational view of something that was initially being greeted in a rather nostalgically doe-eyed manner. Funded by a Kickstarter campaign that offered the usual choice of very simple (pdf of book) through to rather more elaborate (lunch with Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone at a London restaurant) rewards, the book was launched at the first Fighting Fantasy Fest on 7th September 2014 in London, an event which the more cynical might try to suggest was fundamentally a book launch, but that grew into rather more than that (but that’s another story.)

Divided into 30 chapters, this large format coffee table tome follows the history of Fighting Fantasy in roughly chronological order although, by necessity, some themed chapters break up the timeline to avoid awkward jumps between sub-series (AFF, novels, etc) that would have resulted in a less logical and structured design.

Starting at the beginning of the FF story, the opening two chapters cover the very early days of Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone’s working and playing relationship, documenting their importing of Dungeons & Dragons from the US, the establishment of Games Workshop, and the process behind the creation of The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain. These chapters are really fascinating and are probably the sections of greatest interest to the more-than-casual FF fan as this is where a lot of the juicy background detail that many would not be aware of is to be found and this is made all the more factually credible by the sheer amount of narrative material drawn from interviews with the four key players of the era: Jackson and Livingstone themselves, plus Penguin’s protagonists Geraldine Cooke and Philippa Dickinson. There are many early photographs (SJ and IL both very young and looking very ‘70s whilst clutching the first D&D rule set, the queue awaiting the opening of the first Games Workshop, etc) and much documentary material such as early hand-drawn maps, treatments, etc to satisfy the most demanding of FF fans in their search for obscure historical detail. I think this is the section of the book that I enjoyed the most as, other than the small amount of information given in Wizard’s 25th Anniversary edition of WOFM, this was all stuff that I did not previously know and is a real treasure trove.

The sudden runaway success of FF was a surprise to pretty much everybody at the time and the third chapter explores this whilst focussing on the second and third books (The Citadel Of Chaos, The Forest Of Doom) which naturally means there is a lot of information offered about these two books too. This is to be expected though as we, again, are treated to proposals, treatments, maps, etc and a wealth of first person anecdotes from SJ and IL to flesh out the story in welcome depth. FoD’s superb Iain McCaig cover segues neatly into a chapter ostensibly about FF art profiling some of the artists involved in the development of the series: Russ Nicholson, Iain McCaig, John Blanche and Martin McKenna. RN is an obvious choice as he was the first FF artist and encapsulates for me what the initial visual concept of FF is really about. IM is probably the most legendary so he needed to be included. JB’s art is so stylistically unique that it is well worth covering, plus he inked all of the Sorcery! books so, again, featuring him makes sense. McKenna, though, is a less obvious choice. Personally I think McKenna’s Hammer-influenced art is outstanding but he only really came to prominence in the later Puffin and more recent new Wizard books. Whilst he is certainly the best of the later artists I have a suspicion that he is included because of his close work with Jonathan Green (more on this subject later) as I would not regard him as one of the biggies of FF art. Intertwined with the IM profile is the opportunity to chronicle the three back-to-back books that he did the cover art (and internals in the first two cases) for - City Of Thieves, Deathtrap Dungeon, Island Of The Lizard King – and each book gets about one page devoted to it which is rather less coverage than the initial three books get, but we are into the “business as usual” stage of the series now and pages on end on each book would just get ungainly after a while, so this makes sense.

Having given John Blanche his own sub-chapter (see above), the book’s fifth chapter proper is devoted to the story behind and around the Sorcery! side series of four books and, as with WOFM, there is not much you won’t know about their history after reading this chapter. The Sorcery! books are held in very high esteem by FF fans and are an epic in their own right and FF’s only attempt at a proper ongoing saga so the story of FF would hardly have been complete without a chapter given over to them.

From this point onwards the coverage of each individual gamebook becomes rather unbalanced, with some getting two page write-ups (Creature Of Havoc, Beneath Nightmare Castle) whilst others, especially those from 30 upwards, sometimes get as little as two short paragraphs (Master Of Chaos is a case in point). It seems to me that JG has tried to play up to the perceived general consensus opinion of each particular book as if the reader might not care to hear too much about the “lesser” books and would prefer expansive information on the series’ generally accepted high points. There is a difference between critical and documentary writing and I for one would be just as interested to hear the full story behind a book I hate playing as I would a book I think is a masterpiece. We get some idea, for example, from Luke Sharp about why Chasms Of Malice is so insanely difficult but we don’t get an insight into the end-to-end creative processes involved in putting this book together (LS’ books are very distinct in their mechanics) in the same way as we do for certain other higher-profile books. I know I’ve already acknowledged that there is a limit to how vast YATH could realistically be, but a bit more balance in describing each book would have been preferred. Chapters 11 and 14 give brief overviews of books 20 thru 39 and 40 thru 49 respectively, whilst Chapters 6 and 7 take the approach of Chapter 4 and weave the next few books in the series into other parts of the story.

Books 8 thru 11 are grouped in with the FF RPG book, The Riddling Reaver, Out Of The Pit and Titan – The Fighting Fantasy World which sits a bit awkwardly as these latter books were not contemporary with the formers. Still, we get a page or so on each which tells us just about enough, although House Of Hell takes centre stage and gets far more coverage, but its unique status within the series justifies a bit more information being necessary. The next medieval entries in the series (14, 16 and 19) get lumped in with a chapter on maps which may seem odd, but does work reasonably well as the real point of the chapter is the world-building that was very much in place by this point in the series. You don’t need maps if there’s no unifying concepts or location, but you do need maps if you want to be able to properly visualise and contextualise where these adventures are taking place and the relationship between these places.

From here on in, the scope of the book begins to broaden in keeping with the ever-expanding franchising of FF. The short-lived Warlock magazine gets its own chapter including a brand-new exclusive Derek The Troll cartoon (that is actually very amusing, incidentally), as do the side projects of Tasks Of Tantalon, Casket Of Souls and the sole two-player FF Clash Of The Princes. Likewise, the two series of FF novels, Marc Gascoigne’s (and more recently, Graham Bottley’s) Advanced Fighting Fantasy series, the two boardgames, and the abysmal kiddies’ FF series The Adventures Of Goldhawk, all also get a chapter each which, again, leaves no stone unturned in documenting the series’ output in its first (Puffin) era.

Many fans consider the handful of Sci-Fi offerings in the series to be anything from comparatively weak through to almost non-existent (although I personally really like Rebel Planet and Robot Commando) so it comes as no surprise that these books are dealt with in their own separate chapter as they literally “stand alone” by being non-Titan books. I am glad to say that, unlike the short-shrift YATH gives to some of the books, the Sci-Fi books are covered in detail with equal input from their authors and artists. Whilst we may not be very interested in playing many of the Sci-Fi books, a full page on each is justified as it does give us a very different angle on the creation and development of this part of the series, even if reading about the Sci-Fi books is, for the most part, more interesting than playing them!

To slightly break up the chronological presentation of the story, Chapter 13 sort of jumps forward in time (taking into account that Chapter 14 covers books 40 thru 49) and tells the story of what SJ and IL largely got up to post-FF. SJ’s telephone bill-guzzling RPG FIST and his elaborate BattleCards series are detailed and IL’s various video game and benevolent activities are documented which shows there is more to them (and to the story) than just churning out product for Puffin. It also proves that they did not just sit on their backsides and count the money once the series was in decline but that, instead, they maintained their interests and continued to get involved in fresh and worthwhile projects of diverse types. After all, and the first chapter bears witness to this, YATH is as much the story of SJ and IL as it is of a franchised gamebook universe.

