THE CITADEL OF CHAOS
Reviewed by Mark Lain
FF2 (in the original series) was the first solo offering from Steve Jackson. Steve always seemed more interested in expanding the possibilities of FF and pushing the boundaries, but this was often at the expense of adventure length. Ian’s efforts were generally longer and, therefore, more immersive, but with less neat gimmicks than Steve’s. COC gives us the first neat gimmick in FF – the ability to use magic.
Magic is handled well in this book as it is stat-driven in the same way as Skill, Stamina and Luck so the higher your Magic stat, the more spells you can cast and, therefore, the more powerful a wizard you are just like if you have high Skill you are a better swordsman and if you have high Stamina you are physically tougher and can take more of a hammering. Making Magic a stat also makes it appear less like an add-on and it seems to fit more naturally into the FF game mechanics. The spells are pretty good as well, giving a nice mix of stat-enhancing spells to keep you alive, battle spells to make other people less alive, and handy spells that just do useful stuff. In many ways, the spells act in the same way as items normally would in FF so there are less items to collect in this FF than in some others. Initially the spells may seem like a bit of nice fun to make you feel more like you’re in a fantasy environment, but later in the game it becomes apparent just how useful these are and, in the final monumental showdown with Balthus Dire himself, you really need to use your ingenuity and think your way through the wizard battle that you are involved in, which really makes the spell-casting aspect feel essential to winning (and it is!)
Apparently Jackson spent ages thinking through and planning the end battle and it shows. It will take many attempts to get it right and that’s if you can even get this far as COC features one of FF’s greatest and most formidable creature encounters: the Ganjees. I defy anyone to defeat the Ganjees on their first attempt as they are unlike anything you will meet in any other FF and have to be Jackson’s crowning achievement in terms of creature invention. However, we must not detract from the other creatures in COC as it has one of the most imaginative yet, at the same time, wholly believable and non-ludicrous (as some later FF beasts would be) creatures of any FF. The calacorm (bizarre and very thick), miks (sort of practices for the ganjees, really), hydra (classical), gark (ugly), rhinoman (you feel a bit sorry for it) and the various semi-vivisection transplant things (ape-dog, dog-ape) all fit very well with the idea that the Black Tower is full of Balthus Dire’s unholy experiments. Dire also seems to be obsessed with cross-breeding (gark, rhinoman, etc) which adds to the suitably weirdness of COC’s creatures.
There are also some interesting human encounters which add to the atmosphere of the book. You meet Dire’s children and his wife which I personally felt was a very nice touch. I was less impressed with the witches and ghost – they seemed to fit awkwardly into what is otherwise a very original selection of encounters on the whole. It also must be noted that, not only is Dire a despot who wants to destroy the world and creates bizarre abominations, but he’s also image-obsessed as several of the encounters are copying his hairstyle!
Whilst we have much to praise this book for in terms of sheer originality and interest-factor given what you can meet along the way, the plot itself is far less interesting. You are a sort of straight-A Hogwarts graduate sent to kill-off FF’s first (and far from last) madman who wants to destroy the world in some way or other. At least you get to kill this one in a more interesting way than most of the others! The story within the adventure can be roughly divided into four distinct sections: 1) The outside bit (not much of interest here other than it suggests that the Black Tower is fairly tolerant of vagrants on its doorstep and the wind woman thing is frankly irritating); 2) The “Downstairs” of the “Upstairs, Downstairs” class division (lots to see and do, with a nice scene-setting atmosphere, but basically a dungeon trawl); 3) The “Upstairs” bit (mostly info gathering, possibly too short on real substance, and blighted by a continuity problem involving a seemingly-mobile library); 4) The Black Tower itself (the best bit by far - a satisfyingly spooky series of hard-as-nails encounters to prep you for Dire himself.) By definition, given that you are climbing a tower, this book is linear but, in this case, it actually works as you wouldn’t expect to be able to head off in all directions if you are heading further and further upwards, so at least what there is of the plot is logical.
Interestingly, if you play this book, then play WOFM you can see distinct parallels in terms of Jackson’s style and technique:
- · Both books involve requiring a combination to a lock at their climax
- · Both involve a gambling hall, although the one in COC is far better fleshed-out than that in WOFM and you find yourself staying there for ages to win seemingly-unlimited amounts of gold pieces that are no use to you at all in this book (which is annoying as you think that there might be a really useful expensive thing you need to buy later on)
- · Both involve references to Greek mythology (minotaur in a maze in WOFM, the golden fleece and a hydra in COC)
- · Both involve ingenuity and thought to defeat the final baddie, rather than sheer brute-force
You can also see several of the more frustrating elements of Jackson’s FF work:
- · COC is actually rather short (granted, it’s only a tower) which reduces the feeling of something to get your teeth into (although umpteen attempts at bettering the Ganjees, followed by explosive showdowns with Dire may make amends for this), whilst the Maze of Zagor in WOFM seems long only because you spend half the time being knocked out and deposited in some random part of it, which becomes boring very quickly
- · Jackson is obsessed with secret passageways – COC uses them sparingly, WOFM has some in the Maze of Zagor, and later Jackson FF’s House Of Hell and Creature Of Havoc are pretty much nothing but secret passageways
One thing I really like about COC is the art. Russ Nicholson’s work in this book is very well-rendered and really encapsulates how you are visualising the Black Tower in your mind as you work your way through it. Hair is wispy, there is lots of black, and the picture of a Ganjee sends a shiver down your spine, as does the wizened butler. As you progress from “Downstairs” to “Upstairs” the imagery is far whiter and cleaner and gives a nice impression of passing from class to class. Sadly, the cover is pathetic. Quite why the unholy hordes of Balthus Dire are being led by what looks like Big Bird covered in soot is beyond me. The revised cover was better, but shows the wind woman which seems an odd choice as she’s a fairly irrelevant encounter in my opinion but at least she’s well-drawn.
Overall I like the originality of the encounters and the imagery more than the playability, notwithstanding the final quarter which is superb. Magic is handled well and is key to beating this book (unlike most other magicky FFs where it tends to get forgotten along the way) and is an example of Jackson’s experimentation not going so far that the book becomes confused and unplayable or simply unbearable. The second FF built nicely on the foundations of the first, introduced us to a far more foreboding and terrifying baddie, and gave us a valid reason for trying to defeat him. Unfortunately, the trade-off was shortness of game and the need to be patient and bear with it in terms of the gradual increase in quality as it progresses. All things considered, this is a solid entry in a series which was still in its infancy and has by far the best deployment of magic after the Sorcery! Series.