Friday, 25 September 2020

Escape From The Sorcerer



Sunil Prasannan

Reviewed by Mark Lain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 5 September 2020

Return To The Icefinger Mountains



Ed Jolley

Reviewed by Mark Lain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sunday, 30 August 2020

Starhunt: Void Slavers



Ian Brocklehurst

Reviewed by Mark Lain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 13 June 2020

Ian Livingstone's Freeway Fighter


Andi Ewington and Simon Coleby

Reviewed by Mark Lain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 6 June 2020

Scholastic Reissues: Schedule 3


Reviewed by Mark Lain

After two tranches of Scholastic editions, each containing six books, the third batch slashed their output in half and offered a rather stingier three titles. However, there was no wastage in this smaller batch, which gave us a third brand new title (#15 Assassins Of Allansia) and two more key reprints in #13 Caverns Of the Snow Witch and #14 Khare: Cityport Of Traps. Khare is a necessary release given that its predecessor appeared in the previous Scholastic batch, and CotSW is the only non-sci-fi Jackson/Livingstone book from Puffin’s first ten FFs that had not been reissued by Scholastic thus far, so these are natural choices. As with my discussions of Schedules 1 and 2, I will only be covering the reissued titles in this post, the new book will be reviewed in its own right.

Caverns Of The Snow Witch is not a book that I particularly like. It is massively unfair with its umpteen fights with over-powered opponents, very limited opportunities to restore Stamina, far too many Luck tests, and a pointless post-Snow Witch kill coda that just seems to ramble on forever. OK, I realise that this started out life as a 200-section Warlock magazine effort, but in doubling its length, Livingstone simply padded it out endlessly after the Warlock version’s conclusion rather than adding any interesting additional material earlier in the book. Indeed, up to the point where the Warlock version ends, the two are completely identical – it is only beyond this point that the additional 200 sections-worth of material kicks in, which does make it all feel a bit forced. However, what the Puffin/Wizard version has that works massively in its favour is the unique woodcut-style internal art by Gary Ward and Edward Crosby. This was their only work for FF and it stands out with a visual style entirely of its own and I am a big fan of this book’s illustrations. Naturally, this made me a little cautious when approaching the Scholastic edition as the book, in play terms, is pretty awful, and, without the Ward-Crosby art, would have little to offer me anymore.

So it is then that I was pleasantly surprised when I saw the internal art for the first time. Firstly and foremostly, Scholastic has finally parted company with the awe-inspiringly talentless Vlado Krizan, meaning cover artist Robert Ball is now also on internal art duties in his place. Well done Scholastic, perhaps fan response has finally been acknowledged. All we had seen up until now though of Ball’s work was the rather cartoonish cover illustrations of Batch 1 and the more effective and unsettling, but microcosmic “porthole” imagery of Batch 2. Batch 3 sticks with the porthole layout and with the more frightening imagery which is especially apparent with CotSW as the blue-hued yeti bursting through the porthole is really very effective. I also like the claw scratches that cut through Livingstone’s name which adds an element of animation to the piece. The internals are the aspect that really interests me with this book though and we get Ball’s interpretations of these section’s images:

26 dark elf with bow, 37 night stalker, 59 crystal warrior, 83 zombie, 96 dead dwarf, 106 neanderthal and gnome, 125 prism man, 154 banshee, 180 centaurs, 190 yeti, 212 snow wolves, 223 white dragon, 235 sentinel, 288 frost giant, 297 Shareela, 328 pegasus, 348 birdmen, 365 brain slayer, 398 man-orc

Which leaves these images now missing that were illustrated in the original versions:

Background Big Jim, 13 hill trolls, 50 wild hill men, 75 healer, 88 frozen orc, 115 elf, 168 man in hut, 198 idol worship, 254 goblins, 262 zombified elf and dwarf, 278 old man, 319 birdhead rock, 374 barbarian

The decision to excise images for two key plot points (background and 262) seems illogical and I am sure other images that have survived could have been left out to make space for these two (106 or 398, for example). Obviously, many of the images that remain are those that emphasise the snow theme and a lot that is now missing are from the snooze-fest coda but this also makes it feel unbalanced now in terms of what areas of the book are illustrated. Overall, this leaves me a bit unsatisfied.

