Tuesday, 18 September 2018

Fortress Throngard


Tom Williams

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Fortress Throngard is, at 172 sections, the shortest stand-alone mini-adventure to be printed in the pages of Warlock magazine, appearing, as it did, in Issue 9. I assume this is another reader submission (many Warlock short subjects were) as I have no idea otherwise who Tom Williams is, but I may be wrong on this matter. Whoever he is, this adventure shows him to be quite skilled in designing gamebooks structurally, even if the opening spiel hardly grabs you by the throat and demands that you play: all we get is three brief paragraphs setting the scene by telling us that the wood of Ergon has been the site of abductions in the name of the wizard Throngard, that you are squire to a certain Sir Falfax the Fair, that he has been captured, and that the only way you can save him is by getting yourself abducted in Ergon and taken to Fortress Throngard to pull off an inside job rescue mission. A previous statement in the initial header section also tells you that you can prove your worthiness to become a knight yourself by rescuing Sir Falfax, so I’m guessing that the real intended outcome of this adventure is getting yourself knighted rather than either liberating Sir Falfax or dealing with Throngard himself, but presumably both of these are prerequisites to achieving a knighthood.

The Rules tell us that we start with the standard FF equipment of sword, leather armour, and backpack, along with the Warlock mini-adventure modifications of 5 rather than 10 Provisions and one from the usual choice of three starting Potions that contain two rather than one doses. You also get the more unique additions of a shield and, as soon as you read the Introduction, you also discover you have a knife and a picklock. These last two items sound very specific and presumably must have an impact on the adventure: dungeons, lockpicks; yes, I think that’s a logical combination so this appears to make sense…. Or rather it does until you finish reading section 1 which tells you that, in fact, you are unarmed bar your knife and you have now acquired a stout stick. Add to this, the comment in the Introduction that You know that any other equipment [than your knife and lockpick] will be taken as soon as you are captured and you have to assume that you actually have no equipment except for the knife, lockpick, and the stick that appeared from nowhere, and that the time you spent noting down the other stuff (including the rare starting shield) was wasted as you don’t have any of it. And this causes a big problem as it makes the double-dose Potions of Skill and Strength completely useless as there is no way you can drink them before you start. On the other hand, the Potion of Fortune is very handy assuming you think to drink both doses before you begin as you will automatically increase your Initial Luck by 2, giving you a starting Luck range of minimum 9 to a maximum of a whopping 14 which, when you consider that you are made to Test Your Luck in only four paragraphs (although two of these can be handy in getting an easier path through), is very generous. So, from the outset, we have a worrying number of glaring errors and the adventure hasn’t even begun!

What is pleasing to see though is that section 1 gets straight to the point in plot terms and immediately has you meeting three potential abductors. You have a choice of three ways to tackle them, all of which ultimately lead you to imprisonment in the dungeons of the titular fortress (that’s good, right?), although one can be more disastrous and results in you becoming weaponless as you lose your knife (presumably your stick has vapourised as it never gets mentioned again after section 1) causing you a -2 Skill penalty which, whilst a little harsh so early on, is realistic as you are unlikely to be knowingly left armed after capture and you should not have full Skill potential if unarmed. From your cell you then have to explore the dungeon area of the fortress before climbing some stairs to a gallery area lined with doors (and occasionally some animated armour) which conceal the chambers of various dignitaries, uber-nasties, and some essential equipment and knowledge. Now, this last is an interesting point – for a short adventure the shopping list is reasonably long and involves both equipment and information, much of which you cannot find until you reach what, at first, appears to be the end. Couple this with the fact that the very early areas of the dungeon ask you frequently if you have info or items that you can’t possibly have been anywhere yet to gather and it soon becomes apparent that you actually need to head for the “end” first (or as soon as you know a certain piece of info) and then backtrack and double-about on yourself here and there to gradually piece the true path together. This becomes all the more apparent when you start to get direction options that allow you to retrace your steps and in the way that you can often get knocked unconscious and wake up back in your cell at the start of the dungeon complex which you might think is a bad thing, but is actually often to your benefit. So, here we have an interesting non-linear design where you have to return to previous areas and effectively have to defeat Throngard first before exploring the earlier areas. This might sound problematic as FFs rarely deal well with revisiting areas but this adventure (for the most part) handles the reset button successfully and avoids the usual illogicalities by not having things come back to life and/or not having already collected items available to you a second time. So there is quite a bit of sophistication in these 172 sections in terms of design, the path through, and the mechanics, and such a level of complexity is unusual for the early days of FF before authors began routinely deconstructing the concept from the 40s numbers onwards. Indeed, when you crack this adventure and see the complete route to success, it becomes evident just how complex this mini-FF really is.

The complexity level is, for me, one of the real stand-out aspects of this piece and I was genuinely impressed with how TW worked so much neat design into so few sections making this probably one of the most efficient and section-effective FFs. Add to this the size of the multi-level map and the way most of the encounters are key to the plot and thread together very well, and you get a very satisfying playing experience. Curiously though, this is also a bit of a dichotomy if we set this off against the shambolic equipment mess at the start, some inexplicable moments such as you having to abandon an item if you wish to take a deck of cards (just how big are these cards?), an awkward jump between sections 5 and 21 which simply does not make any sense, a combat against a foe with no Skill (do you automatically win, then?), a bonus to your Skill that is actually a bonus to your Stamina, and a weird connection between two key rooms involving the dragon’s chamber/fortress entrance. Similarly, there are far too many close section links, sometimes one leading directly to the next one or to two or three sections away. I realise this was endemic of Warlock FFs in general due to the limited number of sections but it does kind of ruin any surprise at times although, taking into account the non-linear back-and-forth structure, perhaps this might not be such a problem after all in terms of actually defeating the adventure as a whole as I feel the real point is to work this part out rather than contend with individual section connections in microcosm.

A complex design often suggests a high difficulty level, but that is not necessarily the case here. Whilst you are at a weapon disadvantage early on, should you become completely unarmed, there are several opportunities to acquire a new weapon. Likewise, your initial loss of all Provisions solves itself with several rooms where you can acquire replacement Provisions and/or eat what is in them. The Rules do state that you can only eat when offered the chance to do so by the text, but the book remembers to give you these chances so that part is not broken (and the ability to double-back means that you can always return to one of these areas should you need to eat again). Similarly, you can restore Luck and even Skill here and there so there is a good balance between stat bonuses and stat penalties. What is rather odd is the stats of combat opponents: the frequently encountered dungeon guards are very weak (presumably Throngard is not too concerned about actually guarding anything or keeping any prisoners under lock and key), whilst skivvies like the butler seem over-powered. Some opponents are very strong (dragon, demons) but they should be so this makes sense and you can weaken the dragon considerably if you have a bow and arrow. In fact, if you read a key book that you need to find to gather essential info you will be told how to negotiate certain strong enemies so you should not come a cropper. Even Throngard himself does not have to be fought (you can’t fight him even if you want to) and instead needs to be trapped which is a nice twist on the end baddie idea (especially as you in fact meet him earlier on than usual) even if this does leave a loose end as he is still alive so can probably go back to abducting people in Ergon woods as soon as he works out how to liberate himself. This is one of the few major plot loopholes in what is an otherwise generally logical story arc and the adventure always remains well-focussed on the plot with several NPCs to meet, some of whom are prisoners (the resigned-to-the-inevitable Gandorn primarily) and some of whom are Throngard’s sidekicks. On the subject of prisoners there is a very neat requirement to gather companions and you cannot win unless you have both Sir Falfax and a big group of peasants with you. A clever touch in regard to companions is that some prisoners are nuts and will hinder your progress so there is some fun to be had too in figuring out who will and will not be of help in your mission. Obviously, you will fail if you do not find Sir Falfax (and there is a non-win ending where you escape without him) but instant death sections in general are few, which adds to the overall impression that this adventure is genuinely winnable and it can even be completed with rock-bottom stats which is a refreshing and rare thing. This all suggests further that this adventure’s real reason for existing is its structure and the player having to unravel the puzzle of the true path rather than the soul-destroying FFs where the author is trying to kill you constantly and show how much he or she hates you. In fact, aside from dying in combat, you will only usually die instantly if you do something completely stupid or blunder into a portal that leads directly to Hell, which does give the fortress and Throngard himself an undeniably sinister bent, whilst also explaining why there are demons roaming about the place and why Throngard’s close associates are a vampire and a witch, as well as making sense of an episode where a ghost really desperately seems to want out!

