Friday, 5 May 2017

#49: Siege Of Sardath


SIEGE OF SARDATH

Keith P. Phillips

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Three things immediately spring to mind when people mention this book. The first is that it is by an author that no-one has ever heard of, the second is its reputation for being exceptionally difficult to complete, and the third is that the cover suggests it is probably going to be about Elves. But before we discuss these points, I have to say that the title is somewhat misleading given the plot.

When I first played this I genuinely expected a Fangs Of Fury-type book where you have to be involved directly in the titular siege before heading off to try to stop whichever nutter is besieging your home. The latter is kind of true here, but at no point do you get involved in, or even really witness, a siege as such. Instead, you play a ranger who sits on the Council of the town of Grimmund in the hitherto unexplored far north-east of Allansia. Next to Grimmund is the massive Forest Of Night which has been taken over by a dark unpleasantness making it unpassable. At the far side of the forest is the much larger city of Sardath (which is built on stilts in the centre of a lake) that has consequently been rendered inaccessible. The rest of the Council are blaming all the spiders that inhabit the forest and want to launch a pre-emptive strike but YOU, in your capacity as the eco-friendly voice of reason (ie an experienced ranger), think there could be something else amiss and you volunteer to head off into the forest to sort everything out. In the midst of the debate another ranger type appears and instantly wreaks mayhem when it turns out that he is actually that ranger’s evil doppelganger from a mysterious species known simply as “Black Flyers” (that look very like mutated Dark Elves with wings, which it transpires, is what they are). Once he has (or maybe even hasn’t) been dealt with you head off on your mission which divides roughly into three main Acts: the forest itself (which can be partially negotiated by river if you wish), the Freezeblood Mountains, and finally the underground lair of the Dark Elf baddies.

To drive home the fact that your character is a talented ranger, several of the FF staples have been modified in this book. Bundles Of Herbs (you start with just 5) act as a Provision substitute (and you can pick more along the way to get more Provisions/Herbs) and you carry a bow as well as a dwarf-forged sword. In certain combat situations you have the option to fire arrows (appropriate distances pending, naturally) to do instant damage pre-combat, although you only start with 6 arrows and extras are in short supply so you need to use this feature sparingly. You also begin with a generous 15 Gold Pieces (which proves less generous when you soon meet a trader who charges quite a lot for his wares) and a council signet ring which acts as a diplomatic passport of sorts (although not very often). The matching of kit to characterisation is done very well in this book and you are steeped in character from the outset. This is not a “learn who you are” gamebook, instead it’s a “we expect you to know who you are” outing and, as you are unlikely to realistically achieve this in initial playthroughs, the book does throw the occasional awkward-seeming compulsive reaction at you eg: a moment where you are forced to thump someone because, and I quote, “his scornful tone upsets your natural sense of honour and fairness”. Less “YOU are the Hero” then, maybe, and more “YOU are on a steep learning curve to be the Hero that the book has predesigned for YOU”? But this is a minor criticism of a dense logical plot that is full of surprises to discover and, by all accounts, as you will have to play it many many times to come anywhere close to winning, you will soon get the hang of what being an “experienced ranger” is all about!

And now we inevitably come to the subject of the difficulty level of this book which is, quite frankly, off the scale. But this book is made very hard for slightly different reasons to the handful of other mega-difficult FF books. Many factors are at play here to conspire against you but, oddly enough, they all seem to work well rather than being a depressing catalogue of annoyances and this must be down to the fact that, as medieval “trek about the place” gamebooks go, this one is more intelligent than usual and is intellectually very demanding on the player, rather than just relying primarily on unbalanced dice-based decision points like many FFs do and/or on a huge shopping list of essential items. Yes, there are several items you must find, but the emphasis is placed firmly on a lot of incidental factual detail that must be extracted from the text, much of which is either mentioned in passing or that is rendered somewhat unobvious. I realise that this also is far from unusual, but it is the way the detail is presented here which really makes this book stand out as being particularly high-brow. The conundrum that really epitomises this is a puzzle that you come across very early on: six squares are drawn with a pattern on them and you must fathom out what the hidden message is within it by piecing the parts together. The actual solution almost certainly requires you to copy the page, cut it up, and then join the pieces back together correctly into what turns out to be a cube. Assuming you can even manage to do this much, from this you are then supposed to decipher a message which is the letters “IST”. The text tells you to find a hidden section using this info which you almost certainly won’t be able to do as the section is not the usual “letter of the alphabet equals a number” FF trick but is, instead, the closest numbers visually to these letters. “I” is obviously “1” and “S” is “5” but what number looks like “T”? Er, none of them. The answer is rather tenuously “7”. We are in a whole new world of pain with this one then. If this one puzzle alone is not enough to melt your brain, it will soon dawn on you that everything of any importance to completing this book is riddled, varying from some admittedly easy (if you know the language of FF trickery) stuff, through some bits that require a bit of lateral thinking in line with picking detail from the text, right up to a few moments (such as the cube puzzle) of genuine obscurity.

