Thursday, 31 December 2020

Short Stories

Short Fiction

Various Authors

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Let’s put some clarity on this subject from the outset. Warlock magazine and Fighting Fantazine have sporadically included short stories and comic books during their runs and I think these should be regarded as relevant for discussion. To keep some structure to the scope of this post, I am including short story material that was featured in either publication (be it directly or indirectly linked to the FF canon) and serious-toned comic strips only (ie the comedy strips are excluded, that is Arkenor And Max and Derek The Troll, other than to acknowledge right now that they are both genuinely funny), but that still gives a decent amount of material to discover.

Let’s begin with Aida Rintarou’s The Book In Which You Are The Hero, only two parts of which have been published and even then in rather scattershod fashion in Fighting Fantazine Issues 4 and 8, which meant the two instalments appeared with a gap of 16 months separating them. Whilst there is very little of this available to us it is worthy of some analysis as there is a lot going on here. The concept is that each FF book is a chronicle, in scroll form, of a “brave person” vanquishing a baddie. The scroll is torn apart and reassembled in randomised numbered section order (get it?) Fast forward to New York in 2020 (shades of Highlander, perhaps) where a combat with swords is in progress: a flashback of one of the characters discovering one of the “torn apart” scrolls and completing it to be rewarded with an item for “[completing] the record of truth”. There is a wry comment in the text that “I was starved for entertainment and became enthralled by the strange book” (weren’t we all) and completing the book actually hides it inside you – a reference to FF being a part of us all, maybe? On absorbing the book and becoming one with it, Zagor’s power source passes into the reader as his cards are the power of the wizard that is inside the book. (This is all very clever stuff). Next the protagonist receives an email from “The Baron” who is described as a “super-famous businessman who had become a billionaire in the IT industry”. Hmm, who could this be then? I’ve suggested before that Baron Sukumvit is Ian Livingstone’s alter-ego and the IT industry businessman moniker certainly fits this particular un-named Baron. The Baron tells the protagonist that they must gather together all 59 books to win a $59 million reward (which, if the current soaring prices are anything to go by will very soon not actually be enough to manage to buy a set of the 59 original Puffins!)  At this point the strip becomes a bit baffling as it explodes into the usual manga muddled confusion with a final page that makes no sense at all to me (and I wish to add a caveat here that no manga or anime has ever really made much sense to me). I think it is something about the protagonist using a non-FF ability, but frankly it is anyone’s guess as to how Part 1 ends. Part 2 recaps the understandable parts of the first Part and tells us that you can manifest the power gained by absorbing each book at will and our lead seems to opt to use this power by giving herself a huge pair of tits (oh manga, you are so mauve lol). So, the end of Part 1 did just about seem to be another absorbing that seemed to be the main character’s life force (I think) and the Highlander comparison is hard to avoid again. And then this Part suddenly ends with the same large-breasted girl again and some Japanese script that may or may not a) be important, and b) shed clarity on whatever is now going on, but I can’t say as I don’t read Japanese.

This story is beautifully drawn in a classic manga style. It suffers from a few bizarre sentences and typos (written by a Japanese person presumably and in what is effectively a fanzine, so we have to forgive these niggles), but this does not make it make less sense than it already does(n’t) anyway. This seems to be FF Highlander in manga form which is an interesting mix of ideas and concepts and the whole idea of each of the 59 books forming a single text that was deliberately disordered is a neat one. The piece is not as intriguing for me as the similarly two-parts-are-all-we-have-to-go-on The Book Of Runes proved to be, but it still deserved to continue and it definitely had the potential, even though it does seem to be defunct given that there were plenty more issues of the ‘zine to appear after its second Part, without any further instalments materialising. Given that the scroll was broken into 59 parts, does that mean that Rintarou intended this to be a 59-part epic? Ambitious if that was the plan, but was that ever really likely to come to fruition? Either way this is lovely to look at and I have to applaud the ‘zine for including something very different to the usual short story submissions that appear in fanzines and reminds us that FF was/is as huge in Japan as it was in Europe.

The aptly-named Out Of The Frying Pan, which was printed in Fighting Fantazine Issue 2, was penned by Ian Brocklehurst who would soon after go on to write the much longer episodic Aelous Raven And The Wrath Of The Sea Witch, also for the ‘zine. Frying Pan is a taut little piece concerning a group of survivors from a Lizard Man attack on their caravan en route to Kaynlish-Ma, who descend into the forest seeking cover but find rather more than that as our hapless group blunder straight into a second ambush from Marsh Goblins. There is a certain gallows humour to this concept and the ironic early comment that “our fortunes are improving” quickly becomes Famous Last Words. It is notable that this short is contemporary with the Siege Of Vymorna (the Lizard Man presence is linked to this), which positions this story as happening at the same time as the events of Battleblade Warrior and it is always good to see fan fiction being legitimised like this by directly connecting it to canon in this way. I cannot avoid mentioning that there are some typos, missing conjunctions, and awkward sentence structure (possibly through missing and/or misplaced punctuation), but this is fan fiction so we cannot expect perfection in what is actually a very well-written story with an epic and dramatic tone and a frenetic pace that really makes you feel the desperation of the characters’ predicament. Even more so, this has to be hailed as a success given just how short it is and how much action is packed into its brevity. The text is punctuated by violent action and the constant dashing of the protagonists’ hopes of safety makes the title wholly suitable. Indeed, this is really quite a graphic and visceral piece with a tone of impending doom and a downbeat ending that neatly subverts the reader’s expectation of things coming out right somehow. The title is perfectly matched to the content, which is basically a series of instadeath situations, which just adds to its feeling of connection with FF as a concept. This story really did deserve better proof-reading but that is a minor criticism of something well worth making the effort to read. On a side note, I’m not sure I would hire the Ranger in this piece for defending me as anyone he meets (including his Bandit friends that he has a rendez-vous with) tends to die horribly!

A similarly perilous trip is described in the otherwise thematically polar Sam, Cars And The Cuckoo by the then unknown but now very famous Australian author Garth Nix. This was designed as a taster for the forthcoming Freeway Fighter, but other than involving tricked-up battle cars and a post-holocaust future (as the intro calls it), this really has no actual link to Freeway Fighter and its world is rather less decimated than in the gamebook, it seems. It does however capture the themes of Freeway Fighter, but in a totally different context. In this version of the future we have people trying to live the normal humdrum 9-5 existence of the office worker, but with the added problem of violent road gangs a la Mad Max. This is a nice juxtaposition of the real and the fantastic. A lovely little inclusion is a reference to collecting breakfast cereal tokens, but here they are redeemed against tactical weaponry! Indeed, there is a certain hilarity to the sheer amount of arming and kitting-up that the office worker of the piece has to do before commuting home in the evening, and there is also a comment about “the lunatic majority” in a reversal of the general idea of a barmy minority that would screw everything up if they were in great enough numbers. All very satirical. The cars are also very luridly named, which adds to the whole concept of the casual death and destruction that is a necessary part of your daily drive to work.

A really hilarious inclusion is the idea of the AA having wiped out the RAC in a war for supremacy over roadside repair services, and there are lots of ideas that create a viably familiar future, such as the unified car manufacturer Ford-Jaguar (a very accurate prediction of the real mergers of umpteen car manufacturers), BBC Teletext (okay, that one didn’t survive in real life), The Times newspaper, EMI, the Lloyd-Barclay Global Bank, and even the Church Of England. On the subject of The Times and the BBC, there is a wry comment about media sensationalism too for those who notice it: “streets of death… people just call it the road” we are told by the first person narrator. Other potentially very real concepts that are present include the idea of compulsory worship (history repeats itself, as we know) and the way drivers get voided warranty warnings on equipment. Satire abounds in this effort. Rather depressingly, the characters are so focussed on weapons of ever-growing destructiveness that they have to actually think to work out that something as mundane as an actual living bird has hit their car rather than some sort of missile. Even more depressingly, The Times annually reports the first accidental kill of a cuckoo as if it is a major event for celebration – this is a nice parody of disregard for the environment, something that had not really caught on in the public conscience when this story was published. In fact, your promotion prospects are actually enhanced if you get the first cuckoo kill (80s Yuppiedom in full effect and getting lampooned cleverly).

This is essentially the story of the daily gauntlet run by commuters in a post-holocaust future over-run by dangerous gangs. There is a blind acceptance of the situation by the characters and this future is devoid of any sense of humanity (people take photos of near-fatal explosions to sell as posters), yet everyone in this future just goes back to work again on Monday ready to risk life to sit in an office all day. There is so much satire going on in this story that it is quite an achievement that so much has been crammed into so few words. I suspect that this short story gets very little real attention, given that it has no discernible link to FF other than the tenuous Freeway Fighter “themes” and the fact that it got printed in Warlock, but that should not deter people from reading it as it is a really well designed story that is full of clever nods to society and the very real possibility of how the future could turn out in a bizarre clash of mundane normality and utter anarchy.