FF’s decline in the mid-90s is a depressing, if unavoidable subject, and it is one which is treated in a factual and pragmatic fashion be it through the brief elation of Chapter 16’s 10th Anniversary comeback, through the declining years of Chapter 17’s coverage of books 51 thru 58 (the only one of which that gets any real depth of analysis being JG’s debut book #53 Spellbreaker – go figure!), and the final inevitable fall of Puffin’s axe at Green’s book 59 which gets half of Chapter 19 to itself… well, I guess it is historically important in the sense that we need to know how it came to be the last one. The second half of this chapter is devoted to the endlessly-told story of the 60th book that never was, another JG effort, Bloodbones, but, again, the historical relevance justifies its being recounted, even if Chapter 19 is essentially just JG talking about himself.

This leads neatly into a full chapter on the subject of the books that never were and, pleasingly, in most cases JG has gathered a lot of previously unheard first-hand information and back story from those authors who would have written these lost books had they ever seen the light of day. This is another essential chapter for hardcore fans as it makes for quite tantalising and intriguing reading and is good fodder to inspire amateur FF writers to attempt to interpret some of these enigmatic subjects that we will probably never see officially. For me, the idea of a third mandrake book is hugely appealing, whilst The Keeper Of The Seven Keys is surely one of FF’s sorest losses as this would have been a big step forward conceptually for gamebooks.

The remainder of the book covers FF’s rebirth in the 2000s, starting with the story behind Wizard and Myrador’s resurrections of the series which leads to a full chapter covering the genuinely new books released in Wizard’s first and second iterations: Eye Of The Dragon, Bloodbones, Howl Of The Werewolf, Stormslayer, Night Of The Necromancer. It doesn’t take a genius to release that most of this chapter centres around JG himself again but Martin McKenna and Tony Hough get a lot of attention in this chapter too, which makes Chapters 22 and 23 feel just about balanced.

Chapter 24 is a bit strained for me. The title suggests it’s about the series’ 25th Anniversary but, as there is not much to say on that subject other than the commercial failure of the hardback Special Edition of WOFM, most of this chapter is given over to a rambling analysis of the evolution of the FF logo. OK, it’s a sort of salient point but it’s a pretty minute detail in reality and I found my interest waning now for the first time. Similarly, the next chapter which covers fandom also seems a bit forced to me. On the one hand, the rebirth of FF (and gamebooks generally) that we saw in the early 2000s would never have happened were it not for avid fan support but an entire chapter on fan activity seems unnecessary although it does allow for lots of fan sound-bites to satisfy a couple of the Kickstarter’s reward level promises so it was unavoidable really. There is a particular part of this section though that really irks me and that is the two frankly wasted pages given over to utterly crass and wildly unfunny comedy cover titles which wreaks of desperation at filling up space, can be found online easily, and is frankly of no relevance to the subject matter as a whole as they are simply something someone created for a laugh. Also, I’m not going to dwell on this point, but there is no mention of a certain Malthus Dire blog in the list of prominent blogs – clearly I need to do more!

Chapter 26 is an interesting one more for gamebook collectors rather than those who are just casually following the story as it tries to go some to drawing together the vast amount of foreign FF releases over the years. As this is a huge topic it would take an entire book just to do this justice so JG sensibly makes general reference to countries where FF was sold, giving teasers of foreign title translations and a representative nice gallery of cover art from around the world including the infamous bonkers Manga “camel toe” cover for the Japanese version of Deathtrap Dungeon which has to be seen to be believed. This chapter serves as a good entry-level point for anyone wanting to attempt to negotiate their way through collecting international editions of FF which is a real minefield. If I have a criticism of any part of this chapter it would be that the foreign title translations use the awkward and overly-literal versions as given on Titannica and do not take into account “proper” nuances of translation which would make the titles seem less jarring.

The history in terms of product would not be complete without a section devoted to computer game adaptations and the next chapter covers this in good detail. As FF computer versions first appeared in 1984 with the tenuously-linked WOFM ZX Spectrum game and are still in production now with Tin Man’s Android apps, this part of the story covers most of the timeline of FF so placing it logically was quite a challenge and where it is near the end was probably the only real option for the author. Various cover shots, adverts and promotional photo shoots are included making this a very thorough and, especially in the case of the story of the PlayStation/PC version of Deathtrap Dungeon, quite enlightening chapter. There is nothing particularly new or unknown in this section, but having it all in one place with even the relatively obscure Big Blue Bubble and Laughing Jackal releases getting a mention is handy.

One of the biggest things on my FF wish list (and probably many other fans’) is a FF film and Chapter 28 talks about abortive attempts at making these, with particular focus on the House Of Hell movie that got as far as pre-production a few years ago and the still not yet realised Turn To 400 documentary film (some interviews for this were being shot at FFF incidentally.) We get tantalising information about a possible Deathtrap Dungeon movie too as well as a brief nod to ITV’s classic Knightmare series which effectively shows the sheer scale of impact of gamebooks in the 1980s and early 1990s. Whilst some may say that this chapter is rather conjectural as none of this has got very far it is fun reading about what might have happened (and maybe still will at some point) and it is still a valid part of the story showing how FF has always tried to follow technological fashions and progress, even in its less commercial eras. The success of the Knightmare Live stage show shows that you should never give up on these things for as long as there are fans looking for new product.

FF’s newest official 100% new gamebook release to date is 2012’s Blood Of The Zombies and the story essentially comes to a close with Chapter 29 which discusses the development story of this book in great depth (which is neat book-ending with the thorough story we get of WOFM’s creation at the start of the book) and leaves no stone unturned. Obviously, information is easier to get as this is a recent release and fandom was rabid already unlike the pre-WOFM era meaning we all remember it vividly and there is a wealth of photographic and anecdotal material available from umpteen sources to give us all we could ever possibly need to know about BotZ. Rather awkwardly though, this chapter is rounded-off with a section on the book you are actually reading, YATH. Can a history of FF include itself in the story? Does this maybe seem a little bit post-modern in approach? I’m undecided but I think it would have been more appropriate to exclude mentioning YATH as it would have been better to maintain a distance of sorts. However, given that the material included mostly covers a high-price backer tier for the Kickstarter that funded YATH, JG was no doubt obligated to include this but do we really care about a fan meal with SJ and IL? OK, include backers’ quotations by all means, they have paid for the privilege after all and fan’s comments add colour to the whole story of FF, but I don’t really care about a fan meal and I doubt many others than those who were there will either. This chapter should have stuck to the facts about BotZ and avoided the subject of how part of the funding for the book you are reading was gathered.

Finally, the closing chapter (number 30 of 30) briefly pontificates on FF’s legacy which is a good way to summarise the story and draw the book to a clean conclusion to prevent the more casual reader from wondering what came next had the book ended with chapter 29’s ongoing subject matter.

I have always been impressed by JG’s dense prose style that he uses in his gamebooks, but biography requires a lighter more journalistic way of writing and the conversational approach used throughout YATH is perfect for the subject and idiom. Quotations are seamlessly incorporated into the text and enhance the story in a way that only primary sources really ever can and there is good balance between narrative and comment. Occasionally, JG allows his own views (under the banner of the accepted fan opinion) to show through and I would have preferred to see a totally neutral angle on the books as we all have our opinions and even the generally accepted best and worse books have their admirers. Some writers/artists are quoted much more often (and in more detail) than others, although this is naturally limited by how much anyone said/remembered and the reality that some are dead or seemingly uncontactable or just unavailable for comment so JG could only realistically work with what he could gather. Fan comments are used sparingly (as are occasional fan photos) and the main text body is broken up with side panels full of fascinating factoids for the reader to digest as well as an abundance of colour images.