The combined themes of horror/demonism (even Throngard has to be trapped in a pentagram) and the escape peril central plot make for an interesting sensation throughout of the fortress being an oppressive and dangerous place that you really do want to get out of as quickly as possible and TW makes a good job of presenting the urgency of your mission through his fast-paced and unfussy prose. Initially, you do get a feeling of being well out of your depth and the whole mission seems to be a lost cause until, that is, you discover how easy it is to get out of your cell (over and over again), and start to unravel the game map. On that subject, mapping is pretty much essential otherwise the toing-and-froing will confuse you as the directions offered are presented from the perspective of exactly what direction you are facing at any one time (ie right could lead from a room on the left back down in the direction you might have just come from) which is actually a very good thing, although it could have been simplified by using compass points (as these would never change) rather than left/right/straight ahead. The actual mapping of this adventure though is straightforward as there are no real convolutions as long as the occasional weird section link doesn’t confuse you.

The dark theme requires dark imagery and this is a rare occasion where FF cartographer Leo Hartas gets to illustrate a FF adventure (yes, I know he did loads for other series, but not for FF itself). His work for, for example, the Golden Dragon gamebook series, irritated me as it had a very cartoonish look to it, but in Fortress Throngard he shows a real flare for the gothic with large swathes of black tones accentuated by stark whites to highlight the horror (eg the vampire and Throngard himself) or by filling the frame almost to bursting to show the grotesque nature of some characters like the cooks or the guards. There is a touch of how I visualise Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy of gothic grotesqueries in Hartas’ work here and it’s a shame that he did not get a chance to illustrate a full FF. For some reason, whoever did the layout work for this edition of Warlock made an absolute pig’s ear of positioning the images in relation to their respective sections and often the impact of a section’s illustration is lost due to it being somewhere else entirely (especially the very impressive full page vampire and Throngard in his study), which is a shame as I found myself having to play the full adventure and then look at the artwork afterwards to visualise things more fully. I have to say though that Hartas’ illustrations of Throngard, the vampire, and also the dragon are all fabulous pieces that really do benefit from the larger full magazine page size treatment they get here. The main magazine cover art is by the always superb Chris Achilleos and features a melee between a wizard, a dragon, some vampire bats, lizards etc and, whilst impressive, only bares a passing connection to this adventure and is probably not intended to be associated with it as, by Issue 9, the trend of having the magazine’s cover art act as the mini-adventure’s cover too was over.

In spite of some glaring errors and a train wreck of a beginning equipment-wise, this is a great little adventure. The complex and unorthodox structure is enough to carry it, but its slick pacing and the real sense of desperation that you get whilst playing it all add up to make this well worth your time. I would have been curious to see what other ideas Tom Williams may have had and it’s a shame that we did not get to see any more from him as, if this is any indication, he had great potential as a gamebook writer. Add in Leo Hartas’ brilliant visuals and you get a tight, effective mood piece with a threatening villain and a human interest mission that also includes the usual gamebook self-aggrandisement. The difficulty level is just right and the whole thing pulls together very nicely thematically and plot-wise. This is far better than a lot of gamebooks that are over twice its length in paragraph count and its 172 sections actually work in its favour as, by necessity, this really drives the pace. This could have been pointless and empty but, delivered in the way it is, the overall package is very very good.

Tuesday, 14 August 2018

The Dark Chronicles Of Anakendis


Andrew Whitworth

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Warlock magazine issue 6 offered us this short FF penned by reader Andrew Whitworth. My initial reaction to the intriguing title was that the adventure would be a dark episodic effort with some sort of epic feel to it, the kind of short subject that really pushes the potential limitations of just 200 sections and crams in a large amount of material in the way that Dungeon Of Justice did so well. I was a little disappointed then, on reading the background section, to discover that the “Dark Chronicles” of the title were in fact literally a book that is the central conceit of the piece in that it is the source of Anakendis’ power and your aim is to destroy it (after killing Anakendis, of course) otherwise he will presumably resurrect. Already, this premise may seem somewhat familiar and, on reading the full background, it becomes even more so: a local settlement (Kokbridge near Fang) is being terrorised by an evil wizard who lives deep within a cave system and the previous hero did not fare very well in killing him. So: evil wizard, cave dungeon, curious source of power, disappearance/lunacy of previous person who was supposed to vanquish him…. Hmm, this all sounds very Warlock Of Firetop Mountain-ish to me.

Indeed, this adventure feels very like WOFM throughout. Not only is the concept suspiciously close to that book’s but the need to find the correct combination of keys (there are three, but only two will open the chest that contains the Dark Chronicles), as well as a tendency for the incorrect routes to end quickly at doors is also rather too close to WOFM for comfort. Similarly, essential items are often down these diversion paths which, again, mirrors WOFM to an extent. Sadly, what Dark Chronicles does not do especially well is hold the attention in the same way that made WOFM so compelling an introduction to the series. For example, the first two potential encounters are with creatures stolen from Doctor Who in the form of an Ice Warrior and a Macra (and yes, the Macra is a crab-type thing) which instantly makes this feel even more hackneyed and unoriginal. Very early on you are expected to contend with a very tough fight with an Astromancer who, after every other Attack Round, casts one of three spells at you: darkness, fire bolts, or sleep, the first two of which impede you stat-wise and the third of which irritatingly sends you back to paragraph 1 to then contend with the reset button. Needless to say, the reset button is just that and anything you might already have killed comes back to life if you revisit it and you can end up with multiples of some items (including one of the two essential keys). To add insult to almost certain injury, this fight yields nothing of use and just seems to be there to hurt and/or frustrate you. It soon becomes apparent that no matter which directions you choose to take you will quickly be sent back to the optimum path and by the mid-way point the map is so convoluted in the way that it links up that mapping is basically impossible, not that you will really need to map this adventure as you are unlikely to play it more than a couple of times because a) it’s just not that interesting, and b) it is very easy, assuming you don’t fall foul of one of a small number of tough fights or get the key combination at the end wrong.

The climactic decision point can be impossible if you have not actually found the correct pair of keys (although they are both hidden near the start and the third red herring key is very close to the end which, again, is not great for exploration and replay) but it is botched in its presentation as one of the three choices directs you to section 200. Assuming that you have already established that this is a 200-section book it does not take a genius to realise that choosing the number 200 option is probably going to lead to victory. This would have been far better executed and much more challenging if a bridging paragraph had been used to separate the choice section from the victory section and (like WOFM again) if you do somehow choose wrongly you get more chances to make another choice.  Furthermore, there are only three instant death paragraphs and one of these is avoidable simply because of the way the sections are randomised, as sections 171, 173, 176 and 179 are all involved in this episode and are all on the same page! Obviously, with the limited number of pages and their large format size, splitting paragraphs up is not as easy as it is in a book, but surely this critical fail moment could have been spread out more evenly to make it more deadly. Equally, this 17x episode offers you the odd choice of potentially facing Anakendis just after the half-way mark which seems far too strange to be worth attempting, unless you somehow believe that the adventure can end so abruptly and prematurely (which it can’t, evidently!)