Linked much more directly to a canon entry is The Dwarves Of Redweed, the backstory to The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain, written by Andrew Jones and printed in Fighting Fantazine Issue 16. This chronicles the eviction by Zagor’s hordes of the dwarves who originally inhabited Firetop Mountain and acts as the background to the Dwarves of Redweed (as they are known), their attack by Gallon Zagor, their ousting of him, and his vow for revenge that manifested itself on Oldoron Zagor’s retaking of Firetop Mountain. Basically, this story is the lore and early history of Firetop Mountain, but it also has more subtle moments for those who like their Easter Eggs including explaining the presence of the gambling dwarves deep within the Maze of Zagor (the games room gets mentioned explicitly), and it ends with the dwarf card game that you can crash in the gamebook. It even goes as far as to tell us the names of said gambling dwarves for those who want to go through the looking glass with their lore. The comment that “to the newcomer, the labyrinth of identical-looking passageways would cause them to become lost after only a few turns” is a nice reference that is surely not lost on those who have attempted to navigate the frankly frustrating Maze of Zagor in WOFM.

Again, this is a short offering but no opportunity is lost in making the most of its low word count and the space available to create a fast-paced and well-written story in an easy to read and non-arch style that gives us some welcome background to one of the iconic locations in the FF world and its equally iconic overlord. Also worthy of mention is that Zagor can apparently walk on water so there is no end to the guy’s talents and apparent omnipotence (card deck and Eye of the Cyclops-related Achilles Heels notwithstanding). I must admit that when I first saw this story as I glanced over the contents of Issue 16 I was worried that this was going to be trite fan fiction that pays endless homage to the source material in a horribly knowing manner, but it is not and it does not – this is a genuinely very good little piece of the ever-growing jigsaw that is the history of Titan.

Not Titan-based, or if it was we never got to the point where we would find out, is Darren Chandler’s The Book Of Runes from Warlock Issues 12 and 13. When I first read this on initial release I was about 10 or 11 and found it baffling, beautiful, and fascinating, all in one. And I still do, in fact, as this really is an enigma. Where would the story have lead? What was it about? Why did everybody want the titular book? Did Chandler even know or was this being written on the fly - as it was never finished and still isn’t, I suspect it may have been written as he went along. I know from talking to him that Chandler did go on to write more of it for his own fanzine work and, having read some of the post-Warlock parts that exist, the story becomes much more ethereal and mystical, but it remains unfinished to this day, so it is anyone’s guess where it would have gone and how it would have ended. Basically, everyone wants the book but the story in Warlock stopped prematurely before it became clear why they wanted it or what it did. But the really striking thing here is the art which is very bold with strong black-white contrasts and is intricately drawn in a very different style to Warlock’s previous comic strips, which were all comedic efforts with rough Viz-style line art.

It seems like this would have been a really good strip and the art is impressive in its depth and energy, plus it is surprisingly violent and the first two parts (ie all that was published) are dominated by killings. I would love to see a completed version of this as it really fascinates me and I just find the art so compelling, in spite of the almost impenetrable story as the clarity that presumably was to come in future instalments never came. In fact, I have always been intrigued by incomplete artistic works (be it music, film, literature, art, etc) as the whole concept of where they could go and what plans the creators had for them are fascinating. As it stands, in its existing published form, The Book Of Runes suffered a premature end before anything really happened plot-wise and does make therefore for a slightly odd read as you go from killing to killing with no context or apparent reasoning, bar the want for the book itself. In many ways, it is probably of more value just admiring Chandler’s fabulous art rather than trying to work out what is going on and then giving yourself a headache trying to come to your own conclusion about what might have happened next. The plot aspect is frustrating and leaves you none-the-wiser but the art is top notch and I am surprised Chandler never got offered work in FF books on the back of this. I have however seen an advert he drew for Adventurer Issue 3 that is similarly elaborate and packed with things to pick out, incidentally.

Which subject of frustratingly incomplete stories where you really do want to know what happens next brings us to Ian Brocklehurst’s Aelous Raven And The Wrath Of The Sea Witch. This is a far longer affair than any other short stories that appeared in either Warlock or Fighting Fantazine, clocking in at eight parts, and even then it is not finished. These instalments appeared sporadically in the ‘zine in Issues 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, 10, 11, and 13. I am slightly irritated that it did not get completed, especially as the ‘zine did not go on hiatus until after the long-delayed Issue 16 emerged, and the lengthy gaps between the later Issues were surely ample time for Brocklehurst to write the last few Chapters. But, be that as it may, this story has yet to be completed, which is a pity as it is really very good and genuinely engrossing. Due to its longer episodic format, this story benefits from being able to cover much more ground and in a more leisurely and broader fashion than the by necessity frantically-paced short subjects that usually appear in magazines of these types. There is a really epic feel to this story and it does take the form effectively of an adventure with it starting in a tavern followed by two boat trips then the real maguffin kicks in as we head away to rescue an abducted young girl from the titular Sea Witch, who it turns out is rather more than just an evil witch. Indeed the real star of the show is not our lead NPC (Aelous Raven) but Delfina Cove, the Sea Witch herself, a fully fleshed-out character with a back story, a motive, and a neat mixture of traits that make the reader both sympathise with and despise her. As baddies go she is very well designed and would perfectly suit a gamebook (which makes sense of course as this is a Titan-set story so it does need to fit with the idiom of FF).

To make this piece all the more satisfying, there are many popular culture references and the concept seems to mix H Rider Haggard’s She with elements of Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth plus a bit of Harryhausen stuff is thrown in too. There is even a reference to Tomb Raider, someone named after a Discworld character (Rincewind), and a Star Wars quotation (“I haven’t gone by that name in a very long time”). Plus the story is very lurid and graphic but in a fun and appropriate way rather than for its own sake.

As with Brocklehurst’s earlier short in the ‘zine, the text is not without its problems and it does suffer from typos and strange grammar in places. In fact, there are times when you need to substitute words of your own to make some sentences read correctly or as they are presumably intended. There is also an annoying tendency for Aelous’ name to be given as Aeolus in the text, in particular when the Sea Witch is addressing him (or does she deliberately keep getting his name wrong?) I also found it slightly grating the way the word “dais” appears a truly ridiculous number of times in Chapter 4 – in fact, I have never seen it used as many times as it is in that instalment!

One plot point worthy of mention is a reference made to a previous adventure of Raven’s where he travelled through teleportation circles in the Moonstone Hills – this is so intriguing that I really want to play that adventure. Hopefully Brocklehurst will write it one day. More to the point, hopefully we will see the conclusion to this story as it is crying out to be completed, even if it means there are still several more parts to come (actually, I hope there are as there is loads of potential here) and I really do want to know how this one pans out or, in fact, just read more of this great adventure story as the position the piece was left in does not seem to me to be that close to the conclusion or, if it is, I hope the ending is not rushed as this would not be in keeping with the rhythm of the story up to this point.

So, an interesting mixture of short story material has appeared in FF’s two primary magazines. We have had violent vaguely FF-connected sci-fi, lore-expanding back stories, death-laden vignettes, complex intellectual comic strips, and a full-on multi-part epic. Some are self-contained, some benefit from familiarity with the inspiration material to gain the most from them (especially The Dwarves Of Redweed), and some were prematurely curtailed before they ever really got going. But what we are left with is an interesting and very readable body of short stories and even the incomplete ones are starting points for our own imaginations to continue or complete the stories as it is unlikely that many of those that are unfinished will be completed now, I would imagine, although I gather Aelous Raven may still get finished one day.


Tuesday, 6 October 2020

#17: Crystal Of Storms



Rhianna Pratchett

Reviewed by Mark Lain

At Fighting Fantasy Fest 3 there was a rather enigmatic announcement made to the effect that Scholastic would be releasing a fourth all-new FF written by another celebrity guest author. After the shambles of a “celebrity” offering that was The Gates Of Death eyebrows were raised as to whether another FF by a non-gamebook author would prove to be a wise move by Scholastic. Further down the line it was revealed that this new author would be Rhianna Pratchett (daughter of the rather more famous Terry), who had already developed a name for herself as a decent fantasy writer from her video game franchise books. However, Charlie Higson also already had a good name due to his James Bond novels but that did not stop his FF effort from being trash. Fast forward a bit more and the cover to what we now knew would be entitled Crystal Of Storms went public… and things really were not looking good as fans saw something akin to My Little Pony with a sort of flying cute dog and a cloud emoji on a purple background. “Bring back Robert Ball” we all cried. So it was that, with a mixture of bad tastes in our mouths due to the Higson debacle, genuine hope over RP’s record with other properties, and wanting to gouge out our eyes because of the horribly pre-school cover art, CoS finally appeared at the end of September 2020. Any brand new gamebook in any series is a welcome thing, but a new FF is always eagerly anticipated, even if the Scholastic treatment of the series has met with a fair bit of (mostly justifiable) backlash.

