Sunday, 25 August 2013

Rebel Planet (ZX Spectrum/CBM64/Amstrad/BBC/Acorn)



REBEL PLANET

AdventureSoft UK Ltd

Reviewed by Mark Lain

The 5th of the six original adaptations of FF books for home computers appeared in 1986. Like Seas Of Blood before it and Temple Of Terror after it, RP was released in versions for the ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, Amstrad, BBC Micro and the woefully underpowered Acorn Electron. The latter two efforts were text only with no graphics, whilst the Spectrum, CBM64 and Amstrad versions were split-screen with graphics on the upper half and text on the lower.

You have to wonder exactly what the point is of a FF book adaptation for pc that turns out to just be rolling text on a screen with no visuals, so the BBC and Acorn attempts gain little from the conversion, other than the inconvenience of having to load the game, followed by having to stare at a screen and punch your moves into a keyboard until you either win, lose, or get a migraine. The three versions with graphics work far better, as would be expected, and the graphics are actually quite effective given the era. OK, they are a bit pixely and maybe a little over-the-top colour-wise, but they do suit the atmosphere and setting of the piece and are certainly more varied than the book version’s fairly insipid artwork. To my eye, the Commodore graphics are a little “softer” and less garish on this game than the Spectrum/Amstrad versions, but each to their own with this as I do find the Spectrum graphics from the mid-80s onwards quite harsh anyway. At least each change of location has its own image so the graphics change a lot and move with you, which is a nice touch and draws you into the proceedings (even though it would have been far more effective in the 80s as we are used to much more realistic graphics now.) As a neat touch, on some screens small animations even occur, such as on the bridge of your ship where a sense of forward movement is created by Elite-style stars travelling towards you. This works very well indeed.

The adventure itself is not a literal transplant of the book to the computer which is good inasmuch as it avoids a dull re-tread of familiar material with the added novelty (in 3 out of 5 cases, at least) of colour graphics with a few moving bits. Instead, this is a free and loose re-working whilst the overall mission and general themes are retained. Only three planets are involved (the decadent Radax is missed out) which removes most of the socio-political material that appears in the book, but you do get to explore your ship and there are several key items dotted about it, plus there is the challenge of negotiating the airlock every time you get in or out of it, which adds some playability. It took me ages to even work out how to get out of the ship, so this is clearly an extra added layer of thinking and realism that has been included so we need to be grateful that this little feature was programmed as the ship is hardly featured in the book version (save for the final trip to Arcadian.) The same basic premise is carried-over from the book so you are trying to achieve the same thing which gives the comforting feeling that this really is a FF computer game and I’d imagine most of its market was from FF fans so a link was necessary to avoid it seeming like a meaningless cash-in on the FF brand. However, the plot flow is suitably varied from the book to make it a worthwhile playing experience, without seeming like a duplicate with nothing new to interest you and encourage you to re-play.
In terms of gameplay, this has a lot going for it, although it is not without its snags. There is a very specific order of events needed to complete the game and it will take dozens of plays and re-plays to come even close to finding the true path. Whether anyone has managed it without the solution in front of them I can’t say, but, even as a seasoned FF player, I cannot see that many people would crack this given how convoluted the solution is. A complex game is a welcome challenge (although text adventures were notoriously difficult anyway) and there is much to discover in this game so the challenge level is good if a little weighted against you in terms of having to fathom out some tricky actions. A great inclusion is cause and effect (a feature of the book version as well) where an earlier action can/will impact what happens later on. The difference with the computer version is that it remembers what you’ve done and penalises you instantly once you reach the affected stage (eg: if you avoid the UFO at the start you get arrested as soon as you’ve found your way out of your airlock and into the first spaceport.) In the book you could cheat and pretend you hadn’t committed whatever misdeed means you are now in trouble, but the computer game knows and is remorseless. A nice piece of cheat-proofing that teaches you not to attempt the offending move again next time! This is also a clever bit of programming for the era and adds realism and fluidity to the proceedings.

