Sunday, 30 June 2013

#21: Eye Of The Dragon


EYE OF THE DRAGON

Ian Livingstone

Reviewed by Mark Lain

After 20 straight re-issues of material we already had, Wizard Books finally bit the bullet and offered FF fans a new book. With “Brand New Adventure” proudly emblazoned across the cover, when this appeared in 2005 it was an exciting release - the first new FF book since the original series’ swansong #59 Curse Of The Mummy came out 10 years earlier. Even more importantly, this was not a “Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone Present” effort, but was written by series co-creator (and my personal favourite FF author) Ian Livingstone, had a great cover image of a smoking dragon’s face in close-up, and impressive-looking internal art by the always good Martin McKenna. So this promised a lot at first glance. I eagerly took a copy from the shelf in Waterstone’s, took it to the cashier, handed over my hard-earned, and darted home to play this wonderful-looking book. I played it. I closed it. I put it on my FF shelf and I tried to forget about it.

This adventure is a very traditional dungeon trawl in the style of the very earliest FFs and it must have come across as a retrograde step when it appeared as the 21st in the first Wizard series, given the sheer variety of adventures that had preceded it. The original series developed progressively, with the more involved and idea-stretching books coming further into the series. As the Wizard re-issues started with most of Steve and Ian’s books many of the more “out there” ideas had already been seen with books like House Of Hell, Creature Of Havoc, Armies Of Death, Legend Of Zagor, and Appointment With FEAR all already available. There is nothing wrong with old-school dungeons, but this book actually manages to be derivative of its own series, makes the FF concept seem genuinely tired, and reads like all the outtakes and alternate takes from The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain and Deathtrap Dungeon have been swept-up off the cutting room floor, stuck together, and bound up inside a cover with the title written on it. TWOFM is seminal in that it was the first FF ever and did something never really seen before up to that point. Deathtrap Dungeon is probably the most inventive, varied and exciting dungeon ever created in FF. EOTD is the FF series’ answer to cheap exploitation movies like Peter Sellers’ Trail/Curse Of The Pink Panther or Bruce Lee’s Game Of Death where every last inch of available footage was chucked together with some filler scenes to attempt to create something new that was fooling no-one with any sense of irony or taste. There are actually several moments lifted directly from TWOFM and Deathtrap Dungeon including (spiked) pitfall traps, seats that give you energy, helmets made of different metals that you can pick from to wear, rooms that speak to you, an inexplicably-located shop, numbered keys... the list goes on.

The actual plot is as ridiculous and far-fetched as any of the more illogical FF plots are. You are in a pub in Fang (just before the annual Trial Of Champions) where you meet Henry Delacor who tells you about a dungeon under Darkwood Forest that contains a very valuable gold dragon with two emeralds for eyes. The emeralds are hidden somewhere in the dungeon and trying to take the dragon minus its eyes will kill you. He has already tried to find it, but, as he found only one emerald eye, he couldn’t remove it safely. He challenges you to take his emerald, find the second one, retrieve the gold dragon, and bring it back to him to sell and divide the spoils between you (he somehow knows it’s worth the rather randomly precise figure of 335,000 gold pieces – does he already have a buyer then?) However, there’s a catch. To make sure you don’t rip him off and steal the lot he forces you to drink a slow-acting poison so that you have to return to him to get the antidote. Is this not the most biased insurance policy ever? Surely any hardened adventurer would just nick the emerald and go it alone and the apparent stupidity of the character you play here is quite awe-inspiring. There then follows a name-checking trek to Darkwood where you note Firetop Mountain and Stonebridge en route to a woodcutter’s hut deep in Darkwood that you presumably never seemed to notice when you played The Forest Of Doom. What follows is a frankly tedious and dated meander up various largely featureless corridors, being offered the chance to open different kinds of door (some on the left, some on the right, just to add a bit of totally unexciting variety), open some chests, or turn left or right at various junctions. Fascinating stuff (not.)

It quickly becomes apparent that you are going to spend a lot of time writing items down that you have found and the amount of stuff you end up carrying around with you is genuinely ludicrous. Of course, as this is an Ian Livingstone book, the shopping list of items you need to succeed is quite lengthy, but I did end up wondering how you still manage to fit a huge gold dragon in your backpack at the end. Do you just dump everything else once you’ve found the main thing you’re looking for? To be honest, there’s no point in even picking half of it up as it often never seems to have a purpose.

Unusually, especially for IL, this book is not particularly difficult once you’ve found the correct route. Even more unusually, there is more than one way through the dungeon as long as you find the main parts as you go. Additionally, it is very easy to bluff your way through two key moments rendering the main challenges of the game meaningless. Firstly, to avoid being crushed by a moving wall shortly before you find the second emerald you need to recite the Hole In The Wall Spell. If you select “Yes” to the question of whether you know it, the book gives you a choice of three lines to pick from, giving you a one in three chance of just guessing irrespective of whether you have genuinely found the spell or not. It would be more normal for a numerical cheat-proof solution to be applied here. Secondly, to open the door to the gold dragon room you need to remove five weapons from the wall in the correct order. Get any one wrong and you are dead. To enable you to do this, the wall also has five metal doors behind which are five clues telling you the order to pull the weapons out. The little doors open with matching metal keys (gold, silver, bronze, etc) that are hidden around the dungeon. This time each key does have a numerical reference, but you only need a maximum of four to win given that a process of elimination will tell you what info is being the fifth. Sadly, this is handled very badly as success is not dependant on having any keys at all, given that you can simply guess the order. Correctly guessing the first four in a row is undeniably tough and requires plenty of luck, but it is always possible.

It is no real surprise that the usual lie about being able to win through regardless of your stats applies here and only characters with mega-high stats have any real hope, if only because there are many Skill and Luck tests, although only a small number are potentially fatal if you fail (in fact, for IL, there are comparatively few instant deaths full stop.) There are lots of Stamina penalties along the way, but by far the toughest part (and probably the only really hard part as even the Hell Demon can be simply run away from, whether you have a kris knife or not) of this book comes with two combats that you cannot avoid if you want to win: a Sk 12 Gigantus that does you 4 Stamina points of damage each time it hits you, and a Sk 10 Doppelganger that you have to fight with a -2 Attack Strength penalty. It is possible that you can find yourself in a third (even harder) combat if either you don’t have the elven boots or you fail a Luck test due to having a clumsy sidekick when you are trying to sneak past a Black Dragon that, if awakened, has Sk 14 St 18 leaving you pretty much toast by that point. An unusual (for IL) balance exists here though as there are also ample ways of increasing your Stamina by drinking various potions that you find along the way (which is made a little trickier as there are also several poisons to catch you out), plus you start out with 10 Provisions. There are similarly several Skill-boosting discoveries including one that awards +1 Skill so early on that you can’t possibly have lost any Skill yet. Are we in that case supposed to ignore the rule that says you cannot exceed your Initial Skill? Either way, something has gone wrong in the planning, which is a bit shoddy – badly play-tested FFs are always frustrating and whilst this is a minor oversight compared to books that are literally rendered impossible due to bad editing (#58 Revenge Of The Vampire probably being the worst culprit), it is still irritating.

