Monday, 18 May 2020

Scholastic Reissues: Schedule 2




SCHOLASTIC REISSUES: SCHEDULE 2

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Following on directly from my post about significant changes in Batch 1 of Scholastic’s FF reboots, we can only assume the first set of six books (five reprints of genuine classics and one very average completely new title) sold well as Scholastic announced a second set of six that would include yet another brand new offering. Not only this though, the series would get yet another rebrand.

Thus, Books 7 thru 12 (in Scholastic’s numbering) would be #7 Creature Of Havoc, #8 Deathtrap Dungeon, #9 Appointment With FEAR, #10 Island Of The Lizard King, #11 The Shamutanti Hills, and #12 The Gates Of Death. I have discussed #12 elsewhere and the positive here is that it did at least bring new blood to the series (in the form of ‘90s TV has-been Charlie Higson) even though the book itself was puerile lore-ignorant junk which just happened to have a rather good ending for anyone who could stay with it long enough to get there. Obviously, having already used up five genuinely great books for Batch 1 the choices for Batch 2 still fitted into the evident policy of focussing on Jackson/Livingstone books (a contractual and/or rights issue presumably) but with titles that divide opinion rather more, bar Deathtrap Dungeon which I doubt anyone will call anything other than an absolute masterpiece. For me, DD is the series’ top title in terms of an adventure for its own sake in the ne plus ultra of dungeons. However, as a tour de force of gamebook design, structure, and conceptual execution, Creature Of Havoc has to be one of the greatest gamebooks in any series ever. So, two absolute gems as openers then, from thereon though, we hit rather rockier waters. I hate Appointment With FEAR and always have: it’s a silly novelty that is over in about three or four section choices (unless you can unravel it very quickly) and has an irritating system whereby you simply have to guess when to look for hidden sections. OK, design-wise it is very impressive and it does have replay value with the four distinct paths based on your choice of Special Ability, but the mechanics needed to be in a far better book and AwF is, for me, just massively unsatisfying. Island Of The Lizard King is and is not an obvious choice for such early reprinting. Its position as the third in the semi-trilogy of City Of Thieves-Deathtrap Dungeon-IotLK does make its release in Batch 2 a sensible choice, but Scholastic’s messy new continuity (thanks to The Port Of Peril and Assassins Of Allansia) partially trashes this now and its extreme linearity (to the point of just being a straight line) has always marked it out as inferior to its two monumental predecessors. What IotLK always had in its favour for me though was Alan Langford’s perfectly-suited sun-drenched very primeval-looking internal art that suited it perfectly… oh dear, so we’ll come to this anon then… The Shamutanti Hills was inevitable sooner or later as Sorcery! was certain to get another reprint and putting it this early in the release schedule does have the advantage of giving some focus (and predictability) to imminent Scholastic batches, even if it is possibly too complex as a series overall for Scholastic’s pre-teen audience as Sorcery! remember was always aimed at adult players. But Sorcery! as a whole is FF’s crowning achievement so getting it out there to a new generation is welcome for sure.

I am pleased to see that Scholastic has listened to customer feedback with Batch 2 and that the rub-off gold spines are now much more resilient to handling and no longer disintegrate. The eagle-eyed will also note that Salamonis is now spelled correctly on the map of Allansia, but only in Books 7 onwards as the new printings from Batch 1 (see below) STILL have the typo present. Unfortunately, their responsiveness to audience reaction begins and ends here though as the funny-smelling cheap paper stock, the ugly black splodges on the pages, and the abomination that is Vlado Krizan’s internal art are all still present and (in)correct. Most striking is the decision to completely rebrand again which seems an odd move as it immediately removes any visual continuity on the shelf between Batches 1 and 2. This is a cynical move by Scholastic as the new “porthole” cover layouts which are reminiscent of Wizard’s Series 2 shields but more colourful and individually unique (as each is a different colour on the cover) inevitably led to Books 1 thru 6 getting reprinted (again) in the new porthole format so hardcore collectors (or anyone who wants all their Scholastic titles to match) would have to go out and buy the first six yet again. It must be said though that I actually really like the porthole covers and they have a more “serious” look than the rather cartoonish and garish Batch 1 covers with full page art. The small cropped images within the portholes are more striking for their sneak-peak nature and focus much more on each book’s cover baddie in isolation, although the Batch 2 cover images are generally an improvement on the Batch 1s so they are underplayed a bit in this presentation (you can see the full size versions of the Batch 2 cover pictures on cover artist Robert Ball’s website incidentally). Another more pleasing on the eye aspect of the new layouts is the spines which have a less austere title font than the Batch 1s and the title/author’s name are divided by a thumbnail of the cover porthole which is actually rather effective. A final more subtle feature of the portholes (which continues in Batch 3 incidentally) is that the totally new titles are foiled rather than matt on the covers (Gates Of Death is silver, The Port Of Peril and Assassins Of Allansia are gold) and the author credit on the spine is blue rather than black for GoD and AoA, but red on PoP so they can’t even get these to match – either have them all in blue text or make each one different, just choose one please Scholastic rather than doing half of one thing and half of another. This of course causes no end of visual issues on the shelf with its mix of blue, red, and black spine lettering, not to mention one random silver spine at position twelve (possibly to help you to not accidentally select it when choosing what to read next), and it also of course means that you have occasional foiled covers in amongst the matt ones if you look at the books together from the front. Scholastic has just replaced one load of problems with some others it would seem.

So then, onto the artistic changes to the first book, the colossus that is Creature Of Havoc. Ball’s version of Zharradan Marr on the cover is actually pretty good and he certainly looks evil rather than childish like Ball’s attempt at Zanbar Bone does, but Ian Miller’s unique eye is hard to compete with and Ball was never going to better Miller’s original cover. Likewise, I am a big fan of Alan Langford’s art so it is unlikely that the eminently talentless Vlado Krizan was really going to cut it with the new internals for this book either. Thankfully, as is standard for Scholastic’s FFs, there is rather less of VK’s work on show here as the illustrations are reduced in number.

Present in the Puffin and Scholastic editions are these images:

1 scared man. 12 woodcutter, 40 study with skeletons, 63 dark elf bowman, 88 devourer, 123 Women of Dree, 134 Dree, 170 clawbeast, 182 guards and slaves, 194 zombie, 217 thing in a coffin, 229 Eleven et al, 263 manic beast, 287 toadmen, 323 cowled person, 334 shadow stalker, 377 rhinomen, 400 hand and bottle, 411 more zombies, 447 flesh eaters

…leaving the following illustrations missing from this version:

24 giant hornet, 100 rock demon, 111 lab, 147 bottle man, 241 blood orcs, 274 half-orc humiliation, 299 jabberwing, 312 doors, 356 carrion bugs, 366 brigands, 390 hobbits, 423 ophidiotaur, 435 another rhinoman

Unlike FoD and CoT this book has not had any new sections illustrated and a few observations on what we do still have are: 88, 170 and 194 are all quite effective but have nowhere near the amount of horror in it as Langford’s versions do, the figures in Dree in section 134 are more undead-looking than disease-ridden which is at odds with what they should look like, 217 is actually quite disturbing and less manic than the original, 123’s Women of Dree are just awful now and have pointed ears and expressions that make them look like friendly elves rather than evil witches that we were warned about in the opening spiel, 263 is sorely lacking the primeval quality of Langford’s version, 323 is literally now just a grey page with a small bit of inconsequential white in the bottom right hand corner, 411 is now a picture of skeletons not zombies (as I observed in my post on Batch 1 for some reason Krizan cannot draw skeletons and these always come out too angular and digital… oh, and he does not seem to have any idea what a zombie is as a zombie is definitely not a skeleton!) So, there is some half-decent stuff dotted about in here but VK simply cannot compete with AL and is reduced to inferior carbon copies yet again in an attempt to ape the originals. As for what has been excised, I am just about happy that most of the missing images are expendable although I am disappointed at the removal of the ophidiotaur as, let’s face it, who doesn’t like pictures of dinosaurs? And, Langford is the best FF illustrator bar none when it comes to lizardine/dinosaur forms (which is already worrying me about what might have happened inside IotLK) so this was a great image in the original. Perhaps it could be a positive that it is gone as we do not have to suffer the indignity of VK ruining its memory for us, but his added image of a pterosaur in FoD wasn’t too bad so the comparison might have been worthwhile (benefit of the doubt and all that).