One of the real bonuses in this book is the way that so many cover images are blown up to full page size and this really emphasises their content and shows just how impressive and detailed much of the colour FF cover art really is. Every book’s cover is shown in one form or another and there are plenty of black and white internal art samples on show too to allow as many artists as possible to get some exposure. In addition, we are treated to previously unseen concept and WIP art as well as a few brand new commissions including Martin McKenna’s stunning new cover with its assemblage of all the main antagonists from the FF world and a new monochrome side-on view of Zagor by Russ Nicholson. Art-wise JG has really gone to town in collecting a huge array of drawn and photographic material and the visual side of this book is first rate, especially as it’s also beautifully printed on good quality paper which makes the colours really vivid and there are no blurred or second-rate images anywhere, even the reproductions of early photos are as good as they could be.

If I have one over-riding niggle with this book (and it is just a niggle and is not a comment on any aspect of the quality by any means) it is that JG tries to make it about himself in places, for example name-checking his own titles within commentaries on approaches taken in other authors’ books, where cross-referencing otherwise does not seem to happen. A bigger point in case is in those places where he interviews himself which are at best quaint when he refers to himself in the third person and at worst seem smug. It may have been more objective to avoid these comparisons and exclude the interview-myself-in-a-mirror quotations completely, especially as JG’s contribution to the original Puffin cycle (and I am not making any reference in this statement to the actual inherent pros and cons of his books) came very late on as the series was on its last legs and are not part of its heyday, as such. Yes, all but two of the new renaissance Wizard books are by him, but a totally objective view giving straight facts might have seemed less narcissistic. JG has written some superb FF books, I do not deny this, but, as I say, he is very new blood in the timeline and I can name many other FF authors (and artists) whose contributions to the “classic” era when FF was at its height of success, warrant much more attention (notwithstanding the obvious unlikelihood of getting hold of Keith Martin who is not far behind SJ and IL in terms of the volume and scale of his contribution to the core series.)

YATH is an undeniably impressive achievement, no matter how you look at it. It is very well written, looks stunning, and includes a vast wealth of facts and imagery that will offer something new to even the most knowledgeable of FF super-fans. I have read it umpteen times and I never tire of it. It is not unrealistic to expect to be able to read it in one sitting and it flows so well and is so compelling that it really is very hard to put it down once you’ve started reading it. Each read-through shows up something new to discover that you missed previously and it can work just as well as a picture book for flicking through and simply admiring the genius of FF’s portfolio of artists. Naturally, there are chapters that will interest a given reader more or less than others, but an exhaustive history of this nature that tries to appeal to both the casual reader and the expert at the same time will never be 100% perfect without making it focus on one reader demographic. Anal levels of detail throughout would quickly alienate a general reader whilst a too facile high-level approach would be of no use at all to what I suspect is most of its likely readership, the mid-level to hardcore gamebook fan.

This is essential reading for anyone who loves FF and other than balancing out the coverage of each book more evenly and removing the references to itself I struggle to see how YATH could really have been any better.

Friday, 9 December 2016

Gamebook Adventures: Fighting Fantasy


Tin Man Games

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Australia’s Tin Man Games had been producing classic-feeling Android and Windows gamebook apps for a few years when, in 2012, they began to use their own in-house Gamebook Adventures engine as the basis for a series of adaptations of books from the Fighting Fantasy series, beginning with the (then) newly-released 30th Anniversary book Blood Of The Zombies. Subsequently, from January 2013 through to December 2014, they would release a further seven adaptations. Whilst the series’ focus was on certain Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson-penned efforts, Jonathan Green’s Bloodbones would also get the Tin Man app treatment.

Unusually for electronic versions of previously-published gamebooks, the text and design of the original source material was not altered in any way. Instead, these apps present the books (at least in terms of words and maps) exactly as per the original print editions (with one minor exception in Starship Traveller’s ending, but more on that later) which is a pleasing thing to see. Whilst modifications do sometimes return surprises and avoid being slavish renditions of familiar territory, it is nice to be able to play electronic gamebooks that are 100% faithful to the originals as it does allow the material to speak for itself. Naturally, this can mean that the original brilliance or mediocrity of a given book cannot be masked and it has to be said that Tin Man’s choice of books to convert is a very mixed bag. I will not repeat what I have already said about the actual books themselves in reviews elsewhere on this Blog, instead I will focus here on the presentation of these apps and the approaches taken in adapting them.

With the exception of Appointment With FEAR, all of these apps use conventional FF mechanics for rolling up characters, combat, attribute testing, etc and Tin Man have built in lovely animated dice that roll onto the “page” when needed. After a while, you will discover that it is possible to get a second-chance roll (if you are quick) by flicking the dice just after they have landed, although the outcome of this can go either way so you could get a far better result or find yourself wishing you had accepted the first roll! A big plus of the built-in dice rolling is that a) you don’t need to keep flicking to either a third party dice-rolling app or using actual dice (handy if you’re on a journey, in a hotel, or anywhere where realising you’ve forgotten your dice would otherwise scupper you), and b) you don’t need to do any maths as the app adds the totals and makes the necessary comparisons to stats before also making any necessary deductions etc. Additionally, in those situations where you have to read extended rules for specific combats, the app also factors in any adjustors and/or any extra dice rolls that are needed, thus making the whole process that much easier for the player. (It also means that you have to play fairly which does add to the challenge levels a lot.) The text itself is presented with the original paragraph numbers and even gives section numbers in the “turn to” prompts which, whilst purely cosmetic, does make these feel like paper gamebooks in the traditional sense. To choose where to turn to you touch a button next to your choice and, in a neat cheat-proofing move, choices that demand you have certain items or information are locked-out and cannot be selected unless you genuinely do have the requisites, which is really good to see and, as with dice rolling, this forces you to play the books properly without cheating. Obviously this means that the difficulty of the harder books amplifies itself but it does give you something to really get your teeth into although I’d imagine that had I played these versions as a child I would have quickly become very disillusioned with constantly dying all the time. Naturally, inventory and information are all stored for you and you can view these at any time - this also allows you to use your Potions and eat Provisions at will, just like in the books. To make the screen look more “book-y” the pages are sepia-tinted which gives a good impression of aged paper (we all have some fairly yellowed gamebook pages in our collections!), although it is possible to read with a clean white background if you are inclined to want the effect of a brand new book. Artwork is a subject we will come to in the app-by-app analysis as Tin Man has treated this differently depending on the particular app, but all of the “cover” pages have small animations, for example, the Shapechanger moves a bit on Forest Of Doom and lasers fire about on Starship Traveller. In addition to the gamebooks themselves, each app comes with a separate section that allows you to view the artwork en masse, along with a small write-up on the History Of Fighting Fantasy that makes for interesting reading for anyone who does not already know the story.

As is the case with all of Tin Man’s gamebook apps, an added feature is that of Achievements. Essentially, these are various moments throughout the book that, should you find them, will unlock an Achievement and credit it to you. The nature of what is needed to be done to unlock each Achievement is not a secret and you can check which you have and haven’t yet got in a special section where they are stored. Some books have more than others to find but all include completing the book on each difficulty setting and finding all of the artwork. The remainder vary from finding key plot moments, through acquiring particular items or finding (and sometimes besting, but also sometimes falling foul of) certain encounters, right through even to certain ways of losing. This adds an extra dimension to re-playability and means that your motivation does not drive you solely to finding victories. Some Achievements are very easy to unlock whilst others are extremely well hidden such as those that require approaching an area in a particular direction (House Of Hell has one of these, for example.) In fact, there are even some that can only be unlocked through cumulative actions across multiple playthroughs that absolutely demands replaying (eg: killing many more zombies than there actually are in the game in Blood Of The Zombies, or finding all of the artwork in any book at all given that the true path never leads to EVERY illustrated moment in a gamebook.) I personally really like trying to collect all of the possible Achievements in each app and they really do compel you to keep re-playing until you have unlocked them all, regardless of when (or if) you have actually beaten the book.

