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 Reaver, BVP 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.