The first thing that strikes one on actually having a copy of CoS in the hand is that the cover layout matches nothing else in any of the Scholastic print runs. Gone is the gold spine (in either format), instead we have a purple spine with the author’s name in massive gold letters, whilst the title hides over two lines in much smaller gold letters just under the FF logo. The positioning and lettering style on the cover does match the general Scholastic run style, but the image is full size rather than being “portholed” in the now standard Scholastic style – is this the precursor to a third set or reprints in yet another layout from Scholastic? If nothing else, they certainly know how to milk the collector market. As with the Higson effort, RP’s name is on the cover, this being only the second example where a guest author has been considered important enough to get cover credit – the selling out to celebrity continues, then. Internally, we still have the strange smelling ropey quality paper but thankfully the horrible black smuts that were supposed to represent weathering of the pages and instead just looked like a printing error are finally gone. Good move, Scholastic as this definitely improves the appearance of the pages. We also have a modern dynamic-looking new Adventure Sheet layout at the back of the book, which is a good contemporary touch. Reading through the instructions (also at the back, which is standard for the Scholastic editions), we start this adventure with no Provisions or Gold, but do have a sword, a backpack, a lantern, and travelling clothes (well, I’m glad we aren’t expected to undertake this quest with everything hanging out, then!) The lack of Provisions or Gold is no great handicap incidentally, as we very soon find both, and there are several more opportunities to replenish these as well. The opening section of the book does mention “new” rules about testing Skill and Stamina, neither of which is new as they have been around for about 30 years – thanks for the ignorance Scholastic.

The background to this piece is genuinely intriguing and highly original: YOU are a member of the Sky Watch, a sort of Police Force tasked with protecting Pangaria, a previously unknown area of Titan positioned in the Ocean of Tempests between Allansia and Khul. FFs set in previously untapped regions always have a unique feel with their very specific settings, creatures, and cultures. Take Hachiman in Sword Of The Samurai or Atlantis in Demons Of The Deep, for example, two areas which are unlike anything else on Titan and which, as a result, gives the single book set in each of them a truly one-off feel that makes them all the more interesting. And Crystal Of Storms is no different in that respect, with its totally unique and localised creatures (Cloudkin, Stormborn, Canidor, etc) and its equally individual world, a world which is very high concept with its six floating islands that are held in the air by Goblin technomancy. All of a sudden one day, one of these islands (Nimbus) falls out of the sky and sinks into the ocean below, taking all of the Sky Watch with it (they were all at an emergency meeting on it when it sank) except for YOU which leaves you as the only available Sky Watch member who can try to resolve the mysterious fall of Nimbus. To add to the uniquely high concept nature of this effort, the locals hop from island to island using either small airships piloted by Goblins (flyers) or hovers which are sets of personal metal wings powered by the titular storm crystals (which reminds me a bit of the crystals that power light sabres in Star Wars). Well, this is all very interesting so far and the Background compels you to read on purely because it is so very unusual.

Thus begins the adventure proper but our first choice on paragraph 1 is a bit confusing in that we have to know which of three islands is our home island. Er, did I miss something? Having re-read the Background several times I could not find any indication where I was actually from, so I assume this is an actual choice we have to make and seems to be a random decision point with no precedent. This is awkward but not a showstopper. In fact, whichever island you choose to be from will slightly nuance the opening Act as a) you are forced to visit that island first, and b) whichever one you are from is slightly easier to negotiate as you bump into a friend (which makes sense as this is your home island) who will travel around that one island with you, which means you get combat boosters whilst you are there as there are two of you fighting as a pair. Add to this the fact that (for once) your sidekick does not instantly die (in fact, they cannot die) and you finally have a useful companion in a FF book. Having explored your home island you can then try one of the other two from the initial choice (or both if you want to), before heading off to a fourth island called Incus, followed by a fifth named Asperitas. In other words, this is a rare occasion where a FF region really does allow you to visit absolutely every part of it. So many FFs’ maps and regional descriptions have shown places that I wished we could explore but that remain totally elusive. (As an aside at this point I would have really liked to see a map of Pangaria in the front of the book, but sadly we do not get to see what this hitherto unexplored area of Titan actually looks like, which is a shame). Once you have visited these five islands you can then head underwater in a bathysphere to descend down to explore the now sunken island of Nimbus. So essentially this book works in three parts: the initial three island exploration (mostly equipment gathering), the second part covering Incus and Asperitas (where the mystery begins to get explained), and the Final Act on Nimbus itself where you try to save the sunken island. The concept of the bathysphere is another nicely different inclusion – the bathysphere is a one person minisub (again, built by Goblins) that allows the locals to safely go under the sea, so we are seeing an element of Jules Verne showing through here.

At this point, I feel we need to talk about Pangaria’s Goblins which are, as with every other concept in this book, totally different to the rest of Titan’s Goblins. Firstly, they co-exist peacefully with humans and serve a genuinely useful purpose rather than just being a nuisance. Secondly, they are considerably more articulate than those found elsewhere on Titan and can make coherent conversation. Clearly, Pangaria is a very civilised place as Titan goes, and the general feeling of peace does come across throughout this book. There is certainly no sense of danger, bar the mystery of what has caused Nimbus to sink, and this does give an overall impression that this FF is aimed at a younger audience than usual. This is not an issue as such, I just never got the impression that I was under any particular threat and, as a member of Sky Watch should probably be familiar with everywhere in the region, there was no real sense of exploration or of a descent into the unknown. However, adventure in its purest sense is not the point of this book. Instead, this is a mystery piece and is very plot-driven, giving it a feel akin to Paul Mason’s FFs which always placed plot over adventuring. Indeed, the familiarity your character is supposed to have with the area, along with the fact that we have never visited Pangaria before, gives RP free rein to flex her imagination where other FF authors may have been limited by established lore and/or locations. I’m not sure quite how I feel about the lore in this book: Potions have new naming conventions (but sensible ones rather than the stupid non-comedy naming that Charlie Higson used in Gates Of Death) and the tech level (with technomancy) does seem higher than we have come to expect from Titan. However, as Pangaria exists in a bubble and has developed separately from the rest of Titan (we are specifically told that visitors from other regions can’t ever leave), I can live with this and I do not feel that the revised lore detracts any from this feeling like FF as it is woven into the piece neatly rather than seeming to be strong-armed in for the sake of hilarity like in the Higson mess.

Structurally this is an interesting book as it is in theory possible to visit absolutely everywhere in one playthrough and, bar the restriction of starting on your home island, then Act Two beginning on Incus, followed by Act Three being underwater, you are free to roam about in whatever order you wish and to revisit locations as much as you want to, notwithstanding if you die in combat or run out of money to keep you hover working. This freedom comes at a price in gaming terms though as the reset button is very much in evidence here as revisited areas will regenerate themselves, meaning dead creatures come back to life, and you can hit continuity problems by finding several of the same item (which can work in your favour). To control the plot this book uses codewords (something I’ve never been totally comfortable with, but I realise they exist to control cheating and make plot flow more fluid) and the mystery will slowly be revealed through these codewords. In spite of the relative freedom you have to roam, this book is still oddly linear though, and I found myself enjoying the opening parts more than the Final Act, which seemed to be railroading me with looping choices that just seemed to lead back to the same place until I picked the option that the book wanted me to take to access the next part. It is also very apparent that the victory path covers most of the book so there is probably not much replay value here. Having completed it and, in spite of its intriguing premise and unique location, I cannot see any mileage in revisiting it as it has nothing else to offer. If you could not go everywhere in one playthrough there would be much more to explore but, as it stands, this is a win-and-put-it-away-forever book.

Which brings us to the difficulty level: if this book was hard there would be replay value in simply trying to beat it. But, CoS is far from difficult. In fact, it is very easy, in no small part due to the fact that you can go everywhere and can revisit areas to find items or information that you might have missed. Even in the final analysis, if you do not have the three items that Vizigg (another unusually sentient Goblin) needs, you can just go back a step and keep going until you do find them. In the true path sense, this book is very very forgiving. On the contrary though, in the combat sense, this book is surprisingly harsh as most opponents hare strong and most combats come with adjustors (a touch of the Jon Green influence here, I feel), but at the same time you can find a vast array of items that give you various combat bonuses to counter this, so there is some balance to this. To use these items tough does involve a lot of book-keeping to keep track of what does what (this is at odds with the idea of this being aimed at a younger readership and adds an out of place element of complexity), and the sheer amount of stuff you quickly accumulate would suggest your backpack is massive and that you should hardly be able to move. Interestingly, some combats have clever subtleties built into them such as the Saltwater Crocodile fight where your foe is vulnerable and less powerful out of water or one particular fight you have using the bathysphere where is loses its manoeuvrability out of water. These add realism and interest to the proceedings and show well-planned design. Another part that is well-planned is the end battle which involves a very strong opponent but it is not you who fights it – instead you are sat on the shoulder of a Sea Giant that fights for you. What makes this so interesting and varied though is the way that the fight can change subtly as it progresses based on use of items which can have Skill or Stamina impacts on both your enemy and your Sea Giant. It is relieving to see fresh ideas like this still coming into the series. Whilst the end battle is fought for you, and the underwater sections has you fighting from inside your bathysphere (ie you use the bathysphere’s stats rather than your own which, incidentally, are cleverly implemented by it having a fixed Stamina but its Skill is based on what yours in ie the actual driving of the thing is affected by how skilful its driver is), the rest of the book does require a high Skill score to survive the combats, plus the sheer number of crucial Skill tests does mean low-powered characters will struggle. There are quite a few Luck tests too, although these usually only cause you to lose Stamina if you fail them, rather than them fundamentally affecting your chances of victory. A count up of instadeath sections reveals there are only four in the entire book, so death by misadventure is unlikely, even if death in combat (or failure through running out of money to recharge your hover) is a very real possibility. All the same though, I doubt many players will struggle to complete this on the first attempt as long as they are strong enough.