As is fairly normal for video games, it is possible to set a defined difficulty level from the outset. You can play the book exactly as it was designed which can mean that certain books’ excessive ease or difficulty can sometimes have quite an over-arching influence on success, you can choose a free-read option that unlocks all section links and allows back-tracking to previous sections if you go the wrong way (yes, we’ve all done that in the paper editions!), and, in some cases, there are even ultra-tough “Hardcore” modes which set starting restrictions on certain stats/Provision allowances/etc for those clever people who have bested the books once too often and need to go the extra mile to find a challenge.

…Which neatly brings us to the first adaptation in the series. Blood Of The Zombies is a notoriously difficult book, bordering on being impossibly hard to beat without cheating. Yes, it is statistically possible to have the dice fall in your favour EVERY time, but the probability is minute and this unfortunately somewhat overshadows the actual enjoyment of Tin Man’s first FF app. I liked the book, but I know that a lot of FF fans did not feel the same way. As an app it is both good and bad. The wholesale slaughter combat mechanic carried over from the book works well in app form, especially as each hit you make on an opponent is accompanied by an appropriate sound effect to add gory death-dealing fun, but I’m not convinced by the playability in terms of actually winning. Three difficulty levels are offered: Free Read (aka the one where you can actually finish the book!), Medium where you start with 2d6+40 Stamina ie DOUBLE what you got even in the “easier” revised version of the original book, and Hardcore which gives you the revised book’s 2d6+20 Stamina. An interesting foible of the book was that it was never made clear whether your Stamina could not exceed its Initial level meaning that you could keep building your Stamina up by using Medi-Kits with no upper limit on how much Stamina you could have. The app version, however, does not allow this and will cap your Stamina off at your starting level. This means that you are not likely to stand much chance of getting past Zombie Kong and, the rare occasions that you do, the three-fold multi-zombie pile-up that happens shortly afterwards is almost certain to finish you off… and that’s just in Medium mode! I’ve tried umpteen times to finish the app on this mode and, no matter how strong a character I begin with, and no matter how closely I follow the true path and get really good dice rolls along the way meaning I take minimal damage in zombie combats, I just cannot get past the triple-threat zombie-a-thon just before the end. Surely that must mean that, in real terms, it is effectively impossible to beat the app on Hardcore mode? Whilst you do get unlimited bookmarks to save critical points that will take some re-negotiating, even this does not balance out against the ultra-harsh final sections. It will not be long before you resort to Free Read as the only realistic way of beating this app and finding the majority of the Achievements and I suspect that very few of us will ever unlock the Medium or Hardcore victory achievements. In fact, I have all of them bar these two and have long-since abandoned my campaign to try to get them. A real winner with this one is that Kev Crossley’s book art is reproduced here in glorious (and gory) colour which looks fantastic and really brings the book to life. There is the option to switch it to black-and-white but why would you want to as the colourised art adds so much horror to the proceedings?

Blood Of The Zombies is beautifully presented by Tin Man and exudes quality in its execution. Its selection as the first app was logical given how new it was at the time and the idea of it being a 30th Anniversary offering to kick off the app series is a sound one, it just doesn’t represent what FF is in the strictest sense and it gets weighed-down due to its sheer difficulty. Still, as an indication of this app series’ potential, it still scores highly.

After an Ian Livingstone effort, next came a Steve Jackson adaptation in the form of House Of Hell. Easily one of the best of the original Puffin series, HoH was another extremely difficult book to complete, down to, in no small part, the huge number of traps and red herrings strewn about its map, but its main reason for being so hard was the hidden section puzzles built into the true path (well, that and the fact that you need a minimum Fear of 9 to be able to win.) A fiendish and also rather irritating feature of many of SJ’s FFs is the mechanic of expecting the reader to know when to try to turn to hidden sections rather than explicitly prompting this. Tin Man’s version gets around this by prompting you to select these as long as you have acquired the necessary information to be able to find them. Clearly, this makes the app version that little bit easier and, as long as you have Fear >9 and stick strictly to the optimum path, beating this one even on Hardcore mode is not actually that difficult to do. As with BotZ before it there are three play modes offered: Hardcore has you roll-up your starting stats as per the book (possibly an indication of how hard the source material really is); Medium gives you Stamina of 2d6+24, Fear of 1d6+9 (ie the lowest possible is 10 which is over the 9 point bottom line) and standard starting Skill and Luck; and Free Read unlocks everything as always. The usual unlimited bookmarks are given again on all modes but they are far less critical this time around unless you really haven’t yet found the true path, although using Free Read and note-taking will eventually reveal this to you. Tin Man have reused Tim Sell’s internal art and this is another one that really benefits from being colourised (although, again, you get the option of viewing in monochrome should you wish to) – the use of rich reds and dark colours add a lot of atmosphere and, alongside the yellows of decay, really do highlight the juxtaposition of high-class decadence and horrific decay that the house is meant to portray. They are many Achievements to find including one that involves you gradually finding every weapon through multiple playthroughs which is really quite a task, along with an amusingly dark one where you have to slip in some spilled blood.

House Of Hell is a real winner, primarily thanks to the brilliance of the source book, but also due to it being converted in such a way that it is genuinely beatable without the years of fruitless attempts that the book demands.

After two rather uncharacteristic choices, Tin Man finally opted for a traditional medieval Skill-Stamina-Luck outing for its third conversion: Ian Livingstone’s The Forest Of Doom. The game map on the original book is far more expansive than those for either of the previous two adaptations and there are numerous inter-connecting paths through the forest that, in many ways, make it akin to an external dungeon layout and, more importantly, offers loads of re-playability. However, FoD is also notoriously easy to complete (light relief after BotZ and HoH) which makes this app more of an “explore and see/collect everything” motive than one to fathom out the true path of. For that reason, the Achievements this time around are often slightly abstract and many involve finding obscure detail rather than obvious things, although there are still a few blatant ones to get too, including completing it in all modes, as always. Again, there are three play modes available: Hardcore which limits your starting Skill to 1d6+4, Adventurer (note the new name for Medium given the idiom this time around) is as per the book, and Free Read is self-explanatory by this point. Even Hardcore mode is easy due to the nature of this adventure and being limited to a maximum Skill of 10 in this mode is not that much of an issue as long as you have decent Stamina and Luck. As usual, you get unlimited bookmarks in each mode too which makes it all even simpler. When this app first came out it seemed unusually glitchy and paused a lot but, after numerous updates, the problem soon went away and it then played as smoothly as the previous two. I have been uncompromising in my criticism of Malcolm Barter’s art for FoD in the past and, whilst some of it still looks pretty terrible in the coloured version presented here, there are some images that can only really be appreciated in colour such as Yaztromo’s Tower and the crypt which benefit massively from being colourised and now look really great which has made me appreciate just how good the original art could have been if presented in the more sympathetic manner that it is now (although you can still view it in black-and-white as usual in the app, if you really want to.) For the first time in a Tin Man FF app we are presented with mechanics to deal with Gold Pieces and also a map. When you go to buy items (ie at the start in Yaztromo’s Tower), the app deducts the relevant amounts as you make purchases and progressively begins to lock out anything that costs more money than you have left which is another nice bit of cheat-proofing that raises the mechanics above the inherent limitations of the book. The map gradually builds up as you play but is not really much use as it only traces where you have been so far and resets itself each time you die and have to restart the game which pretty much defeats the object of mapping in what is a true path/item hunt gamebook. You are also given the standard FF starting Potion choice and you can use these at any time by accessing your Inventory, ditto Provisions.

The Forest Of Doom is the earliest original series FF book to be released by Tin Man as a standard digital gamebook - they have produced the even earlier The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain but this conversion was of a very different nature and is not within the scope of this write-up – and its seminal quality outweighs its ease in making it a great choice to convert. It is much more conventional than the magic-oriented The Citadel Of Chaos and, given what Tin Man had in store for WOFM, it’s the earliest “generic” FF book they could choose for this particular series of apps. I was pleased when this was released as I wanted to see how Tin Man would handle a traditional FF outing given that their own Gamebook Adventures series is very much standard medieval fantasy and the result is great fun to play and offers a much more casual experience than the intensity of the first two FF apps.