Amongst the other mind-bending enigmas to get your head round are: using the seven-coiled snake ring which doubles its coils to become a 14-coiled snake ring which you have to add to the number associated with the Ring of Three Centuries – this is not that hard if you apply a bit of logic but it certainly had me stumped the first few times I tried to work it out plus you need to pay attention to the fact that the snake ring doubles its coils late in the book and you do need to find hidden sections based on BOTH numbers of coils; using the Brain Slayer Amulet which involves you needing to know Roman numerals and, again, its number changes later on to a more complex Roman numeral based on a bit of info you pick up by making a sort of Skype call via a special communing mirror; another Roman numeral hidden more subtly this time in Mystery Potion X which again has to be added to a section number;  at one point you can invoke Itsu (if you’ve cracked the cube puzzle earlier) by multiplying his secret number by 10 but his secret number is rather obscurely the number guardian that he is – again, close reading will reveal this but it could catch you out and the text is rather vague about how to find his number;  then there’s the potion making machine which only works if you can find the instructions of use and you still need to have one of each requisite type of ingredient – so we are in familiar shopping list territory with this but there are four possible combinations (that I can find anyway) and if you have the right parts to be able to attempt any of the four (which all involve matching ingredient numbers to hidden sections, of course) you will discover that one is basically essential, two are useless, and one will kill you on the spot.

All this compulsory code-cracking is in itself very challenging, but that’s not where the ramped-up difficulty ends and it is definitely where the inevitable comparisons with Steve Jackson’s Creature Of Havoc will begin as, in the latter parts, you must look out for phrases in the text which act as subtle prompts to add or subtract numbers from the current section to find the actual intended hidden paragraph. I must admit that, in the post-SJ hidden section trickery world of FF this is rather less of a surprise than it was when it first appeared in SJ’s books and is one of the better-signposted aspects of Siege Of Sardath’s difficulty, but it can scupper you nonetheless especially if you haven’t gleaned the necessary information to even know to look out for these. In a literal lift from Creature Of Havoc there is a secret door to find this way, as well as a key plot moment where you start a Dwarf slave revolt, and a series of prompts when you are disguised as a Dark Elf that will stop you from being killed for being human.

Mercifully though, amidst all of this book’s exceptionally tough hidden paragraph tricks, there are also two that I found extremely easy. There is a magic square that opens another hidden door behind which is an essential part of the optimum potion and I found its numerical puzzle very straightforward, ditto the secret knocking sequence (which is literally just simple addition) that you need to access the final episode. In a similar vein, a very interesting mechanic comes into play in the later stages where you need to develop a basic grasp of the Dark Elf language. This is not too hard as it is laid-on quite thick and only demands that you learn basic one-word interactions which are given as options for once rather than requiring manipulation of words to find hidden sections (well that’s generous, isn’t it!) but it is another feature that will require you to pay attention to the text.