A point to note with CoH is that the text prompt in section 213 that allows you to escape the opening Act in the caves is once again missing from this edition. It was missing from the Puffin version, restored for the Wizard Series 1 edition, then removed again for Wizard Series 2. Whether this is genuinely missing and therefore an error is an oft-debated subject, but I still maintain that it is intended to not be there and is Steve Jackson being tricksy to force the player to pay close attention to the text and to act on prompts that should by this stage be familiar. Add to this the fact that it is missing in three of the four published versions and I think my point is proved.

So, the Krizan-ised version of CoH is certainly not his worst set of reworked illustrations that we have discussed so far (I nominate probably CoT for that dubious honour), but it is a little worrying that Deathtrap Dungeon is next in line and we have already seen VK totally bomb in CoT when rebooting Iain McCaig art.

Firstly. let us consider Robert Ball’s bloodbeast cover reinterpretation. In the porthole format this is basically just its multi-eyed head without the context of the McCaig version’s surroundings. And it is actually not too bad and is definitely quite scary. Let me contextualise this view though as I, unlike most people, do not especially like McCaig’s original bloodbeast cover and it is definitely nowhere near as good as his truly phenomenal covers for both FoD and CoT in my opinion. There is something a bit Emperor’s New Clothes-y about IM’s bloodbeast cover and people seem afraid to criticise it as if it is somehow heresy to do so, but in my view he has done better work for FF which is probably why RB’s version offends me less than it might do other people. Conversely though, IM’s internal art for DD was genuinely brilliant and bettered his efforts for CoT quite noticeably, which of course means that Vlado Krizan was probably starting on the back-foot in terms of trying to win people over with his new versions, which we see in these sections that appear in the Puffin and Scholastic editions:

Intro gathering at the entrance, 12 trick bloke, 37 idol, 60 Trialmaster, 74 mirror demon, 93 chest, 134 manticore, 143 giant scorpion, 153 jewel-eyed skull room, 168 knife in worms, 187 basket man, 210 Ian Livingstone minus hand, 230 troglodytes, 245 pit fiend, 282 Throm, 312 ninja, 326 orcs, 344 faces in light beam, 364 Igbut the gnome, 381 skeleton in chair

And missing now are:

24 demonbird seat, 49 leprechauns, 108 giant insects, 122 skull stairs, 169 elf vs snake, 200 draped cage, 218 dead warrior, 264 homo-erotic Graeco-Roman hobgoblin wrestling, 299 dead barbarian, 339 fist, 352 rock grubs, 393 chasm

I have forgiven every previous Scholastic title (for the most part) for the images they have removed as they generally preserved the key material that is essential to the plot or the flow. However, the nature of the concept of this book being a designer dungeon with traps at every turn means that nothing is incidental so there are no secondary moments to remove. In other words, Scholastic has made a mess of the intended visual presentation of Baron Sukumvit (read Ian Livingstone)’s greatest creation. Indeed, they have even removed a couple of images that show vital plot points (169 and 299) as it is useful to literally see how the other five contestants fair and witness the moments when you relocate them after the gathering in the Intro image. Further to this, the removal of section 169’s image has solved a niggling problem with the original which was that two back-to-back sections (168 and 169) were illustrated which created a distinct imbalance in the distribution of illustrations but, Scholastic being its oblivious self, removed the wrong image as 168 is a trap whereas 169 is vital to the plot. Oh dear.

As for what has made the cut, my main observations are: in 12 the dead knight is very understated and almost miss-able which causes a problem as this is another picture with plot importance, the mirror demon in section 74 was in the McCaig version probably one of the single best images in any FF ever but it is now reduced to having jazz hands and zero horror in it at all, the manticore in 134 (another IM masterpiece) now has the head of a golden lion tamarind and its colouration is literally very black and white reducing the impact hugely in what is meant to be a seriously lethal opponent to be feared rather than a cute tamarind-headed thingy, the giant scorpion in 143 is now a crayfish, all the worms in 168 now have eyes (or possibly bell-ends), IL’s cameo in section 210 no longer looks like him (is this intentional though?) and what is VK’s growing obsession with everyone having pointed ears in Batch 2 as the (no longer) IL figure here now does, Throm has lost his bizarre “sunglasses” look in 282 (possibly a good thing as this part of him never looked right), the orcs in 326 are simply comical now, the new version of 344’s faces in light are actually much more scary and effective now (so that’s one point to VK), and the skeleton in 381 is so oddly drawn that VK does not seem to be even trying to show the skeleton anymore. Overall, this is a pretty depressing indictment of the situation and I have only highlighted the really obvious trainwrecks in what is a fairly awful set of images from VK. There was no way that VK (or probably anyone else for that matter) was going to compete with the set of illustrations that IM produced for this book but Krizan’s mixture of semi-reworking and simply tracing with far too much greyscale dumped on it and zero detail again does nothing to visualise the ultimate fantasy dungeon. The images here should be surprising and inspire awe and trepidation in equal measure. Sadly they just inspire me to not want to play the greatest FF in terms of dungeon adventuring in its purest sense and this is a travesty against the material in the book. There is an argument to say that all the best SJ/IL FFs must be reissued by Scholastic otherwise the series is not being properly represented, but there is also an argument that says if Scholastic are going to ruin the impact this much then perhaps they are better off leaving titles like DD well alone as this version is just an insult to the author, the original illustrator, and to the audience. Horrible. Oh yes, and there are no new sections illustrated in this version (Thank God).

So, as I recover from my incandescent rage at what I have seen in Scholastic’s version of Deathtrap Dungeon, I find myself forced to revisit Appointment With FEAR, but at least only to look at the art meaning I do not have to read it (ever) again. The porthole cover gives us the inevitable image of the Titanium Cyborg which, as the subject of this book is comic book superheroes, is finally wholly suited to Robert Ball’s cartoonish interpretations of the covers and is genuinely well done, notwithstanding the problem that Brian Bolland’s name carries so much gravitas in comic books and his work is pretty much the pinnacle in the genre. But Ball makes a decent fist of it.

Declan Considine’s interior art in the original version was workable and his style captured the comic book visual nicely (especially the multi-framed comic book approach in most of the images) but never rose above simply being acceptable in context. So, could Vlado Krizan finally get his chance to better the original art given that he is, for once, not having to compete with a master of the form as he was with the likes of Iain McCaig, Russ Nicholson, Malcolm Barter, and Alan Langford?

Appearing in both the original and Scholastic printings are the images for these sections:

1 street scene, 43 kidnap, 58 Macro Brain, 85 The Reincarnation, 114 Creature of Carnage, 129 Ice Queen, 157 assassination, 185 subway train, 215 Sidney Knox, 242 The Devastator, 256 store hold-up, 184 alsatians, 298 Titanium Cyborg, 313 Dr Macabre, 341 car crash, 355 fire warriors, 369 Chainsaw Bronski, 382 The Poisoner, 425 Cocktail Composer Droid, 440 Arrest

Giving us these as the now missing images:

15 amusement park, 29 small brown cloud, 72 sharks, 144 Professor Murdock, 171 Daddy Rich, 201 fountain creature, 228 bank job, 270 mummy, 327 Audobon Park, 396 Mantrapper, 410 airport nutter

Let’s consider what is missing in this book first this time as, given that the majority of the images that made the cut are key moments (standard for the Scholastic issues) it does create the problem that much of the surviving art is of super villains which makes it rather unbalanced and appear to be a catalogue of nothing but super villains (which it is not as lots of everyday moments happen in this book too). The exclusion of some images of crimes (228 and 410) is arguably a bad move as you are after all on the hunt for crimes to solve, although section 29 and 327’s images were always pretty incomprehensible to me so I’m glad to see these ones gone. Scholastic has removed a couple of super villain images too though which does keep the book from seeming to portray almost nothing but these characters now.