I for one was hoping that Tin Man’s next medieval choice would be the superb City Of Thieves but instead they pitched a bit of a curve-ball with the often-overlooked Island Of The Lizard King, again by Ian Livingstone. The original book polarises opinion with some (myself included) thinking it very imaginative and well-considered in spite of its extreme linearity and relative ease, whilst others (with good cause) find it far too restrictive in terms of options to explore and much too easy. What everyone agrees on is that, without a Skill in double-figures and an equally high Luck you won’t get very far at all! This means that choosing to play in Hardcore mode which involves generating your Skill as 1d6+4 does make this rather more challenging than the book version. Add to this the fact that Hardcore mode only allows you THREE starting Provisions and you genuinely finally have a satisfyingly challenging version of IotLK to silence the nay-sayers. Obviously, playing in Adventurer (the idiom is back again) can still be tough with low stats but the vast number of bonuses (especially to Skill) will make this (and Hardcore mode, in fact) that little bit easier, but you can always choose to not bother collecting the items that make combat too easy. Free Read is available again too but this tends to come in more handy for unlocking all the other Achievements and art here rather than as an aid in unravelling the true path, as there isn’t one as such. Potions and Provisions are back again from the start, as would be expected. The over-riding primeval feel of the book was greatly helped by Alan Langford’s art and it is very appropriately colourised in this app to keep it in context. I would have been very disappointed if Tin Man had changed the art as it was key in this book and thankfully they kept the original just as it was. This is the first example of a FF app where setting the art to black-and-white works just as well as it does in colour and I have played it that way as many times as I have in colour, which is a first for me with these conversions. I must mention the animated gonchong on the cover screen too as it twitches in a very unsettlingly sinewy manner that really emphasises its unpleasantness!

Bringing this book back into peoples’ views and allowing it to be re-assessed in this modern format is a good thing to see and hopefully the app version will make those who right it off as too easy or devoid of any real options for exploration see it for what it is, especially as hardcore mode has made the challenge level much more balanced.

After two Horror and two Medieval efforts, it was inevitable that we would have to accept that a Sci-Fi FF was likely to get the Tin Man treatment sooner or later. Starship Traveller is not a good gamebook, I think most of us agree on that. However, as Tin Man seem to be limited to only being able to get permission to use works by Ian Livingstone, Steve Jackson, and Jonathan Green, that only gave three viable Sci-Fi options: this one, Appointment With FEAR or Freeway Fighter. A Jackson effort was more likely after two consecutive Livingstones and, in fact, both of SJ’s Sci-Fi books were digitised in this series, but ST was the first of the two.  So how do you deal with a problem like Starship Traveller? Let’s face it, the likelihood of many FF fans being interested in having to re-tread the fairly empty experience that is this book is low. To their credit, Tin Man tackled this by pulling all the wires out of the back and sort of starting again, addressing as many of the book’s shortcomings as was realistically plausible without just writing a different new book entirely, and they presented a considerably re-booted ST.

The main issues with the original book from my perspective were: 1) endless rolling-up of secondary crew members’ stats that took away time that would be better used actually playing the adventure; 2) uninteresting line art that was devoid of depth or anything that fired the imagination (Sci-Fi is meant to be a semi-visual genre, after all); 3) dull plotting and uninspired locales/encounters; 4) the problem of being able to complete the book without touching the dice (once you’ve spent ages creating your crew, that is); 5) the relative brevity of the mission proper, leading to repeatedly reaching the end only to fail because you don’t have the correct combination of co-ordinates to escape the Seltsian Void. Obviously, numbers 3 and 5 are difficult to resolve without major re-writes so, unfortunately, they are still rather apparent. The good news is that numbers 1 and 4 have work-arounds now, 5 has a slight tweak to the climax, and number 2 is completely eliminated. You can, if you choose to, still roll-up stats for every one of your crew members (and even use a different custom-named ship instead of the Traveller, although it’s the same ship in all but name) but the better option is now given to use a pre-generated crew which saves a lot of time but does put you at the mercy of the game as you cannot fudge the dice rolls to try to get stronger side-kicks. Personally, I think this is a big leap forward. The original book’s art was, let’s be honest, woefully bad and really did nothing to help us visualise the rather flat attempt SJ had made to present the book’s universe. Tin Man’s version has newly-commissioned art by Simon Lissaman that is far better than the book’s. For example, the rain planet looks far more atmospheric, the Adventure Game-style vortex is much more futuristic looking, and the formerly pathetic humanoid Dar-Villians are now reptilian creatures that manage to appear both intelligent and menacing-looking at the same time. To further emphasise just how much better the new art is, for the first time Tin Man have not given us the option to de-make the art and view it in the original back-and-white, which I think speaks for itself. By all accounts, the new art is far more apt to the material, is colourful, and is just generally much more imaginative and makes playing a far more positive experience as opposed to the dour half-finished look of the book art. A new cover image was also created which is a bit more old school comic-bookish than the book’s original and I did actually rather like the crew vs killer robot cover of the book but the new cover screen is nice too. Likewise, rather than the usual sepia-toned “pages”, this app has a futuristic look to it with neon colours on dark backgrounds, ship schematics, incoming missile warnings and lots of other command deck gubbins to give the feel of a starship bridge. Again, this really lifts the impact of the piece. To top it off, even the dice animations are black with white glowing dots this time around. Sadly, the reskinning does not draw us away from the fact that the text and the adventure itself are the same old dull material from the original book, but the showy presentation does at least make it look far classier. Likewise, the fact that you can go right through without needing the dice still exists, although you will take many attempts to find the safe true path so this might go unnoticed. Interestingly, combats can be played-out in the traditional FF manner or there is also a Quick Combat option (handy for frays involving multiple opponents on both sides) that greatly accelerates these situations and seems to be based on correctly aligning a moving bar within a Skill box. I like this option and I have used it on every playthrough of this app. Obviously, the short nature of the optimum path is another thing that could not be avoided by directly porting the original text over, but this adaptation does add two elements to alleviate this a bit: firstly, a nicely-rendered map of the route you have taken gradually builds itself (including colour and names for planets etc) which adds a bit of depth to your routing (although, as with FoD, it erases itself on each re-start), whilst in the final analysis when you have to crunch any co-ordinates you might have found you also have the option to just roll a dice and take a chance on escaping the void, although you must roll a 6 to do so. Still, this does remove some of the soul-destroying nature of constantly failing over and over and is a slight variation on the book.

For the first time, with ST, Tin Man have only offered two difficulty options: the re-named Classic is exactly as the book, whilst the usual Free Read option is also given. Both modes also give unlimited bookmarks, as is the norm in these apps. I don’t really understand why there is no Hardcore mode offered this time as, once you’ve found the true path, this is not especially difficult as a gamebook and it would have given the added challenge option that those before it had. The Achievements this time around are very inventive and involve you getting into lots of sticky situations. Particularly fun is the one that involves you getting your entire crew killed-off and having to go it alone which, given just how many expendable underlings you have got, is easier said than done!

StarshipTraveller has benefited hugely from this conversion. Yes, the adventure is still as excitement-free as the book version, but Tin Man’s presentation is excellent and we finally have a Starship Traveller that is enjoyable to play, albeit on a mostly visual basis.

After re-thinking Starship Traveller, Tin Man went hell-for-leather in their deconstruction of the next book they chose to convert, Steve Jackson’s superhero romp Appointment With FEAR. Let’s be clear from the outset that I hate this book as an adventure but I give it the respect it is due in terms of it being an example of very clever gamebook design, what with its four distinct paths through and its hidden section clue use mechanic.