Finding the solution definitely requires considerable thought on the player’s behalf (maybe more so than many of the books and other FF computer games where you can kill your way through a fair chunk of what you come up against) making it extremely difficult, but rewarding when you manage to crack each part of it. There is considerable realism in some of the fiddlier bits such as the constant need to get out and put away various items (remembering to remove your key card from the on-ship drinks machine and needing to keep hiding your laser sword are particularly thorough inclusions), but this also means you spend a lot of time keying in moves which does give something of a “stop-start” feel to it all. The ship sections can seem especially awkward in this sense as you key loads of commands in without achieving very much and progress throughout the game overall is slow. To compound this, there are some episodes where the time it takes you to decide what to do and punch it in is the same amount of time it takes whatever you are up against to decide it’s lost patience and “pulverise” you, as the game puts it. A big plus, however, is that this also adds a real-time feel and urgency to the game (you are on a covert suicide mission after all and will get rumbled if the authorities suspect you are up to no good) and the feature where you have to remember to check your energy levels and eat to avoid “energy depletion” is very realistic in this sense.

The question of typing in commands is a sticking-point for this game in more ways than just the sheer time involved in doing it. The blurb boasts that the game can understand 400 words which is impressive for a mid-80s game, but the way it handles vocabulary is inconsistent at best. Some commands need to be lengthy and very obvious in their meaning before the game lets you do them, whilst others can be simplified, and there is a lot of trial and error involved in figuring out which are which. In some cases, there is an inconsistency in how these are handled and as far as I can tell at least one of the words listed in the instructions doesn’t work at all. The game is well-known for its vocabulary bugs (although the CBM64 version seems to be more forgiving with this than the other versions) and this can mean that some of the more obscure or involved moves can take forever to fathom out, making the game even harder in this respect.

Whilst the book was undeniably tough, the binary solution mechanism was incredibly difficult to even notice, let alone get your head around. In this version, the binary is played down (thankfully) and whilst the all-important access codes are still in binary, there are only two of them and they are far more self-evident when your contacts give you them, which is something of a relief when you consider that simply getting out of your own ship is an obstacle to be overcome in the computer version!

One of the most FF-like features of the previous (bar WOFM) FF computer game adaptations was the dice-roll generator where big animated dice appear on screen and randomise numbers in front of you to add an element of RPG-ness and familiarity, as well as giving you a fair chance of success or failure. In RP this has been removed which is a plus and a minus: on the up-side, this makes it feel more free-flowing and more like a traditional real-time computer game as opposed to a RPG where you are regularly reaching for the dice to decide what happens next, but the downside is that you are at the mercy of what the game decides to do to you next and combats do seem like non-events as you either just kill your foe or quickly die without anything really happening in between. But, as the key here is stealth and cunning, you could also argue that combat is surplus to requirements and this does mirror the book where fighting is not encouraged and killing something almost always complicates and hinders your mission.

As this game appeared in the period when computer games came in double cassette boxes rather than the smaller type, the larger packaging afforded by this is very nicely put together. The cassette insert replicates the book’s cover in full and the wrap-around spine and back cover parts are in FF green (with FF logo) to make this feel like it really is part of the FF cannon (only this and the subsequent Temple Of Terror would be presented in this way.) An A4-sized insert explaining the background to your mission and the various control commands helps you to know what it is you’re trying to do and how to go about doing it and the package overall has a quality look to it. As was often the case with the later Spectrum/CBM64/Amstrad games, there is a loading screen image (of a green Arcadian’s face) for you to look at whilst you wait the three or so minutes for the game to load up and, whilst this doesn’t actually do anything, it does set the scene and all this together shows that a lot of effort has been put into the presentation of this game, which I, for one, appreciate.

As a point of note, this was the first FF computer adaptation to not explicitly use the Fighting Fantasy Software branding. Yes, the FF logo is on the back of the box insert and is on the cassette itself, but as Adventure International had gone bust part way through this game’s creation, AdventureSoft UK (the developers) joined forces with US Gold and this became the brand that would eventually distribute Rebel Planet. It also caused a complete reorganisation of the release schedule of the FF computer adaptations, as RP was meant to be released AFTER Temple Of Terror. The actual development schedule was also drastically revised, with the planned Appointment With FEAR and Demons Of The Deep being abandoned completely in favour of Sword Of The Samurai.

Rebel Planet is probably my favourite of the six original FF computer games. It replaces gamebook style touchy-feely features such as dice generators with a greater emphasis on causality and real-time urgency and survivalism. The little touches of movement in some of the imagery adds realism and the variation on a theme makes this seem not so familiar that it is old news whilst avoiding being so tangential that it bears no resemblance to the source material. It is challenging and interesting enough to quickly get you hooked, even if the command system takes ages to master and some of what you have to do takes a long time to work out. All things considered, this is definitely a worthwhile game to play and is far from just a home computer cash-in.