It would be too easy but also unfair to try and make a comparison between RP and her father as writers, so I will focus just on Rhianna’s writing in isolation. There is a great energy to her prose and she really does make Pangaria come alive in her vivid descriptions and constant reinforcement of the plot and concepts that are at the root of this book. The end battle in particular is very excitingly written and at no point did I find any let up in the pace. I did find the moments of awkward humour a bit irritating (I think this devalues FF as “serious fantasy”) and the inclusion of items called a “Thingie”, a “Whatsit” and a “Doobrie” pretty inane (even if I did find the option that said something to the effect of “if you have a thingie and want to give it to [the NPC]” unintentionally amusing in a Carry On film way lol). I also could not help but notice how much RP likes onomatopoeia which is a small point, but it did strike me after a while. If there was just one moment that nearly made me throw the book at the wall it was this: “the flyers have been locked down by the island governors” – surely this is not an accidental inclusion and it has to be a reference to the situation that was affecting the world when this book was published. This is frankly annoying and, whilst it could easily be missed, there is no place in escapist fantasy for this kind of opinion polarising political reality.

To depart from reality and back to FF and Titan, whilst Pangaria is totally stand-alone and can get away with bearing only limited relation to what we expect from FF, there are some moments of familiarity to give some coherence. The Ray Harryhausen-esque Giant Crab scene must be a nod to the same cameo in Island Of The Lizard King and the appearance of a creature that we have previously only ever met in one other FF (the Wheelies) is a nice inclusion as they are such an iconic species, but the fact that they had only ever been seen once before also suggests they are very rare – unless of course Balthus Dire sourced his from Pangara (in a moment of retconned lore) and this is their actual home region? Either way, it was fun to see some Wheelies again. Naturally, many of the creatures we encounter are sea-dwelling (I enjoyed the merfolk encounter) and this adds even more to the unusual feel of this book and, as the species are different to those found in the only other undersea FF (Demons Of The Deep), both Pangaria and Atlantis are clearly very different places, which is good to see.

Not only does this book offer us a new author, it also introduces another new artist. The cover and internals are both the work of Eva Eskelinen. I will not dwell log on the cover, suffice to say that its image of two new species (a Canidor and a Cloudkin) cannot be considered as serious fantasy art. It would be far better-suited to a book for very young children and/or enthusiasts of emojis and is horribly cutesy and totally uninteresting, unthreatening, uninspired, and well, unsuitable for a FF gamebook. I want to feel terror and threat from the cover, not nausea due to it being so sickeningly friendly. EE’s internals are noticeably better than her cover but that means very little in real terms as her illustrations are for the most part lifeless and insipid. The only two internals that I find effective (and they are admittedly very effective) are the steampunk-influenced Goblin War Golem and the very threatening attacking Wraith Fish. There is nothing else in here that warrants a second look and the art looks to be almost tenth generation photocopied, it is that lacking in depth and clarity in places.

Boring art aside (and it is not as bad as anything by Vlado Krizan, I hasten to add), this book is a real winner. It is exciting, highly original, thematically intriguing and unusual, well-written, and the mystery approach does make you want to play and is a welcome alternative to the usual trying-to-bring-down-a-lunatic concept of FF. The real problem comes with the ease coupled with the fact that you will probably cover off the entire book in one playthrough making it unlikely to offer much real replay value. That said, I really enjoyed this and, as it has an open ending, I hope we will see more FFs from Rhianna Pratchett if this is any indication of what fresh new material she can bring to the table. But I do feel that a decent artist would have done the book more justice and really brought RP’s little corner of Titan to life.


Friday, 25 September 2020

Escape From The Sorcerer



Sunil Prasannan

Reviewed by Mark Lain

From what I gather, this mini-FF was originally written in 1988 as a 115-section amateur piece, but the version that would appear in Issue 6 of Fighting Fantazine was reworked to be set in Southern Allansia and to run to 200 sections. However, the part of Southern Allansia where this is set is largely unexplored territory (within the cannon as a whole) but the author vividly and thoroughly brings it to life with the massive amount of lore in the background section. This obscure area of Allansia has distinct overtones of Middle Eastern or maybe the Kashmir border situations and the amount of information can be a bit bewildering initially but, in terms of setting the scene, this is a great opening and is to be applauded for its depth of socio-political design as well as its distinct cultures and species.

YOU are an Alkemisian prisoner who has been captured by the rival territory of Agra. In fact, you are the only prisoner from your group of captives that is still alive and, rather than wait for your turn to die, YOU decide to escape, er, from the titular Sorcerer (named Grudar Kreshnel) who is running the show. As you are a captive, you logically begin with no weapons (and take the requisite -2 starting Skill penalty until you can find a weapon) and no Provisions. In fact, you start with absolutely nothing at all which, again, does make sense even if it gives the impression that you are somewhat on the back foot in the initial stages. Curiously, any Provisions you do find along the way will only restore 2 rather than the usual 4 Stamina, although you can quickly find yourself weighed down with them as you find a lot of Provisions, especially in the initial areas, so the lessened restorative value makes very little difference to your chances of survival. What definitely makes a difference to our chances of survival though are your Skill and Luck as you will need very high initial scores for both of these if you want to stand much chance of getting through this as many foes have high Skills and adjustors (take the Giant Cobra for example which has Sk 10 St 16 and will kill you if it wins any single Attack Round, although you can avoid this fight if you have a particular item gained from a previous tough fight) and there are umpteen Luck tests that often lead to death if failed. Particularly vicious Skill-wise is the opening salvo where you must fight several guards in succession to get a weapon and get out of your cell area. Take into account that you are initially fighting with -2 Skill and this part really is very brutal. Perhaps this is why you can find so much food? Furthermore, any Agrans you meet have a unique ability in that they can turn invisible on every even-numbered Attack Round which allows them to roll 3d6 rather than 2d6 when calculating their Attack Strength ie they can have an AS of up to 18 before you have even added their Skill to it! This is pretty harsh and really quite ridiculous in difficulty terms. Plus this adventure is very linear and the only real options for digression are in the opening area, but as this is fundamentally a dungeon trawl, this linear approach is standard for FF so we can forgive this even if it does make winning rather challenging.

As this is an underground prison complex, the map is typically full of corridors that head away in all sorts of north-east-west directions and you very frequently find doors. Whilst this may seem a bit samey after a while, it is a logical design for what it is. I must admit that I found mapping this a bit mind-boggling but it does all link up rationally if you take the time to plot it all out and, as each playthrough will follow just one set of paths and directions, the overall labyrinthine web of corridors and doors is not that distracting when playing. There is also some respite in finding an underground river which you can choose to negotiate by boat (assuming you are not following the true path on that particular playthrough!) Indeed, the whole piece is very logical with a well-designed plot running through it as you meet many guards which, along with the map overall, do make this all feel very prison-like. Add to this the way the background’s lore is neatly woven into the adventure and the unexpected twist at the end involving a dissident you befriend very early on (yes, there is a lot of politics here) and you have a very satisfying and fun dungeon bash. Furthermore, there are several ways to kill Kreshnel at the end (dependent on what items you might have) which adds replay value.

We touched earlier upon your starting lack of equipment and the general difficulty of this FF in terms of combats but this is tempered not just by the supermarket full of food and drink that you can quickly find yourself carrying, but also by the ton-weight of items that you can find, all of which make combats much less crushing: not only does the silver sword increase your AS by 4, but you can also enhance your firepower with zybarium, a ring of distraction, the golden mace, and the fireflash staff. There is also a location where you can find three Potions to improve Skill, Stamina and/or Luck, plus there is a further Stamina potion later on and two opportunities to restore all of your stats back to their Initial levels. Oddly enough all of these bonuses, when offset against some of the very tough fights, do result in something pretty balanced overall, even if the linearity will still go against you. What really makes this one interesting difficulty-wise though is the mechanic it steals from Creature Of Havoc whereby you must decode a language to beat the adventure. The system for the code is by all intents and purpose that used in CoH but you do get two chances to find how to crack the code which does make your life a bit easier. There is also a Hobbit prisoner which may or may not be an intentional nod to that book too (although you can’t eat this one lol).

A really surprising aspect of this mini-FF, considering its political overtones and the world-building, is the vein of wry humour running through it. Take the amusingly-named Chattermidgets for instance, or the Puflin which is a cross between a Puffin and a Wizard (get it?) representing rival publishers who once vied for the rights to publish Kreshnel’s memoirs. Rather more bonkers are the two chefs named Ramdon Gorsay (Gordon Ramsay) and Zildo Alli (Aldo Zilli) who try to con you into a sticky end – Ramdon is even foul-mouthed to boot. These two even name-check their rival (Olie Jamie ie Jamie Oliver) and hilariously describe him as a “complete imbecile” (which gets my vote). If this is not enough, there is a brief visit to the underground prison complex’ Human Resources office where you can even end up going through a recruitment assessment to join Kreshnel’s army, plus you can meet the person who was actually meant to be attending this, called Freddi, shortly beforehand to add yet more plot flow. The only humour element that did irritate me was the verbal “oh yes I will/oh no you won’t” sparring with Kreshnel at the end, although maybe we are literally supposed to view him as a Pantomime Villain? There is a neat little meta moment along the way too where you need to give a NPC a pair of dice from which she draws her power – clever. What is also very clever and a feature I really liked is the door mechanism for Kreshnel’s lair. This is activated by balancing a set of scales and requires you to do some basic maths (although just guessing what the answer might be also works!) This is very Crystal Maze and suits gamebooks perfectly. It is also a nice alternative to the usual fallback of a numbered key.