Ian Livingstone often cannot resist giving us a NPC to travel with (usually regardless of whether we want them or not) and this adventure is no different in that respect when you discover the Dwarf called Littlebig (who is later revealed unsurprisingly to be related to Bigleg from The Forest Of Doom.) It is possible to go past the room where Littlebig is being held prisoner but if you do the book makes you turn around and go back to get him in another example of FF making decisions for YOU when YOU are supposedly in the driving seat. Unlike almost all other NPCs, Littlebig does not immediately die, run away, or try to murder you for no apparent reason and Littlebig will always survive for as long as you do. He is actually quite useful as he can share combats with you, meaning some tougher foes can take double damage where you only get hit once (and Littlebig is seemingly impervious to damage), plus he can read dwarven runes and there are lots scattered about later in the adventure that can help you find the safe route, but he also suffers from verbal diarrhoea (which does at least liven things up), is ridiculously cheerful, and is annoyingly clumsy so can get you into trouble here and there. He is also a key plot driver as he was also searching for the emeralds and the gold dragon and now wants revenge on his captor (someone called Sharcle.) Once you’ve found the dragon and taken it, there is an actually quite neat plot twist (if you aren’t bored rigid by the tedious drudgery of the dungeon by this time) where Sharcle turns out to be Henry Delacor who turns out to be a thief and tries to rip you off so you kill him. This leaves you with the slight problem of having no poison antidote so you head for Stonebridge where Ian Livingstone’s favourite (and ever-annoying) wizard Yaztromo tells you that you never were poisoned and it was all a big scam to get you to do all the hard work. This is a nice twist that ties the whole storyline together, but you really won’t care by this time.

Within the context of the FF cannon, there are many links to other books in the series: Darkwood Forest, Fang, Bigleg, Yaztromo, Stonebridge, Firetop Mountain, plus if you choose to search the hut right at the start before descending into the dungeon below you find an axehead with something strange inscribed into it. Could this be a link to the Stonebridge dwarfs’ weapon you need to find in The Forest Of Doom? As it serves no purpose at all in EOTD it can only be some sort of linking feature within the series. Whilst inter-relation between entries into the series is a feature I always like to see, there are so many here that it seems like a desperate attempt to validate this book’s relevance to the cannon as a whole. Plus, I still fail to understand why the hut and its vast underground dungeon aren’t found in The Forest Of Doom. Has it been subsequently built? Also, given the sheer amount of things that seem to live down there, the presence of a shop, various rooms with complexities such as artworks or creatures working on weapons etc it seems that this dungeon is a deliberate creation intended as a challenge in the same vein as the Trial Of Champions or Shaggradd’s Hives Of Peril. The design of the dungeon is certainly no accident and this is where the concept becomes a) totally illogical and b) appears to exist for the sake of writing another FF book.

The awkward nature of this dungeon’s existence for existence’s sake could be tied back to the adventure’s origin which brings us to another major issue here – this is NOT a brand new adventure. Yes, in this format it might be new and, yes, it had not been issued as a FF book, but the dungeon design and plot itself (albeit in reduced form) originally appeared in Ian Livingstone’s RPG primer Dicing With Dragons published pre-FF in 1982 as the first adventure scenario for Ian’s planned Fantasy Quest system that would be adapted and morph into FF once he merged it with Steve Jackson’s ideas. The art in the original was by early FF artist Russ Nicholson (a favourite of mine whose work really seems to epitomise FF as it started so early in the series) and this was clearly the blueprint for Martin McKenna’s art in the FF version – in some case he has very closely “adapted” Nicholson’s work, but, that said, I do think McKenna’s work in EOTD is very effective, being well-drawn and very complete in its look and certainly far better than the adventure itself. The cover is equally good and gives nothing away about the plot, leading you to think the dragon is a physical creature which adds some intrigue (although any interest quickly fades when you start playing!)

Unfortunately, the tedious slog through the fairly unexciting dungeon and the stupid plot premise are not the only areas where this falls flat as the encounters themselves are uninteresting and hardly anything new is offered up. When you consider that this was the 60th “new” FF book to be published, you’d have thought that IL could have come up with some interesting and unique encounters given what some of the later books had brought to the table. On a positive, I really like the Gigantus (and McKenna’s illustration really hits its imposing and horrific appearance home), but most of the creatures are bog-standard Orcs, Ghouls, Zombies, a Vampire, a Gremlin, Spiders, some Skeletons, a Troll, an Ogre, etc etc yawn yawn. There is a fairly complex show-down with a Snake Witch that is probably the only well fleshed-out and thought-provoking encounter you ever have here, but for the most part the creatures you meet are either very basic or there’s just no rational explanation for why they are there. Why would something as “sophisticated” as a Vampire or a Hell Demon be dossing around in an underground tunnel network? In many cases getting away from encounters is not difficult (bar the two tough and unavoidable ones mentioned earlier) and the worst offering by far is described simply as an Evil Wizard. He does mention his name at one point, but he’s mostly referred to (the combat sections included) as “Evil Wizard.” For someone like Ian Livingstone who has demonstrated great imagination many times in the past, this is a frankly desperate state of affairs.

This adventure’s dated and dull design overshadows that fact that, as always, Livingstone’s writing is actually very vivid and descriptive and the atmosphere is well created here. Sadly, this also works against it as too much information can reveal the failings and that is certainly the case here. The descriptions make it all too abundantly clear just how unoriginal and empty this adventure is.


I doubt many people will play this more than once or twice as there is so little of interest to encourage repeat playing. The fact that it is not linear could add some re-playability, but there is little here to fire the imagination in what is simply one of the most boring FF books ever. It makes no sense, offers nothing new (especially coming so late in the series), and is well below the standard we expect from Ian Livingstone. The most interesting thing about this book is that it has a rather random total of 407 paragraphs (and 400 is still the victory one.) 

Depressing. Let us never talk of this again.