Thursday, 22 August 2013

#2: Riddle Of The Runaway


            RIDDLE OF THE RUNAWAY          

Heather Fisher

Reviewed by Mark Lain

After a generally desperate start to the series, the second offering in the “Fighting Fantasy for girls” Starlight cycle seems far more promising from the outset. The premise of your being a junior at a private detective agency is far more intriguing than just trying to be good at horse-riding (as with #1 Star Rider) and this gives is a distinct element of mystery and discovery to encourage you to open and play this book.

Reading through the rules makes this seem far closer to what we would expect from a gamebook. On a fundamental level, there actually ARE some rules in this book, and these cover three key areas where fate can intervene in your success, as opposed to just guessing the right route to victory. The rules themselves involve three Elements: Decision (aka just picking what to do), Chance (flipping a coin to decide your success or failure), and Fate (the most elaborate rule that works in two distinct ways, a Group based on your real Zodiac sign, and a Lucky Number where you have to crunch the digits in your date of birth and keep crunching them until you finish with a single digit which is your Lucky Number itself.) Decision is a misnomer as this is hardly a rule given that without any decisions to make this would be a novel, not a gamebook, so we can hardly count that as revolutionary game design. Chance is far closer to traditional role-play systems, reducing a 1 in 6 scenario (when rolling a die) to a 50/50 situation, but it does at least add an element of unpredictability and does not leave you in total control of what can happen to you, which is a good thing and adds suspense and risk. The Fate idea is by far the most unusual and original as the individual “properties” of the actual player him- or, as was intended by Puffin, her-self can have a direct impact on how events pan out. There is no advantage or disadvantage to being born at any particular time, but it does add variety to the direction the book takes you in and really makes YOU feel like your character is an extension of yourself as opposed to a separate entity that you are enacting. Already this book is clearly designed to be much more of a role-playing experience than Star Rider was, so things are looking hopeful.

The mission itself (and you do actually have a given task this time, rather than simple ambition) is to track down the vanished heir to a fortune and prevent any interested parties’ shenanigans from stopping the inheritance going where it should. Whilst this seems perfectly plausible, the plot suffers from several gaping holes that can seriously reduce its credibility as more of the story unfolds. It quickly becomes apparent that the “irresistible” (to get some starry-eyed girl appeal in) true heir has run off to America and joined a band. Ignoring the obvious stereotype that boys in bands have to, by definition, be irresistible to girls, etc, you have to assume that there is somehow no popular culture communication system between the USA and the UK in 1985, otherwise the key intrigue is no surprise at all, given that we are told that Charlie and the Chipmunks (the horrendously-named band he has joined) are (in Texas, at least) “more popular than The Stones”... or is Texas very guarded about its music scene, maybe? As the band are touring the entire US we can assume that their appeal is not limited to Texas alone, so this really does not make much sense. Likewise, if the band is as successful as is suggested, what difference would the inheritance actually make to the person you are sent to find? Does this band have the least lucrative record deal ever and the members are making hardly any money in spite of their huge success? Totally illogical, even by gamebook premise standards!

Gaping plot holes aside, the adventure itself works in three ways. For the most part, YOU are tearing around America, travelling from one famous city to another ad nauseum, getting closer (but not quite close enough) to your prey at each stopping point. Whilst this is happening, you are also required to try to keep his gold-digging arch nemesis brother at bay, and attempt to make an ally out of anyone who can get you into the “runaway”’s inner circle, the eventual choice being either his initially shady but actually very helpful sister or his scheming band-mate lover (the Charlie of the group’s name) who just wants to get her hands on his cash. The three plot aspects do make your task varied and a little tricky as there are a lot of decisions to make along the way. The trip around America quickly gets repetitive and tedious and you do find yourself wishing it would end soon. So there are clear pros and cons to affect your enjoyment/interest, although the danger and intrigue just about outweigh the irritating travelogue and the overall experience is an interesting one to play out on the whole. Also, as with all the Starlight books, your character is of the undefined, but clearly young adult, kind, to create a sort of positive strong female role-model for the young girl that is its intended audience.

Other than the three-tier rule system, this gamebook also introduces the “turn to x, then turn to y” idea which, whilst a little restrictive in terms of choice at times, does add a nice element of cause and effect, where one decision inevitably affects a subsequent situation. This is a good inclusion which avoids total linearity, although the actual journey itself is still very linear. There are several routes to the optimum ending, but these are arrived at along the same paths, leaving little re-playability, other than to find out what would happen if you made certain different choices.

