Reviewed by Mark Lain
FF #15 (and the third Sci-Fi attempt) is probably one of the most obscure of the early FFs from the era when we would see a new title every month or two and when Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone were still actively writing for the series. Only Steve Jackson (II) and Andrew Chapman were the other regular contributors at this stage, before SJ/IL took a back-seat and the floodgates opened pouring loads of new FF writers (some good, some bad) into the mix. The obscurity of this FF is not helped by its never having been re-issued in the Wizard Books series'.
In spite of its comparative lack of press, this is actually the first decent Sci-Fi book in the series, if still only a fairly minor entry in the overall cannon and, whilst fun to play, it is certainly not without its faults but is considerably better than the dull Starship Traveller or the simply dire Space Assassin (the two Sci-Fi FFs that preceded it.) In many ways it is possible that this ended up as a lesser-known effort due to peoples’ lack of confidence in Sci-Fi FFs and it is something of a miracle that Andrew Chapman was allowed to write another one after he inflicted Space Assassin on the FF readers. But it is a good job that this book did go ahead as it paved the way for the best two Sci-Fi FFs (#22 Robot Commando and #18 Rebel Planet) shortly afterwards.
There is much to recommend in this book but the plot is its real strong-point. It’s a lot of fun and you really do get the impression of being an intergalactic Philip Marlowe figure as you gradually gather clues and information by sneaking about and by quizzing various characters that you meet along the way with the ultimate aim of locating the HQ of (and bringing down) the intergalactic Satophil-D drug ring. To add to the effect you have an expenses account and can bribe information out of people assuming you offer the right money in return. Furthermore, the more you sneak about the more attention you start to draw to yourself and the more in danger your life becomes, which adds to the atmosphere and draws you into the character and the storyline, so this is classic Film Noir stuff transplanted into Space. The plot is logical and there are numerous possible routes you can take – in other words, none of the irritating problems of there being only one linear true path that detracts from the playability of most FFs. Plus, there is ample scope for replaying and choosing a different route. Added to this is the fact that you are given a certain amount of RPG-style freedom to roam from place to place as you please which makes this feel less like a guided story book and more like an actual game. The final touch with the multi-directional plotting is that there are actually TWO ways to win: you can either take the baddies in dead by totally annihilating the entire asteroid where drug production is happening, or go for the more law-friendly option and take them in alive by out-gunning them (personally I find the destroy everything option more satisfying and it seems that AC did as well as the final paragraph for this outcome is far more vividly written than the somewhat pathetic three short sentences you are rewarded with for capturing the baddies.)
There are some great cameo moments along the way, including a bizarre asteroid-monastery (that is actually a waste of time visiting other than for novelty value), several run-ins with some fairly surly rival groups of intergalactic miscreants who like to mouth-off about not liking Feds and who will use you in their power-games against each other (more Film Noir here), a few EVA space-walks to remind you you’re in Space (some of which are more dangerous than others), a very hairy negotiation of an asteroid mine field (Empire Strikes Back?), a fairly interesting spaceport with quite a few options of what to do, etc, but the best sequence by far is a car chase that you can find yourself in. This episode is really long and is peppered with all sorts of obstacles and ways of meeting a sticky end. In some ways it feels a little out-of-place and makes you feel like you are rather Earth-bound, but it is so well executed and so fast-paced that your adrenalin really does start to rush.
Overall, the pace of this book is pretty fast and there are no drawn-out moments or dull parts to break-up the flow. If anything, the only really disappointing part is when you finally come up against the drug-producing HQ – there isn’t all that much in there for a hive of illicit activity and Blaster Babet himself is a major let-down. It takes very little thought to beat his tricks and his stats are hopelessly-low for any FF encounter, let alone a final baddie. On that note, it was also a bit of an anti-climax when I discovered that the evil-looking fat bloke dressed in baddie gear on the cover isn’t the man you’re looking for, but one of his minions – Babet himself is fairly emaciated (unless that’s what Satophil-D does to you!)