As soon as you start Appointment With FEAR it is apparent that this is going to be rather different to its series predecessors. Presented as an interactive comic book, slides of text in a suitably comic book-y font appear as you read, with interspersed images where these existed in the original book, detailing your birth and how you came to possess super powers. As with the book, you choose which one of the four super powers you want to have and then comes an overlong series of choices where, in video game style, you choose a name from hundreds of options (I am always Stretchy Moth which is one of the less ludicrous monikers on offer, if you can imagine that concept for a moment!), then build up a multi-coloured suit design that is a million miles away from the source book’s Silver Crusader look. This time you are more imposing and almost X-Man-looking and already, at this earliest of stages, this app does not seem much like Appointment With FEAR anymore. However, once you’ve designed your character and started the adventure itself, the text and structure are exactly as per the book, it’s just the intentionally comic book look that is very different. Curiously though, combat is also drastically different in this app. Rather than being the traditional FF Attack Strength rolling process, instead you choose from a selection of blows to strike to different body parts. I have never managed to really master this and the outcomes do seem somewhat arbitrary which makes combat clumsy and rather biased against you, especially when fighting the tougher foes and beating the Creature Of Carnage (Sk 12 St 14 in the book) in particular is incredibly difficult using the app’s revised combat method. I must have failed at least 20 times before I bested him and was bored with endlessly re-living this battle long before I had finally won it. The book’s relatively meaningless Hero Points are back again although the 60s Batman-style “Kapow” starbursts that greet the winning or losing of these (and Luck and Clues too, in fact) are a nice contextual touch. The book’s challenge was very high, due mostly to your needing to randomly guess the right moments to use Clues and deduct or add numbers to find hidden sections. Tin Man eased this in their House Of Hell app by prompting you at the relevant moments, but Appointment With FEAR leaves it to you to decide when to follow clues up, just as the book does. Naturally, this does make the app just as hard as the book and beating it is very tough indeed. In fact, after the crushingly difficult Blood Of The Zombies, this is probably the second hardest of all Tin Man’s FF app series for this reason alone. A completely new concept that was only included in this one app is the collecting of Trading Cards (digital ones, that is.) I have only got a few but it is apparently possible to trade with friends by linking up your Android devices, but I have not attempted this myself because, in all honesty, after a few playthroughs, the novelty of the comic book presentation began to wear off and I realised it’s just the book after all and, as I never liked the book much, I decided I couldn’t really be bothered to play this app more than just a handful of times.

Appointment With FEAR is visually very well designed, although the approach used is distracting and, whilst very original, this is basically just the book with all its hidden section tricks in place to both impress you with its mechanics and to frustrate you with the lack of any real signposting as to how you are ever going to complete it. I’ve heard reports that some people have never managed to get this app to work on their devices, but I have never had this problem myself. I do have the problem, though, that I have long-since lost all motivation to play it! Yes, it’s a lovely bit of design from the coders and I can’t take that away from them but it’s still just a gamebook that I have very little time for. I have not mentioned the subject of Achievements in this review – they are included again but I cannot find the menu where they are stored so I just stumbled across a smattering of them as I played so I cannot really comment on what they involve.

At Fighting Fantasy Fest 2014 Tin Man’s Neil Rennison gave an interesting teaser-talk on forthcoming FF apps. The one that was about to be released at that time was the seventh in this series, Ian Livingstone’s Caverns Of The Snow Witch. The focus of the talk was mostly around yet more new artwork that was being created for this conversion. Starship Traveller was improved a lot by Tin Man when they completely changed the artwork. I am in two minds though about how I feel about the decision to re-work Snow Witch’s unique woodcut internal art. The new art in the app is much more traditional fantasy art and, whilst at times undeniably beautiful (the Pegasus springs straight to mind) and in some places just much better (the Snow Dogs and the Dragon), the book is always remembered for the brave decision to go for very unconventional art and the original’s Crystal Warrior stands out in my memory as particularly impressive (indeed, this is one image that the new art did no favours for!) Thankfully, the app gives you the choice of either playing using the new full-colour art or the original black-and-white woodcut art from the book, which is a really pleasing inclusion. Interestingly, the original Puffin cover art was retained for the cover screen which, again, I’m pleased about, as this worked fine as it was. As this is a return to conventional Medieval adventuring fare after two Sci-Fi efforts, the now familiar Tin Man playing mode choices of Hardcore, Adventurer, or Free Read are all back again. Anyone who has played the book will know that, without stats in double-figures (preferably maxed-out!) you have little chance of completing this adventure. As with the other Medieval apps, you have the usual choice of starting Potions and get 10 Provisions in Adventurer mode. Hardcore offers you the Potions as read, but only gives you THREE Provisions again and starts you with a Skill of 1d6+4, as was the case with IotLK. This worked fine in IotLK as that book is very easy. But, putting this restriction on as hard a book as CotSW just makes it downright unfair. Completing this in Adventurer (ie standard “as the book was written” mode) is far from a simple task, but Hardcore mode seems to be near-terminally difficult. On that basis, I doubt many people will anticipate getting the Hardcore Win Achievement in this one then! That said, the other Achievements this time are the usual mix of win, sort of lose, and simply fail moments to unlock and they are as fun to find as they are in the other apps in this series so this alone is good enough motivation to keep playing, although the source material’s sheer length will make finding all the artwork in particular a task to test the staying-power of the best of us.

As with all Tin Man’s conversions, I cannot fault the work that has gone into coding another extremely well-presented FF conversion in Caverns Of The Snow Witch. The shortcomings of the original book (excessive length, extreme difficulty, ultra-linearity) are unavoidable in a direct porting and are not Tin Man’s fault, but I would happily have substituted this one for either City Of Thieves or Temple Of Terror any day so I do question the choice of book with this one more than I would any other entry in this series.

Just over two years after these conversions first appeared, the eighth and final offering came in December 2014 in the shape of Bloodbones. This is the only non-SJ/IL book to be converted, this one being by Jonathan Green. Note at this point that Tin Man had already released the rather similar Green gamebook Temple Of The Spider God in their own Gamebook Adventures app series. Bloodbones is another extremely difficult gamebook, arguably even harder than Caverns Of The Snow Witch due to its extreme linearity and a series of ultra-strong foes to fight in the final stages, although the more excessively tough fights have had their stats reduced slightly in this version and, whilst still very strong, they are now realistically win-able. Bloodbones is also exceptionally good which puts it head and shoulders above CotSW in my estimation and I was pleased to see this one being chosen as the next app. As this is another Medieval adventure, we are once again offered the choice to play in Hardcore, Adventurer, or Free Read mode. Adventurer is the same as the book, Free Read is cheat mode, and the Hardcore win is unlikely to be very achievable if we weigh up the difficulty of the book with having a starting Skill again of only 1d6+4 and a starting Gold Pieces of a just-on-the-limit-for-success 14GP. Yes, we have unlimited bookmarks again in all modes and, yes, you are going to need them, even in Adventurer mode! As the book itself was only finally published in 2006 its internal art was more contemporary than the older Puffin material and there was little need to change it so all Tin Man did was colourise Tony Hough’s generally excellent art. You do get the choice to switch back to black-and-white again if you want to and both modes are equally good, although I do not like TH’s people (as I have said in my review of the book itself) and colourising some plates, in particular Cinnabar himself, has made certain characters look totally unthreatening. The flip-side of this of course is that the more frightening images from the book are made to look even more unsettling in colour so there are as many pluses as there are minuses with the colourisation. JG’s gamebooks often involve a lot of combats with adjustors to factor in so Tin Man’s self-sufficient dice mechanics are a great help here and allow you to concentrate on the richness of the plot and the variety and pace of the adventure, rather than on number-crunching, which is always a good thing. Needless to say, Achievements are back as is standard for Tin Man apps and the usual enjoyable mix of situations that you have to get yourself into to unlock them is as should be expected by now.