Whilst the first book in this series required a concerted effort to lose, but you could fail all the same, Riddle Of The Runaway has no outright fail paragraphs. Instead, at least one ending gives you the chance to decide whether you are happy to settle for it (the romance outcome that these books always include) or re-trace your steps to find something more akin to “winning”. In other cases, you are told you have failed, but are then given a reprieve to back-track to a previous stage and/or start all over entirely, should you not be willing to accept defeat. This is a mixed blessing. On the one hand it would be a shame to have to re-tread ground already covered (especially all the travelling from one city to another), but on the other hand the bottom line is that you CANNOT lose unless you just give up. Whilst the premise and plot layers may present a challenge, you are ultimately left feeling a bit let-down when you realise that winning is no great achievement, but there is still enough interest here to make this a diverting, if generally very average, playing experience.

In terms of construction, this book betters many of the other Starlight offerings in that the number of sections that do nothing other than lead you to other sections without any choice(s) is comparatively low for this series. Yes, there are still many of these, but the number of choices or outcomes decided by the Chance or Fate mechanics makes this feel far more interactive and far less like a middle-of-the-road children’s novel. In a similar vein, the number of sections is amongst the lowest of any standard Puffin gamebook, at only 300. The general paragraph count in Starlight is 350, so this book does seem comparatively thin in a physical sense, but the adventure itself does take some time to play through and certainly lasts longer than the usual 30 minutes or so of play that this series normally offers you, so the paragraphs are clearly being made the most of, rather than just padding out the story as is the case in some other Starlight efforts.

Heather Fisher’s writing style is generally very snappy and, through this, there is a distinct feeling of urgency to the story. Whilst she falls into the trap of some stereotyping (the Texan in particular, is cringe-worthy, and the scheming harpy girlfriend is very annoying), the prose does not grate on the reader and avoids being condescending in the way that books 1 and 4 in this series are.

The internal illustrations are by sometime FF artist Bob Harvey, who is one of my least favourite FF artists. His sketchy approach (whilst being a feature of art in Starlight books) gives an empty feel and there is something ugly and surly about his human images, in particular. Whilst the drawings may create a sense of danger, overall it seems like you are in a very unsavoury world, which is awkward given that the setting for this and all Starlight books is the real world. James Bareham’s cover is a typically awful Starlight affair, with the usual collage of faces, this time surrounded by New York’s Twin Towers, a will, and a band on stage. Its almost sepia-toned brown and green colouring makes it seem very dour, but at least the intriguing blurb on the back cover is enough to make you want to play in spite of the crappy cover art.

With this book, the series definitely showed improvement and there is promise in the swing from saccharine ambition stories to genuinely mysterious and risky “missions.” This is far from great, but it is interesting enough to keep you guessing and, other than being too easy given its forgiving nature, you are motivated to finish this passable effort, unlike the dreadful Star Rider.


Tuesday, 20 August 2013

#1: Star Rider


STAR RIDER

Carole Carreck

Reviewed by Mark Lain

The first release in the short-lived Starlight series of adventures aimed at a female market epitomises why these gamebooks never took off. From the outset, this book is patronising, turgid, and distinctly trapped in a mid-80s world of wealth, materialism and shallowness. The opening section reminds YOU umpteen times that you have no money and that you have struggled to get the cash together to buy the object of your dreams (a horse) so that you can pursue your equestrian ambitions.

To be fair, if the introductory section doesn’t totally put you off bothering to play the book, the initial act (finding a stable, training yourself and your horse ready for the Badminton trials) is fairly interesting and you do get a feeling of your character quickly developing as a rider. Sadly, once competitiveness and the lure of mysterious and quiet rich men kicks in, the story becomes boring, repetitive, and, all of a sudden ends, as if Carreck either ran out of ideas or realised this was a no-hoper and just decided to conclude it before it became unbearable!

In actual fact, plot-wise (ignoring the jarring switch in tone and abrupt ending), this gamebook could have been a real winner for anyone interested in horses and there is a sense of quite savvy marketing in the selection of subject matter, plus the fact that it all flows logically, even if your meteoric rise from an upstart newbie to a member of the Olympic team very quickly may be a little far-fetched, especially as you seem to have very little control over your horse during the trials section and seem to rely on luck to get by. I know nothing about equestrian culture, but Carreck quite evidently knows a fair bit about it and you are nicely submerged in a world of horses, jealousy, and competition which is probably quite realistic. The language used does include some specialist terms and situations, but you don’t necessarily feel lost when reading this book as it merges into the text neatly and it does not present everything as if it was jargon in the way that some of the more annoyingly “knowing” series entries would - Starlight #4 Danger On The Air is a nightmare for knowingly using speech marks around any vocabulary even vaguely industry-specific, for example.