As you would expect with Sci-Fi there are numerous extra rules to accommodate the use of laser guns and let you get into ship-to-ship encounter situations. These rules are basically the same as those created for Starship Traveller (although phaser combat is slightly less lethal, doing 4 Stamina points of damage rather than your life resting on one throw of the dice like in ST.) To counter the higher damage you can suffer, provisions are provided in the futuristic form of pep pills that restore 6 rather than the usual 4 Stamina points. This does mean that the damage vs restoration factor is actually no different to that in regular medieval FFs, but at least it’s realistic inasmuch as phaser combat will kill far quicker than normal FF sword combat. Yet again, as with ST, ship-to-ship combat is a wasted opportunity and there aren’t many of these encounters in TROK either. This is a shame as ship combat is made slightly more interesting here as you are given two smart missiles that cause instant destruction when fired at an enemy ship. Only having two means you have to be sparing and take a call on when is best to use these, but as there aren’t many ship combats you might not even use both of them so that’s a bit of an own goal as well. As regards one-on-one combat, there are less of these than you might hope for but how many times is a space detective really likely to need to kill? So this is actually fairly logical if a little on the flat side in terms of what you would expect in FF. Also, the encounters are almost all very weak (4 to 8 St is the norm here even for most robots) and take little effort to kill especially as your phaser does 6 St of damage. Similarly, there is very little to collect in the way of items so that’s a bit of a let-down but I can see how it fits into the overall concept of gathering information rather than stuff to reach the end so this is forgivable.
Unfortunately, the emphasis on plot and variation in terms of possible routes does come at a cost, not just in terms of weak foes, lack of combats, not having much to collect, and minimal exploitation of potentially scope-expanding extra rules. None of the various routes to either of the endings are especially difficult and this book is actually very easy to beat. I have played it several times and have never lost. Many would say the mark of a FF that is too easy is if you can win on the first playthrough and this is easily done in this book. It is also fairly short if you happen to crack the clues and take the quickest route through (indeed, some routes consist mostly of the car chase and I believe it’s possible to avoid even this), although you can drag it out by going everywhere possible along a given route even if you don’t really need to.
A real mixed-bag in this book is AC’s style of writing FF. There is a good amount of dialogue (which you would expect if you are trying to get people to tell you information) and it is nicely written in a hardboiled way that adds to the Noir-ish detective feel. You also get to read the plaques on peoples’ doors which always seem to feature heavily in Film Noir so that’s a nice addition too. Flavour and atmosphere is added to the Sci-Fi theme by the inclusion of ship displays, count-downs, etc and this is a welcome touch. However, a common criticism of AC’s prose is that it can be very curt and instant death paragraphs leave you feeling either a bit stupid or vaguely insulted (unless this was intended, but it’s hard to tell.) Worst of all is that AC commits the cardinal sin of wasting paragraphs. Granted this might be designed to maintain the pace but it would be just as urgent-feeling if there were less paragraphs. I really do not like to be sent to entries that say nothing other than to go to yet another paragraph. Similarly, some references merely list your options before you move to another entry. This is just lazy and leaves you feeling short-changed. Even Starship Traveller cut its losses and only had 340 playing references! A better use of paragraphs in TROK is in the car chase as the constant jumping from short entry to short entry adds to the frenetic feel of it, but even that stretches to consuming 50 possible entries (ie 1/8th of the entire book and that’s excluding pointless “go somewhere else please” paragraphs!) Annoyingly, there are also a couple of typos in this book where you are sent to the wrong paragraphs so even what was used is not 100% correct. However, it has to be said that Chapman’s writing here is far better than his ham-fisted effort in Space Assassin, although he would not really come of age stylistically until FF 16 Seas Of Blood.
I have similar mixed feelings about the art in this FF. This was the only series entry illustrated by Nik Spender who should maybe have been given another chance. There is a very metallic monochrome feel to his machinery and environment drawings which does give a feel of Film Noir and of futuristic “shininess” with clean lines, little background and, in most cases, largely line-drawing. His people are not drawn in this way and are more conventional which adds life to the NPCs. Plus it means the art is in two styles which, whilst lacking consistency, does give contrast between human and mechanical forms. There are some let-downs though – the mutant thing you meet outside Babet’s lair is ludicrous and you kind of feel sorry for it, Babet himself is pathetic, and the serpent monster thing is genuinely laughable. Of more interest is the cover which I really like - there is a nice black and red theme going on and the henchman on it is suitably repulsive.
Overall then, this FF is no more than an average offering that could have been brilliant from the very hit-and-miss “teens” period in the series (probably the least consistent section of the series, in fact, due in part to Puffin’s demanding release schedule caused by the runaway success of FF) that started well with book 11, reached the series’ worst low so far with #12, was OK at #13, clawed itself back into classic territory with #14, was fun at #16, became stupid at #17, and then returned to form with a run of classics from #18 through to #22.