Somewhere between the super-hard and the less mentally strenuous is the book’s subtlest design trick – that of allowing you to choose when to turn to special sections to read something or make use of an item. The best example of this is the page you can find that describes dangerous fungi. Two are discussed and, if you read it early enough, it will make negotiating the Dwarf Mines and the Dark Elf sacrifice cameos much more safe and obvious. I like this level of voluntary interaction and this is helpful to rather than being essential to victory. The flipside of this though is the optional way that the Brain Slayer Amulet works: if you put it on you must reduce your Skill by 2 for as long as you are wearing it which naturally makes combat and Skill tests much harder, but you absolutely must be wearing it before you meet the end baddie for the final showdown so remembering to put it back on this late on may well slip your mind. Ok, you can cheat and pretend you’ve got it on (and no-one will know in the way that a RPG GM would be able to penalise you) but this is so subtle that you would probably miss it and die as a consequence either from Skill-based weakness (this could reduce your Skill to 5) or being pasted for mishandling a key item at the end.

Which brings us neatly to stat considerations. For a notoriously tough gamebook, SoS does not rely much on Luck testing or tough combats. Most opponents are easy to beat and the tougher ones will usually have a high Skill or Stamina offset against the other stat being relatively low. Add to this the fact that your puzzle-cube-exposed sidekick Istu will fight a certain number of combats for you before it gets sent back to the Demonic Plain and you get a book that does not demand that you have superhuman Stamina or Luck scores. That said, there are a lot of Skill tests to contend with so a high Skill is useful (especially if you forget to take the Brain Slayer Amulet off) but it is possible to get a +1 Initial Skill boost (up to a maximum of 12) so even that is generous stat-wise. Furthermore, there are several opportunities to increase all three of your stats and Stamina in particular is not too hard to maintain at a high level so death by Stamina loss is fairly unlikely. This is a relief as losing by not having or fathoming out essential info almost certainly will finish you off sooner or later! Similarly, it is possible to find an item which makes you extra-strong when fighting Dark Elves or Black Flyers (which there are a lot of as the story unfolds) and deals them 3 rather than 2 points of Stamina damage in combat, although it only lasts for four battles. On top of that, another item will allow you to automatically pass any Luck tests that you will need to do in the Dark Elf underground city. This is very useful as failing any of these tests result in instant death. In brief then, this is one of the rare FFs where you really can hope to win with rubbish starting stats although this gesture is all but eliminated by the fundamental solution to the book which is based around the sheer number of puzzles that you need to solve.

So, this is a book crawling with hidden secrets, but the factors contributing to its extreme difficulty level do not begin and end with this. You are in a race against time and the Adventure Sheet has boxes representing each day of an Allansian week. With this we get some nice lore exploitation as the days are named in line with Titan – The Fighting Fantasy World’s model and as you progress through the book each new day requires you to tick off the next day of the week. From roughly the half-way point you will be prompted occasionally to check what day it is. If it is the last day of the week you have run out of time, the Dark Elves/Black Flyers have over-run the region and you have failed. In other words, you cannot waste time by bumbling around all over the place and finding the swiftest route through (that involves visiting all the necessary places and people to get all the items and info that you cannot win without) is essential to victory. The introduction tells you that trial and error should be avoided and that instead you should use good thinking. This interlinks neatly with the demands of characterisation that the book puts on you, but the only realistic way you can achieve this is through a lot of replaying and mapping and you can only work out what is a good or bad choice by trying it. Again, this means you are going to lose a lot of times.

In addition to the puzzles and time limit factors, there are a further two features which are designed to hinder and/or kill you. The Dark Elf underground city is laid out as an MC Escher-style maze with impossibly-connected passages, stairways and doors that all deceive the eye. Apparently this is because Dark Elf architecture is designed to induce madness and this is why you must test your Luck to avoid blundering off an edge of it due to sheer confusion. This is a nice bit of plot extemporisation but it does make for an intensely frustrating part of the book as you loop about and double-back on yourself in a bid to get through it in one piece. Considerably more irritating than this though, is the final confrontation with the villain of the piece which immediately follows the disorientating city. 
For a book that is so intricately and cleverly designed, the “climax” is a huge disappointment. On the one hand, it does not use the usual fallback ending of a stupidly hard combat that is weighted heavily against you, but instead it involves a dialogue with the end baddie. What’s wrong with that, you may ask. Well, the solution to this conversational showdown is little more than you guessing which options to choose. Guess right and you get another option. This happens several times. Guess any of these options wrong at any point and you are dead. You do need to try to bluff him, which is admittedly a neat touch, but you don’t really know what you are doing and repeatedly dying just by guessing wrong really does ruin the ending especially as, given what you have gone through mentally to get this far, you deserve a better denouement and you really should have been allowed to win by this point.