As for what art remains, there is finally a real positive in Krizan’s version which is that in this book there is none of his trademark awful greyscaling. Could we be seeing a breakthrough at last? Naturally, no greyscale is also a great opportunity to give us some immersive detail, something sorely absent from VK’s art up until now and something that is essential to making the player feel part of the image, as it were. Disappointingly, this opportunity is not taken and instead we are left with loads of empty white voids in his art here, but it is at least much less murky than his work usually is in FFs and this is probably his best work for FF so far, not that that is really saying much as this art is still very sub-par overall! To pick out just a few examples to highlight: 114 is just a man now and not likely to generate much carnage, 129 has had botox or lip filler (well at least it’s contemporary), 215 would be better being renamed Cauliflower Head, the alsatians in 294 are drawn by someone who has presumably never seen an alsatian, but a plus is that the VK version of 298 has been restructured so the Titanium Cyborg is now very much front and centre (not a bad thing as he is the main baddie of the piece). One thing that strikes the viewer again though is that the all-important panelled comic book style has been maintained which adds a lot to the whole concept of this book, but does of course draw us to once again see Krizan’s versions as, in most cases, little more than just copies of the Considine originals.

It is good to see the greyscaling gone for once, but the failure to take the chance this afforded to get some detail into the art finally is a huge failing. The fact that I never liked this book though does mean that VK could have pretty much done whatever he wanted with the internal art and I would not be hugely bothered as I still would not be especially interested in this pointless entry into the series.

As I said above, I approach this version of Island Of The Lizard King with some trepidation as the original edition had the perfect match of setting to artist. Langford’s excellence at portraying the primitive and/or lizardine mixed with Fire Island’s sun-scorched “lost world” feel really brought this title to life for me and I definitely prefer AL’s work here to that in Creature Of Havoc. Russ Nicholson got Vlado’d twice in Scholastic’s first batch, Iain McCaig felt the greyscaling sting in both batches, and Langford gets the dubious honour of having two of his sets of art reworked by Krizan in Batch 2. But first there is the cover which is the fourth and final McCaig cover to get the Ball treatment.

Of the four McCaig covers IotLK has always been the weakest by far for me so this was another that had potential for improvement. Indeed, the Martin McKenna update for Wizard Series 1 was more impacting and the Lizard King on his version had more threat in its expression and pose. Fast forward to the Ball version and I’m pleasantly surprised at how threatening his porthole headshot really is. The all-important gonchong is there too and for some reason the emphasis on him being blue is oddly effective, so this one is a winner for me and certainly complements the previous two versions as none of them is perfect and this is an unusual case where there is no definitive go-to version, so the cover comes off well in the Scholastic edition. I fear the same cannot be said for the interiors however, and present in both the Puffin and Scholastic printings are:

1 Mungo, 14 lizard man, 30 hill troll, 48 razorjaw, 82 Lizard King and black lion, 101 skeleton in mine, 116 bear, 139 lizard man riding styracosaurus, 149 map, 168 hobgoblin, 195 goblin, 211 Harryhausen crab eats Mungo, 223 lizard man in mine, 235 hydra, 254 cyclops, 279 battle, 305 ogre, 325 giant lizard, 350 Raquel Welch and sabre-toothed tiger, 360 two-headed lizard man

One thing that is obvious with how Scholastic has approached what images to remove here is that all of the lizard man-centric material is still here, which is a logical move. What makes less sense though is that some of the important images that drilled the primitive nature of Fire Island home are missing. The full list of removed images being:

39 grannits, 59 cavewoman, 71 pygmies, 126 spit toad, 158 slime sucker, 249 shaman, 268 prisoner, 291 pirate and monkey, 317 marsh hopper, 337 head hunters, 379 water elemental, 390 raft lunatic

This excision list is a problem as all of 59, 71, 249 and 337 are important if we are to see the visualisation of a primitive environment. Talking about them in the text is one thing, but seeing them drawn is much more impacting and removing these images seems frankly illogical. I have a suspicion that the PC Brigade might have got at this decision-making process as several of the removed images could be construed as stereotyping or whatever, but that is no excuse and these are vital to the whole concept. I am pleased at the removal of 379 though as this was the weakest image and the least relevant concept. Removing 291 is a plot issue, but only if you took the pirate beech route right at the start, so the jury is out on this one. At least they kept the crab eating Mungo in for section 211 as this is important too.

The inclusion list mostly makes sense but including the useless map in 149 is an odd choice. The majority of the featured images though are on subject and the weighting towards lizard men, slaves, and primitive species suits the material very well and focuses us on the lizard-centric concept.

Krizan’s versions of Langford’s generally brilliant art in this book are very problematic: Mungo in 1 has got sharp teeth for some reason and he almost seems to be threatening us, no-one can draw lizard men quite like AL so 14, 82, 139 (which also features a dinosaur again), 223, and 360 were always going to be poor in my yes, the razorjaw in 48 is lacking the primeval quality of Langford’s version as is 235’s hydra, the bear in 116 is actually very threatening so this is a plus for Krizan, the goblin in 195 never really looked like a goblin to me in AL’s interpretation but Krizan’s isn’t great either and this image should have been removed as it is pretty incidental and replaced with the cavewoman or the shaman (which is essential to the plot) – this would also have got rid of the map in 149, there are now way too few characters in the battle image for 279 to suggest it is meant to be a battle, and the Cyclops in 254 has an afro and is easily the worst of the Vlado bunch in this book. That said, there is also the problem of the iconic Raquel Welch image on section 350 and if you were to pick one image that encapsulates Langford’s work on IotLK it would be this picture for me – so why then has VK turned her into an emo? Dire.

Annoyingly, after the whitening up of the art in VK’s take on AwF we are back to carbon copies of the originals but made way too dark by the clumsy greyscale. Fire Island (to me anyway, and evidently to Alan Langford) should have a sun-drenched primitive look, not Krizan’s gloomy detail-free night-time rubbish.

IotLK was a good but not great gamebook that was greatly lifted by its fabulous internal art. Now, sadly, unless your imagination can work the text up into how Fire Island should look and fill in the important visual gaps that Scholastic have left, this makes for a fairly lacklustre affair in this form and I’m not sure it has much to offer anymore, bar the brain-melting experience of trying to work out where this now fits in the continuity given that Mungo dies at the start of this one, but Mungo is very much alive and unhappy about the whole Oyster Bay situation late on in The Port Of Peril which, mixed with the now clear-as-mud story arc with that book, City Of Thieves, Deathtrap Dungeon and the all-new Assassins Of Allansia, just confuses you to the point of not trying to identify a timeline anymore.
And so we come to the last reissue in Batch 2, and one that pretty much everyone would welcome: The Shamutanti Hills. I do not need to explain that this is the first part of Steve Jackson’s four book epic collectively known as Sorcery! and Scholastic have acknowledged this by adding the Sorcery leader to the title. This could slightly confuse anyone unfamiliar with what this might mean but it does alert newbies to the fact that this is part of something bigger (or rather it would be when more Sorcery appear).

A big part of Sorcery’s coherence was the art which was by John Blanche across all four parts and he produced the covers and the internals. Wizard’s decision to change the covers to (former Iron Maiden LP cover artist) Melvyn Grant’s updated versions detracted from this somewhat, but at least JB’s very unique vision was intact within each of the four books. Blanche’s style is not for everyone (me included) but his appreciators rate him hugely and his work on Sorcery certainly gave it a distinctive look. So, what would the Ball-Krizan version look like?