Saturday, 29 June 2013

The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain (ZX Spectrum)





THE WARLOCK OF FIRETOP MOUNTAIN (ZX Spectrum)

Crystal Computing

Reviewed by Mark Lain

The sudden runaway success of FF coincided conveniently with home computers experiencing the same boom, in particular the ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64. It’s hard in retrospect to grasp the concept of a computer with 48K of memory (or a monumental 64K in the case of the Commodore!) being the pinnacles of achievement in personal computers to date, but that was the case in 1984 when the ZX Spectrum arcade adaptation of the first FF book appeared on the shelves in high street stores everywhere. I remember this game coming out. I also remember having no interest in it at all at the time in spite of being an avid Spectrum user. I was a purist - FF came in book form and shouldn’t be messed about with, but I did succumb a few years later and borrowed the Spectrum version from a friend. As with all Spectrum games, this came on cassette and you had to sit through the “bleurgh, blip, bleurgh, gizza, gizza, gizza” sounds accompanied by the epileptic-fit inducing dancing coloured stripes up the side of the loading screen for the customary few minutes and then wait and see if it instantly crashed as soon as you started playing it. Surprisingly, this game was unusually reliable as Spectrum games went and rarely packed-up on you as you tried to play it.

The cassette inlay features a cropped version of just the dragon from the cover of the original book as well as the original text font so you can comfortably expect this to be a faithful adaptation of the book but in arcade form. A pretty exciting idea, although you do wonder how 48K of memory, about twenty-odd different BEEP command sounds, eight colours, and only one possible on-screen text font will ever possibly cope with what would have to be a pretty elaborate programme. As soon as you start playing, it becomes apparent that the programmers have addressed these obstacles by ignoring the book completely and attaching the title to a totally unrelated arcade maze that plays like a slightly better version of their earlier highly-acclaimed (and almost identical) Hall of the Things Spectrum game.

There are certainly some connections to the book, but these are no more unique to WOFM than to any other generic fantasy game. You have to work your way through a big maze, fighting orcs, spiders, and slime moulds (whatever they are), collecting 15 keys on the way. Eventually comes the showdown with the Warlock himself and then you nick his treasure. So at least the climax is the same, even if it’s dumbed-down to just a pretty tough fight minus all the card deck, old/young Zagor, etc interesting intricacies of the book version. As a slight variation, you carry a sword and a bow and can switch between these at will, which makes it possible to kill both up close and from a safe distance, which does add playability.

There are some nice touches to this game, considering it came early in the home computer era, so massive spectacle can hardly be expected. There is, after all, a giant leap for mankind in terms of technical achievement from Pong to something like Halo, and this game sits about 5% of the way in! Each time you restart the game, the maze is randomly generated so no two games are alike, which is a big advantage over the linearity of the books and makes replay an almost unlimited possibility. It also makes this game very difficult as you have to start totally from scratch every time and, with 15 keys to find, this is a lengthy undertaking akin to the big map Spectrum games where you had to find stuff like Atic Atac or Jet Set Willy (and even these don’t re-arrange themselves every time you start over.) There is a touch of realism in that the encounters don’t just shuffle from side-to-side along a line of pixels. They will actually try to attack you and will chase you around the maze, which is quite clever and realistic in the context of what was possible at the time. Plus, the creature combats are very difficult because, before you’ve had time to select your weapon, the spider or orc will have eaten up half your Health while you think about what to do and find the right button on the keyboard, and it’s with the keys that this game really becomes complicated. There are so many controls (all very close together on the keyboard) that you either need to be an octopus or have a second player helping you to stand any chance of being able to move, un-sheath your sword, fire your bow, open a door, etc and get your mind and fingers working in harmony enough to play smoothly. You know that when the control instructions fill the whole screen you are going to struggle a) to remember even half of them, and b) to be able to execute many of the moves to be able to get anywhere.

Another nice bit of programming is that the screen scrolls in all four directions, rather than being a screen at a time that jerks over to the next page when you exit stage left or right like so many games of the era do. Apparently, the programmers only had three weeks in which to code this game so, credit where credit is due, this is put together very well in terms of actual game mechanics and the limitations of the era.

The cassette’s inlay card proudly boasts that this is “a fantasy game with revolutionary graphics” but the fairly simple human sprites, spider sprites, and orc sprites, along with zig-zaggy red walls, on an otherwise featureless black background are hardly going to take the world by storm (even in 1984.) Frankly, the similarly-era’d Horace games actually had more impressive graphics than this and the on-screen appearance would remind me of the Spectrum game Tiler if it was set at night. Marketing has a lot to answer for and anyone expecting anything remotely resembling a computer visualisation of Russ Nicholson’s book art is going to be bitterly disappointed. Indeed, anyone expecting an adaptation of SJ and IL’s FF book will also be pretty unhappy with this game!

This was the only attempt to make a proper full FF arcade game for the Spectrum/Commodore, with all their future FF adaptations being more traditional text adventures with fairly perfunctory screen images to accompany the written words, so credit has to be given for trying something more interactive and playable, rather than just putting the book’s pages onto the screen which is a bit pointless really as you might as well just read the (better-illustrated) FF books instead. This game was available in just cassette form or in a “Software Pack” with the book also included so you could experience both the written and the arcade versions. This must have been a fairly weird experience as the two are so unrelated (other than the actual goal) that there are basically no connections in terms of environment, events, or encounters, other than the tenuous link that orcs and spiders (and Zagor) appear in both so the pack pretty much gave you two different games.

On the plus side, from the abstract angle of Spectrum games of the era, this game does have some functionality that was rare at the time. From the perspective of an adventure game, it is very different from the fall-back of just transferring text to the screen and, even if it is just a blank maze containing nothing more than doors, three types of monster, and keys, it is a welcome departure that suggested there was more to come - for many, the pinnacle of this concept would be Gauntlet which even came with add-on levels on further cassettes to keep the game and your character moving on in a more free RPG style.

Sadly, approaching this as a FF-related computer game, there is little to recommend as it could have been released with just about any other fantasy-style title and you would be none-the-wiser as to what it was meant to be. The first release in the Puffin Personal Computer Collection just comes across as a blatant cash-in on FF's success and is basically just a computer game that has nothing to do with FF whatsoever.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

#42: Black Vein Prophecy


BLACK VEIN PROPHECY

Paul Mason and Steven Williams

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Initially one of the most surreal of all the entries in the series, this is a classic example of taking a potentially really good idea, starting it very well, and then turning it quickly into meandering drivel. From the writing duo that brought us, amongst other FFs, the wacky The Riddling ReaverBVP makes that book seem fairly conventional to start with, but the main difference is that Reaver maintains its weirdness to mostly good and certainly entertaining effect, whereas BVP becomes pretty irritating after a while.