As a parallel to the annoying ending, it is also possible to lose as soon as you begin. If you can’t apprehend the doppelganger ranger who tries to disrupt the Council meeting at the start you can get carried off by him and deposited at a mid-point in the forest from where, as you have already missed key items and info, you cannot possibly win. I don’t like it when gamebooks make you lose from the outset but, that said, this outcome is far less likely than you managing to deal with the doppelganger so this is not quite as annoying as it could have been, even though it highlights the fact that not visiting any one of the key places or NPCs will lead to certain failure. In other words, this one is very linear overall, although there is replay value in the fact that there is so much to explore, as one thing this book does have is variety.

A well-designed gamebook should have a varied selection of locations and incidents and this one offers this in spades with every encounter offering something different to what has preceded it. This is anything but a one-note effort and particular highlights for me are exploring Corianthus’ castle where everything is giant-sized and you keep being reminded of this, meeting the amphibious Slykk, and helping the Dwarves in their war against the Toa-Suo which, it turns out, are what the big baddie uses to wreak havoc during the day as the Black Flyers are sensitive to daylight. This is excellent depth of lore and it does not stop there because dwarves live in mountain mines, dwarves and elves use different languages and, in a Tolkien-esque touch, there are multiple names for things and places which are stated in both Elven and Dwarven languages. Very intelligent stuff. There is an amusing moment when you can meet the rather irrational goddess Thyra Migurn who creates storms to antagonise the Dwarves because she disapproves of them mining the mountains and there are even a few almost Cthulhu-influenced moments with horrific monstrosities such as the Xanthic Horror. There is one let-down as regards cameos though and that is that you cannot actually reach Sardath itself. There are plenty of opportunities to head for it, but the lake surrounding it has become very dangerous due to recent events and you can only get part of the way across before you have to turn back. I would have liked to have known about the city that the book takes its title from but, at the same time, this does make Sardath somewhat enigmatic which is not a bad thing. The various races create a well-designed system of interaction and the rarely explored world of north-east Allansia really comes to life. There is an unusual depth to the species detail at times especially with the three distinct types of spiders that are blighting the Forest Of Night and we get vivid descriptions of their behaviour which, logically, directly affects their motives towards you and their level of dangerousness. Elves get decent coverage too as the forest’s Wood Elves behave very differently to the evil Dark Elves which, in turn, have minor differences to their mutated version (Black Flyers). Equally, herblore comes to the fore as your ranger skills allow you to identify potential sources of food and healing and can also help you to contend with certain plants. Furthermore, the local lore can directly aid or hinder your progress (see comments on the fungus book page above). Linked into the concept of local lore and your ranger talents of course is the focus in this book on observation and close reading rather than brute force (the lack of an end baddie combat in favour of a war of words highlights this), so this all ties together very effectively.

Indeed, this is a very well-written book and you do get the feeling that Phillips was aiming for something (intellectually, at least) a cut above the usual FF fare. In this sense it brings to mind a series such as Blood Sword which is very demanding on the reader both in design and in vocabulary terms. The words used in SoS are far from complex but this book just reads much more elegantly than the FF norm. A curiosity in how this book is written though becomes quickly apparent in the way that you will sometimes be given an option early in a paragraph. If you don’t want to pick this you can read on but you will find yourself reading on anyway and, in doing so, you then find out what happens if you don’t choose the first option. This gives you a weird second sight which can be a bit confusing. It would have been better to put this in another section even if this resulted in exceeding 400 paragraphs. There are also a few inconsistencies between the text and the art where the illustrations contradict what the corresponding section tells you. This is particularly noticeable when you meet the Wood Elves and you are told that your Elf friend has a scar over his right eye. In the image the scar is over his left eye. Is this an error or a clue that you are in fact talking to his evil doppelganger? Likewise, in the Dark Elf city we are told that part of it is under construction yet this is nowhere to be seen in the illustration which shows what appears to be a completed area. That aside though, the internal art is generally pretty effective although it seems a little lacking to me, but I can’t quite put my finger on why - perhaps the depth of the text exposes this more than was intended? This is not a big issue though and does not take anything away from the book as a whole. The cover art, however, is largely uninteresting and, other than telling us that Elves might come into the equation, could not be much further from reflecting the book’s contents.