If there is only one part of this FF that I found odd it is the large amount of Gold Pieces that you can find along the way, none of which serves any useful purpose at all as at no point do you need any money. False flag, perhaps, or just another necessary FF trope that founds its way into this?

Unusually for a Fantazine mini-FF. this one features art by a professional. Michael Wolmarans is better-known to the gamebook scene as Mike Tenebrae and his work always has a dark neo-horror quality to it. I don’t think he has been given much opportunity to demonstrate his generally superb art here, but there are three images where his dark brilliance is used to the full: the Giant Cobra is beautiful in its blackness contrasted with bright areas, his Kreshnel is full of classic Eastern evil mystique, and his interpretation of Artriv is truly sinister. What shows off his ability much more though is his cover featuring Kreshnel fighting a massive bear and the brown and yellow tones work really well here to create a lot of subtle atmosphere and animation – the image almost crackles and moves as you look at it. Brilliant stuff.

Equally good (especially for an amateur) is Prasannan’s writing which is full of description and colour to really brings life to what could have been a very dull trudge down a lot of passages and through a lot of doors. He seems to revel in presenting his characters and every NPC has personality and seems very real, as does his world in general given the depth of lore and effort that has gone into this offering.

I have to say that, for what is ultimately amateur fan fiction, this is very good indeed. Its lore, very real overtones, occasional humour, and characters, all work very well and raise this well above the bar for a fantazine effort. They are rarely bad as such, but they are also rarely this professional feeling and this is definitely better than a lot of the published gamebooks out there. I would have been interested to see how this might have opened out into a full 400-section FF - would we have seen more of the society of this region or would it just have eventually turned into a tedious dungeon slog? Either way, in this form, this is really good stuff and, with Wolmarans’ art to boot, this is a winner even if it might take you a lot of attempts to finish it as it is pretty difficult in real terms. It's just a shame it has such an uninspiring title.     

Saturday, 5 September 2020

Return To The Icefinger Mountains



Ed Jolley

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Ed Jolley is a regular contributor to Fighting Fantazine, although his primary offering is the frankly excruciating Everything I Really Need to Know I Learnt From Reading Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks, a regular column written in such a smug and “oh-so-funny” way that it is borderline unreadable and is, in fact, the only part of the ‘zine that I started skipping straight over after a few instalments. Combine this with my dislike of Caverns Of The Snow Witch (at least in its book version form as I do kind of prefer the much shorter and more efficient Warlock magazine original), the FF to which this effort is a sequel, and I found myself approaching this mini-FF with some trepidation and very low expectations.

Presented in Issue 9 of Fighting Fantazine, Return To The Icefinger Mountains puts YOU in the role of a former slave of Shareela the Snow Witch, who escaped the Icefinger Mountains after Shareela was vanquished by a different YOU in the Livingstone original. On that basis, you are not the same character that you were in CotSW, a trait common in FF sequels. The premise here is that it is (appropriately) 30 years since the Snow Witch was defeated and you suddenly start having nightmares about her again and, on discussing this with your friend who helped you originally escape (called Reniso) you discover he has had the same dreams causing you both to start to think she is somehow back from the dead. You both resolve to return to the Icefinger Mountains (the title could not be more apt then really) together and determine if she is indeed resurrected and, if so, destroy her for good whilst, at the same time, attempting to establish the true source of her power which appears to lie in an ancient civilisation that once inhabited the Crystal Caves in the city of Cyrantia. Cut to the next day when you arrive at Reniso’s house to find him dead and trussed up with the ominous message “SHE WILL RETURN” written into a pool of his blood. Next arrives a scholar called Denati, an expert on the Cyrantians, so you decide to head into the Crystal Caves with him as a sort of guide instead. The Introduction setting the scene is long and very satisfying and it really did make me want to play this, in spite of my reservations, as did the opening few sections handling Reniso’s death and the arrival of Denati. Really intriguing stuff with a premise that draws you in and makes you want to learn more. In fact, there is more Shareela/Icefinger Mountains lore in just the intro section here than you can glean from the entirety of CotSW.  You start this adventure with just a sword and a rucksack, although the Rules do tell you that, whilst you start with no Provisions, you will soon acquire some – a bit of a spoiler really, as I would have preferred the tension of wondering how I might regain Stamina, especially given how harsh the original was in terms of stat penalties and scarcity of opportunities to restore your attributes. However, as you are not an adventurer and have no time to prepare for this quest, your limited resources do make perfect sense. All in all, this is shaping up to be good stuff.

I have said in other reviews that I find FFs set in snowy/icy environments quite fascinating as they always feel more unique with their localised creatures and the added perils of trying to function in extreme cold. Both of these features are included here and we encounter no end of very suitably-placed monsters from the outset including the rare Toa-sua and Frost Giants. In fact, the opening snow-set Act has two distinct paths through, one of which is rather harder than the other and can, if you are particularly unwary, lead to a very early run-in with a Silver Dragon. As this is a Livingstone-inspired piece you encounter a second potential companion (the rather feisty girl warrior called Nowri) who, again as this is spiritually an IL effort, dies almost immediately after joining your party (An in-joke? Very probably). Once you find your way into the Crystal Caves (and there is more than one way in), there are a further two alternative routes through the main interior, one involving re-encountering the infamous Ice Demon from the original book, and a second full of entirely new material concerning the Cyrantians. Whilst the continuity of the returning Ice Demon makes this feel inter-connected with its predecessor, the Cyrantian material is much more interesting and the amount of planning and design Jolley has put into this ancient culture really is impressive as you work your way through the Chamber of the Four Winds (a nod to the early Games Workshop board game Valley Of The Four Winds, possibly?), the Arena of Contests, and the Hall of Contenders, all of which is punctuated by Denati’s awe-struck enthusings and extemporisations on the Cyrantian culture. If you want lore, this is the gamebook to play! Following a tour of the background to the Crystal Caves, you then reach your endgame with the resurrected Snow Witch herself.

An issue I, and just about everyone else who ever played it, have with CotSW is that it is ridiculously hard and downright unfair with its frequent stat penalties, many instadeaths, lots of Luck tests, and very strong over-powered combat opponents. Plus, as always with IL FFs, it is very linear and requires you to find quite a shopping list of items. What Jolley has done to address this is very clever as there are two distinct ways to complete this adventure: one is the “IL” approach with hard combats and lots of items, the other is more of a Paul Mason-style path avoiding a very tough fight with Shareela at the end and focussing much more on the plotting and the Cyrantian lore aspect. The IL path is much easier to find yourself being led down, but the PM path is more interesting and shows much more ingenuity in design terms. This is an interesting commentary on both of their styles I think, as IL’s style is very direct and obvious whereas PM’s is much more subtle and often quite elusive in his books. The IL route leads to a straight combat with Shareela, the PL route offers two distinct and much cleverer ways to kill her. What I also find really interesting is that one of these paths is the “good guy” approach where you act with honour and the other involves your needing the flame sword which you can only get by playing the bad guy and killing the totally innocent good NPC that is Nowri. So EJ is both emulating and subverting these differing styles of gamebook design and is obviously doing more than just writing an adventure, given what he has done with this piece design-wise.

As IL and PM’s FFs were generally very difficult, the subject of difficulty from Jolley’s effort has to be discussed. And both paths are actually (appropriately) very tough to negotiate. There are loads of Luck tests and quite a few instadeaths (although the majority of the latter come in the Final Act), there are some extremely tough fights (although, again, some of these such as the Silver Dragon and the Ice Demon make perfect sense given their enormity), and the Snow Witch herself (if you do have to fight her) has Sk 12 St 20. There is also a moment where you are required to roll 5D6 and compare with your Stamina in the Final Act, which is a very tough roll to make. But there is also another difficulty element, and this only comes into play on the “Cyrantian history tour” path, which involves two very difficult maths puzzles that, I must admit, I found simply baffling as I am not a good mathematician at all. This is problematic as it does make this particular path all but impossible for anyone other than those with very attuned mathematical minds (a specialisation, for sure). I want to play a gamebook, not get a headache trying to number-crunch. I gave up on these pretty quickly and just resorted to searching through the paragraphs until I found the right answer section. Some might find this an ingenious inclusion, I just find it frustrating. Worthy of note also on the Cyrantian path is the Bone Golem fight – this is very tough with some harsh adjustors, but a balanced stat boost is your reward for killing it and you do not even actually have to kill it outright, so there is some quarter given in places. There is even a non-win ending (very Paul Mason, although IL did throw these in to his gamebooks occasionally, too) where you die but take the Ice Demon and the Snow Witch with you, in other words, you have achieved your goal of destroying Shareela, but you personally do not gain from doing so. I do wonder if this is a nod to Paul Mason’s original ending for his Slaves Of The Abyss, wherein you had to sacrifice yourself to win (Steve Jackson vetoed this and had it changed to the published ending, incidentally). Either accidentally or deliberately, Jolley is showing that he really knows his stuff.