The start of this book is one of FFs most intriguing, even if the idea is a variant rip-off of Creature Of Havoc. YOU have no idea who you are, what you are meant to do, or anything at all, in fact. There is no introduction, just an Adventure Sheet, followed by paragraph 1 where you wake up in your own sarcophagus with a thumping headache and a dead bloke on the floor next to you. You haven’t even rolled any stats or been told you’ve got any equipment - you literally start from nothing and this is genuinely interesting from a playing perspective. Everything you see and do at the start is veiled in total mystery and there is no denying that what you can see is pretty damn bizarre, with stone statues guarding you that disintegrate into human skeletons, voices occasionally giving you instructions, networks of doors sealed with wax, and your occasionally finding random bits of equipment that could be useful to achieve whatever the hell it is you are meant to be achieving. Plus, your headache changes in intensity whilst you are in the tomb complex. This really does pique your curiosity and, the odder things get, the more you are drawn into the unravelling of the plot. Once you get out of the tomb itself, you find an inexplicably devastated city containing a fused talking horse-person creature that either gives you a useful skill or coaxes you into joining it as another fused talking horse-person for all eternity – a very sudden potential early ending and it’s not made entirely clear whether this outcome constitutes failure or not as, also unusually, paragraph 400 is not the ultimate goal (it’s just a conventional game section like any other) and various outcomes can be discovered along the way (although most of them are instant deaths which are rather more obviously failures) including being made very small and put in someone’s pocket (Is that a good or a bad thing? Presumably the pocket has no exit?) The book decides that the only way out of the city is to load yourself into a catapult and fire yourself over the wall into the sea (I’m not kidding), at which point you are rescued by a helpful NPC called Velkos who lets you ride in her boat to your next port of call. More weirdness ensues as the boat is attacked by prisoners in flying egg-sack spheres (just like the ones that catch escapees in The Prisoner), at which point you and Velkos can then travel together or you can go it alone. Unfortunately, from this point onwards this just becomes a tedious and very linear trek across various terrains, encountering more and more groups of people who may or may not be helpful and who mostly seem to know who you are but tend to articulate this through shock, reverence, or random swinging between liking and disliking you, with no actual suggestion of who you are until you meet a wizard that is made out to be evil, but that seems to be your personal biographer, at which point you can find out who you are, not that this bit is really all that clear and I have to admit that on the first playthrough I wasn’t really all that sure right through to the end, where I was still none-the-wiser but seemed to have become King all of a sudden. There’s no doubt that some parts of this book require pretty close and detailed reading, but there is a big problem in that, by the time really useful and relevant detail is coming out, you probably are losing interest and just going through the motions, which is a shame as, if handled more consistently, the supposedly intriguing plot could have been done far more justice and this could have been a fascinating adventure.

The inconsistency of storyline is paralleled with the unpredictable and often schizophrenic behaviour of some of the characters you can meet. Velkos herself swings between being a genuine ally and inexplicably trying to murder you, a bandit group you can encounter seem helpful but if you let them tattoo you with their mark they turn psychotic and kill you, the pivotal wizard is the passive opposite and will let you kill him as much as he’ll try to give you information and advice, plus you can meet a very irrational sort of proto-Communist revolutionary who spurts “free the people” psycho-babble and, again, randomly can be an ally or not. There is one argument that says that the odd reaction you get from NPCs adds to the mysterious atmosphere and the disorientating nature of this book. I am more inclined to suggest that it is just badly written and designed, and that the two writers either didn’t communicate with each other at any point whilst putting it together or were just making it up as they went along in an attempt to emulate surrealist automatism. Surrealism is clearly an influence on this book (far more so than the just general craziness of The Riddling Reaver), but the fascinatingly surreal opening just isn’t carried through beyond the first act and, post Velkos boat-ride, this just becomes a pathetic attempt at creating something a bit more off-the-wall.

As you would expect from a starting point of nothing, this book is very difficult, but not in a challenging and exciting “I really want to keep playing until I beat this” way. Rather this book becomes relentlessly harsh in its latter stages, with almost every false move leading to instant deaths. There are around 58 instant failure sections in this book which is an excessive number and there are often more than one on the same page which, when you notice them, should give out a warning of just how hard this is going to be. Add to this the lengthy shopping list of essential items, along with the list of special skills/magic powers you need to discover to survive the final show-down with (what turns out to be) your evil brother, and this is a fairly Ian Livingstone-esque ultra-difficult undertaking, but without any of his excellent plot ideas, well-designed environments, and atmospheric writing.