Bloodbones, as we know, was to be the original Puffin series’ swansong. Things didn’t quite pan-out as planned and we had to wait years for the book to finally surface in print. That Tin Man chose to end its main “conventional” digital FF app series with this one is a wise choice both for this reason, but also because it is very very good.

I have played Tin Man’s non-FF apps as well as their FF ones and I have never been disappointed by how they are designed and programmed. Tin Man puts huge effort into its gamebooks and the results are always of exceptional quality. My only real gripe with this eight-app series is the rather uneven choice of source material but the balance between horror, Sci-Fi, and traditional fantasy is very effective and gives a good overview of FF as a whole. The Achievements concept adds much more than just winning to the playing experience and Tin Man have put their own unique (and often improving) stamp on the books that they have made fundamental visual changes to. All the apps remain faithful to the original books and all are worthy additions to the FF world as well as translating the FF gamebook form into a 21st Century medium. Get them all, even if you don’t especially like some of the source books, just get these apps as the visuals and mechanics alone make these all winners.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

#7: Island Of The Lizard King


Ian Livingstone

Reviewed by Mark Lain
Following IL’s two masterpieces (#5 City of Thieves and #6 Deathtrap Dungeon) was an unenviable task and, unless book 7 in Puffin’s original series was the absolute greatest gamebook ever written, it was unlikely to be viewed in the same glowing terms as its two predecessors. Both of those books were very hard acts to follow and it would have been an impressive achievement if IL had pulled-off a third consecutive coup, so just what did he follow it with?
As most FF fans know, this is the third part of a loose trilogy that began with CoT, then saw you leaving Port Blacksand to enter the Trial Of Champions in Fang (Deathtrap Dungeon) and this third book begins with some nice plot extemporisation where you head away from Fang and decide to stop-off at the relatively hidden away Oyster Bay for some R&R with your old adventuring friend Mungo. On arrival in Oyster Bay, everyone seems depressed and tetchy and it soon becomes apparent that the secluded bay village is being attacked daily by Lizard Men from nearby Fire Island who are kidnapping all the menfolk to work as slaves in the island’s gold mines. Overseeing all of this is an uber-baddie, the titular Lizard King. Mungo decides he is off to Fire Island to save the day and you inevitably agree to go along and help. Thus we have the plot – a mercy mission to save everyone from slavery and kill off the root cause of the problem. Hardly original for FF, but this was only book 7 and the series was still in its infancy. In fact, this was the last of the Puffins that was initially printed with the star covers (and a red spine, in this case) before all the spines became the now iconic uniform green.
This is the first medieval FF that goes with a human interest central motif, rather than personal greed (WOFM, DD), assassination only (CoT, CoC), or heroic fame (FoD) and is the first where your character doesn’t seem driven by self-aggrandisement of some form. Instead, you are essentially just trying to help a friend and when, like all IL sidekicks, he dies almost immediately after the adventure starts, your mission becomes all the more personal. This is quite an interesting idea so early in the series and it does make this feel a little more like you are doing something rather more worthy than simple treasure-hunting or just murdering a villain. An interesting juxtaposition of characterisation comes in paragraph 1 when Mungo tells you that his father died trying to complete the Trial of Champions, something you have just arrived in Oyster Bay having successfully survived and won.
The adventure itself comes in three main acts: jungle/river/hills, the slave mines, and finally a mountain trek to the Lizard King’s fort (via a Shaman.) This is interesting too if put alongside the previous two books as the three together represent the three fundamental RPG environments - CoT was urban, DD a dungeon trawl, and IotLK is pretty much everything else (beech, jungle, river, cave, mountain pass, castle) – which is a clever meta idea by IL. On initially landing on the island, you can take one of two paths across the beech which essentially offer two different ways of killing Mungo (death by Giant Crab or death by pirate band) but there is at least a little bit of replay variety here. Either way, Mungo gets it and you head off alone into a rather primeval jungle full of carnivorous plant life, primitive humans, and big insects/reptiles/amphibians to contend with. Following this, comes a raft ride to the mines which are rather brief and I assumed they would be much bigger and more labyrinthine for some reason. Presumably they just haven’t been open for long? Next comes a mountain pass meander riddled with prehistoric encounters, the central purpose of which is to find a Shaman that an Elf you liberated tells you about in the belief that he will give you something essential to help kill the Lizard King, then you enter the LK’s stronghold and face your final challenge. One thing that strikes you after a few playthroughs (and mapping it out) is that this gameboook is extremely linear, even by IL’s standards. So linear, in fact, that the few path digressions that are offered are only slight diversions that quickly return to the same path and just offer slightly different versions of the same thing (eg: Headhunters vs Pygmies in the jungle, rockfall avoidance vs sliding down in a rockfall in the hills, etc) and you cannot fail to escape the mines as it is not possible to get lost in them. Even more striking is that you can visit every part of the mines in a single playthrough (if you move around it in one particular order) which is very out of character for an IL book. Once you are in the “hunt for the Shaman” section it does not take you long to realise that you have no options of alternate routes (making it impossible to not find the Shaman) and that you will not fail to find the Lizard King’s fort or, in fact, assuming you don’t die, to find the LK himself as there are two paths within his fort, both of which ultimately lead to him. Livingstone FFs are never this easy to navigate and the usual “take one wrong turn and you’ve blown it” Livingstone-ism is all but absent here. Even his ridiculously easy Forest of Doom at least has incorrect paths and an essential item set that you must have to be able to complete it. Which brings me to my next point – IotLK does not demand that you have hundreds of very well-concealed items with which to win. Instead, all the items you can find are a) presented on a plate (especially the monkey which is literally standing on the path in front of you), and b) are helpful, rather than critical, to victory. Granted, if you reach the Lizard King without at least one of a monkey and/or a fire sword, the final fight with him will be very tough (Sk 10 St 15), but it’s far from impossible and you are never lethally penalised for not having a certain item at a critical fail point, as there aren’t any. Yes, there are a few instant deaths, but these are sparingly deployed and even failing Luck tests is more likely to just hurt rather than kill you. Initially, this book may seem like a typically hard-as-nails IL effort as you can die in just three moves at the start, but most instant deaths are for doing obviously suicidal things and this book is far from arbitrary like many FFs are. On the contrary, as IL FFs go, this one is unusually generous and forgiving on the player. There are certainly several tough combats with double-figure Skilled enemies and you have no chance with a Skill yourself that isn’t in double figures, but the book gives you many Skill bonuses and you can quickly regain any points lost by falling foul of the nasties that are strewn about to hinder you. Ditto, Luck. There are many Luck tests, but there are also umpteen Luck bonuses to be found. The only real stat that you could find yourself hemorraging is Stamina and you are likely to consume most of your Provisions pretty quickly if you get into too many combats or fall into too many traps but, even then, a lot of the tough combats (barring the final mountain trek) are only encountered by failing Luck tests or blundering into traps and as long as you don’t catch a tropical disease or get hit by rocks you are unlikely to get really hammered for Stamina loss outside of combat.
All in all, this book is actually very easy to complete and you are unlikely to take more than two or three attempts to beat it, assuming you have a very high Skill score of course, and this is a stark contrast to its two ultra-tough predecessors which relied hugely on the acquisition of loads of essential items, involved a lot of failed playthroughs and mapping to fathom out the very fiendish true paths, demanded that you solve puzzles, and often had opponents that would lethally trick you into losing. The biggest challenge in this book is definitely the catalogue of compulsory and quite tough combats in the final mountain pass trek, although the Shaman’s tests are deceptively challenging. By this I mean that the actual undergoing of the tests is not easy and you must complete three out of six and failing any one means outright failure. However, three are simply stat tests and, assuming you have a high enough Skill and Luck to have even got this far, these become academic. Two do require you to have certain items which could be a fail point but, as we have seen, all items are not hard to come by in this book. The sixth of the tests just involves picking the right choice (out of only two) so you have a 50-50 chance of guessing right making this one very easy. Now, here’s the real problem with the Shaman episode – whether you pass or fail makes no difference to completing the mission as he just gives you some info that you can just as easily guess about when you need to employ it, although if you do know it already, it guarantees a nice warm fuzzy feeling inside when you find the all-important monkey in the road and you will definitely know to take him along with you. So, the Shaman hunt is actually a bit pointless really and, being a key feature of plot, it does leave you feeling a bit short-changed when you realise that it is not as essential to victory as the book had led you to believe.