It has to be noted at this point that, due to the large number of Skill and Luck tests, you are unlikely to get very far without both of these being in double figures, but Luck bonuses in particular are abundant, plus you get the standard choice of three Potions at the start which, in the Warlock style, contain two doses meaning you can start with a Luck score of as high as 14 if you choose the Potion of Fortune and immediately drink both doses before you even start the adventure. Essential items are mostly found after fights and Stamina penalties can be harsh in places (losing 25% of your Stamina at one point, a dice roll’s-worth at another point, and/or taking a -8 St hit from Anakendis if you are particularly unfortunate) but you do start with 5 Provisions and, whilst you can only eat when instructed by the text, for once this book actually remembers to do that and you can eat after most fights so replenishing lost Stamina isn’t too difficult, especially given the relative brevity of the adventure. Once you have identified the true path, completing this book is fairly easy and it will take very few attempts to do so and this is definitely an area where it wildly differs from WOFM as completing that book can take years.

Whilst this is a basic dungeon crawl, there are a few moments that seem to make no sense at all, in particular, what can only be described as the Forest Room which literally contains a forest complete with huts (er, somehow). As an essential item is hidden in here you have to suspend disbelief as you have no choice but to explore this contradiction of a room.  For some reason, you can find gold pieces here and there although they serve no purpose as there is nothing to buy anywhere. There is also a slightly bewildering room containing an aggressive man and some meat - I have no idea what this room is actually meant to be but you can masquerade as a meat inspector, should you feel inclined, which suggests it is maybe a pantry even though it contains just that one piece of meat – and an error loop that allows you to visit it an infinite number of times (again, ignoring the reset button) because paragraphs 23, 36 and 23 again all interlink which should not be possible unless you are teleported in some way. Basically, this is a mistake in the design and it does not give any advantage to keep going back to this room as the meat only serves one purpose very close to the end of the adventure so it is irrelevant how much of it you have got. Another moment that I found more annoying than strange is a pit containing a dinosaur which is just that, a dinosaur. There is no explanation of what type of dinosaur it is, it’s just a “dinosaur” – had the writer got bored of his own creation by this point or had he decided that, as it is not on the true path, the player would not care about it being completely one-dimensional? Either way, this is rather half-assed and, as the adventure progresses, this amplifies itself and it does appear that Whitworth was getting bored and/or his muse was running dry. It is important to emphasise that this is not as flat an experience as some other Warlock shorts (Rogue Mage is particularly dull) and the big difference between these two is that RM was written by a pro who was part of the Games Workshop inner circle, whereas Dark Chronicles was a reader submission, so someone in the editorial team must have thought it worthy of inclusion and up to the same standard as the rather better reader submissions that preceded it in previous Warlocks, and I think this is part of the problem as it is inferior because of the high standard set in the selection of adventures printed in Warlock up to that point (and after it to an extent, too). Had the Warlock minis up to this point been just so-so this would have been a pretty average dungeon bash that kept you occupied for an hour but, as it stands, it is not going to stay in your memory for long.

However, there are at times glimpses of what could have been, in particular the way that most of the creature encounters are unique and really make this cave environment feel like an unexplored part of Allansia that has its own distinct fauna. Unique to this FF are Devil Hounds, the Sand Squid, the Denrec (a subterranean bird), the Forest Demon (which appropriately lives in the otherwise out-of-place Forest Room), the IP-infringing Macra, and the truly macabre Walking Mouths. As we have no benchmark for these species image-wise, the more bizarre ones are helpfully illustrated, although the rather busy art does make them quite hard to make out without studying the images closely. The Devil Hounds in particular are pivotal to the plot and the connection between these, their handler (known only as the “Houndmaster”), and a NPC named Traskannd, draw the whole plot together neatly and connect the intro with the final act very smoothly. An early encounter with a good wizard that Anakendis has imprisoned within a well in the dungeon as well as a run-in with a tricky minion called Granzork part-way through adds to this overall sense of plot coherence and the adventure never veers away from your primary aim of killing Anakendis and destroying the source of his power. The problem is that the actual adventuring part is just not very exciting or inspiring and it seems that the writer hoped that this could be driven along purely on its premise alone and on the player maintaining the impetus to keep aiming for the final kill rather than the experiences to be had en route.

The theory that the climax is all that really matters in this adventure is further supported by the end baddie fight with Anakendis himself who is very strong (by the standards of early FFs) with Sk 12 St 20. You can reduce him to Sk 8 St 14 but the item needed to do this is on one of the few paths that is not mutual with the true path so, whilst the fight is made easier, you probably cannot win this way when it comes to the final analysis when you try to open the box containing the Chronicles. So, this is a very tough and climactic end fight and Anakendis can deal you some serious damage if you are not careful. The generally easy overall adventure does not really prepare you for this fight (even the made-out-to-be-tough bottomless chasm that you have to cross to reach the final act has multiple ways of being negotiated) and this is quite an unexpectedly deadly encounter that does come as a bit of a surprise in the context of this FF’s design. The pre-end baddie fight with Traskannd could also be tough but it is avoidable.

The ultimate aim of destroying the Dark Chronicles itself is, as with WOFM, another of those “came so far and failed at the final hurdle” situations that FF likes to throw at you and, if you do not have the right (or any) keys the book does prompt you to look for keys when you replay which is both a blessing (as it means you might win next time) and a curse (as it gives the game away somewhat). However, as I have said, this adventure is not remotely in the same challenge ballpark as WOFM and the destruction of the Chronicles acts more to round off the story arc fully, rather than to do what WOFM did and repeatedly scupper you when you think you’ve won because you’ve killed the villain of the piece. In WOFM this was a hard pill to swallow but a challenge to try again. In Dark Chronicles it is just a very diluted carbon copy of a far better assassination-focussed dungeon crawl.

I have briefly touched upon the busy art in this adventure and this is the only FF to feature the art of Mark Dunn whose only other offerings were two creatures in Warlock number 7’s Out Of The Pit section. To my eye, Dunn’s art mixes Bill Houston’s dark-scaled terror images from Temple Of Terror (interestingly, Houston’s work is seen elsewhere in this issue of Warlock incidentally) with John Blanche’s busy and macabrely otherworldly style of drawing to create something really rather disturbing that puts over the sense of horror of some of the denizens of these caves very effectively. Dunn’s art is very busy and demands study to make any sense of it, but I find it rather good and would have liked to have seen more of it in the main series. The title image of Anakendis himself (at least, I assume that’s who it is meant to be) is imposing and full of horror, even if it looks suspiciously like Gerald Scarfe’s teacher in Pink Floyd’s The Wall movie (or was this intentional?) The cover art for this issue of Warlock is Dragon Man by Chris Achilleos which, whilst it is as impressive as anything Achilleos has done, has nothing at all to do with this adventure, although Warlock only intermittently had cover art that was associated with its mini-adventures, so this is nothing unusual.