However, there are even bigger issues that make this book seem so unreasonably tough:
  • You need to fail a Luck test right at the start to get a key item (or more accurately, a physical deformity) that you cannot win without. It could be said that this is a good device to make cheating impossible, or that as you know nothing at this early stage you wouldn’t therefore know whether Luck is on your side or not, but, if you roll a decent Luck score (which you will need for later Luck tests) you have hardly any chance from the get-go and can play through the entire book, only to fail because of something that went wrong a handful of paragraphs in.
  • Several items’ identities change when it comes to needing them, so, unless you write them down exactly as the book will later refer to them (which is pure chance and/or your own interpretation of what a thing might be), you could fail purely because you don’t realise that what the book is asking for is something that you do actually have, it just has a different name. For example, I did not realise that a “Small Jar” and a “Small Jar of Orange Syrup” are the same thing so when the book asked for a “Small Jar”, I assumed I didn’t have what I took to be an empty jar – surely the orange syrup is the important thing here? Another example is a “Soggy Scroll” which I just took to be a “Scroll” that, granted, was wet when I found it, but just how long does it take it to dry? This all just reeks of bad planning and lack of logical interconnection between key episodes.
  • There are at least five errors where you are sent to the wrong paragraph. This is an awkward issue that may go unnoticed in parts due to the overall bizarreness of this book so you could just put these down to weirdness making things seem to not make sense. Sadly, this is not the case and this book has not been thoroughly play-tested. The fact that one of these erroneous links is key to winning the book (it’s a reference about one of the special powers you need) makes this all the more frustrating to play.
  • One of the numerous outcomes can send you (just one step from “victory”) all the way back to paragraph 1, where the book resets itself (just like The Forest Of Doom so annoyingly does) and you have to go back through the whole adventure, suspending logic and disbelief (even more than you had to when it was all fresh material) until you get back to the point you were at and pick the other option that lets you win.
  • The lack of any stats at the start, whilst definitely adding to your lack of self-knowledge very well, is a waste of time as you are instructed to roll up your Skill, Stamina and Luck within half a dozen or so moves. Unless you have never played a FF book before, it is not the most surprising revelation when you roll a die, add six to the number, and write it in your Luck box. Ditto, rolling two dice and adding twelve for your Stamina. Rather more unusual is your Skill which, possibly due to your half-conscious state or, more likely, because much later on it turns out you can use magic and this does often carry some sort of combat stat penalty in FF, is calculated with 1d6+4 rather than +6. This all seems reasonable and the book does cleverly factor in a -4 Attack Strength penalty if you haven’t found a weapon, even though finding weapons is hardly hard here. By far the most unfair problem with your Skill is that, if you do not have a weapon and are fighting with the -4 penalty, it is actually possible to have a Skill in combat of 1 and, whilst few enemies have Skills above about 6 or 7 anyway, you are still at a serious disadvantage. To be fair, there are less combats than normal in this book and most foes are weak, but there are still some tough encounters with double-figure stat-ed enemies that are exceptionally hard under these conditions, weapon or no weapon.
  • The horrible FF fall-back failure of dying due to an arbitrary die-roll that has no bearing on any of your stats or abilities can also come into play if you choose to handle your evil brother in a certain way. Roll one die, if you roll an even number, then you, er, die. A touch of the Luke Sharps here, I fear!
I have made much of the fact that this book does not hold-up to its excellent start and that the plot quickly degenerates into a linear roam through a landscape. The prose also has the same problem, as if the opening section was written by one of the two authors and the balance was written by his less-talented co-author. I don’t know who wrote what, but the atmosphere of mystery, dread and (initially) claustrophobia quickly disappears to be replaced with lengthy paragraphs involving meeting different people or groups and getting involved (or not) in their various unexciting machinations in a bid to find out a few meagre and one dimensional facts about yourself. Normally, long paragraphs means lots of detail and description to set the scene and make you feel part of the proceedings, but not here, as the book becomes more tedious and almost pretentious as it progresses, ultimately becoming a mine-field of instant deaths, pointless red herrings that are built up only to turn out to be nothing (the fruitless monastery visit, for example), and weird final act moments where members of your family go into explanatory soliloquies or their entourage act out inexplicable ceremonial routines. At one point late in the book you experience an expositional flash-back to your childhood but, as with much of this adventure, you may not even realise what is meant to be happening as it can just be put down to yet more pompous pseudo-surrealism.

On the subject of pomposity, the cover (by the usually atmospheric and very apt to fantasy art Terry Oakes) is another rare example of a poor FF cover image, looking, as it does, suspiciously like the cover of a 1970s prog-rock LP. Bizarrely, given the “you know nothing” opening gambit of this book, something original like a very vague outline or even a solid colour, might have made a more appropriate to the subject, if possibly too uninspiring to purchase, cover. The cover belies the actually very good internal art which I think works really well as fantasy art per se and, with its sketchy broken lines and slightly hazy appearance, really does suggest that you are emerging from some sort of comatose state.

This could and probably should (had it been better executed) have been a highly original and unusual entry to the cannon. As it is, this is probably one of the poorest FF books – in spite of its excellent opening premise it does not keep the player's interest, becomes dull, is far too unfairly difficult, suffers from serious design flaws, and is often incoherent and incomprehensibly weird, but not in a hip David Lynch way, in a “this is just a bad book and I wish it would end or put me out of my misery” way. A wasted opportunity to do something different with the FF format.

Monday, 24 June 2013

#17: Appointment With F.E.A.R.




APPOINTMENT WITH F.E.A.R.

Steve Jackson

Reviewed by Mark Lain

It was almost inevitable that a superhero FF would emerge sooner or later and it was equally inevitable that the series’ main boundary-pusher, Steve Jackson, would write it. It is more of a surprise that no further superhero FFs would be attempted (other than the short-form sequel to this book, Deadline To Destruction, that was published in Warlock #12) and opinion is certainly divided over how successful AwF really was. Indeed, my own opinion is torn between admiration and derision!

As an adventure, this often borders on the cringe-worthy with silly in-jokes (there are so many supposedly witty comic book and popular culture references that they become unbearable after a while) and barrel-scraping attempts at creating super villains to face off against. As all the good baddies had already been used up by Marvel, DC and 2000AD, Jackson is left to invent a crowd of villains that manage to sound like they are from classic comics, but that are actually far too crappy in terms of their concepts and make King Tut (easily the most desperate idea for a baddie that the ever-campy and inherently ridiculous 60s Batman series would conjure up) look like quite an intriguing and well thought-out idea. Only the main arch-villain, The Titanium Cyborg, is even remotely intimidating, and that’s more due to the mystique of his appearance on the cover as only the FEAR group actually really gets any proper coverage so that any kind of sense of foreboding surrounds them. Most of the villains just play support roles and give you something to apprehend as you hunt about for evidence of what FEAR are up to and how to track them down.

...Which brings us to the plot. You play Jean Lafayette aka The Silver Crusader, who due to being the product of a genetic experiment, has one of four special abilities (more on these later) to help you fight crime in Titan City (just to throw in a tenuous link to the FF series.) You have to make your way around the city, collecting clues as to the whereabouts of a top secret FEAR (the Federation of Euro-American Rebels) meeting so that you can capture the evil genius that is Vladimir Utoshki aka The Titanium Cyborg and thwart FEAR’s evil plans. And that’s pretty much it for the storyline. As it’s basically a comic book plot, anything can happen really, not that much does other than a few crimes being committed, your getting berated by your constantly fuming boss (very comic booky), a bit of optional shopping, museum visiting, going to the funfair or visiting your Aunt (again, a comic book cliché, but that actually fits in well and adds a bit of warm humour), with the occasional run-in with a super-villain from a list of fairly hopeless baddies that don’t really have many super-talents and are very easy to beat. The real point is that you are trying to find numerical clues (and you start with two from the outset) that you have to use your intuition when to use.