But, of what we do still have, a lot can be said and, as I rate the Ward-Crosby takes so highly, I am going to talk briefly about every image and compare them: the first Ball internal that we see (if we go through the pages in linear order) is section 26 and this version has a really nice composition which is a very promising portent of what Ball’s versions of this book’s art might offer; 37 is no longer in extreme close-up and is now very frightening; 59 is now far too busy and the original version was too iconic for Ball to realistically be able to compete with; 83 is now much more realistic and has far more horror in it as a result; 96 just isn’t my idea of how a dwarf should look and is more akin to a Pictish warrior or such-like; 106 is now less in your face but manages to have more threat for this; I do not like 125 now – it seems to be an over-busy mess whereas Ward’s version had more control; 154 is vastly inferior and has lost all the visceral hideousness of the original; 180 is a really interesting take and gives the centaurs an almost American Indian appearance; 190 is one of the best of the Ball versions – the yeti is now huge and dominates the frame resulting in an image with far more threat; ditto, 212 also now contains more threat and the savage nature of the wild dogs is very evident; 223 goes for a more regal approach whereas Ward’s version was about the imposing and threatening nature of the dragon – both are interesting takes and are equally effective in their own ways; 235 is another Ball image that is now just too busy, whereas the original was a masterpiece that probably could not be bettered; 288 looks more like an ogre now than a giant and has lost the intensity of the original; 297 is too dark: Ward’s Shareela was brilliant for its mixture of allure, sexiness, and sheer terror – Ball’s is just a bit boring; the Pegasus in 328 though is truly beautiful in Ball’s version; 348 is another interesting alternate interpretation in the same way as the dragon – both versions have their plus points and neither is better than the other; the brain slayer in 365 was another truly iconic Ward image and Ball botches his very inferior version by just not having enough focus on the brain slayer itself now; the original version of 398 was one of the few misfires in my opinion and was cluttered and confusing whereas Ball’s take is more obvious and clear even though it is ultimately nothing special really.

Clearly then, Robert Ball’s interior art is far superior to Vlado Krizan’s and at times compares very favourably to Ward and Crosby’s masterful originals in this book. Finally, we are seeing images in Scholastic editions that have detail and there is even enough of it now to warrant close study of the images. A huge leap forward is that the greyscaling that made VK’s art so utterly uninteresting is gone and Ball’s versions are (appropriately) very bright and favour the white end of the light and dark spectrum. Ball produces some very interesting and worthwhile versions of these familiar illustrations and I would be interested to know if he had actually seen the originals as these are definitely not Krizan-style tracings. Instead they are alternate visions which hold up well in their own right. This is a great thing to see and shows that there is hope now rather than the grim spectre of more awful Krizan art that totally destroyed the purpose of art in FF books.     

A worthwhile point to note here is that, with the Ball versions, there are now three completely different versions of the internal art for CotSW: the original Ward-Crosby woodcut style of the Puffin/Wizard editions, the full colour more fantastical/fairytale illustrations in the Tin Man Games app version, and now the Robert Ball interpretations. I still favour the Ward-Crosby versions overall, but Ball has produced some very worthwhile images in his versions and these make the Scholastic edition of what I personally consider to be a sub-par book play-wise into a very worthwhile investment and my fears are allayed. That said, I can only imagine how I would have reacted to the Scholastic version had Krizan still been in the equation!

I am conflicted over the decision to change the internal artist for Khare. Part of the flow and coherence of the original editions of the Sorcery! epic is the consistency in using John Blanche to illustrate all four (both for the covers and the internals). The first problem this throws up is that I prefer Blanche’s work in The Shamutanti Hills to that in Khare as I find his art in the second book often quite hideous or simply incomplete as there are some images which are mostly just a blank page with a hand or whatever in the middle, which seems a bit of a waste to me. Also, I am overall not a fan of Blanche’s manic often scruffy style, even though I realise that I am in a minority with this. The second problem is an enormous one as maintaining visual consistency from Book 1 to Book 2 would involve having to impose more of Vlado Krizan’s terrible internal art on us all. Overall, I would rather suffer a change in visuals than more of Krizan’s anti-art so I am just going to have to accept this as a necessary move in terms of improving the overall look and reputation of the Scholastic editions.

Khare is a very very difficult book to complete as Jackson employs his unravelling a puzzle approach rather than the more conventional linear true path of a Livingstone book. For all that it is very hard though it is also very brilliant and compels the player to keep revisiting and trying to solve it. After the relatively straightforward approach SJ employed with the first Sorcery! book, Khare can come as a bit of a shock, but it is a brilliant book however you look at it. Khare as a location is lethal but utterly weird which does mean that Blanche’s original internal art, for all that I do not really like it, suits the truly bizarre nature of its setting. Ball’s art in CotSW was essentially fairly traditional fantasy art in style and is certainly not in any way outré like Blanche’s. With this is mind, how then does Ball’s attempt at portraying the sheer weirdness of the city of Khare fair?

For the record, the following sections have art in both the original and Scholastic editions:

11 living corpse, 33 wrestling, 77 slime eater, 98 pixie-sprite fight, 122 Idol of Courga, 143 elvin, 153 mantis man, 164 crypt, 176 artist’s hut, 198 town square, 213 fish, 240 Cabinet of Fortune, 269 dwarf and bear, 285 harpies, 300 orclings, 324 gnome shop, 336 sage, 365 goblins, 511 city gate

…and we no longer have illustrations for:

Map of Kakhabad, 1 approach to Khare, 23 smoking black elves, 43 flayer, 56 Wheel of Fortune, 66 chainmaker, 89 fork with statue, 110 Watfarer’s Rest, 132 street scene, 187 chapel, 227 guillotine trap, 254 hut interior, 311 ship interior, 411 giant, 464 zap spell, 504 pebbles  

Very excitingly, Scholastic is once again doing its only occasional thing of giving us a newly-illustrated section and in this case it is a real winner in the form of the highly unusual sulphur ghost in section 412. Given Blanche’s style, this would actually have made an ideal unusual subject for him to illustrate and I would have liked to be able to make a comparison but, as it stands, Ball’s is the only barometer we have for a sulphur ghost and it is a very interesting and horror-filled take on a very rare creature. In other words, for the first time, Scholastic has added a new image that does actually genuinely ADD something to the overall set of images within a book. So that’s another good sign with Batch 3.