Ball’s cover has the manticore peering through the porthole, is nicely threatening, and the added touch of the disproportionately-large tail stinger is a nice lurid touch. It’s not a patch on Blanche’s fantastic Puffin cover, but it works well enough, as do quite a few of Ball’s covers, so this is an acceptable cover for me. As for Krizan’s internals, Blanche’s black and white style is so off-the-wall and his perspectives are so odd that trying to duplicate these would have been very hard, so many of the VK versions are adjusted and rethought in places. This selection is what we find still in place from the original list of images:

1 Sightmaster Servant, 27 riddling hunchback, 39 ogre, 51 assassin, 63 snakepit, 87 wood golem, 123 encounter montage, 147 plague village, 159 pilfered portrait, 183 old man in tree, 195 manticore, 207 hill giant, 243 woman, 255 goblin, 266 ale house, 355 serpent, 407 goblins, 425 wolfhound, 456 Torrepani welcome committee

So the following are missing:
Map of Kakhabad, 13 skunkbear, 73 back lotus, 76 elvins, 99 troll, 112 head hunters, 172 hut interior, 220 Jann the minimite, 232 svinns, 279 more elvins, 308 bandits dancing

As with IotLK I feel that Scholastic have dropped the ball with the excisions again here. Jann is iconic, 308 is hilarious, 112 wreaks of the same pc rubbish decision-making as we had in IotLK, and what have we now got against elvins to lose two images of them? And surely the map of Kakhabad is necessary to contextualise the campaign as a whole and establish a geographical sense of place as we are not in Allansia anymore? Whoever is making the decisions at Scholastic clearly has, rather like Charlie Higson showed with The Gates Of Death, zero concept of FF lore and this seems to be little more than a cashcow to them.

I always felt that Blanche’s wood golem in section 87 was the single most bonkers image ever to appear in any FF but the Krizan version is flat and uninteresting. I would rather have lunacy that makes you think and really study an image than something totally conventional like the VK attempt. I do not understand why the Sightmaster Servant in the VK image is so small (or is it a test of our eyesight to see the Sightmaster?) and the all-important manticore in 195 is not as botched as the DD version (thankfully) but is still not great or in any way threatening (at odds with Ball’s cover then). I am confused by Krizan’s version of the goblin in 255 as, whilst actually good, I think it is probably a troll.

For the third time in the Scholastic reissues we have an all-new section illustrated in this book: number 95 bandits. As before, with no barometer of comparison this is an opportunity for Krizan to do his own thing and this is a reasonable image but bandits are hard to get wrong as they are not fantasy art per se, and VK does indeed do his own thing by giving us a gloomy greyscale picture with no detail or depth to keep us interested.

In fact, this is what he has done with all his illustrations in this book and his angle on the Blanche originals is to mostly make the perspectives more conventional, remove the “excesses” of JB’s artistic weirdness, and have greyscale abound yet again. As with the usual Krizan technique, everything is too dark and devoid of any detail, the exact opposite in fact of JB’s very fussy, manic style. This is however the only title in Batch 2 that offered us the imaginative angle of a whole new section being illustrated (a positive move), as mundane as it is (a missed opportunity).

Batch 2 of Scholastic’s reboots is a much more inconsistent selection in terms of fan opinion and quality. There are three true masterpieces here, an okay effort, and a terrible gimmick book (that is not without its fans itself though). The new book (The Gates Of Death) has gone down in history as one of FF’s most derided books ever, and not without good reason (but I cover this fully elsewhere on this Blog). The new porthole covers are classy-looking even if the move to rebrand after six books is annoying to anyone who likes external visual consistency, but the decision to ignore fan reaction and plough on ahead with Vlado Krizan producing the internal art, along with all the crappy physical quality issues, does the series (and Scholastic’s credibility) no favours. If Scholastic’s vision for FF is to continue they need to address the internal art debacle and replace Krizan (yes I know it removes the visual coherence, but enough is enough with this greyscale crap), ensure the titles they release are those that have the best reputations, and finish what they have started as regards the Sorcery! cycle, as an incomplete epic will just be frustrating.

Sunday, 10 May 2020

Scholastic Reissues: Schedule 1






SCHOLASTIC REISSUES: SCHEDULE 1

Reviewed by Mark Lain

When the news broke in 2017 that Fighting Fantasy would be getting yet another reissue and that this, like Wizard’s two runs of reprints, would include more brand new titles, fandom was understandably excited. However, when the books appeared, the reaction was at best muted and at worst outright hostile towards Scholastic’s approach to the series.

Scholastic’s first tranche of releases began with (in their new numbering system) #1 The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain and #2 City Of Thieves along with the rather unsuitably-numbered (considering that it was part of the first trio of releases) completely new title #6 The Port Of Peril. WOFM being number 1 is de rigueur as it was the very first FF book, is co-written by both main authors, and introduces the system and its concepts in a vanilla way as it was from the period before any world-building had begun and all the individual titles existed in bubbles. Plus, as an introduction to the series, it is very very good, is not too hard on the player in terms of instadeaths (there are only four), and it is well-balanced, even though it makes very little sense, the Livingstone half is much better in my opinion, the Maze Of Zagor is torture and will put a lot of people off ever finishing the book, and the overarching plot of killing a little old man and pinching his treasure is a bit morally dubious. But where better to start for a new generation of readers (probably the offspring of the original 80s generation of FF fans) than with this book? Some might argue that having CoT as the second release is less obvious but, as The Port Of Peril is its sequel, CoT had to be released as the second book otherwise PoP would have made no sense in terms of plot flow. Plus, as CoT is a genuine masterpiece, Scholastic has been savvy in reprinting two of the series’ most iconic titles straight off the bat alongside their shiny new offering. It might seem odd that two-thirds of the first trio are Ian Livingstone’s efforts, but Scholastic would soon redress the balance between Jackson and Livingstone’s titles as its release program progressed.

The textual content of Scholastic’s versions is unchanged from the Puffin/Wizard editions and I have considered these in the write-ups on each individual title, so the purpose of this post is to look at what has changed, in particular with focus on the artwork. For this reason, the brand new titles are not included here as they too have their own separate reviews on this site.

The most obvious change on first seeing these new editions is the revised cover art. Wizard had already reworked the covers for every title they produced (the bulk of which were done by the hugely talented Martin McKenna) to give them a more “contemporary” feel (their justification, not mine) so it was interesting to see where Scholastic would take this. Wizard’s new covers were all rather dynamic whilst maintaining the elements of fantasy and terror that Puffin’s covers had but were mostly inferior to the Puffin originals, with one or two exceptions. Scholastic, given its involvement in the education sector, went for a rather less threatening approach with the emphasis on uniformity and bold colours. Robert Ball was the new artist of choice for the revised cover art, a man known to some from his Game Of Thrones work and I can see both positives and negatives in Scholastic’s decision to achieve a consistent look across the series’ covers. The obvious plus here is that it makes the books instantly recognisable on the shelf and it helps greatly in creating a sense of a unified world where these books are set. Puffin’s large pool of cover and internal artists made for a mixed-bag but it did give each book more of a look and feel of its own and I personally liked the idea that some artists’ work would appeal more or less than another’s and this was one of many draws to the Puffin editions. Plus specific styles suited specific titles/themes better (or worse in a few cases) and this did add a lot to the experience of the Puffin versions. With the Scholastic editions there is the danger of immediately alienating someone from the entire series purely because they do not like the art of the one and only artist currently working on either the covers or the internals. For me, Ball’s covers are undeniably bold and colourful and are definitely suited to the intended audience (remember, these books are, in commercial market terms, for kids not middle-aged fanboys) and I gather from peer feedback that the intended target age group really like Ball’s covers so, regardless of what the older fans might think, Scholastic has clearly nailed this aspect and this shows that they mean business with the series rather than this just being another tired necro-release run. The return of the classic FF logo is very welcome (I never liked Wizard’s silver button badge logo) and the bold black and yellow YOU ARE THE HERO banner is a nice touch that adds a consistent design element in the same way that the green (or red in the case of Sorcery!) banner or the dragon did with the Puffin series. Similarly, the iconic Puffin green spines are aped with Scholastic’s classy gold spines with black lettering. However, the gold spines would prove to be a bit of an own goal as the gold comes off on contact with skin and bares up to hardly any handling meaning that, if you actually want to hold the books and have them stand up to any amount of use, the spines quickly rub down to white leaving you with ruined spines that are a patchwork of gold and white with black lettering. Shoddy.