Further to the over-riding ease of this book, the final showdown with the Lizard King can be un-climactic. Having a monkey and using a fire sword reduces his Skill to a pathetic 6 (Stamina is still 15 though), which, in context, makes him as weak as most Goblins, a shield will give you +1 Skill, and wearing Sog’s Helmet automatically wins you the first Attack Round of any combat, so killing him will not take long. In fact, Sog’s Helmet overall makes even this book’s many tougher combats (especially the successive fights in the mountain pass) somewhat simpler.
So, we’ve made a lot of just how easy and uncharacteristically Livingstone-y this book is in the sense of its design and difficulty level, but that does not make it a bad book. Actually, it’s a very good book with a lot to offer from the outset. The backstory is interesting and compelling and you quickly establish an obvious purpose and motive for playing. It’s all very logical and there are no out of context moments which makes the whole experience feel very coherent and inter-related. Of particular note is the way the book focuses closely on its three main themes: the slave mines, Lizard Men, and the distinctly prehistoric nature of Fire Island when compared to mainland Allansia. Throughout the book you encounter evidence of attempted escapes from the mines, both successful (eg: the man hiding in a tree in the jungle who will furnish you with a particularly unhelpful and vague map of the island that is of no use whatsoever to you) and failed (eg: evidence of someone having been dragged away in the hills whose belongings you can find and actually get a useful clue from this time), all of which really adds depth and a sense of the ongoing nature of the mines as well as the (assumed) connection to the abductions in Oyster Bay. The central concept of Lizard Men is naturally key to the book and, although you don’t encounter any until you start to explore the mines, they play an important repeated villainous role from there on. To add a bit of variety there are even some rarer types including a two-headed version and a mutant one (is having two heads not a mutation, out of interest?) The logically recurring Lizard Men bring to mind the many Orc Guards in WOFM which also deployed its central minions very neatly. The sense of Fire Island being rather less evolved than the mainland comes through in spades and this is maintained very effectively from start to finish, from the primitive humans (Headhunters, Pygmies) and the many carnivorous plants and giant insects in the jungle section right through to the dinosaurs, sabre-toothed tiger and primitive cavewoman of the mountain pass section. It would be hard to talk about the cavewoman without mentioning that she is basically Raquel Welch in One Million Years BC, incidentally, but that is not necessarily a bad thing! On that note, it is worth mentioning Alan Langford’s internal art at this point which has a distinctly primitive sun-drenched feel to it and which suits the primeval nature of the setting perfectly. There is definitely a hint of the Ray Harryhausen to some of its source material, but that just adds to its effectiveness and it’s especially hard to not be reminded of RH in the opening Giant Crab encounter. Langford also does a good job of representing the pathetic and semi-starved appearance of the slaves, and the horrors of the Razorclaw and the Cyclops are superbly illustrated in my opinion, as are the various Lizard Men. If there is one criticism of Langford’s art it would be an echo of an oft-stated problem with the internal image of the Lizard King himself. The actual illustration is not that bad but he does seem a bit effete draped oddly on the battlement. The problem only really comes to the fore when you compare it to Iain McCaig’s colour interpretation on the cover. Most people, myself included, would be of the view that McCaig is one of the best fantasy artists of his generation so any comparison with his work is probably going to be unbalanced, but there are two key points of comparison to make here: 1) his version of the LK is not naked, unlike Langford’s, which makes the latter’s version look a bit unthreatening, and 2) IM’s version is attacking and genuinely looks frightening, whereas AL’s is teasingly looking back at you in a manner that is unsettling for all the wrong reasons! However, it would have made little sense to not include an internal image of your primary target in the book so we just have to make do with what we got and the rest of Langford’s art is perfect for the tone and concept of the book.
Lizard Men came into the FF world as a key protagonist with this book and their subsequent use has always been sparing which I personally think is a good thing. Everybody liked (and was afraid of) Daleks in Doctor Who but they just kept coming back for more constantly and the mystique did kind of wear off after a while. Only two FFs used Lizard Men as their central concept (this book and Marc Gascoigne’s only main series offering, #31 Battleblade Warrior) so their threatening and dangerous presence remains just that. It is interesting to note too that IL gave his self-confessed favourite creature creation, the Shape Changer, another outing in IotLK too, but this time it comes at the end and is much easier to miss but it is nice to see it being used again.
The sheer imagination that has gone into making Fire Island work so well as a coherent environment has also gone into the inclusion of some of my all-time favourite items in FF which, again, have rarely been re-used, if at all: the Pouch of Unlimited Contents is a fantastic idea with (literally) infinite possibilities and the option to trap a Water Elemental in it is genuinely amusing, whilst the initially negative effects of the Ring of Confusion later turn out to also give you the side-effect of being able to see through illusions, which is handy on at least two occasions. The special boots that allow you to walk on vertical plains are fun as is the Potion of Clumsiness, whilst even a spear has multiple points of usage (unusual in FF as the majority of items tend to just serve one specific purpose), assuming you haven’t already thrown it at a previous foe, of course.
IotLK is undeniably the weakest of the trilogy but, if viewed on its own and without the inevitable comparisons that are drawn from both the fact that it is the conclusion of the trilogy and its unsympathetic position in the release schedule, it is actually a very good and original gamebook, thanks in part to its unique setting, but also due to it being light-relief in difficulty terms by comparison with the rest of IL’s output. In some ways, due to its extreme linearity, it could be said to be even easier than Forest of Doom but the fact that the need for high Skill and Luck makes the suggestion that any character, no matter how weak, can win, a lie in this case makes FoD ultimately that little bit easier. Plus you don’t get the chance to go right back to the beginning and try again as was the case with FoD.
When this book was re-released by Wizard, rather than commissioning a completely new cover art concept a revised version of the original Puffin art was created which is unusually sympathetic to the book (and respectful to the original cover) by Wizard’s standards. If anything, Wizard’s cover makes the Lizard King seem all the more threatening and you do get more of an impression that he is a potentially aggressive and dangerous adversary plus his fire sword glows which is how I always imagined it. It’s just a shame that Wizard completely destroyed the flow of the intended trilogy by releasing the books out of order. In Series 1 Deathtrap Dungeon became #3, City of Thieves remained as #5, whilst IotLK was held back until finally appearing as #17, whilst Series 2 kept DD as #3, but moved CoT to #6 and didn’t bother re-printing IotLK at all the second time around. Wizard Series 1 therefore inadvertently allowed IotLK to be viewed more on its own which removed the inevitable comparison with the other two books that the Puffin series order causes. However, it does mean that the neat plot-linking introductions and the meta RPG environment exercise were rendered meaningless, which is a pity.
I like this book as it makes a pleasant change to be able to realistically beat an IL gamebook so easily and without endless mapping and failing at various critical stages. Yes, you do need a strong character but there needs to be some element of challenge and that is primarily where it lies here. It does not take long to explore everything on offer and the scope for repeat plays is limited by this, but the prehistoric overtones and Lizard Man-centric concept are a nice change and there is plenty of unique material to make this one very worthwhile. IotLK has taken a lot of criticism over the years from people who say it is nowhere near as inventive or as challenging as its two forebears but I don’t think that is what IL was aiming for with this offering. Instead we get a plot driven by necessity rather than ego, a very well-planned and unified environment, and an ultimately very satisfying experience.