At this point, I have to mention two moments that really jar with me. One is a literal error in that section 171 (in first printings at least, which my copy is) is inaccessible, although this was apparently fixed in subsequent printings. It is not a massive mistake, but it can mean that you get sent in the wrong direction if you handle the Slime Mould encounter in the forest in a particular way. The second bothers me much more and that is the key moment when you find an eagle in the mountains. You need to be carried by it to Corianthus’ castle and the text asks you to write down what you choose to do to show it that you are friendly. Are you really going to think of something as abstract as “Hold up the Brass Key”? Oh yeah, because eagles are known to take brass keys as a gesture of good will, aren’t they? This is so obscure as to be the sort of ludicrous command that you used to have to type into classic text adventures! Yet another thing that evidences just how indescribably hard this book really is.


So then, SoS has a wholly deserved reputation for being very difficult and it is one of the hardest gamebooks in the FF series, but not for the conventional reasons that we normally associate with tough gamebooks. For this, Phillips must be applauded as he has taken hidden section elements from Steve Jackson’s harder books, mixed in a bit of Keith Martin maths trickery, added some Ian Livingstone shopping lists and obscure enigmas, and made the mixture his own by taking it all to the next level and creating something very cerebral that will tax even the most adept at seeing through gamebook tricks and traps. Moving the emphasis away from hard combats and onto seriously challenging puzzles makes for a very original book that is memorable for its combination of lore, exciting pacing, varied events, and excellent prose. It is certainly not perfect as the true path involves solving some stuff that is a bridge too far for anyone that isn’t some sort of super-genius but, once you’ve given up (which is likely) and read the solution you cannot help but be impressed by its intricacies and how brilliantly designed this book really is. The desire to win will keep you thinking and encourage replay and this is a book that, thanks to its many qualities, deserves to be explored and unravelled thoroughly. SoS cannot be put in the ranks of the very best FFs because its solution is so obscure that I can’t believe many people have beaten it without cheating, but it is certainly well above average and is outstandingly well-written. If you want a real brain-teaser but can’t face the extremities of Casket Of Souls then this is the gamebook for you. Plus, if this is representative of what Phillips is capable of gamebook-wise, then it's a real shame that he did not write any others for the series.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Lloyd of Gamebooks April A to Z 2017...

If you fancy reading a short interview with Yours Truly, follow this link to the excellent Lloyd Of Gamebooks blog:

Click Here!

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

#39: Fangs Of Fury


FANGS OF FURY

Luke Sharp

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Luke Sharp’s final FF book to date is the third in a trilogy linked by being set in the same general south-western Khul location and by the wizard Astragal, a man who seems to spend a huge amount of his time saving the local area from destruction. This time you begin in the citadel of Zamarra having just volunteered to save the region from an evil alliance of the luridly-named Ostragoth the Grim and his insane wizard side-kick Jaxartes. Zamarra is under siege and, normally, the citadel is protected by six Stone Sentinels who guard it with their fiery breath. The flame itself originates from the titular Fangs Of Fury (a volcano) but it has been extinguished leaving the citadel defenceless. Your mission is to break through the siege somehow, get yourself to the mountains where the Fangs Of Fury are, relight the flame using a special torch that Astragal has given you, and thusly allow Zamarra to avoid falling to Ostragoth’s hordes. To make things that little bit more tricky (and to ensure that you don’t simply just run off) you are fitted with a bracelet that glows every time one of the citadel’s fourteen walls is breached – once the last wall has fallen the bracelet will kill you. So, perhaps volunteering for this task was not the wisest move then!