And this shoddiness of production quality does not end at the disintegrating gold spines. The interiors of Scholastic’s editions are poor to say the least. The paper is cheap-looking, dark and oily, and smells very peculiar (none of that lovely bookshop fresh smell here), and for some unknown reason a designer at Scholastic thought it would be a good idea to mark the page edges with black splodges that are meant to create the effect of burned paper smuts but actually just look like printing ink has gone everywhere. Ugly. To add insult to injury, Scholastic commissioned the original cartographer from the Puffin run (the consistently excellent Leo Hartas) to draw a new map of Allansia which was wisely included from WOFM onwards, but forgot to get anyone who knew the series’ lore to check it resulting in a typo on the name of Salamonis. OK, I know only the experts would notice, but still, get it right Scholastic if you want to create a new generation of devoted fans in the same way that Puffin did.

So, now to look specifically at each title in Scholastic’s first batch of books, starting at the beginning with their version of WOFM. I really like Robert Ball’s new cover of Zagor (in true form as opposed to his old man guise) casting what looks like Force Lightning on a background of Firetop Mountain. Scholastic’s decision to put the FF logo over the top of the mountain’s rather important firy top seems a bit stupid. But overall the mix of oranges and yellows makes for a really impacting and very bright cover that definitely makes me want to see more and look inside. So far so good, then. For me, one of the things that really hooked me to FF as a child was Russ Nicholson’s internal art in WOFM and, due to this, his art IS the visual epitome of FF for me and I was both intrigued and concerned when I learned that, for the first time as even Wizard did not touch the internal art, FF had all-new artwork inside as well as on the covers. I opened the book with a mixture of hope and trepidation to see what awaited me inside and, words failed me on first sight – What was this abomination that I saw before me? Was this a joke? The artwork was always as important a feature as the text in gamebooks and FF always seemed to aim for quality and integrity with its choices on internal artists so what was the thinking behind replacing such brilliant and iconic imagery with the work of someone called Vlado Krizan? Krizan’s art is the single biggest bone of contention with Scholastic’s reissues amongst the gamebook community. I read one very amusing comment on Amazon saying that Krizan has won a Blue Peter competition to get the honour of showcasing to the world just how bad an artist he is and, if his work in WOFM is an indication, this could well be true. I am not au fait with the story but various theories abounded that maybe VK was a Scholastic house artist which meant he was a cheap option and, whatever the reason, I just cannot understand why FF thought that hiring him for WOFM to replace Nicholson’s art was remotely a good idea. But it is not fair to simply dismiss VK’s greyscale art as awful without going into a bit more depth of just why this is the case. For me, the underlying problem is twofold: firstly, the greyscaling makes for very dull, lifeless, and detail-less images that do not draw the viewer in at all; secondly, a mixture of cartoonish looks and oddly emaciated figures with angular, very “digital”-looking forms, give such an unrealistic look to the art that it is hard to see it as anything other than the product of a mid-90s computer.

It is interesting to note that Scholastic also drastically reduced the number of internal images in every reissue (not just WOFM) which, whilst this means we do not have to have anything like as much of Vlado’s terrible art inflicted upon us, it does mean the books are text-heavy which hugely detracts from the experience. For thoroughness, the images that appear in both the Puffin and Scholastic versions are as follows (listed by section number):

1 cave entrance, 36 old adventurer, 71 sleeping orc, 106 dragon, 122 boathouse zombies, 143 sandworm, 168 orc chieftain whipping underling, 179 minotaur, 189 painting room, 193 iron Cyclops, 218 river crossing area, 227 dwarf card party, 251 bats, 266 Giver of Sleep, 275 ghoul, 348 troll, 358 Zagor, 370 orc booze-up, 383 skeletons, 394 giant spider, 400 treasure

….which means, conversely, that these images have been removed completely and have no new equivalent in the Scholastic edition:

11 animated tools, 58 Rest Ye Here bench, 84 mazemaster, 97 blue candle shop, 134 two helmets, 155 armoury, 205 crypt, 240 snake in a box, 287 rats, 308 grille, 311 hands and stars floor, 326 key, 336 boathouse man and dog

It is worth tempering this mass cull of illustrated sections with the observation that, with one or two exceptions (58 Rest Ye Here and 336 boathouse), most of the missing images are secondary and not that interesting in terms of subject matter so their removal is no major disaster to the experience. Thankfully, Scholastic kept the most interesting and/or iconic imagery in place so the key moments are still maintained visually, but what of the execution? To pick just a few of VK’s versions that struck me the most: 36 is now far too dark and shadowy, 71 seems to have become cute and friendly, 168 does not look remotely like 71 to the point that I’m not convinced they are the same species (so much for visual continuity then), 189 has a shaft of light coming from the left which is impossible as we are supposed to be under a mountain, 193 has made the iron cyclops look like a fawn from Narnia, the dwarfs in 227 wear shrouds and look almost Satanic, 275 is a skeleton not a terrifying semi-decayed ghoul, 358 is actually quite good in context and does at least capture all the important elements of Zagor, the giant spider in 394 has a lot more horror in it now and is genuinely effective, the treasure chest in 400 is from a weird perspective and looks like a house now. This shows that Vlado’s art here is not 100% awful but his failing does seem to be more in that things look too cute, are too thin and elongated, have odd inconsistencies in them, or are too dark and gloomy to have any real impact. The botching of the very iconic zombie and iron cyclops images is a definite disaster, but the greyscaling of everything and the unrealistic look is the killer overall. Gone is the life and the awe that Nicholson put into the originals and WOFM is now just text, excellent text I grant you, but just text as the visual impact is now a thing of the past.

One last point on the changes to WOFM before we move on is that there are two versions of this first batch release. Scholastic produced a bookclub-exclusive version with a variant cover layout where the title and FF banner are switched. Sadly this does mean that we now see even less of the mountain so the all-important top is still not bloody visible on the cover! Having a variant does make life more interesting for collectors though and this version came with an exclusive FF logo key ring stuck to the front cover (using a sticky gel that can be removed without destroying the cover so Scholastic does have someone working for them who is conscious of quality control!)

I cannot extend my liking of Ball’s WOFM cover to his new cover for CoT. Iain McCaig’s original cover is one of my absolute favourite FF covers so any change to this would be a problem for me. I found Wizard’s cover boring and fairly irrelevant subject matter-wise but RB’s version is terrible. The blue-black-yellow pallet is nice enough and, again, it is bold, but the interpretation of Zanbar Bone is not in the slightest bit frightening and looks modelled on something you would see in an episode of The Simpsons. In no way does this new cover drive me to open this book, yet open it I must to see what the new internal art has to offer and we have the following sections illustrated in both the Puffin and Scholastic versions:

1 city guard, 31 bridge, 62 Black Lobster, 88 serpent queen, 148 pillory, 171 street scene, 182 Jimmy Quicktint, 203 Zanbar Bone, 224 J Wraggins, 239 cart, 250 man-orc, 265 hag, 271 sleeping pirates, 307 Sourbelly and Fatnose, 329 Nicodemus, 344 Azzur’s coach, 349 fire imp, 385 skeletons

Which means the following images are missing from the Scholastic version:

17 lunatic, 27 skull pill Russian Roulette, 40 bays ball, 80 lizardine (I always preferred this to the conceptually-similar serpent queen), 113 toys women, 135 gas egg man, 178 ogre, 292 vampire girl, 319 sarcophagus, 356 rats, 370 black lotus, 398 cannonball man

Interestingly, we see here for the first time Scholastic actually adding new images for sections that were not previously illustrated in previous editions, in this case two sections:

115 chained legs man, 296 thieves

It makes perfect sense to add an image of some thieves and I always found it curious that the McCaig art never included any of these, given the title of this book, so this is a neat inclusion. Add to this the fact that the thieves look sinister and quite effective, and you get a useful inclusion. I cannot say the same for the inclusion of section 115’s image though as this just seems to be a bit incidental. Indeed, as with WOFM most of the excised images were pretty incidental and non-essential meaning all of the important stuff is still illustrated but I really like the idea of the vampire girl and the two old women fighting over toys as these did add a touch of weirdness so missing these out is a pity. As for what is still here, a few observations would be: the city guard in 1 is well worked and does look like a medieval guard (but McCaig’s was far more threatening), the bridge in 31 is from completely the wrong perspective as you approach it from the side not straight down the river, the serpent queen in 88 is terrible as it is far too angular and not remotely natural-looking, the street scene in 171 is no longer a detailed panorama reduced as it now is to basically just a boat, Jimmy Quicktint looks better now in my opinion as he is more like a modern tattooist than McCaig’s Ghost of Christmas Present version, is J Wraggins in 224 intended to look like Robert Ball as he definitely does?, the man-orc in 250 and the sleeping pirates in 271 are very close to the originals and other than the greyscaling dulling them down are not bad, Nicodemus now looks terrified in 329 rather than terrifying and the huge amount of elaboracy in the McCaig original really made this image stand out for me (but not anymore). My biggest problems by far are with the illustrations of Zanbar Bone (203) and Sourbelly and Fatnose (307): Zanbar is just awful now – gone is the threat and the horror, to be replaced with an emaciated and frankly pathetic-looking non-entity that you could probably just push over and he would shatter; As for Sourbelly and Fatnose, the originals were full of repulsive and grotesque character, but now are just two shady and very similar outlines that do not warrant any more than a cursory glance.