The clues are the crux of this book’s structure and, in spite of being fairly pathetic as an adventure, this book has one of the best and most intricately planned designs of any gamebook. Jackson expands on the ideas he introduced in #10 House Of Hell where you need to decide when to use the mathematical clues that you are given in return for defeating certain baddies. Sometimes the book drops hints, but more often than not, you are left to just guess when to do some sums and move to a secret paragraph that’s where you are plus 50 or some such number-crunch. Needless to say, this makes actually defeating the book incredibly difficult and you can be led into a false sense of security as a play-through literally only takes about 30 minutes leaving you none the wiser and making this also one of the briefest and most unsatisfying adventures to play as there just isn’t enough material of any substance here to keep you interested (another reason why it is so disappointing overall as a game.) You will find yourself often just going endlessly through the book trying to find something different from what happened to you last time, until, that is, you manage to beat it (or come close to beating it) at which point it dawns that there is something very unique about this book – it is actually four different missions. OK, none of them are especially involving and they are all over before they’ve started, but this is a brilliant piece of design that offers ample re-play options should you feel inclined.

The four different routes to success (each of which ends with the FEAR summit being in a totally different place – another bit of excellent design) are dictated by which of the four super-powers YOU have: Super Strength (giving you a permanent combat Skill of 13 and, less explicably, the ability to fly), Psi-Powers (self-explanatory, and Jackson is fond of ESP and mind-control as his books where you can use Magic demonstrate), ETS (the ability to build gadgets in a Batman-stylie), and Energy Blast (where you can fire a bolt from your hand, but it does come at a cost of 2 Stamina every time you use it so, whilst sounding good, is probably the least likely one you’ll pick to avoid killing yourself) and each comes with two clues out of a pool of six. The adventure plays out differently based on your super-power, but you still need to find the correct hidden path based on your clues and failure is highly likely as there are so many red herrings along the way such that this book is probably even harder to navigate through than the similarly-designed House Of Hell was. Granted, none of the other lethal obstacles are thrown at you (Fear, lack of weapons, etc) and staying alive is extremely easy (there are very few instant failure sections in this book), but finding the true path(s) is inordinately difficult as there is simply too much guess-work involved which, combined with the lack of anything to get your teeth into, results in a fairly poor playing experience, other than the possibility of replays via other routes (which you probably won’t find.)

Defeating FEAR is not the only written-in reason to play this book. The concept of Hero Points is included here where, in return for doing something heroic, you get what are effectively Experience Points. Whilst it is purely an aside, you are supposed to try to beat your previous tally of Hero Points to add extra playability, but this stat does nothing other than to make you feel good or bad about yourself. Your score has no bearing on anything – it would have been better if a higher Hero score made you more persuasive or allowed your reputation to precede you (like Nemesis points do in #52 Night Dragon, for example) just to make it meaningful. An interesting point of note on this subject is the fact that you are discouraged from killing any baddies by reducing their Stamina to zero. If you do, you lose Hero Points (not that you really care) and once an enemy’s Stamina has dropped to 2 or less they will surrender to you. This is very logical and fits the concept of this book, but, if you do kill someone, the book has no mechanism to deal with this and the baddie comes back to life and blabs some information to you. A bit more thought could have allowed you to turn people in dead or alive and the book could have penalised you for killing by not revealing a clue. As it stands, it makes no difference whether you kill baddies or not as the outcome is always the same either way. Plus, most of the encounters are fairly easy, bar The Titanium Cyborg himself who has Sk 18 St 20 (but you don’t fight him with those stats as success is dependent on a Circuit Jammer which halves his stats, instantly making him no different to any other slightly above average encounter) so combats are almost irrelevant here.

One very noticeable thing about this book is its sheer length in terms of paragraphs (440) which belies its briefness in playing terms, but, as so much intricate structure is built-in, as well as it being effectively four inter-linking adventures, the extra length facilitates this instead. Normally a very long FF book makes for a very long adventure (eg: The Crown Of Kings or Howl Of The Werewolf), but the paragraphs are used differently here, which is quite intriguing an idea, if ultimately an unsatisfying one in playing terms and you find yourself wondering exactly what all the sections are being used for (until you work it out, that is.)

Artistically, a decent attempt has been made to make you feel like you are in a comic-book, as all the illustrations are in multiple panels that show progress of a plot thread, which is a neat idea to create some (much-needed) atmosphere. Of considerable interest to me personally is the cover which is drawn by one of my favourite Judge Dredd artists, Brian Bolland, and really looks the part in trying to make this look like a graphic novel. The Titanium Cyborg is suitably evil-looking with his manic grin and bizarre super-villain outfit – it’s a shame Bolland didn’t do the interior art as well which is crying out for the depth of detail that his work always has, but I gather that Bolland takes a long time to produce his drawings so that may have caused problems with meeting publishing deadlines at a time when FF was commercial hot property and something of a cash-cow for Puffin. Incidentally, this is one of the rare occasions where Wizard Books chose not to change the re-issue cover for something wildly inferior, which speaks volumes about how good, not to mention still contemporary-looking, the cover is.


This was a wasted opportunity. In terms of its design this is one of the best books in the series with its four distinct true paths and its very complex and unusual mathematical, clue-based reader intuition structure. Sadly, it fails miserably by simply being a risible adventure with hardly anything to keep you interested, that is far too short and, worst of all given how little you get to do, ridiculously hard to figure out given how much unfathomable (and impossible) guesswork is involved on the players’ behalf. Yes, it’s certainly playable (unlike the worst FFs like #30 Chasms Of Malice or #12 Space Assassin that are so unbearable you aren’t likely to return to them even if you can be bothered to finish a first playthrough), but it leaves you baffled and short-changed by ending too quickly with almost inevitable failure. At one point your character can buy a copy of The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain as a peace-offering to your perpetually apoplectic boss – I’d suggest you do the same and get yourself a copy of WOFM as, as an enjoyable adventure, that book is a million times better than Appointment With FEAR which, other than being a novelty, is pretty forgettable.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Casket Of Souls


CASKET OF SOULS

Ian Livingstone

Reviewed by Mark Lain

As beautiful as it is baffling, the second FF-related “find the answers by examining the pictures” book was never strictly-speaking released as a Fantasy Questbook, but was originally advertised as part of the series and it quite clearly is, in spite of the paperback edition being published by Penguin instead of Puffin (the hardback was OUP, the same as The Tasks Of Tantalon) and there being no explicit reference anywhere in it to the Fantasy Questbooks series. (Incidentally, for an explanation of the Questbook concept please see my review of The Tasks Of Tantalon.)

Ian Livingstone had a reputation for often taking difficulty in his FFs to the extreme and Casket Of Souls is no different in that respect. Whilst Tantalon was remarkably hard to figure out, this book is practically impossible unless you either find some of the solutions by sheer chance or you think like IL.