The premise of this book has distinct echoes of LS’ previous two Khul-based FFs (#30 Chasms Of Malice and #35 Daggers Of Darkness) with its combination of seemingly lost cause and race against time, but this time the plot is bordering on being slightly silly. OK, volunteering for a mercy mission is classic gamebook fodder and the bracelet/walls mechanic gives you a sense of urgency and regularly reiterates your purpose, but if you begin to think about the concept too much it becomes rather far-fetched. The most obvious question is why is the volcano so far away from the Stone Sentinels and how the hell does the flame get all the way down to the citadel from it? But there is another odd element to the (admittedly dense) premise too. Your main allies are a religious group called the Wazarri and you need to find them and get their help to complete the mission. For reasons that are never made clear, their symbol is a cube (more on this later) and they cannot mention the religion’s name or else they will die within seven days - is that not just hugely impractical for followers? You do have to wonder whether the depth of the material here is by design or because LS has just randomly written a load of ideas on bits of paper, thrown them all up in the air, and used whatever landed face up. Yes, there’s plenty here to build an interesting world, but it makes very little real sense all mixed together into this particular concoction.

Whatever you might make of the basic ideas here, there is no doubt that a lot of effort has gone into at least making sure you know exactly what it is you are trying to achieve and constantly reinforcing this. You could be forgiven for initially being a bit confused as the rules tell you that you have 4 Black Cubes, can collect various types of jewels, and explains the citadel wall mechanic, all before you read the six pages of background spiel, but the introduction leaves you knowing exactly what the deal is which is a relief as otherwise this could have become incomprehensible before you’d even turned to section 1. What then follows (the adventure proper) involves you escaping the siege, then making your way (via various helpers and hinderers) to the volcano itself to reignite the flame, whilst en route you must also avoid being captured (you become increasingly wanted as the mission progresses) and kill Jaxartes. For some reason, Ostragoth never comes into the equation, but your real purpose is lighting the flame so I can just about accept this one loose end. Key to your success is the acquisition of as many Black and White Cubes as possible. Black Cubes make you impervious to fire (handy in a volcano) and White Cubes seem to be a sort of mystical indication of how enlightened you have become. Obviously then, Black Cubes will stop you from dying, but the less obvious White Cubes actually serve to determine how tricky or not your path through the Fangs Of Fury themselves will be at the end.

So there are three primary functions at work here: 1) do not allow the citadel to fall (or you will die); 2) protect yourself from fire with Black Cubes (or you will die); 3) make the end as easy as possible for yourself by achieving inner knowledge (or whatever) through White Cubes (or you could well die). Summarised like this, it seems that this is going to be yet another heavily-stacked-against-you gamebook but, curiously, that is not the case and, if anything, Fangs Of Fury is one of the easiest books in the entire FF series to complete. Black Cubes are in such abundance that you will almost never die by burning. White Cubes actually make the black ones seem scarce as, due to how they are found, they are literally everywhere that has an accompanying illustration once you pass the point where they are explained to you. And, it seems to be effectively impossible to manage to get all fourteen walls destroyed, so the bracelet is realistically never going to kill you, even if you take an unnecessarily long-winded routed. These three elements alone would make this very easy as they are the central maguffins of the book. But the book’s method of going easy on you does not end there. Most fights are very easy and, at the very least, involve low-Skill foes – even Jazartes only has a Skill of 10 – and there are no fights at all with more than one simultaneously-attacking opponent. There are a huge number of ways to regain Stamina and many of these are disproportionately generous (often 4 or 6 points are awarded) which, when joined to the fact that you get the requisite 10 Provisions and the usual choice of three Potions at the start, makes failure by Stamina loss quite unlikely. Skill and Luck boosts can also be found, along with the occasional bonus that even lets you exceed Initial scores. Plus, there is no true path and there are umpteen ways of getting through which are made all the easier by having several substitute options if you should be missing certain items or knowledge at key critical moments that, in any other book, would be win or lose situations. Granted, Sharp cannot resist several instant deaths by failing Luck tests (and a high Luck is very useful, but not a prerequisite, to success) and his trick of having you roll dice to establish a layout of a trap or a length of something to be negotiated, then have you counter-roll against these to determine success or failure, is back again, but this is about all the challenge that this book really presents. Indeed, I only count seven instant death sections that can be reached by misadventure, which is very low by any FF’s standards.