Naturally, trying to make comparisons with Iain McCaig’s art is unfair as IM is a master of creating very perfect-looking images. Krizan’s versions are a mixture of pretty effective, dull, and simply inferior reinterpretations. If we can take a positive from this it is that Krizan’s versions are all full page whereas the McCaig ones were far too small in some cases and, again, most of the really important and/or iconic images are still here but a really important and instantly apparent feature of Krizan’s versions is that he seems to think the book is set at night given how dark each image is. Yes, I know that is what his trademark greyscaling does but this changes the feel of the piece quite considerably and not for the better. But, as I have already observed, competing with McCaig is impossible so it’s interesting to see that Krizan chose, for the most part, not to even bother trying!

Hot on the heels of the first three books came a second trio to complete Scholastic’s first release schedule. This time the balance of credits went Steve Jackson’s way with two of his titles and a further Livingstone book giving us: #3 The Citadel Of Chaos, #4 The Forest Of Doom  and #5 House Of Hell.

I was never particularly comfortable with any of the previous covers for CoC. Emannuel’s black Big Bird leading the hordes from the Black Tower lacked any animation and just looked silly, Ian Miller’s whirlwind woman was beautifully painted but the subject matter was so incidental as to be almost irrelevant, and Kevin Jenkins' hydra on the Wizard version just did not capture the feel of the book for me, so of all the first five reissues CoC was the one that had the most mileage in getting another new cover image. The decision to put the book’s most famous and most feared enemies (the dreaded ganjees) on the cover was a definite win and Ball’s versions do look evil and devious, plus the inclusion in the background of a painting of Balthus Dire himself is a neat touch. The red toned background also harks nicely back to the star cover edition which was itself red so, intentional or accidental, this works well for me. Without a doubt, of all of the first six Scholastic covers this is probably my favourite as it seems closest to how I see the concept of the book being encapsulated on the cover.

Vlado Krizan’s approach to the internal art for this book is also slightly different in that these versions are very much carbon copies of the Russ Nicholson originals in terms of structure (even down to stances, positions, views, and the direction things are looking in), but with some added (read “unwanted”) greyscaling and none of the detail or character and impressive flourishes of the RN versions. As is the case in the previous books, almost all of the art that has made the cut is the important/iconic material as we can see from the list of what is included:

1 ape-dog and dog-ape, 13 witches, 40 butler, 64 Balthus’ kids, 118 rhinoman, 144 black elf, 156 tentacle, 182 ganjee, 210 O’Seamus, 222 injured man, 234 calacorm, 245 wind woman, 257 stone golem, 304 gargoyle, 316 wheelies, 328 hydra, 339 courtyard gathering, 352 gark, 362 chalice chamber, 374 Balthus Dire

Leaving the following removed images:

25 trench and chest, 52 Gambling Hall door, 79 bush, 90 ghosts, 169 dining room, 196 larder, 269 arguing men, 281 scouts, 292 Mrs Dire, 386 tunnel

Of the excised images the only one I would advocate keeping would be Mrs Dire as she helps to create the overall concept of Balthus’ family unit and there is an opulence to her room that works well and suits the idea of her character. Unlike CoT, Scholastic added no new plates to this book but this kind of works as I’m not too sure what other moments are really important enough or arresting enough visually to have been illustrated, so I think Scholastic got this one right bar the removal of the picture of Mrs Dire.

It goes without saying that the Krizan versions aren’t a patch on the Nicholsons, but at least VK has given up changing perspectives so that they no longer make any sense or trying to reinterpret things himself and screwing it up. The flipside of this is of course that if you are going to just copy the originals but in your own greyscaled, detail-less, and lifeless style, what really is the value in changing the art other than to achieve mediocre visual consistency across the series? And another thing, why the hell is everyone and everything smiling in the Krizan versions? Well, at least Scholastic scored points with the cover art this time.

Iain McCaig’s cover for the Puffin FoD is, along with his cover for CoT, a truly stunning creation and is often cited as the greatest FF cover ever by fans, which means that, by changing this, no matter what Scholastic did, the reaction would not be a good one. Even Wizard decided to stick with the shapechanger but just had Martin McKenna rework it. In other words, if a single image works well to encapsulate the book (which the shapechanger does) then don’t mess with it. With WOFM Scholastic’s cover was the same but different (ie Zagor in a different context to the Puffin or Wizard covers), for CoT they took the main baddie again but canned the McCaig montage idea and made him look deeply unthreatening as he stood alone in the street, and for CoC they took a book that had never had a fully suitable and satisfactory cover image and actually found something that worked at last. So it was that with FoD they played it safe and we got another illustrator’s take on the shapechanger which was of course Robert Ball for reasons we have already established. The first few times you look at Ball’s shapechanger, it seems to be doing a star jump, but closer study shows that it is striking an aggressive posture from behind the tree branch that is another key component of all iterations of the FoD cover. Again, this is a bold and bright cover but it just does not look anything other than awkward and cartoonish and, whilst not a trainwreck like Ball’s CoT cover, it has none of the effective impact of his efforts for WOFM or CoC and I simply do not like it.

I have always been quite vocal too about my dislike of Malcolm Barter’s original internal art for FoD, but this is mostly down to it not doing MB justice as he is a superb illustrator with a unique look to his work. His internal art for the two Webs Of Intrigue gamebooks and his Yaztromo piece for The Trolltooth Wars graphic novel are testimony to his ability. His output for FoD was, I understand, turned around in a very tight timeframe and is what it is: rushed. There are several superb pieces in there (Yaztromo’s tower, the fire demon, the stingworm, the wyvern) but there are also some dire images (the hobgoblins, the gremlins, the fishman, and in particular the dreadful catwoman) so I was actually quite interested to see what Vlado Krizan might produce for FoD – would he redeem himself?

No, Vlado Krizan would not redeem himself. Instead he would do what he did with CoC and just trace the originals, remove any detail, dump a load of greyscale on the top, switch the lights off, and make organic forms look computer-generated. Oh dear. On the plus side, his annoying habit of having everything smiling seems to have finally gone.

For the record, these sections remain illustrated:

1 Yaztromo’s tower, 15 stingworm, 29 orcs, 49 gremlins, 57 wyvern, 90 hillmen, 107 fire demon, 142 centaur, 160 Vermithrax, 170 wizard, 181 fishman, 212 attack of the clones, 230 ogre, 253 trapped man, 265 forest giant, 277 treeman, 285 werewolf, 360 bandits

Leaving these sections now devoid of images:

38 witches, 69 underworld, 99 arm wrestle man, 118 wild boar, 130 catwoman, 195 apeman, 204 Stonebridge, 294 room, 317 hobgoblins, 340 angry dwarf, 351 crypt, 378 gnome, 384 pinned-out barbarian   

Unlike the other books in this batch of releases, several important images have been removed, especially Stonebridge and the crypt, which are both crucial to the true path and the plot. I would have been interested to see what Krizan would have made of the catwoman though as this was not MB’s greatest moment, neither are the hobgoblins which I would also have liked to see get the Krizan treatment, if only out of very morbid curiosity.