Overall, this adventure can be summarised as a logical plot that has a beginning and end but not much of a middle to connect them. You start with the North-West-East choices (or the illusion of choices), followed by a deranged and unmappable mid-section, then a series of plot-bonding NPC encounters, followed by a difficult end boss fight and a very simple and overly-signposted final key choice, as long as you have found the right keys, that is. Rarely can you diverge from the true path and the general over-arching ease, combined with the lack of anything to really inspire the player, make this gamebook one that is unlikely to get many repeat plays. Furthermore, as there is nothing to explore once you have beaten it, you do not even have the option to replay purely to uncover the stuff on the other routes that you might not have taken, as there isn’t much of it and what there is is presented so flatly by the author that you will care even less about the wrong paths than he obviously did! Play it once you have only got this and Rogue Mage left to play from the Warlock minis or play it first when you have nothing to compare it to. That way, you might just about get something from it. Otherwise, this is as meh as meh gets.

Monday, 9 July 2018

#12: The Gates Of Death


Charlie Higson

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Attendees of Fighting Fantasy Fest 2 in September 2017 were given the surprise news of the first FF book to be written by a genuine celebrity in the form of Charlie Higson. Accompanying this was the news that he was a long-term FF fan, a comment which immediately seemed to make no sense when he said he was too old for the books the first time around, followed by him then listing a handful of titles that he owned, one of which, Creature Of Chaos, does not exist. Alarm bells started ringing in my head at this point and they then rang even louder when we were told that Jonathan Green would be helping Higson out with the mechanics. None of this especially suggested that CH had much of a knowledge of FF or rather, certainly not enough to try to write a FF book (unassisted, at least). But, the dangling carrot of another new book in the series was more than enough to get fandom excited by this announcement and there is no question of Higson’s credentials as a successful writer of books aimed at FF’s actual target audience so his pedigree in literary terms made this project look very hopeful. Much speculation then followed on the subject of how the “Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone Presents” tag would work with someone far more famous (in real terms) than them. This, mixed with Scholastic’s almost certainly wanting to make the most of the Higson name, meant that there was little surprise when the standard naming convention applied to third party FF authors’ books was finally relinquished and CH was given cover author credit. Had the series finally sold out? Well, in real terms, probably yes as no-one else ever got cover credit, but in practical terms Scholastic really had little choice but to do this so it’s understandable even if it breaks with FF tradition in the name of celebrity. Such is life.

Another striking observation worth pointing out about the marketing of this book is the colour. Scholastic’s versions of FF have gold spines - the first six were like this and the subsequent five new reissues to accompany Higson’s book also had gold spines albeit slightly different in appearance to the initial six – but the Higson book is silver. This is bad news for anyone whose OCD precludes oddities on bookshelves, but good news for anyone trying to find the new book quickly in bookstores and, again, demonstrates how determined Scholastic are to push the Higson credit. Thankfully, unlike the first six reissues, the silver cover print does not disintegrate on contact with human skin so credit to Scholastic for heeding at least one of the numerous criticisms levelled against their reissues.

Which brings us again to the biggest controversy and criticism of Scholastic’s series and one which we will get over with first: Vlado Krizan’s internal art. When this first saw the light of day in The Port Of Peril and the reissues of The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain and City Of Thieves it was justifiably panned by FF fans. His uninspiring greyscale pallet made the images seem dull and lifeless, whilst his semi-digital inorganic forms were emaciated and cartoonish. Any sense of awe or terror was gone entirely and the whole ensemble of art was amateurish and uninspired. Replacing familiar and popular art by Russ Nicholson and Iain McCaig with this insipid rubbish was a travesty, and this problem carried over into The Port Of Peril as it featured familiar species, locales, and key NPCs that had all been drawn better in previous iterations and that the fan’s eye had become familiar with. Curiously, the subsequent reissues of The Forest Of Doom and The Citadel Of Chaos did not fare as badly art-wise because in these two cases Krizan seemed to have just traced Russ Nicholson and Malcolm Barter’s original art and added a bit of boring greyscale and jagged digitalisation to it resulting in what was essentially just a bad photocopy of the originals rather than a crime against good taste. House Of Hell’s Krizanisation (new verb, copyright me) was somewhere between the two, but was still fundamentally poor in comparison to the original art. So, the subject of the art in The Gates Of Death is curious: on the one hand, it’s back to Krizan original material a la The Port Of Peril but, other than in Port Blacksand, most of the actual subject matter is new Higson creations and this book relies less on familiar tropes than PoP generally did, notwithstanding its over-reliance on demons. This should allow VK to let his imagination run wild and really give him the opportunity to demonstrate what he can do with a (ahem) blank canvas. To be fair to him, his portfolio of sci-fi and battleship art online is actually very good, albeit that battleships are normally shades of grey (which suits him down to the ground) and his sci-fi stuff is colour which does not suffer as much as black and white does when large blocks of colour are used. So Krizan is not as talentless as people make out, there’s just something not quite right with his FF art. We all love the original artwork so he was never going to win there but this new book goes into unknown territory with no yardstick to compare the images to. It’s a depressing observation to have to make now then that Krizan’s art in TGoD is just as bad as that in the first three Scholastic books and has the same lack of inspiration, awe, and evidence of ability in fantasy artistry that made the art in the earlier Scholastic books such anathema for the eyes. Supposedly, Krizan was given a ridiculously tight deadline to turn the art around for the series in general but surely he could have done better than this…. Surely?

With that out of the way, let’s move swiftly onto the content of the (literally) shiny new offering from FF and its injection of new blood with its first new author since 1993. The plot is fairly straightforward: the Demon Queen Ulrakaah is the latest in the sequence of psychos who wants to wipe out Titan, this time with a demon plague. YOU are a novice monk engaged to stop this happening with the use of the hard-to-get-your-head-around-the-idea-of substance known as Smoke Oil (??) which turns demons back into normal people. Throughout the book you encounter people who transform from people into demons which fits the concept of how Smoke Oil works, but overall this idea doesn’t seem to make sense unless we accept the book’s repeated premise of people being transformed into demons being by possession presumably. YOU have to trek across Allansia, initially via familiar places from FF lore (Port Blacksand, Silverton, Salamonis, Plane Of Bones) to eventually reach new places invented for this book (the Invisible City which contains the Temple of Throth and the Gates Of Death themselves). This is an interesting approach as the overall feel of the book progresses from great familiarity to completely unknown territory which does give it a sense of unfolding mystery and foreboding. Port Blacksand can be negotiated by two mutually distinct routes and can bring you into contact with either Nicodemus again or very nearly has you meet the enigmatic and elusive Lord Azzur (who you don’t actually come face to face with as such which was a partial disappointment balanced out with the intriguing revelation that he sees, hears and speaks through conduits). From there you have a choice of routes to Salamonis (one via Silverton, the other via a more treacherous open environment) before heading off into uncharted new territory as you try to find the Invisible City and breach the titular Gates Of Death to get to Ulrakaah herself. Silverton is nothing more than a one-note opportunity to heal lost Stamina and we learn nothing new about Silverton itself by going there. Indeed, it is sold very short in the same way that Port Blacksand was in Port Of Peril which is a shame. Salamonis is a whole other prospect though and, as it’s nearer to the source of the demon plague, it is in a rather more advanced state of infestation. Essentially, the Salamonis section is a labyrinth of interconnecting (and mostly anonymous) roads that lead eventually to its gates at compass points. The literal killer here is trying to negotiate the city, find a NPC who can sell you useful equipment/advice, and avoid repeatedly dying by falling foul of demons, in particular by ending up in their purple demon dimension. Certain locations are deadly (the sewers in particular) and some of the city gates are red herrings that, again, will scupper you. The looping interconnecting roads within the city are a game-mapper’s nightmare and the feeling of disorientation as you try to get out safely is very much to the fore, making this section both effective and oddly hopeless in the sense of your chances of survival.