As I said before when discussing The Shamutanti Hills, the removal of the map of Kakhabad is a stupid decision as we need the global context of this quest to help get deep into the settings. I also do not understand why section 1’s approach to Khare image was excised when it literally gives us a lead in to the piece. I am very pleased at the removal of the two spell effect images though (464 and 504) as these were just white voids with a tiny central image and were frankly a waste of space and seemed lazy to me. I find it incomprehensible that the guillotine trap image is now gone (227) as I always use the picture to negotiate this stage and the loss of 110’s illustration is a shame too as I like FF tavern vistas and feel they are a cornerstone of what urban set FF is all about. It seems that as the series progresses the choice of internals to remove is making less sense, initially it was largely incidentals that were gone, but it is getting a bit less focussed and logical now.

As regards what we have new interpretations of, for the opposite reason to my wanting to do this for CotSW, I am again going to cover every image present but this time because I disliked Blanche’s on the whole so much that I am hoping the Ball versions will be an improvement: 11 had more context in terms of background in the Blanche version but it is more unsettlingly human-like in the Ball – neither is great but they both do the job; there is more animation to Ball’s version of 33, but the Blanche version has the classic look of his work when he gets it right and successfully mixes the weird with a compelling image; 77’s slime eater is now less cluttered and I prefer it as do I prefer Ball’s cover to Blanche’s as JB’s just seems to be a technicolour nightmare; 98 is now more intricate and detailed where Blanche’s looked incomplete with too much white void; both versions of 122 are equally good and both are very effective; Ball’s elvin in 143 looks more devious and it is nice to see Scholastic illustrating these Sorcery! stalwarts as, for some reason, none got drawn in the first book; 153 actually is now recognisable as mantis-like whereas the original looked like it had been burned; there is now more horror in 164 but I do still like Blanche’s whispy emerging spirit in the original; I do not understand how 176 made the cut and neither image inspires me at all; 198 is now way too dark and the original was far better and more absorbing in terms of making you feel like you are there; both versions of 213 are basically the same; 240 is an interesting one with two equally valid interpretations: Blanche’s goes for weirdness, Ball’s highlights the sinister; Blanche’s version of 269 is typical cluttered Blanche mayhem that confuses the eye so I do prefer the more controlled new version; the original harpy image in 285 was truly macabre and it has the edge over the very eye-centric new version; both versions of the orclings in 300 work equally well and both are fun images; Ball’s gnome in 324 seems far too old but his version also has more atmosphere than the original; similarly, Ball’s ogre in 336 seems more atmospheric; there was pretty much nothing to the original version of 365 (just a white space) so the Ball can only be an improvement, which it is by virtue of there actually being an image of any consequence there; the city gate in 511 works well from both perspectives and is essential to round the book off properly (if only section 1’s image had not been removed as these two illustrations literally bookend the piece).

I really do like what Ball has done with this book, especially as I was never happy with the Blanche effort. The Scholastic trademark geyscaling is creeping back in Khare but it is not detrimental and is not causing any loss of detail or interest. Plus, its absence from CotSW suited that book’s subject matter whereas it is less vital to use a lot of whites in Khare, plus it is night time at points in the latter book. Something good and very encouraging is happening with Scholastic’s internal art finally as the Khare images in particular stand up very well and fare often even better than the sometimes empty or scruffy Blanche versions. And we finally have a worthwhile additional image that really adds something.

Ball’s work in both of these books is well worth taking the time to study and compare to the originals as his takes are very worthwhile and he is doing something really interesting by rethinking the images instead of just copying them badly. Vlado Krizan’s internal art hardly warranted looking at at all, but the Ball material is actually really good and we are seeing signs of a return to the less childish style of the original books rather than VK’s disastrous work in the first twelve Scholastic offerings. It is a shame that Scholastic only stretched Batch 3 to three titles and this seems a bit half-assed but, as Robert Ball produced the covers and the internals for all three this time, perhaps the amount of pressure on one single artist was a factor this time around. I can hope that another reason was a quality consideration rather than rushing the art out, but who knows. There are still several medieval Livingstone titles for Scholastic to put out and I would be curious to see new internal art for Freeway Fighter and Starship Traveller as the originals for both of these were very unsatisfying, although the sci-fi books were never as popular so perhaps Scholastic does not want to take this risk. But we can only guess at what Batch 4 will bring…

Monday, 18 May 2020

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.