So then, all the elements of this book that should present you with obstacles to success negate themselves by presenting just about everything on a plate. However, there is something very important that needs to be said at this point and that is the methods by which the book presents these to you. Firstly, there is the White Cube hunt. Never have I known a FF book (and that statement includes Keith Martin and Jonathan Green’s FFs that occasionally employ the mechanic) that relies so heavily on the reader’s observation in finding clues hidden in the internal art and this is a feature of this book that I cannot praise enough. To find White Cubes you must scrutinise every illustration for sets of White Cubes that are strung together. If you see some, you roll a dice and get that many cubes. Yes, they are everywhere and there are very few pictures without them but some are quite cunningly hidden (one has them in two sections, the string having broken) and you do have to be far more observant here than in any other FF book. In fact, this idea is much closer to those used in Fantasy Questbooks and it really makes this outing feel unique in its execution. Similarly, the Wazarri use a written pictogram language that, if you decode it, helps you avoid traps in the later stages of the book. For me this does not work anything like as well as the White Cube gimmick as it involves flicking back and forth between the picture that explains the characters and wherever you are whilst you try to match the sometimes unclear pictograms to their solutions. Furthermore, if you do take the time to decipher them, they all make the book even easier so this is a mixed blessing really, plus they are basically just semaphore so can hardly be called original. That said though, it does add another layer to the puzzle-cracking features of this book and it does give you something to focus on in a later playthrough. Less obvious (as you can only find it once) is the solution to a frankly annoying maze that you must get through to access the Fangs by a particular route (although even this is avoidable). The map to the maze is in an earlier illustration and shows the locations of the six objects you need to operate the door mechanism that opens into the Fangs. Without the map (and some pictographic prompts) the maze quickly grows exasperating and I have to say that, once you find the numerical code, the paragraph you are sent to does not make it entirely clear that you have got it right. This would have been a very tricky section to negotiate but even this is reduced to being fairly straightforward.

On the subject of the maze, there are only two parts of this book that detract from what is otherwise a very interesting and imaginative collection of locations and encounters. The maze we have covered. The other more problematic part is the initial siege, which seems to go on forever. On the one hand, this is a good thing as it should not be simple trying to break through a siege unscathed. However, there are so many different interconnected ways out (pretend to join the opposing army, steal a horse, defect in a boat, etc) and they go on for so long that I have to admit to having lost interest in this book several times in initial playthroughs as I just couldn’t seem to find an end to running about all over the place in a bid to escape the siege. I must have played it half a dozen times before I found the staying power to get beyond this stage which is a shame as most of the remainder of this book is great. Paragraph 207 even has a wry nod to the length of this part when it says “You are amazed at the difficulty you are having getting away from the siege”. You’re not kidding Luke! Although “difficulty” is not the right word as the siege is not hard to escape, it just takes ages and is not especially exciting. Get past this though and the rest of the book is well worth the effort mixing perils (eg: you keep finding your face on “Wanted” posters), humourous asides (eg: a giant who is looking for “Djack” and keeps saying “Fee-fi-fo-fum” and an Elf festival called the Feast Of Bradyliam ie Liam Brady, so Sharp is an Arsenal fan, right?), intelligent moments of mysticism (eg: Wazarri encounters and a focus on finding “The True Way”, not that there is one in this book lol) and your gradual building-up of information to help you reach the end (made all the more involving through the sheer number of visual puzzles). There is a lot going on here and, whilst not all of it seems to mesh, the fundamental concept stays very much to the fore throughout and you never feel that you are anything but focussed on your singular goal.

The sheer variety of interesting material, along with the fact that just about any path you take can potentially still result in victory makes this book eminently replayable. Its ease means that it is not soul-destroying as you never feel that you are vainly trying to win (like so many gamebooks can be) but its non-linearity makes it a book that you can go back to over and over again as you try to find everything on offer and some cameos (especially the Elf trial that wins you the fun-packed elfwings) are very fiendishly hidden. It is even possible to lose your all-important torch and have to go on a side-quest to explore the Dragonmen’s caves in a bid to amass a huge amount of treasure to get enough money to buy back the torch for 500 gold coins. Indeed, once fully mapped-out this book is huge and not one paragraph is wasted. There are even aside paths where several choices are given, but certain options lead to extra perils before returning you back to where you would otherwise have gone.