At this juncture, we need to discuss a mechanic that dominates this book – the looping nature of its design. Not only does the Salamonis map loop all over the place, but so does much of the book. If you die, more often than not you can use one of several methods of reincarnation to then get hurled back to a previous point in the book (or occasionally a future one, which is quite confusing). Initially, this seems unusually forgiving for FF (which it is) and removes the demoralising experience of endlessly restarting the book only to fail again in a similar place to a previous attempt (especially as the Salamonis section is deceptively hard), but it becomes just as frustrating after a while as being sent back to relive previous stages is no less tedious than having to just start again from the beginning. Indeed the sheer amount of reincarnating, looping back, returning to a fail point, looping back again, and eventually going around in endless circles does quickly become annoying and quite boring and repetitive. It does take a certain amount of determination and willpower on the player’s behalf to get beyond the Salamonis section and I suspect many players will grow so frustrated with this part that they will eventually just give up. There are only so many times you can re-read previous parts of the book before you get fed up with it and, whilst reincarnating creates the illusion of fairness, aimlessly wandering about in Salamonis’ deathtrap becomes inane after a while.

However, if you do manage to escape Salamonis, the rest of the adventure is far more interesting and, once you’ve found (revealed) the Invisible City, you get to explore the ethereal and genuinely mystical-feeling Temple Of Throth which gives you useful equipment and info before you try to access Ulrakaah’s lair. This is the most original and well-designed act of the book and rewards your persistence in the earlier sections with a genuinely enjoyable and intriguing episode. Indeed, everything previous to the Invisible City is fairly lacklustre. The final showdown with Ulrakaah is easily one of the most climactic end boss encounters in any FF book and goes some to make the rest of the adventure worthwhile. My favourite element is the way you have to die to pass into the demon plain and inhabit another character’s body there. To do this you fight the Obsidian Giants and, should you have some weakwater, you are almost certain to lose the fight which, perversely, means you win the fight as you need to die to progress. This is a refreshing idea which provides a neat twist on the usual “hero that has to win all of the time theme” that is central to most fantasy adventuring. The book repeatedly bangs on about you needing to be “pure of heart” to pass through the Gates Of Death and, presumably by dying, you demonstrate this. Ulrakaah is physically massive and genuinely intimidating and unleashes the (at first sight) absolute toughest and most unwinnable FF fight ever upon you: a Demon Horde of Skill 400 Stamina 800. Obviously there is no way that you can even attempt this fight in real terms, but, by using various magical seeds that you have picked up in the Temple Of Throth (or should have!), you can exponentially reduce both the Skill and the Stamina of the horde down to a much more manageable level. Ulrakaah herself is not especially strong for an end baddie (Sk 10 St 10) and it’s impossible not to have the key weapon you need to kill her (a khopesh) as there are two in the book and the second one is wedged in the gates themselves so you cannot help but acquire it. Interestingly, there is a non-win ending that you can find here too where you become Ulrakaah’s successor and continue her work. This section is number 400 which is very meta. The real win section is 470 which also shows us how comparatively long this book is in paragraph terms, although the optimum path is not actually very long so much of these sections must be used up in the Salamonis labyrinth and the multiple interconnecting paths within the Temple Of Throth.

The Demon Horde fight (and the Salamonis deathloop) raises an interesting point about this book: the difficulty level. At face value, given how labyrinthine Salamonis is, how seemingly impossible the end showdown is, and the number of items and information that you need to win through at the end, this book should be very hard. However, with the constant reincarnating, the multiple paths through (pre-Salamonis, that is), and the sheer amount of helpful items (seeds and potions in particular) that you can collect, in reality this book is very easy once you’ve cracked its looping design and realised that coming back to life can be advantageous as it gets you the chance to visit other areas and get more than enough stuff to win through with. There are loads of opportunities to find potions (and there are many different potions, mostly linked to reincarnation or negotiating demons easily), Luck tests are rare, there are umpteen Stamina bonuses, there are three types of handy magic boots, instant deaths are very rare, it is possible to revisit certain sections in the Temple area endlessly to get huge numbers of items you need for the end fight, and you can collect so many different weapons with various different properties and damage indicators that you should hardly be able to move for the weight of them. None of the (infrequent) fights (most of which are with curiously weak-ish demons) are difficult and several are avoidable one way or another, especially if you start experimenting with potions and/or smoke oil. It is possible to move quickly through the opening section by accepting an offer of help from Lady Webspinn (a goth name if ever there was one) and you can also travel on horseback at one stage which makes things move faster. The sheer amount of help you can get in the Temple Of Throth knowledge base section becomes overwhelming and definitely convinces you that, by this point, you have a good chance of winning. This balances neatly with the tedium and apparent hopelessness of endless death loops in Salamonis and makes the book feel more balanced difficulty-wise for anyone who is totally demoralised by the Salamonis section. Once you have explored the book as a whole it is obvious that this is generally a very easy book to finish, it’s the exploring it all part that could take you some time and experimentation. There is no central maguffin to find as such, it just tests your tolerance levels due to the underlying looping structure, which is both a blessing (less dying all the time) and a curse (repetitively going around in excruciating circles). There is no true path to speak of due to all the loops, but there is an optimum path that gets you to the Invisible City very quickly. You can negotiate Salamonis in about ten sections once you’ve worked out how to and, if you listen to all the advice you are given throughout the book by helpful NPCs, you will find that (like The Port Of Peril before it) all the potentially tricky parts are signposted to make them simple to get through. The Invisible City is non-linear although some areas will need to be visited before others and you can visit and revisit each part an infinite number of times so you will not struggle here. There is a huge amount of info to gather in the Temple but none of it actually affects your chances of success. It simply adds lots of plot extemporisation and contextualises what is happening by bombarding you with background detail to make the plot nice and logical.