An important point to mention is that FoD is the second Scholastic release to acquire an extra image, that being the pterodactyl in section 303, the presence of which in this adventure never made much sense to me, although it did finally get clarified in The Port Of Peril, which could be why it got included as an illustration in this version of FoD as it adds to the new continuity of the series. We have no benchmark of comparison for this image and it is workmanlike enough but suffers from all the lack of detail and surfeit of greyscale that all Krizan’s FF work does. I wonder what a Barter pterodactyl looks like if he’s given the time to really go at it? I think I’d like to know…

House Of HellI was always going to give Scholastic issues. The devil worship and sacrifice subject matters alone are at odds with Scholastic’s rather pc approach to playing it safe with their FF releases. Even WHSmith refused to carry it in the 80s which made it something of a cause celebre for fans. I cannot be certain if a similar problem blighted the Scholastic edition, but finding it is not easy compared to the other Scholastic FFs and it does seem to be rather elusive. Another bone of contention with it is that is really has nothing to do with FF. OK, it uses the system, but its modern day setting and its Old Dark House themes are at odds with FF’s medieval fantasy tropes and its roots in D&D. The counter argument to this of course is that it is regarded as a masterpiece of the series so it would be an important title to release, is very challenging and a satisfying puzzle to unravel, and shows the potential for FF far beyond the Tolkien-esque material. So Scholastic bit the bullet and included it in their rebooted series, which is to be applauded.

And it seems that, at least for the cover, Scholastic went all-out with this title, putting the hell demon’s head front and centre on the cover, with the Norman Bates-like house itself in the background. All in all, Robert Ball has done a great job on this cover – it maintains the look of the other five books in this first batch so the standardisation is there, but it also punches home the horror and demonic themes that are the book’s core. Without a doubt, this is not a patch on Ian Miller’s brilliantly-weird Puffin cover, but it certainly does the job and is effective in its own way.

Tim Sell’s internal art for the original version never quite did it for me. Some images worked well and were full of horror (the ghost woman, the headless ghost, the hell demon), others seemed less successful (skeletons, hanged man, etc) but, overall, the original internals were not my thing. I suspect Scholastic had to tone down the graphic horror of the original art brief which means that I would imagine that the majority of the more Satanic and/or disturbing imagery was removed by necessity. This resulted in the following sections no longer being illustrated:

14 great danes, 27 hanged man, 71 man in cell with goat’s head, 98 tumbling corpse, 154 white-haired man, 209 prisoners, 250 Duchess of Brewster, 264 naked sacrifice, 305 man in cell, 345 kitchen

Removing the naked sacrifice image was inevitable as even Puffin excised this one from later printings and it seems that anything involving imprisonment is gone too. Indeed, unusually for the Scholastic versions, they have chosen to play it safe rather than removing the less important images as is the case with the other books, which does leave several secondary images intact.

The sections that remain illustrated therefore are:

1 the house, 41 skeletons, 56 hunchback, 85 fire sprites, 112 torture chamber, 126 ghoul, 139 Morgana in Abaddon, 169 headless ghost, 181 hell demon, 195 study, 222 goathead, 236 zombie, 277 Franklins and the Earl, 291 George the Vampire, 318 Franklins and the Earl attack, 332 ghost lady, 358 lab, 373 hunchback (again), 387 Satanist dressing room, 400 burning house

As the blood and gore has been considerably reduced, several images have lost much of their horrific impact: the headless ghost no longer drips blood, the surrounding hellfire detail on the hell demon is gone, the zombie and the goathead outside the front door are far less frightening (due mostly to darkening through greyscale), the ghost lady is basically just a person now and has none of the non-corporeal ghostly transparency of the original, and the Satanist dressing room is much less animated. There is a peculiarity with George the Vampire too as he is absolutely identical now to the Earl of Drumer – is this an error or is he actually his twin or something?

Krizan’s versions overall are a mixture here of his carbon copying and his own interpretations. The ghoul in section 126 for example is very different to the Tim Sell version, but as usual, all of VK’s art here is dulled and detail-less due to masses of greyscaling and the impact is diminished to the point of the art serving little real purpose in terms of adding anything to the text. A horror book needs horror imagery, not this insipid PG certificate stuff. It might have been better if Scholastic had not bothered including HoH in its roster if it was going to deaden the effect this much. This is a shame too as the Ball cover is very good.

In summary then, Scholastic’s first batch of reissues gave us five bona fide classics with a range of difficulty levels (FoD is very easy, HoH is exceptionally hard), different settings (dungeon, urban, tower, forest, house), different rule sets (standard, Magic, Fear and having no weapons), different designs (true path/item hunt, hidden section puzzle, endless restarts notwithstanding the reset button problem), and obviously two different writing styles, all of which makes for a good variety of playing experiences, and showcases what FF can offer in terms of variety. I think the choice of titles is pretty sound and it’s good to see the risk being taken with HoH even if the art was unsuitable for this book. In fact, Krizan’s art is unsuitable for FF period, but it does have its supporters even if the FF old guard will always (understandably) prefer the originals. Robert Ball’s covers though are mostly good and I do support the idea of visual consistency for the covers and internals across the series even if this does remove the variety and stylistic suitability that existed with multiple artists on the books. Surely Scholastic was happy enough with the results of the reboot to decide to release another batch of FF books…


Monday, 27 April 2020

Destiny's Role 2: Venom of Vortan

The Kickstarter campaign for my next DESTINY'S ROLE gamebook, a sort of Director's Cut of Venom of Vortan, launches this Friday 1st May at 8pm UK time:



Find out more HERE

Oh, and I promise to do another FF write-up soon :-)

Wednesday, 31 July 2019

Resurrection Of The Dead



RESURRECTION OF THE DEAD

Alexander Ballingall

Reviewed by Mark Lain

When Fighting Fantazine first appeared in 2009 I personally welcomed the deliberate attempt to replicate the format of the much-missed Warlock magazine, whilst also adding some new and fresh ideas of its own. In particular, the inclusion of Warlock’s Omens and Auguries, Out of the Pit, and its centrepiece, a unique mini-FF in every issue, were all really nice touches to give Fighting Fantazine a familiar feel, whilst the new features such as the exhaustive and fascinating The Fact of Fiction, the unreadably smug Everything I Know I Learned From FF, the personal recollections of The Magic Quest, and the blogger style material etc all gave the ‘zine its own contemporary angle without seeming to just be a clone of the original magazine. Naturally, as was the case with Warlock way back when, material for the first issue was in short supply as it was yet to become established amongst the gamebook community, so it is no surprise that Issue 1’s mini-FF would be penned by the ‘zine’s Editor, Alex Ballingall. By his own admittance, AB wrote this over a weekend, so if it had any shortcomings this would surely explain why.

The first thing that comes to mind when reading the Rules to this adventure is that it is probably going to be rather difficult. You start with no Provisions, no Potions, no weapon (and the associated -3 Skill starting penalty), but you do at least get a backpack (to put the nothing in that you start with) and 30 Gold Pieces. Well, at least the money allowance is generous. This may all seem a bit harsh but it quickly makes sense when you read the background to the piece. YOU are a wealthy (presumably, as you have servants back at your house) merchant (and ex-adventurer) who has just returned from a few months away trading in Royal Lendle. Your home town of Bandur Green is in a state of consternation due to weird lights that appear at night in the nearby battlefields on the road to Kings March and, recently, people who have gone to investigate the weird-ness have started disappearing and/or returning insane, including a good friend of yours. Spurred on by the human interest element of your newly-mad friend and an oddly unclear inclination to save the day (why would a merchant be so gung ho?), YOU decide to get to the bottom of the peculiar happenings and deal with whatever is causing them.

The adventure only covers a two day period, Day One being a general recce for information and equipment, with Day Two being the day of reckoning when you head off into the fields to face the end baddie. Day One is the vast bulk of the adventure and involves an exploration of various parts of the town to see what you can unearth about what is going on. You can visit the Frantic Rat tavern, the abbey where your now-mad friend is recuperating, the cemetery where some local legends from the era of the battlefield’s battle are buried, the local blacksmith to try to acquire a weapon, and you can survey the battlefield itself during the presumably safer daylight hours. It is in theory possible to visit all of these areas in any order (although the futile blacksmith hunt can use up too much time and curtail your investigations prematurely if you persist in pursuing it) and the book gives the illusion of RPG-style free movement, but in fact key areas must be visited in a very specific order to get the correct hidden area prompts in the required sequence and, as you can only explore each area once, it will take a lot of failed attempts to unravel the puzzle of the correct order and, even if you do find the necessary information to locate the hidden sections, the prompts within the text are so very subtle that you can easily miss them, particularly the critical ones at Narron’s grave and when following tracks out in the fields.