As well as demonstrating an insight into the distinctly different styles of two FF authors and his impressive imagination and planning in terms of lore and really making his Cyrantian world feel real, EJ is a very good writer. None of his annoyingly knowing approach to his ‘zine articles is evident here. Instead, this is very well-written and the pace is electric. Literally every moment is worthwhile and there is nothing wasted to the point where this is difficult to put down once you have started playing it. The narrating voice of Denati punctuates the action by verbalising the new Cyrantian material and, in often very long paragraphs, Jolley’s vision comes to life again and again. If there is one let-down in the design/lore it is the Cyrantian alphabet element: when I first flicked through the pages I saw many illustrations that incorporated the Cyrantian alphabet and I was hoping there would be a mechanic whereby you had to decode the language to win. As it stands, Denati translates these for you every time you find them which makes sense in terms of him being the Cyrantian subject expert, but does remove a potential extra layer of challenge and gameplay (although it would have made an already hard book even harder).

On the subject of the illustrations for this piece, Fighting Fanatzine was aways very inconsistent when it came to art. At times, admittedly due to availability of resources as this is a fanzine after all so there is no budget to throw at getting professional art in any quantity, the art in the ‘zines mini-FFs was amateurish to the point of being detrimental to the adventure. Not so with this adventure though which uses the excellent work of Brett Schofield who has contributed to Arion Games’ AFF books and is a definite talent. All of his images here could have stood up in the Puffin FF series and, whilst he does have to compete with Gary Ward and Edward Crosby’s stunning woodcut-style art in CotSW, his images that have equivalents in both books (most notably Shareela herself) definitely hold their own. There is a nice tribute to the GW-EC originals here too in the incidental image of the frozen creature reaching forward. Schofield’s cover image of the Ice Demon’s face in extreme close up with its shadowy and icy blues and whites is truly terrifying and makes a pleasing alternative to the more obvious approach of putting Shareela on the cover, which would have been a big mistake as it would have given away the pay-off that she is indeed back from the dead which is a plot point that, whilst probably rather inevitable given the concept, is still not explicit until you do meet her at the end.   

Indeed, even if the revelation that the Snow Witch has resurrected is hardly a surprise, there is a very unexpected twist in the final analysis where it turns out that Denati is a traitor and is actually in the employ of Shareela. I have to admit that from the way he seemed so genuine up until this point, and from his researcher’s fixation on Cyrantia, I really did not see this reveal coming – on reflection it may be obvious and he is in fact an expert on Shareela which has the secondary knowledge of her power source by definition, but this came as a big surprise to me, and a welcome one at that as it added yet another layer to the sheer effort that has gone into putting this adventure together.

As mini-FFs go, this is one of the best I have read. It is far better than a lot of the efforts that got printed in Warlock magazine, and it is definitely among the best that the ‘zine offered us. It really expands upon and opens out the concept of both the Crystal Caves and Shareela herself, and it is not just a tired sequel where the baddie comes back for more given all the lore this offers. The two distinct paths and the variables within these make this eminently replayable and the difficulty is not at all off-putting. There is so much going on here considering it is just 275 sections long and I actually prefer this to CotSW for many reasons, the most obvious being that is does not suffer from the boring overlength and the pointless post-caves coda of the original. We kill the Snow Witch and it ends there, exactly where it should do (just like the Warlock short version of CotSw did, in fact). If the adventure here wasn’t that great, the lore and world-building alone would have carried this one through, but the adventure is really good and, unwelcome brain-melting maths aside, this is pretty essential playing.


Sunday, 30 August 2020

Starhunt: Void Slavers



Ian Brocklehurst

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Issue 12 of the increasingly infrequently-appearing Fighting Fantazine offered readers the ‘zine’s third sci-fi mini-FF, written by Ian Brocklehurst who is most familiar for his ongoing (and actually rather good) episodic story Aelous Raven and the Wrath of the Sea-Witch, which was also published on and off in Fighting Fantazine.

The premise of the piece is that YOU are the Captain of an interstellar freighter called the Starhunt. Out of the blue, your estranged father contacts you to tell you that your sister (an exotic dancer) has been abducted by the titular Void Slavers along with several other members of her dance troupe. Being the protective individual that you are, you immediately set off to rescue her from her captors, accompanied by your I-Bot co-pilot Kraven-8 (or Kay-8 for short – get it?) The adventure is appended by a lengthy intro explaining the background to the particular sci-fi universe that gives the gamebook its setting and there is a lot of rich detail to be found here which shows that a lot of thought has gone into designing the setting. The Rules are also well-planned with different approaches to Unarmed, Blaster, Ship-to-ship, and Multiple ship-to-ship combats. To avoid initially overloading the player with all these subtly different systems, Brocklehurst sensibly takes the Starship Traveller approach and only explains unarmed combat in the opening Rules section, leaving the other three to the back of the book to be read only when they come into active use. This is a wise move as it means you can get on with playing the adventure much quicker and you don’t have to try and remember four sets of combat rules. There are also eight (yes, EIGHT) attributes for you to roll-up: the standard three (Skill-Stamina-Luck) for you plus an additional stat (Blaster Skill) which is actually a neat idea as it is very viable that your skill in unarmed combat could be very different to your ability with a blaster, so this is realistic and well-planned; you also need to generate the Starhunt’s stats so we have Manoeuvrability (basically a Skill equivalent for avoiding obstacles), Weapons System (your firepower), Deflector Shields (your defensive power), and Hull Integrity (Stamina for starships) – these should hopefully come into play very  effectively in ship-to-ship combat as there is an attack vs defence concept in use which reminds me of the more nuanced and elaborate space combat/trading games such as Elite whereby you are not purely at the mercy of a one-dimensional single-stat ship combat approach but instead various factors can affect outcomes. Again, I like this and it is more realistic. You also start with some futuristic Provision equivalents in two food packs (each restoring 4 Stamina) and one medi-kit (which restores 8 Stamina). You even get a single-use Hull Maintenance Procedure which restores 8 points to your ship’s Hull Integrity. So then, the setting/world and the well thought-out mechanics all suggest that this is going to be an above average sci-fi gamebook experience for once. Let’s hope the content adds up to the planning and designing.

…Which it does not, and here is why - Starhunt: Void Slavers is not a gamebook. It is a short story that has been chopped up, jumbled about into a random order, then joined back together by section links. Is that not what a gamebook fundamentally is? I hear you cry. Well, no, because a gamebook has an interactive element where you make choices that affect the direction the plot takes and has direct implications on your success or failure. With this piece, you literally only make a handful of decisions, none of which really affect anything other than killing you at various points, and the book just railroads you meaning any sense of achievement is minimal. There is an argument to say that this surely just makes this an extremely linear adventure, but it simply is not and a look at how it is designed will make this explicitly obvious. The book has a total of 206 sections, a massive 111 of which just direct you to another section, which is frankly ridiculous and you quickly get fed up of making no decisions and reading paragraph upon paragraph of what is just prose. 16 sections have different outcomes based purely on dice rolling results, so these are hardly “choices” – yes, they add the element of chance that dice incorporate into a gamebook, but you have no control as such and you are not influencing your progress in any way. There are 23 instadeath/failure sections ie more than 10% of the book which is the equivalent to 40+ fail points in a standard-length FF, which is pretty excessive and puts it in the horrible Chasms Of Malice scale of unfairness territory. Plus, obviously, three sections are taken up with the extra rules. Once you factor in the combat sections, you are literally only making a few choices which, whilst they do influence your progress (always leading to pretty immediate failure), this hardy gives you the feeling that you are “playing” anything. This whole issue presents us with a massive problem and I do wonder how Fighting Fantazine’s editorial people ever accepted this submission as a serious contender for publication as a “mini-FF”. It would make a good short story, yes, but a gamebook surely not as there is just no game part to this. I can only surmise that either nothing else was submitted, leaving the magazine with no choice but to include this “adventure”, or IB intimately knows people on the inside (which he may well do given the inclusion of his ongoing Raven story) meaning he could strongarm the piece in. Or was this put together retrospectively? In other words did it start out life as a short story but, in the absence of any other options, the ‘zine asked for it to be reworked as a gamebook by forcing in a few fairly pointless decision points and a system of mechanics that never gets off the ground? It really is very hard to see what the rationale behind this all was.

To add insult to injury, this “adventure” (I use the term very very loosely here) suffers from having at least four section mislinks (how did they get this wrong when there are so few decision points that even needed differential links?) including (and this beggars belief) a critical section mislink at the very end which makes completing this impossible. I thought the ‘zine had a team who rigorously proofread and playtested the submitted adventures, but this one shows no evidence of proofing at all given that the final section cannot be reached due to a mislink (it sends you to section 201 when the victory section is number 40).