As well as the looping design, the other feature of this book that quickly comes to the fore and won’t leave you in a hurry is the tone of Higson’s writing. This book reads less like a gamebook and more like a modern style children’s story book, what with its use of words like “bum”, “burp”, “wee” and “fart” (none of which suit the tone of serious adventuring), repeated use of corny jokes (Fish Face is a NPC who has the face of a fish, Holy Man is full of holes, there is an essential item called “bier goggles” which allow you to see the Invisible City whilst riding on a bier), potions are named things like “Nostalgia” (sends you back to a previous point) and “Pretty as a Picture” (beautifies a foe)… the list goes on. Not only is this reducing the player’s ability to take this book seriously, it is also far too explicitly obvious in terms of how to use/negotiate these moments. (I have a feeling the Nostalgia Potion might be a dig at aging fandom too, but I could be wrong.) There is a much bigger problem here though and that is that none of this fits into FF lore. Potions in FF have a distinct naming convention, as do NPCs, etc and awkward comedy and overly-obvious signposting does not sit well in my opinion. I found the humour puerile and at odds with FF, and the revised approach to certain aspects of lore sets this book aside from the rest. The initial sections where you visit familiar places do indeed create familiarity (which is welcome) but the overall idiom is not in keeping with FF and is out of context. As for the bum-faced monster, this alone is the single worst moment in any FF ever and also seems to serve no purpose at all other than to add yet another pathetic attempt at humour. I have to acknowledge there are many neat nods to continuity such as meeting a Clawbeast in Trolltooth Pass, finding a demonised King Salamon in Salamonis, the Nicodemus/Lord Azzur cameos, etc, and there is a nice nod to cartographer Steve Luxton, but I have a suspicion these could be Jon Green edits given how oblivious to the whole scene Higson seemed to be at FFF2. On the subject of JG’s “help” it is hard to guess exactly what the extent of this was but the mechanics combat-wise seem very FF (as do all the adjustors/new rules listed in the back for combat with different weapons, which do add some realism to fights) and the name Lady Webspinn in particular has a very Green-ish feel to it as does the description of the bier goggles which is clearly a pair of steampunk goggles, but I’m just conjecturing of course. And, incidentally, is the Fish of a Thousand Voices a reference to the Babelfish in Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy? If it is, fair enough, it just occurred to me that this was a possible popular culture link worth mentioning. Who wrote/designed what and where inspiration comes from is ultimately near here nor there really, there is a much bigger underlying problem with how this book is written and that is that, stylistically and prosaically, Higson is completely out of his depth with serious fantasy (I’m sure he thinks having Logaan set your pants on fire for lying is hilarious but, in the context of serious fantasy, it is not!) For sure, there are some design elements that work very well in this book and someone (Jon Green or whoever, with more gamebook-writing skill than Higson, did any post-manuscript edits) has done some of the necessary work to make it function but much of the awful Higson pre-teen burp and fart prose remains and overshadows the decent aspects of the content. Also, I cannot resist, as a lifelong Prince fan, from commenting on the paraphrasing of the lyrics to Purple Rain in section 200: doubtless Higson thinks this is hilarious but it is at best cute and at worst desperate, and, again, is jarring random new lore that is at odds with everything else we know about the FF world. On the plus side, it does explain why the dimension portals in Salamonis are purple!

Much of the negative focus on Scholastic’s FF range has been directed at Vlado Krizan’s internal art, but Robert Ball’s new covers also inspired a mixed reaction from fans. The second sextet of Scholastic FFs does not have full page cover art. Instead these books have a cropped image within a circle. The small image of Ulrakaah’s face on the cover of The Gates Of Death is suitably evil-looking and I personally find it effective but, having seen the full-sized version, I would have much preferred the latter image on the cover as it is far more threatening and shows her as the truly awe-inspiring baddie that she is. Instead, Charlie Higson’s name seems to be the star of the cover, rather than the Demon Queen herself. I guess it’s all about marketing the celebrity name rather than the content of the book and there is nothing we can do about this. Whilst on the subject of Scholastic and their handling of the series, as with the earlier books, this book is printed on poor quality paper with the fake smudges and scorch marks that made the first six books look so shoddy.

We must be grateful that, decades down the line, the series is still open to adding new authors to its ranks. In the modern day cult of celebrity, a well-known name is a necessary evil to shift units and Higson does at least have the target audience pedigree. Sadly, as a gamebook writer he appears to have no idea what he is doing and has taken a concept with huge potential and turned it into an only half-decent novel written for a 21st Century pre-teen. There is a wealth of strong material in here (and the optimum path will reveal it to far better effect than bumbling around endlessly trying to navigate the loops and dead ends) but it is muddied and overshadowed by the bad jokes, flippant oh-so-hip writing style and the excessive number of system loops. The end is by far the best part and shows the true potential of the book (although I think you can finish it without any smoke oil if you don’t bother visiting the High Priestess in the Temple, which is a major error, and it assumes you know who Lady Webspinn is whether you have met her or not), assuming, that is, that you can be bothered to endure the looping parts long enough to ever reach it. It does not suffer from the rushed travelogue and no-real-choices-as-such linearity of The Port Of Peril and the plot is far more involving and original than PoP. I found myself getting bored in the Salamonis maze but was glad that I got through it and persevered to the last act. The opening part is nice in its familiarity but it does not really amount to much and just seems to ultimately be a bridge to create some cohesion with PoP. My biggest gripe is Higson’s awful writing (especially his backside fixation) and some of his lore does not mesh with “accepted” FF lore.  I enjoyed The Gates Of Death more than, and it is definitely better than, PoP but its problems generally outweigh its moments of quality. A playthrough of the optimum path (without all the asides and loops) reveals the quality of its central premise and concepts (and also how easy it is to win), but most playthroughs will almost certainly involve getting tangled-up in its irritating webs. If it had been written by a more capable and accomplished gamebook author - and had far more editing afterwards to make it fit better with cannon (the naming conventions of potions in particular) and to remove a few glaring errors - this could have been really good but, as it stands, it’s just okay and I doubt many people will revisit it once they have completed it, especially as you will have even found most of its alternate paths in one endlessly looping and increasingly frustrating night-after-night playthrough. Overall, this was a missed opportunity where your focus is unavoidably drawn from its good points (plot, concept, intrigue, excellent final act) to what Higson really wants you to experience (the resurrection mechanics, his terrible idea of hilarity) and what he unintentionally causes you to experience (his lack of ability at writing a serious gamebook). The good parts are very good, the bad parts (which, due to them heavily outweighing the good, are what you will remember) are terrible.

Thursday, 26 April 2018

Destiny's Role: Zero To Hero


After a longer-than-planned gestation period, the first book in my all-new gamebook series Destiny's Role is on sale now on Amazon. This first book presents four short adventures of various kinds to give a taste of the world and concepts that the series will explore.

Order a copy HERE

You can also keep up with news on the series via Facebook and Twitter (@Destinys_Role)

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

#31: Battleblade Warrior


Marc Gascoigne

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Having assembled the disparate ideas and concepts created by the various FF writers who were involved in the series by its mid-20s and drawn them together into one coherent whole, whilst adding a vast amount of lore and background info of his own invention in Titan – The Fighting Fantasy World, Marc Gascoigne was almost inevitably going to eventually unload some of his ideas onto the pages of an actual FF gamebook. What is more surprising is that his idea downloading only ever resulted in one series entry, although his later taking over as Editor for the series may have drawn his attentions elsewhere, along with his various hands in the Warlock and White Dwarf pies and his general involvement is producing Games Workshop boardgames and RPGs (the marvellous Judge Dredd Role-Playing Game was one of his major triumphs in my opinion and I spent many hours in the 80s and 90s playing this). The sheer amount of effort that Gascoigne threw at the Titan project (as well as its monster-organising predecessor Out Of The Pit) demonstrates several things: a great passion for the subject, an exceptionally fertile imagination, and a compelling and vivid writing style that really makes Titan come alive and feel every bit like a real place. And therein lies the great paradox that you will quickly experience whilst playing Battleblade Warrior – MG’s superb writing is very much in evidence as is his knowledge and creativity when it comes to lore but, at the same time, you quickly start coming to the conclusion that Gascoigne simply cannot extend his obvious other talents to designing gamebooks.