This concept of hidden section signposting being so subtle that it becomes obscure is a trademark of Steve Jackson’s FFs and his modus operandi are very much an influence on this adventure. The starting Skill penalty for having no weapon appeared in House Of Hell, you can suffer -2 Stamina penalties if you will not (or cannot) eat Provisions at various points (plus the forced eating does not carry any Stamina bonus) as per the Sorcery! epic, the end baddie attacks you with spells lifted straight from Sorcery!, and you can encounter a Living Corpse which was a memorable creature from Khare: Cityport Of Traps. The relative brevity of the adventure should you fail to find the hidden sections is also a feature of SJ FFs, as is the combination of confusion and frustration caused by repeatedly failing but not really knowing why until you finally do unlock all the hidden areas. Overall, this adventure feels very like a SJ effort, but with the marked difference in writing styles.

And Ballingall does write very well, with an atmospheric and coherent style that keeps things moving along nicely and you certainly do feel compelled to keep trying to beat this FF as the elements of mystery and plot are very well-handled. Indeed, as this FF was written over a single weekend it is surprisingly consistent considering it is effectively a rush job. You really do feel drawn into the plot and the whole piece is very much driven by its storyline and themes which are constantly referenced making it all feel very focussed and at no point does it start to wander or become vague. Added to this is the fact that AB really knows his FF lore inside out and this helps to make it all feel in keeping with FF as a whole, rather than the slightly disconnected feel that some Warlock mini-FFs gave the player. The way that some of the more interesting FF monsters (Living Corpse, Xoroa, Night Stalker, Wight, Dryaden, Elementals, etc) are weaved into the plot also keeps it from feeling run-of-the-mill. Interestingly, the Dryaden was actually a reader-submitted creature in Warlock’s Out of the Pit thread and, again, this inclusion shows that AB is thinking outside the usual basic FF creatures box and trying to make the most of his 200 paragraph limit to give us something a bit more memorable. Personally, my favourite encounter was with the three Possessed Goats which is both amusing and a key plot point!

As would be expected from a gamebook which shows so much Jackson influence and as we suspected from reading the Rules, the difficulty level here is quite high and this is certainly an adventure that requires close reading of the text, note-taking to establish the order of events, and umpteen failed attempts, assuming you can ever actually figure it out at all! I must confess to resorting to reading each section in isolation and trying to piece the puzzle together that way which, with a 200-section piece, is less arduous a task than it might sound. Once you have fathomed it out the solution is both clever and extremely tight in true path terms. You need to pay very close attention to the text and to information that NPCs give you to find the necessary prompts, plus this also helps you to appreciate just how much focus there is on the plot from beginning to end. Day One is relatively gentle on the player (hidden sections and order of service notwithstanding) but Day Two quickly becomes a catalogue of tough combats with over-powered opponents and this gets very repetitive. On the one hand, if you have failed to find certain essential items in Day One this does help you to die quicker before you fail at the end, but it also has the opposite effect that, should you have finally untied the various knots in Day One, dying in combat against a stupidly-strong monster can seem a bit unfair. A noteworthy issue with one combat (on Day One) is the Living Corpse fight that yields an essential item. The fight is constructed in such a way that, although each individual appendage is very weak, the fight can potentially go on forever – clever loop of doom conceit (à la Jackson’s Creature Of Havoc) or design flaw? Who knows. If you can find the key items, negotiate the labyrinth of hidden areas, and get past the harsh fights on Day Two, the final showdown with the villain of the piece (Dar’Noth) is also very hard (he has Sk 11 St 19) and, as opportunities to replenish Stamina are rare, combined with the –2 Stamina or eat mechanic (you only get 3 Provisions at best and at least one is required for force-feeding by the text), you are likely to be on your last legs for this final fight. I always feel that an end boss fight should be challenging and justify their being the end boss, but the combats on the whole in Day Two are collectively too difficult in real terms and if you do not have a Starting Skill in double figures you do not stand a chance, particularly as you can be expected to begin the adventure with a Skill as low as 4! On the flipside of this though, there are three opportunities to destroy the ring (this is essential for victory) which is very generous and is not in keeping with an adventure with as tight a true path as this, and there is even a non-win ending where Dar’Noth is killed but you haven’t dealt with the ring (which controls the living dead that he is raising from the battlefield) so there are still loads of undead roaming about for the locals to deal with until the ring finally gets disposed of. All things considered though, this is generally a very hard adventure but, as it is a Jackson adventure in spirit, you would not expect anything else as there is no such thing as an easy Jackson FF.

So, now we come to the subject that really sets the Fighting Fantazine FFs apart from their Warlock predecessors: the art. Warlock had the benefit of access to FF’s pool of professional fantasy artists and this really lifted the whole experience of its mini-FFs (many of which were penned by fans rather than professional authors). Fighting Fantazine is a fan production. Naturally, there are going to be people out there in fandom who can write prose and design adventures just as well as the pros who were part of the Games Workshop/Puffin inner circle. There are far less likely to be many artists who are skilled enough to produce the required quantities of professional-looking fantasy art that aren’t already professionals themselves that will naturally demand a living wage for their work. Yes, there are some very talented amateurs around but it seems that they were not available to offer their services for free for Resurrection Of The Dead as the internal art here is frankly terrible. I will make the concession that I made in the opening paragraph that AB had to do a lot of the legwork himself to produce Issue 1 (and I don’t want to take anything away from the sterling work that goes into each issue of Fighting Fantazine) but I just don’t think that Ballingall’s what I will diplomatically call “limited” artistic abilities do any justice to his clearly impressive game design and writing talents. It would have been at odds with the whole ethos of FF if there were no internal art and I appreciate the effort to give consistency, but I would really like to see what this adventure would have been had it had better (or even professional) art as a dark, atmospheric gamebook like this would have looked fantastically effective had it had brooding and unsettling art in the style of The Dark Chronicles Of Anakendis or Fortress Throngard. The magazine’s cover (as was sometimes the case with Warlock too) serves as the mini-FFs cover as well but, again, this just does not work with this adventure. The image itself does show a moment from the gamebook (which is a bonus), but it is not how I visualised it at all - it just seems too bright and is not remotely unsettling for something that is supposed to be part of a descent into unknown maddening horrors. Andrew Wright (of creature compendium assembling fame) created the cover image and, as with Ballingall, I have to say that he is a far better writer and has a far more vivid imagination when describing monsters, than he is an artist drawing them. His art is marginally better than AB’s but neither really does the adventure any favours at all.

At this juncture, I want to discuss the title. Resurrection Of The Dead is a very literal description of exactly what is taking place and causing the issues that Bandur Green needs you to resolve. Firstly, it does slightly detract from the mystery as it gives away the underlying crisis. Secondly, it has none of the dynamism or sense of intrigue and foreboding that a gamebook title would be expected to have. OK, the news that the dead are being resurrected is not something you want to hear, but the initial mystery and discovery set up of the adventure itself is at odds with the title. When I started encountering undead it was not much of a surprise, shall we say!

For what is by all intents and purposes an amateur FF, this is a promising start for Fighting Fantazine. The depth and manner in which the plot takes centre stage is impressive and drives the piece effectively. The author’s knowledge and deployment of FF lore makes it feel canonic and the choice of encounters is varied and keeps thing interesting. The NPCs are colourful, feel real, and play an important part in your exploration of the situation. I’m not sure I like the over-reliance on Jackson tropes and mechanics and this does feel like both a homage, and a sucking-up, to Steve Jackson. That said, the adventure functions well for the inclusion of the Jackson-isms, but the signposting could have been more explicit to encourage replay rather than have players give up in despair. Interesting and generally enjoyable stuff that belies its, by necessity, rapid creation (and crap title), but the art pulls it down a lot and it is too hard overall.