The fact that this is not a gamebook, and that what few gamebook-y parts it does have are broken, is really frustrating as the mechanics and the concept should have made for something really good and worthwhile. Yet even the mechanics end up being an own goal as the two different versions of ship-to-ship combat literally only come into play a couple of times each, blaster combat hardly does much, and even item collecting serves no purpose as you don’t ever really find anything (bar a couple of times) and the book has pointless prompts telling you to make a note of the fact that you are carrying stuff that you have already got anyway (but didn’t know) or that you can’t really avoid finding and that, again, will railroad you into death or non-death moments and nothing more. There are no grey areas to this outing at all! It is very disappointing that all the variant combat rules get rarely used as they could have really added value to the experience. As for the much more frequently used unarmed combat, most of your opponents are very strong (the end baddie called the Sovereigness has a ridiculous Sk 11 St 26 so is as strong as a Dragon somehow!) and, if we add in the sheer number of Skill tests that can only be passed by rolling under your Skill (rolling equal to it is a failure) or you generally die, any character with a Skill lower than 12 has no chance (…of ever reaching the second to last section given that, as we have already seen, you cannot reach the victory section!) Oh, and there are so many Luck tests that, again, a Luck of lower than 12 gives you little hope either, even with the occasional Luck bonus that you cannot help but get as you get unavoidably led to those sections that give the bonuses. What an utter shambles this is!

And that is not all. In the final Act you have to jump into your ship, as does your sister. Logically, this is done by Skill testing. Presumably you have a Skill of 12 yourself to have ever got this far, so you are highly likely to succeed. However, your sister only has a Skill of 8 (lap-dancing and stripping presumably aren’t especially highly-skilled jobs?) so her chances of making it are not that great and if she dies you lose - another unfairly hard moment, then.

As the reader quickly reaches the unavoidable conclusion that this is a short story rather than a gamebook and, as I have already noted, IB’s Raven story is rather good, we should at least hope for Starhunt: Void Slavers to be well-written, which it both is and is not. The prose is written in a fun style which reads very well, but the plot itself is uninspired and really quite boring as you meander from one uninteresting event-free planet to another via an asteroid belt and a few unfriendly ships. There is a problem that I must raise with the text and that is that it has moments that are not in keeping with FF’s idiom, especially references to rape and lesbianism, and the use of words such as “shit”, “bitch”, and “screwing”. I’m not a prude by any means, but this is not the FF “way”. I do have to mention Kay-8 though, who adds an element of comic relief to the piece. He (it?) speaks like K-9 from Doctor Who, using words like “affirmative” and “negative” and occasionally rattling off probabilities, and I do like this element of the book as it helps it rise above being totally mundane. Oddly, I did find myself enjoying it at points, but that is in part due to the Kay-8 character.

I think as well that another aspect that made me enjoy this more than it ever deserved is due to Angela Salamaliki’s dynamic art. There is a very modern feel to her digital illustrations, all of which are full of life and suit the sci-fi genre very well. Her tech images are far better than her creatures/monsters, but this is a tech gamebook, so I can forgive this minor point. What is really striking and impacting is her cover image which just screams sci-fi to me with its shiny metallic corridor and its red and black-costumed dominatrix end baddie. The cover image is full of life and colour and is probably the best thing about this gamebook overall! I also really like the image of the Inferno Fighters which look like Focke-Wulf FW-190s that have been converted into spaceships: a surprising image that connects past to future in an effective manner. It is also interesting to note that most of the female characters are drawn wearing very revealing costumes and either the artist or the art brief from IB seems to relish this fact!

To be honest, I can find very little else to say about Starhunt: Void Slavers. I had really high hopes for what on the surface (after reading the rules and background spiel) looked like it was going to be a genuinely well-designed sci-fi effort with an interesting and effective system of mechanics deployed well enough to make it a really satisfying effort. Instead, the rules that should have lifted this serve zero purpose, the plot is empty, you have no impact on your fate in any way, it is very difficult in the traditional FF stat-testing way, the combats are way too hard and the opponents are illogically overpowered to the point of being superhuman, and due to no proofreading it is broken such that you cannot complete it. If there was a system vs gameplay aspect to analyse I would analyse it, but there isn’t, so I can’t. On the positive side, the art is effective and it certainly suits the genre and theme, and there is definitely something bubbling away under all this that could have been really good especially as IB writes very well and the mechanics cried out to be deployed to really lift this into the high echelons of sci-fi gamebooks. But sadly this is basically just a short story with a slightly seedy undertone where very little of any consequence happens. If you do not get bored or frustrated with it and do reach the penultimate section, your patience is not rewarded and you just feel a bit insulted by the overall production’s lack of attention to quality control. Just look at the pictures (especially the cover) then move on to something better instead would be my advice rather than wasting your time with this mess. I’ve observed before that bad sci-fi FFs have titles beginning with the letter “S” – my point remains undisputable.

Saturday, 13 June 2020

Ian Livingstone's Freeway Fighter


Andi Ewington and Simon Coleby

Reviewed by Mark Lain

If you were to choose which entry from all the FF canon had the most potential for either a film/TV or graphic novel adaptation, then it has to be a choice between House Of Hell (which abortively did almost become a film a few years ago until it fell into a black hole of development hell) or Freeway Fighter (which, let’s face it is a rip-off of a film anyway given its striking similarity to the Mad Max franchise). The three Chadda Darkmane novels, with their conventional narratives, are also obvious choices and the first one, The Trolltooth Wars, did indeed get a GN adaptation a year or so before Freeway Fighter, but this was a fairly lukewarm affair made all the more lacklustre by a disastrous Kickstarter campaign that left most backers either totally hacked off or completely disinterested by the time it finally landed. It was initially also suggested that the Freeway Fighter GN might be funded by the Kickstarter route but it was ultimately picked up by Titan Comics and published conventionally over four monthly parts in standard comic book format, followed inevitably by a single combined volume trade paperback.

After the not actually too bad but also not that great experience that was Steve Jackson’s The Trolltooth Wars GN, I was wary of Ian Livingstone’s Freeway Fighter potentially being a wash-out. The novel of The Trolltooth Wars is brilliant and bounces along as it takes the reader through an assemblage of much-loved FF lore. But the GN is a diluted affair with inappropriate art that does the material no justice at all. The Freeway Fighter gamebook is huge fun, but it is very dumb fun and is a far cry from the deeper fantasy material that FF mostly put out. So, other than a catalogue of mindless violence punctuated by a car driving across a post-apocalyptic wasteland (which would undoubtedly be very entertaining in comic book format) what could we expect from this GN? Well, the fact is that that is exactly what we get with Ian Livingstone’s Freeway Fighter, but personally, other than the lead in to the gamebook (more on this later) I think this is actually what makes this such a winner as it is frenetic, fast-paced entertainment for its own sake. Just like the gamebook, it is straightforward, violent, and does not take itself too seriously, but there is also a lot more going on too in the characterisations.

The plot, such as it is, is the story of Bella de la Rosa, a road drifter, who stumbles across Ryan in the town of Baker, and agrees to take him as close to New Hope as they can get on the fuel they have. Thus we follow their journey together as they get repeatedly harassed by Doom Dogs who want her Dodge Interceptor. And this is the central maguffin of the story, as the real star of the show, and the actual subject of the GN, is the car itself’s backstory, starting in a Prologue where Bella races in it, and finally ending where it is getting souped-up ready for the journey to San Anglo that we play out in the gamebook. Throughout the GN, the car is treated as an entity – Bella chats with it, confides in it, sympathises with it, and cares for it. It is her one reliable constant in a futuristic world gone mad. The primary human characters she meets are mostly unreliable: the Doom Dogs are psychotic hooligans, and Ryan is pretty useless. Bella herself is a great lead. In classic action movie lead style, she is feisty, wise-cracking, very streetwise, but also massively haunted by personal demons and is hugely aware of her own mortality and constantly literally looks Death in the face. Ryan, on the other hand, is na├»ve, clumsy, nervous, and awkward, but ultimately means well and seems genuinely grateful to have met someone who does not want to kill him. Bella cares little for human company (her car is her only friend), but her humanity prevents her from abandoning Ryan to his inevitable fate.

Alongside these two new characters, and to make this feel familiar and connected, are a number of familiar faces and tropes from the gamebook itself. Spark Plug Pete shows up, The Animal drives the iconic Red Chevvy from the book’s cover, the ever-handy Flat-U-Fix gets put to use, and we meet Sinclair in New Hope right at the end. We even find a wrecked second Interceptor at one point and the wry observation is made that you don’t see many of those about! There are also many Easter Eggs for the eagle-eyed to pick out, some of which have FF meaning, some of which are just social commentary. Amongst these are: de la Rosa’s car is number 44 (this is Ian Livingstone’s “special” number); the helmet on the first Doom Dog that harasses Bella in the opening salvo of the GN has the number 13 on it (Freeway Fighter is FF #13); the keys to the Interceptor are on a four-leafed clover keyring (a Luck symbol); the Red Chevvy is present (as noted above); The Animal is also here; FF mega-collector and one-time Warlock Jamie Fry appears as a Doom Dog (he won a competition to be drawn into the book); and the only food Bella can find in an abandoned empty store is a bar of Trumpish Delight (presumably a wry nod to the pre-Presidency media belief that Donald Trump would start an apocalypse of some sort).