Initially, thanks to a compellingly-written and rich introductory section, you really want to play this book. YOU play the son of the now-dead King of Vymorna who has by necessity had to become a warrior along with your mother the Dowager Queen, as Vymorna is under siege from hordes of Lizard Men who are on an expansionist campaign. The real crux of the adventure presents itself when you have a hallucinatory dream where you are visited by your God (Telak) who tells you to seek out Laskar who knows the hidden location of two mystical items that can help save Vymorna from falling. Hardly the most original premise but it’s presented so well that you want to read on. What follows is you choosing two of three of your father’s items to help in your quest (all of which are genuinely useful for once) then you have to decide how to break through the siege itself: option a is to head to the water where you can steal a boat and escape down the river; option b has you sneaking out under cover of night with an escort of bodyguards who can fight off the enemy whilst you make a run for it; option c sees you suicidally charging into the fray and hacking your way out of the siege in as bravely stupid a stylie as possible. Obviously then, option a is the safest and easiest route, option b can be dangerous but it is possible to get out unscathed if you are cautious enough, and option c ranges from fairly dangerous to extremely dangerous depending on the number and strength of the foes you have to fight. So, the book begins with three very different opening situations with difficulties ranging from very easy to (potentially) very hard. This shows a good balance of challenge in the design of the opening section and affords re-playability in its non-linearity at this stage. Options b and c do usually lead to the same eventual sequence of events (riding a lizard mount to freedom whilst being pursued by angry Lizard Men, followed by exploring the plains beyond Vymorna) but it is possible to start with option b and still decide to avoid the fighting by heading for option a’s safer watery exit point. Taking the river route cuts out almost all of the plains sections and leads you directly to a jungle terrain via a dinosaur encounter and, as even the dinosaur fights (Tyrannosaur or Triceratops) are avoidable, the river route is considerably easier to negotiate than either of the head-on choices. Sneaking out at night gives you the chance to avoid combats if you decide to but you can get into a few scuffles if you want the satisfaction of taking some of the attacking baddies down as you go so the difficulty of this path is largely down to how you wish to handle it, which is a nice approach rather than the usual gamebook railroading of making you deal with whatever the book wants you to deal with whilst giving you no say in the matter in situations where logically you could probably have more control. The fighting your way out approach of option c is interestingly handled too as (logically, given that you are charging to almost certain death) the way this one pans out is entirely down to dice rolls and/or random choices. Initially you choose from a set of sections to turn to and this decides what you fight first. You then roll dice from here and are directed to sections which could be more fights or, if you get lucky, could be the way out of the battle. Some of these fights are easy (low stats) and some are very hard (double-figured stats) for opening combats and range from various Lizard Men through smaller cohorts like rats via classic fantasy siege monsters (Orcs, etc) to big dangerous stuff like dinosaurs and, if you are really unlucky, the very strong Lizard Man Champion who, whilst not necessarily requiring you to see out the fight with him, can be fought more than once and with replenished Stamina each time. So, choosing option c will almost certainly shave off some of your Stamina, could leave you very wounded, and might even kill you, but then that’s what choosing this option is going to be all about and I like the non-arbitrary element of chance that the dice rolls give meaning you might not have to deal with a catalogue of hard fights, but it is likely that you probably will. So then, if you roll-up a weak character at the beginning you can choose an easier way out of the siege and still have a chance of making good progress through the book (especially if you take the path that avoids the plains episodes). Roll-up a strong character and you can flex your sword arm a bit at the start and get the satisfaction of knowing that you killed at least some part of the onslaught before running off to pursue your quest. Having escaped the siege, you either head out onto the plains on lizard-back, or sail up the river to a small part of the plain then onto the jungle. The plains are quite long compared to the fairly brief jungle, but the plains route also takes in the jungle so you get to experience far more of the book’s content by taking a harder way out of Vymorna at the start (a reward for your risk-taking maybe?) Next comes the part where you find Laskar who tells you that you need to enter a destroyed city which is where the items you need (the Eye of Telak and the Arm of Telak) are hidden. There then follows a conventional dungeon trawl through the inner complex before you reach the climax of the piece where you discover Laskar has stitched you up and sold you out to the Lizard Men meaning you have to deal with this problem before turning to the magic paragraph 400.

The siege is oppressive fun and really does feel like a battlefield. If you take the lizard-mount riding way out, the resulting pursuit is genuinely exciting and is handled at breakneck speed with a decent amount of peril along the way. The plains route can be dangerous and there are a few elements designed to trap the unwary (especially a confusing mist), but the central focus of this part of the book is on the NPCs, Lecarte and Katya. Lecarte is there to save you from your pursuers and lead you to the nearest town, the utterly pointless Capra which covers less than a handful of sections and is of no help at all, although it does open up the next potential episode, an Orc funeral. This is one of the highlights of the book and it makes good use of Gascoigne’s lore on Orc society that he included in Titan. The funeral plays out in an interesting and in-depth manner and you even potentially have to resort to eating some Orc flesh and/or drinking some disgusting guursh (aka Orc ale) which gets you pissed to the point of feeling very unwell. An earlier choice had you deciding whether to disguise yourself as an Orc and, if you took the chance to do this, this is the gateway choice that leads to seeing out the Orc funeral. This episode is both fun and disgusting in equal measure and shows Gascoigne’s inventiveness very well. However, it ultimately serves no real purpose at all other than to exploit an idea he included in Titan and to add colour to the proceedings. As with much of this book, this section is totally avoidable, but it does lead neatly to the second NPC encounter, this time with the messenger girl Katya. You do initially get the option to kill her and, to be honest, you might as well do so, as she dies very quickly afterwards anyway when you are both pinned out in the desert by some passing Caarth that, she tells you, are well beyond their usual route availability for some reason. So, she is yet another classic pointless FF NPC that seems like they should be helpful but it very quickly becomes apparent that they are not! A very interesting moment is the possible discovery of an ancient temple devoted to a panther cult which links into later episodes. Again, this is avoidable but it does present another nice cameo to discover. Whichever route you take (plains or river), you are then dovetailed into the pre-jungle sections and meet the trader White-eye whose help you might need but, again, it is not essential. White-eye is as one-dimensional as Katya and the only one of these three NPCs who has any background characterisation is Lecarte, possibly because he is another character whose roots lie in Gascoigne’s work on Titan so the foundations were already there. The subsequent jungle is an underwhelming excuse for you to try to avoid getting into a tangle with some tree-dwelling men (and possibly lose all your equipment) which leads to you finding Laskar for the first time before descending into the depths of the dungeon that forms the final part of this book.

And here is where this book’s problems begin to really amplify themselves. Having been through several potentially interesting episodes, you are now thrown into a generic dungeon bash choosing left or right options and entering various rooms containing monsters or booty. Your real reason for being here is to find the Arm and Eye of Telak and it will not take you long to find either of them as there are multiple paths that will lead you to where they are hidden, although the Eye is the harder of the two to find as, in classic dungeon style, it is a gem and there are four different types you can find, only one of which is the correct stone (or pair of stones, in fact). If you do not manage to find the Arm, do not worry as, when you reach the end, a Lizard Man appears with it anyway so you kind of lose the euphoria of having maybe found it. There are a couple of nice moments in the dungeon (the mausoleum is particularly vivid and awe-inspiring) but it is generally just direction choosing, monster fighting, and item hunting and, like most of this book, there is not much of it overall. Then comes the big climactic showdown with the traitor which is little more than a few stat tests, a one in four jewel picking choice, and then turning to 400 without having to shed any blood or do anything remotely challenging, at which point you reach a strange win section where the Arm of Telak (a sword, incidentally) conjures up a magical army who destroy the Lizard Man forces and Vymorna is saved, leaving you feeling generally unfulfilled and a bit short-changed by it all.