If I do have a sight criticism of this book that would be LS’ off-hand prose style, which is a problem with all his books, and his sentence structure can be overly curt and to the point. Consequentially, some key moments leave you wanting for detail, the all-important flame in particular, which has no description or image, even when you are right in front of it. Given how much of the book relies on the art it would have been useful to have a bit more extemporisation of this key moment. That said, this book demonstrates none of LS’ usual excesses that make his books so frustrating and, whilst Daggers Of Darkness is his most impressive as it seems tighter and makes more sense, Fangs Of Fury is definitely his easiest, most accessible and most enjoyable gamebook (what can’t be fun about using flaming wand swords?), and this is a million miles away from the awkward humour/satire of Star Strider and the utterly awful boring unfairness of Chasms Of Malice.

As an aside, there is one very odd moment that seems to be an error when paragraph 5 has you fight your own exact replica with the same stats as yourself. This can be a tough fight if you are strong but it is balanced by definition as neither side has any advantage at all. The problem comes if you die as you are given choices of sections to turn to whether you win or lose rather than just ending your adventure by dying. Should this section not specify that any damage taken in this fight is illusory in that case, as you do not get resurrected afterwards if you “die”? Odd.

Sharp’s three medieval FFs are all set in a region of Khul that no other FF author has ever used and the locations have a unique feel about them with their mixture of slightly Eastern tropes and region-restricted creatures that cross-populate his books such as the ubiquitous Griphawks and Fangtigers. Indeed, one image/moment in this book even has someone riding a Fangtiger, mirroring the cover and incident from the previous Daggers Of Darkness. Ditto, Garks make a welcome return again here. There are also some unique creatures in this book which add variety rather than just re-treading the same old territory and the stand-outs are the treasure-coveting Dragonmen (Black Cubes are handy here, needless to say). I always like to see coherent inter-linking between FFs and this is definitely one of Sharp’s big strengths. There is even a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment where a Death-Spell Dagger turns up!

The final section is worth its own mention and the end “showdown” is very unusually handled. The Fangs have seven different possible entry Levels and where you enter depends on how enlightened you are (ie how many White Cubes you have found). The lower the Level of entry, the more dangerous the path and Level 1 is particularly long and dangerous, although Level 3 can lead to an almost as long route if you take a wrong turn. Naturally, seven different entry points adds another seven different alternative routes to an adventure that has already offered a plethora of different paths just to get to the volcano itself. This means yet more replayability, of course. Similarly, there is no end baddie battle to have to deal with (normally at a stage where you will be very weak) and literally all you have to do is relight the flame and you will win. Yes, this is easy, but something other than an insanely hard end fight makes a nice change in an FF book.

The internal art in this book is David Gallagher’s first outing as an interior artist (although he had drawn a few FF covers previously). Obviously, as the art is so central to the book’s concept and solutions you would anticipate something rather elaborate, but, oddly, Gallagher’s art here rarely rises above being workmanlike and functional. Thankfully, this does not affect the importance that the art plays here, but it mostly seems a bit insipid and lacking in depth and, particularly, any backgrounds. Likewise his dingy cover illustration does not inspire you to want to pick this book up which is a shame as the contents are well worth discovering.

Fangs Of Fury is a book that I really like. It is very enjoyable and, whilst very easy, its huge amount of replayability and diversity makes it worth the effort to play over and over, assuming you have the patience to not give up during the overlong siege. Your characterisation is well thought-out and, whilst you are certainly not useless, you definitely know the value of acquiring knowledge and help as much as possible and for once you are not the best of the best this time around. This is one of the few series entries where low stats are unlikely to make much difference to your chances of winning and it is very fair on the player. The huge game map adds to the value even if the bizarre plot premise might leave you scratching your head as you try to rationalise it. In summary, this is no masterpiece (only one of the books in the 30s, Vault Of The Vampire, could ever be said to be such), but it is certainly a lot of fun and is a real pleasure to play.

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
  • The KNIGHTMARE 25TH ANNIVERSARY documentary
  • 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


YOU ARE THE HERO

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







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.