The point of most of the GN is simple violent entertainment, but it is bookended by a beginning and an end that have some real substance. The introductory pre-disaster car racing Prologue ends with the line “This isn’t going to end well” as it cuts into the Interceptor being pursued at high speed by a Doom Dog. This is a very cinematic concept: the opening action sequence that we join part-way through that then cuts to a similar juxtaposition but several years later and far more dangerous. This is a neat segue (and commentary on the whole piece), but the conclusion of the GN has an even neater segue: Sinclair notes that “I do have a use for a good driver. We’re running low on fuel. I need someone to go to the oil refinery at San Anglo for us” and thus, YOU presumably then come along after the GN ends as it leads directly into the gamebook. Equally, the final action scene sees the Interceptor being pursued to the gates of New Hope by the ever-present nuisance of the Doom Dogs. The gamebook tells us that Sinclair was kidnapped in an attack on New Hope by some bikers – the same ones that pursued Bella to NH in the GN perhaps?

Whilst there is a lot of cartoon violence in this GN and the action level and pace is full on, there are moments of quiet pathos too such as when Bella finds a couple who have overdosed on barbiturates. The way she talks to her car and sees it as a friend is a poignant commentary on loneliness and the need for human contact (or a substitute for this). The deep meaning in this is all the more intense as the car is a direct connection for her to her dead father and acts as his substitute too, hence the way she talks to it like it is her only true friend in an utterly lost world.

The Interceptor itself (really the star of the show) is at odds with that in the gamebook, however. The latter version as drawn by Kevin Bulmer is akin to a Lamborghini, whereas the Simon Coleby version in the GN bears a striking similarity to a Dodge Charger (although when I queried this with Coleby he did say that its look is a product of his imagination). Perhaps the I-400 Interceptor is a subconscious development of the Charger that we will one day still see lol. As this story comes before the gamebook, the Interceptor in the GN is nowhere near as tooled-up as the gamebook version, something that makes perfect sense as the gamebook’s Introduction does specifically say that it has been modified to resemble a battle-car.     

On the subject of Coleby’s art, this is key to the success of this GN. His action sequences are full of visible movement and there is a momentum and frenetic pace to his chase and battle images. The counterpoint to this is the way he captures the calm of the few moments of respite. Both of these points demonstrate just how skilled Coleby is in making his images really get across the various tempos of the piece. Coleby’s work for 2000AD always had these features and he has illustrated this GN perfectly in my opinion. The inappropriate Cartoon Network-style Gavin Mitchell art in Steve Jackson’s The Trolltooth Wars massively detracted from the effect it should have had. Coleby’s work in Ian Livingstone’s Freeway Fighter however could not be better-suited and the decision to use him was inspired as his interpretation of the various scenes is perfect. Coleby produced the internals for the entire GN (ie all four parts) but, as is always the case with short multi-part comic books, the original individual issue versions came with a plethora of cover variants by numerous artists. However, the four Coleby covers are my favourites by far, again, because of the high octane imagery they portray. As Coleby’s interiors work so well, I find the variant covers by other artists to be rather less successful. To keep the collectors happy, each of Issues 2 thru 4 came with three cover variants. Issue 1 was offered with SEVEN variant covers: the standard A/B/C options of the next three issues, a Forbidden Planet exclusive using the original Jim Burns Puffin cover, a similar version with the Burns Battle Cars cover used on the Wizard reprint, a beautiful movie style poster cover, and a fanboy treat in the wraparound Adventure Sheet cover. There is actually an eighth variant too, but it is only a semi-variant isasmuch as Forbidden Planet offered for presale a version of the Burns red Chevvy cover signed by everyone involved (which annoyingly had one person missing who was late so missed the pre-signing event meaning only those copies where signatures were collected in person at the actual FP public signing event have him on them). Obviously the two Burns covers are fabulous, as is the movie cover. The Adventure Sheet cover is fun for the nostalgia but being just a black and white affair, it is actually rather downbeat. But, as I said before, of all the variants across the four individual issues, the Coleby versions win it for me. There is one particularly odd variant of Issue 1 where Bella has her hand in a dubious place and seems to be interfering with herself! Once the four parts were collected together into a single volume TPB, there were even two variants of this: the standard version uses the Coleby Issue 1 cover of the speeding Interceptor, whilst a FP exclusive uses the Burns red Chevvy cover again. In a neat touch, the Coleby cover TPB has a green spine (the Burns’ spine is orange) and each individual Issue has a green back cover. All nicely on-brand then.

Writer Andi Ewington is no newcomer to comic books and had written several before this piece came about. The whole thing is clearly a labour of love for Ewington and his attention to detail to make it consistent with and interconnecting to the gamebook is very apparent. The dialogue is snappy and suitably hard-boiled, and there is a sparcity to speech that suits the piece nicely. Dialogue plays second fiddle to action and the limiting of the speech bubbles allows the art to speak for itself and drive this through. I remember when the individual Issues first came out, that reading Issue 1 with its very limited amount of dialogue, really did make it feel like a pre-credits sequence, which it sort of is, as the real Mad Max-style violence, explosions, and converted road vehicles kicks in from Issue 2. A real credit to Ewington is that the GN works equally as well as a comic book for its own sake, as well as a FF fan confection, and there is definitely an intended market beyond the niche of FF fans as there is nothing here to alienate a reader with no knowledge of the source gamebook. For me, obviously, the pleasure is in getting another part of the FF cannon and growing the world, especially as this is a non-Titan set book and these generally get ignored in the overall world-building in FF.

The individual Issues and the combined GN included some additional material too, which is always welcome as it expands our understanding. In Ian Livingstone’s introduction he admits what we all suspected (that he deliberately cribbed from Mad Max) but he makes an odd remark when he says that the GN is “[an] adaptation of the interactive book as a linear narrative” which it quite simply is not. It is the Prequel and a completely different part of the story arc to that found in the gamebook. Generally though, IL’s intro is very useful and gives us an early history of FF for those readers who are not already familiar with it. There is also a nice and very heartfelt tribute to the original gamebook’s artist Kevin Bulmer, written by his ex-partner. This is actually very revealing and shows just how involved Bulmer was in video gaming in particular. His work with Jeff Wayne on War Of The Worlds is interesting to read and learn about too. Also included is a nice potted overview of Freeway Fighter itself by Jonathan Green and a few pages of Coleby’s concept art and prelims which are interesting to see. In other words, all of the “Special Features” (if this were a DVD) are worthwhile and add to the experience for those who want to know more beyond simply reading the GN.

And it is a good job that we do get this added value material as, if I have one criticism of this GN (and I really can only think of one) it is its brevity. In episodic format, each Issue is over in a few pages just as it gets going and, whilst this does leave you itching to read the next instalment, these are rather too short as comic books go. Indeed, even in its combined volume format, I reckon this takes no more than 15-20 minutes to read from cover to cover. On the one hand it can be argued that the shortness maintains its relentless pace and means there are no lulls or pointless filler parts. However, it would have been nice if it were longer as it does leave the reader feeling a little bit short-changed, especially compared to most TPBs I have read. But, as I said, this is literally the only issue I can take with this and it is otherwise very good indeed and hugely enjoyable.

For collector interest, in addition to the seven versions of Issue 1 and the three versions each of Issues 2 thru 4 (giving a total of 16 covers for the collector to get hold of), plus the two cover variants of the GN version, Forbidden Planet also produced a pair of exclusive 18” x 24” giclee prints of the two Burns covers, each limited to 25 units signed and numbered by Ian Livingstone and Jim Burns. Further promotional paraphernalia was also produced in the form of a set of two double-sided art postcards that were given away at Fighting Fantasy Fest 2, an A5-sized print signed by Livingstone that was exclusive to OK Comics in Leeds, plus the Burns variant of the collected TPB version also came with a print signed by all interested parties. Titan Comics (and indeed Forbidden Planet) rarely miss an opportunity to bankroll comic books nowadays meaning there is plenty out there for the completist to gather together.

The first attempt at a FF-based GN (Steve Jackson’s The Trolltooth Wars) was not a success overall. It suffered from misguided planning on many levels, was the work of largely untested creators in PJ Montgomery and Gavin Mitchell, was marred by a farcical Kickstarter campaign to fund it, and is unlikely to appeal (or make any sense) to the non-FF fan reader. This second offering though from the talented creative team of Ewington and Coleby is very impressive and definitely does justice to its own concept as well as being very respectful to the original gamebook. The lead into the gamebook is smooth and effective, the action is breathtaking, the art is fantastic, and the whole thing just works brilliantly. OK, it is undeniably short and is light on plot but these are greatly made up for in its many positives. I have read it umpteen times and will continue to re-read it whenever I want a quick fix of mindless futuristic violence whilst feeling a bit of sadness for the average person who is just trying to eek out an existence in a collapsed society. I could sit and enjoy Coleby’s art in this GN for ages without even reading the text or following the story and therein lies, for me, the sign of a successful comic book: the art can stand on its own, the plot can stand on its own, and the whole thing meshes beautifully. There was talk at one point of Ewington producing another FF-based GN in the form of Deathtrap Dungeon, but sadly this project fell through, which is a huge shame as I would have loved to see more FF comics from Ewington as his first is really great stuff.