The brevity of the final showdown sums up much of this book as it is all generally rather half-baked, with the exceptions of the exciting opening siege and the fun (but pointless in plot terms) Orc funeral. Two of the four NPCs do very little and do not hang around long enough to make much difference to anything, the third (Lecarte) seems to be a nice excuse for some more Gascoigne-created lore cross-pollination and he does at least free you from a seemingly hopeless situation in the lizard pursuit, whilst the fourth (Laskar) is a wholly different affair and is pivotal to the plot so at least half of these characters do add to the proceedings. However, if you do encounter all four you start to get the feeling that MG is excessively obsessed with forcing NPCs into the equation, which can begin to grate on you. The jungle is very small (as jungles go) as is the river and both just provide minor perils. Another MG obsession seems to be dinosaurs which are, like his NPCs, deployed in an uneven fashion. The jungle edge dinosaurs seem to be very out of place and I was confused by their sudden appearance and their high Skill scores – high Staminas make sense as dinosaurs are big and chunky but they surely just act on instinct to defend themselves and cannot realistically be skilful? However, the Lizard Men’s flying conveyance of choice is the Pterodactyl which makes much more sense and links into their riding lizards as cavalry mounts and does add an extra dimension of peril as you can be assailed from above too. In fact, the airborne assaults are some of my favourite parts of this book but, again, there just aren’t enough of them and the terror is not sustained (although there is an amusing part where you can try to ride a Pterodactyl yourself, with understandably disastrous results given that you have no idea what you are doing). The final dungeon section is actually rather dull and, other than the mausoleum and the disorientation that the layout can present, this is the point where I would imagine most players will be losing interest.

Another problem is that (unless you take the path that leads you almost everywhere that is reachable in one route) a playthrough of this book is surprisingly short and, unless something strong or a failed Luck/Skill roll kills you, it is very reasonable to expect victory on the first or second attempt. Yes, this book is that easy. And it shouldn’t be, all things considered. There are many strong fights but none are essential. There are umpteen Skill and Luck tests and you will definitely need good scores in these two stats but this is probably the only really challenging aspect. The book is non-linear and, other than finding the Eye, there is no true path as such, although there are safe and dangerous routes. The initial discovery that you are limited to carrying only 4 Provisions and that you can only eat when instructed may seem harsh but there are lots of chances to collect Provisions (far more than you can ever carry) and a decent number of moments where you can eat so Stamina replenishment is not difficult. Furthermore, one of the opening three items you can choose from is a Stamina restorative and visiting certain places will restore your Stamina too. Curiously, the rules do not mention not exceeding your initial Skill but this is not an issue as Skill bonuses are scant. Given the number of Luck tests you have to pass you would expect this to be a potential issue but there are several Luck bonuses (including two early ones that seem to be impossible to use) to mitigate this too. All of this combined with the fact that not finding Laskar or the Arm of Telak is impossible (there goes any sense of achievement then) and the on-a-plate ending make for an unsatisfyingly easy gamebook overall and it seems that MG was more interested in translating his Titan inventions and certain preoccupations (dinosaurs, NPCs) into episodes around which a game was designed rather than starting with the aim of making a game and building those moments into it. Yes, there is some excitement to be had, especially at the start, but the pace is later maintained through overly-short and undeveloped areas that seem rushed in a bid to get it over with. Your character too is oddly moralistic and squeamish about things that you should have no qualms over at all, such as killing Lizard Men by blowing them up, and this seems illogical. Most frustrating of all is the fact that the Lizard Man siege has no context and, especially given Gascoigne’s fondness and skill in lore building, there is no explanation of why it is happening. On a lesser level, the same could be said for why the Caarth are out of their usual trajectory but as this is a small moment it is far less obvious than the huge gaping hole in the entire plot. That said, one thing that works very well is the consistency with the premise in that Lizard Men turn up at various stages throughout the book and are still entrenched in the plot right at the end, even if the way they are finally defeated is genuinely laughable.

In actual fact, the thing that initially appealed to me most about playing this book was the Lizard Man-centric plot. Whilst it’s far from perfect, Ian Livingstone’s Island Of The Lizard King is based on a solid central foundation of the slightly unsettling and very hostile Lizard Men and another book based on these creatures was well overdue in my opinion as they are one of my favourite FF species. The added draw of Alan Langford being on internal art duty again added to my interest as he perfectly depicts the lizardine semi-prehistoric nature of the subject matter and his return aids consistency. Even the cover which hints at Lizard Men riding flying dinosaurs really caught my imagination, in spite of it being a long way from even the most middling quality pieces of fantasy art I’ve ever seen and the colour palate is a bit childish. I have heard it said that Langford’s internals look rushed (by comparison with, say, Creature Of Havoc) but I thoroughly disagree and the depth of detail in some of the images, especially those featuring Lizard Men is excellent and sits well alongside his other work for FF. It is just a shame that FF failed to ever provide a Lizard Man-themed gamebook experience to match the concept’s potential and visual appeal.

For all its flaws, Battleblade Warrior is very playable and you really do find yourself wanting to like it, but overall it is a pretty forgettable experience due both to its ease and the way much of it sells itself short through design and mechanical issues that could so easily have been avoided had MG focussed more on writing a game than writing a book. He writes very well (far better than many gamebook authors) and this book never gets boring as such, but the way it starts with a brilliantly-developed opening siege and escape, only to be followed by a series of generally empty cameos (excluding the Orc funeral and the woefully under-utilised temple) that seem to be designed thus to maintain the pace, ultimately leads to a gamebook that is too short and too easy. I doubt many players will give this a second look once they’ve finished it as even the longest route through offers little more than 90 minutes of entertainment. A missed opportunity, given the subject matter and the talent of the author, but Gascoigne really should have stuck to writing fiction and expanding the foundations of the FF universe as the excellent Titan, Out Of The Pit and Demonstealer all ably demonstrated.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

To The Ice Palace Of Aesandre


ITV's Knightmare was one of the most popular childrens' TV shows of its era and I, like many gamebookers, am a huge fan. An obscure and lesser-known entry in the Knightmare canon is the interactive Knightmare adventures presented on Channel 4's now defunct TeleText service, playable through the use of the FastText function where coloured buttons corresponded to on-screen options allowing you to navigate your way through the screens. Normally, each day C4 ran a quiz called Bamboozle which used this system but, on a few rare occasions (believed to be just three times), a Knightmare adventure was offered in Bamboozle's usual place

Obviously, TeleText itself in its original form is now lost to time, but a web archive containing pages from TeleText was shared amongst the Knightmare fan community in mid-2017. The archive contained all of the original pages from 22nd December 1993, the day when one of the adventures (To The Ice Palace Of Aesandre) was made available. I'm not 100% certain how these pages came to be recovered, but the story goes that if you still have a functional analogue FastText television, should you also have a VHS recording from the era, Teletext pages can theoretically still be accessed. Anyhow, some wiz transferred the pages from VHS to html and put the archive up on the web. That's where myself and fellow gamebook fan Paul Kelly came into the equation. I waded through the entire day's archive, identifying which pages were relevant to the adventure (and literally everything from that day was there, including the TV guides, news, cinema listings, music charts, horoscopes, FTSE indexes, traffic reports, etc etc), filtered out duplicate pages and corrupted pages, and, armed now with a single set of adventure pages, I then set about mapping what seemed to be the logical paths of the adventure and working out which choices linked to which pages. At this juncture it's worth pointing out a quirk of TeleText which I remember well from the time and that is that, as analogue TV could sometimes have a less than fantastic reception, TeleText page characters could go haywire and appear as gibberish. And that was exactly the case here as several letters were corrupted so all of these also had to be identified ready for replacing with the correct letters. Once I had the whole thing figured out it was over to Paul Kelly to code the pages and hyperlink the choices to recreate the feel of the original, the only real difference now being that instead of coloured buttons, the player just clicks on their choice.

The end result is a fully-restored and playable reconstruction of Knightmare: To The Ice Palace Of Aesandre in as close a version as is possible to the original FastText experience.

Click HERE to play