The premise here is that you need to find the twelve Royal Magical Treasures of Amarillia – this is the first book to mention the land/world of Amarillia which would later be linked directly to the FF series in #54 Legend Of Zagor and then in the four Zagor Chronicles novels - on which are written the lines to the spell that is needed to lock the Casket Of Souls of the title. The Casket itself is needed to trap a nasty Bone Demon who is out to destroy Amarillia (hardly a surprise!) and who has already bumped-off the last living wizard (Salazar) who created the Casket. Salazar now lives in the spirit world and acts as your guide/narrator through the quest (ie the voice of the book.) This is one of the very rare occasions where a character is addressing you throughout the book, rather than the book being a GM figure, which adds a personal touch of extra involvement that you don’t often see. A lengthy introduction gives all the background of how the Casket and Salazar fit into the history of Amarillia, whilst the ongoing adventure sections lead you through a series of events that are happening in various places as you play. Each page has some lines from the spell, a typically well-written Livingstone-y description of how this part fits into the plot (which flows neatly and makes sense as long as you can keep up with all the jumping from place to place), and a description (and picture) of one of the twelve items that you are looking for. The facing pages then have a picture that has one of the items hidden in it somewhere for you to find. Once you’ve found all the items, the order they appear in is the order that the corresponding spell lines need to go in to successfully lock the Casket, trap the Bone Demon, and save the world.

In some ways, this book is more conventional than Tantalon as there are no mathematical puzzles or game-type puzzles in this second book, nor do you need to use information from other parts of the book (other than the pictures of the items, of course) to unearth the solutions. The trick here is purely to find the object in the picture somewhere, which sounds like should be easier, but it most certainly is not! Some of the objects are directly drawn in the images, but are usually very well hidden (eg: the crystal key is easily mistaken for detail on a gemstone) or are quite subtle until you find them and wonder how you ever missed them (eg: the banner of titans, which is probably the easiest of all twelve to find.) In most cases, you are pretty unlikely to ever crack the puzzles which are so obscure that it’s frankly ridiculous. One item (the golden chalice) is hidden un-noticeably in an upside-down version of a particular picture and is hardly obviously the item itself even when you’ve found it (which is typically unfair Livingstone territory.) The shimmering shield is in two different pictures as far as I can discern, but it is the much more obscure one that you are unlikely to find that turns out to be the correct answer. There are three pictures that require the use of a mirror to locate the objects (in an unusually helpful mood IL actually gives us clues in the spell-lines on those pages, but whether you will realise that is another thing) including one with multiple mirror angles that needs two mirrors. In another case, you need to fold the picture (and, again, IL gives us a clue in the spell words!) A particularly obscure find is the sword of Braxus which is mapped-out as a (very sketchy and unclear) constellation, but probably the most ridiculously difficult of all the puzzles by a long way is the helmet of wisdom, where the picture (very subtly) contains the instructions for making the helmet with origami! Come on, Ian, do you really expect anyone to work that out?? This book makes the very slim chance of completing Ian’s infamous Crypt Of The Sorcerer seem easy as at least in that book there is always a minute possibility that you could be in luck all the way through and find the true path by sheer chance, but I refuse to believe that anyone can beat the majority of the puzzles in Casket Of Souls as they are simply too difficult. In some ways, there is something almost smug about how tough and intangible the solutions here often are and it is highly likely that you will never complete this... and even if you do, you don’t know whether you’re right as you are not told anything at the end – there’s just a picture of the Casket itself on the last page. Interestingly, when this book first came out, it was actually part of a competition that readers could enter to win a one-off gold-plated Casket Of Souls by Citadel Miniatures. Rather than knowing if you had got the spell in the right order, you were asked to write your version of the order of the spell on a postcard and send it in to the competition, so at the time the lack of an “answer” at the end made perfect sense. Sadly, once the competition deadline had passed (which was 14th February 1988) you were left perpetually in the dark about how you had done (although a solution has been posted online here to make everyone’s lives easier in this respect http://arek.bdmonkeys.net/FF/sols/sol69.html)

Admittedly, the approach to the puzzles here is certainly very innovative and the weirder solutions are highly original if considered for what they actually are and the thought that has gone into designing them. Linked into this is the area where this book is a big winner – Iain McCaig’s art. The illustrations here are without a doubt some of the most stunning and intricate fantasy art I have ever seen anywhere. The fact that the puzzle deceits have been woven into these is all the more admirable but, on its simplest level as purely a book of fantasy art (which it will quickly become when you give up trying to “play” it), Casket Of Souls is a stand-out entry in the global FF cannon as a whole. Of particular note is the much-repeated cover and the mirrored wood (which, incidentally has a topless Moon Sister in it), but every picture here is brilliant without exception. There are many pictures that bring to mind McCaig’s work in Deathtrap Dungeon, but there are also a few illustrations that are more “ethereal” and dream-like in their appearance (eg: the mirrored wood, the bottomless pit, and Black Shadow Valley) which shows the sheer range of McCaig’s ability.

Within the folklore of FF, there are some cross-references within the series going on here and I always like to see linkages between FF books as it gives a feeling of a body of work, rather than isolated stories. Naturally, as the series progressed, this became more common, but there are two distinct links with this book (in addition to the Zagor associations mentioned above): in the Inquisitor’s library in Return To Firetop Mountain you can find a copy of Casket Of Souls (and, in fact, the as-yet unreleased Eye Of The Dragon); and, in Temple Of Terror the mural being painted by Murkegg depicts what seems to be the episode from CoS where the dwarf army is being defeated by the Bone Demon’s orc and undead minions.


Casket Of Souls is a superior artistic achievement within the series and, in terms of intricacy of design, the solutions to the puzzles are exceptionally imaginative. In the sense of actual playability and the satisfaction of achieving something, it is unlikely that anyone will attempt to “play” this properly more than a handful of times as it is, by all accounts, not humanly possible to fathom this book out. Even with the solution in front of you, some of the items are far from easy to locate and, if you can’t complete something with the answer in front of you, we can fairly safely say that it cannot be beaten unaided. Incredible to look at, highly original, but basically unplayable.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

The Tasks Of Tantalon


THE TASKS OF TANTALON

Steve Jackson

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Taking a different approach to gamebook design, the Fantasy Questbooks series ultimately ran to six books, only two of which are directly related to the FF cannon, and, always the series’ innovator, Steve Jackson (unsurprisingly) created the first of these two.

Rather than following the “make a choice and turn to paragraph x” format, the Fantasy Questbooks use a running narrative setting a scene on one full A4 page, accompanied by a full A4-sized detailed colour picture on the facing page. The picture contains clues and information in the form of puzzles which then allow you to progress to the next stage. These books are 100% linear – there are no decisions or choices to make as the point here is to find the answer to each puzzle and use these to crack the final puzzle and win the game. Likewise, there are no items to collect, no dice to roll and no stats or combats to manage. These books are purely puzzle books, but with an ongoing storyline that acts as the “adventure”, so this is an interesting if simplistic take on the gamebook concept (without the diabolical childishness of other non-combat/dice-rolling systems such as the risible and seemingly-endless Choose Your Own Adventure series of abominations.)

There is a lot of plot background considering this is not a traditional gamebook. This book has four A4 pages of introduction explaining the history of the realm of Gallantaria and that YOU are to undertake the Tasks of the title, of which there are twelve just like the Labours Of Hercules (SJ does like to reference Greek Mythology in his books.) The tasks are intended to allow the wizard Tantalon to identify the brightest people in Gallantaria to overcome the problem of there being too many rival (presumably stupid) knights in senior positions in Gallantaria, which is causing wars and disputes. What your motivation is to get involved (other than power) is a bit lost in the text, but the idea of attempting twelve difficult tasks including rescuing kidnapped nobles, freeing Princes that have been turned into frogs, vanquishing a big nasty fish that’s disrupting shipping, and retrieving some pilfered trinkets of power, is obviously enough for an adventurer to want to give it a go. In a way it’s a sort of less life-threatening Trial Of Champions in the open, but with kudos and seniority rather than a massive amount of cash as the prize.

The difficulty of this book (and it is incredibly difficult) rests purely on the complexity of the puzzles. There are no combats and no ways at all to die. You simply follow each page in the order they are presented, read the explanatory spiel that gives you each task, then try to figure out what the hell the picture is trying to tell you. The first few times I attempted this book, I could only complete five of these puzzles unaided and even then I had no idea whether I had got the answers right – there is no turning to 400 and being showered with applause and praise going on here, you are seemingly just left in the dark. Having played it through using an online solution (http://arek.bdmonkeys.net/FF/sols/sol68.html) I cannot believe that anyone could realistically be expected to figure out some of the tougher puzzles as they are just too vague and the method of solving them is unbelievably obscure in some cases. Also, even with the answer in front of you, some of them are still damn hard to beat (I cannot for the life of me find a key with number 15 on it, for example!) The simpler (and even then quite satisfying when you beat them) puzzles involve things like finding hidden objects/NPCs, or working out traditional puzzle book-type things such as mazes with only one exit, linking valves to outlet pipes, and solving pulley/cog systems. These are tricky enough as they are very elaborate and the pictures are highly detailed and busy rather like a Where’s Wally puzzle meaning your eye is led away from what you are trying to achieve all the time. I guess in the sense of this being an adventure this does make sense as your goal would be in amongst a load of irrelevant other stuff going on around it (eg: trying to count cloned witches in a busy town square, which is one of the puzzles.) SJ likes to use ultra-tricky puzzles in some of his tougher FF books (House Of Hell, Appointment With FEAR, Creature Of Havoc) where you often have to make judgement calls on whether you should be using a certain piece of information or jumping to a mathematically-determined paragraph to stay on the true path without necessarily being prompted. This is also in play in Tasks Of Tantalon as some of the harder sections involve you having to apply knowledge or detail from other already visited pages as well as the intro section. The problem here is that there is no explicit clue at all (with one exception) that you are meant to do this and, unless you are willing to spend hours poring over one image and re-reading the whole book over and over trying to fathom out that one section in case you missed something screamingly obvious (which I can assure you, you won’t have!), you are highly likely to give up on this book through sheer frustration and just look at the pictures after a while.

...And Steven Lavis' art is where this book really comes into its own. Some of the illustrations are purely puzzles and come across as such - some even look a bit boardgamey such as the frogs vs toads rescue mission section and the guess the key puzzle. However, in the cases where the puzzle solution is less obvious the art is much more traditional fantasy art and there are two or three truly stunning examples of fantasy art in this book (Morphus’ lab, Windswept Moor, and the Medusa montage are particularly impressive.) Indeed, Morphus’ Lab is very much a predecessor of the now very popular hidden object PC games, although this is the hardest hidden object game I’ve ever seen, especially as the “clue” to the location of the one thing you’re looking for gives you false information to go on and the item is so small and so well-hidden that you are not very likely to notice it (you are told that it can camouflage itself which is a bit, but not much, of a clue!) I quite like the (also very hard as, again, you are given little chance of solving it) fish food chain puzzle picture as well – quite random and almost like a collage, but very well-rendered. The cover belies the contents because, whilst it is well-drawn as well, it seems to be aimed at a young audience with its smiling old Santa Claus image of Tantalon himself on a red background. But this is definitely not a book for children as the internal art is very adult and the puzzles would be beyond any child (and most adults, for that matter.)

Added to the general confusion created as you start to wonder a) if you are getting anything right as you aren’t told otherwise, and b) what is going on in half the puzzles full stop, is the final straight of this book. If you do manage to blunder your way through all the answers (which means you are a genius, by the way!), the final section is as tough as any final section can be as you are told to add all your numerical answers from each puzzle together (there's a red herring, incidentally, where one answer is zero!) and look through the book for the tile with that number on. The said tile will have a message on it that then guides you through to the prize. Even with a magnifying glass it takes some time to even find the message(s) you are meant to work your way through and they are written in such minuscule letters that you will struggle to decipher them. If any copies had any printing errors, you would have no chance of winning – mine is a totally clear copy but even then it’s hard work unless you can magnify things to the power of about 100. Even when you reach the intended end, you don’t really know this as it’s never made clear – you are somehow just meant to know, rather like how you are just meant to know when to use info and clues from one puzzle to solve another.

A solution pamphlet was published at one point due to so many requests for an explanation and answer to this book and, whilst it does finally explain everything, it also makes it clear just how insanely difficult much of this book is.

In summary then, this is an original and very challenging departure from the FF norm, but it is so extremely obscure to crack that you will get fed up and assume it’s either impossible (not far from the truth) or too radical a departure from the FF formula to be of interest (which is not the case as this book is certainly intriguing, and does fit firmly into the cannon plot- and setting-wise.) Where this book really succeeds is as a picture book of really nice full colour artwork in the same vein as the much later-released Fighting Fantasy Posterbook of large format FF cover art that FF fans were treated to. Incidentally, ToT was the first FF-related book to be released in hardback format (by Oxford University Press) - this edition makes no reference to this being a Fantasy Questbook, whereas the softcover edition (published by Puffin) has a banner message referring to this series.