The jump-cutting structure of the storyline is a good thing in that it avoids boring episodes of training, but there is a missed opportunity here to allow your character to gain experience and develop skills specific to the theme. There are no stats of any kind to illustrate your character’s strengths and weaknesses, and some kind of Experience marker would have added considerably to your involvement with your character, especially as it would give you an indication and expectation of how easy or hard (or even likely) your success would be. As it stands, you just seem to jump from being no-one to becoming someone in a totally unrealistic manner. To compound this issue, the crucial later stages of the story when you are in trials rely purely on you choosing the right paragraph in a series of 50/50 situations. No actual character ability comes into the equation, neither even does the element of chance that dice rolling would give – your success is based purely on picking the right section. In a world as specific as a sporting event, skill and development influence any chance of success, so there is no realism here at all, which is a shame given the otherwise generally logical progression of the plot.

Further to the lack of any kind of character prowess coming into play, this book is ridiculously easy to beat. There are numerous endings to add a small amount of variety, but even the desired outcome of getting to the Olympics appears on at least four different paragraphs and, assuming you don’t either make an insane choice such as getting drunk the night before a major trial, half-killing your horse, or wrongly deciding who to ally yourself to early on, or get unlucky in the 50/50 situations, once you reach a certain point you cannot fail to win. Pardon the pun, but the usual gamebook end challenge that can cause you to fall at the final hurdle is all but absent, making this is a largely unrewarding affair and there is certainly no feeling of achievement when you beat it.

The lack of any kind of stats to give you an image of your character and make YOU feel more real is part of a major failing of this book in that there are no rules at all – no dice, no element of chance of any kind... you just get straight on with it. By contrast to your character’s one-dimensional nature, the NPCs are actually quite fleshed-out making you feel even more alien. The characterisations are all stereotypes to the point of being hackneyed (the mysterious quiet rich bloke, the nasty she-devil love rival, the Mr Nice Guy secondary male, the scheming no-good person, the slightly manic and over-the-top best friend, etc etc) but at least you can picture them and understand their roles easily, whereas YOU just seem to be gliding through the proceedings trying to become a success, which makes the ease of winning all the more incomprehensible.

One saving grace of this book over the majority of the Starlight books that would follow it is that you are not rail-roaded into getting romantically involved with at least one of the male NPCs. You can control your destiny in this respect, even if the romance aspect is played down in this book by comparison with the other five. There is also a noticeable maturity in the character you play. In traditional role-play books (at least, in those where age is not explicitly specified) it is almost always assumed that you are of an indefinite but obviously adult and experienced (in terms of adventuring) age. In Star Rider you can get served in pubs so are assumed to be over 18, there is an outcome where you decide to get married, plus one of your initial decisions is where to live so you must have left home. All this clearly sets your character up as being a young adult. As a counterpoint, the relative simplicity (in difficulty terms) of this book and its overall feeling of being fairly facile, suggests a target audience of pre-pubescents or, if not, then early teenagers with absolutely no sense of irony!

The internal art here is by Peter Wilkes who illustrated three of the six books in this series. His work is sketchy and lacks depth in terms of background (although his shading is nicely done), not that you’d really notice as the bulk of the drawings are of horses doing various things, inter-mingled with the occasional picture of someone staring doe-eyed at you. In a book where the subject is horses, you could anticipate some horsey imagery, but the illustrations here do labour the point a bit. The cover by Steve Jones (presumably not the one out of the Sex Pistols?) is frankly appalling and really does not give you any incentive to open the book with its combination of a collage of heads, some fields, a flashy car, a horse, and some drugs, all in bizarre soft pastel colours. Starlight books are known for having poor covers, but this one is easily the worst of the lot.

Other than a (largely) logical plot and a non-intrusive approach to a specialised subject matter, this book is, for the most part, a condescending and uninspiring experience. In the highly unlikely event that you don’t beat it on the first playthrough, there is little here to encourage repeat plays other than if you are totally obsessed with horses (which may be what Puffin’s marketing people were hoping for, incidentally!) As a story for non-demanding children it could work, but as a game it has little to recommend, especially as many of the sections just tell you to turn to another section, rather than offering you many actual choices so you do often feel that you have little control over anything other than the major decisions, plus whether to fall in love or not, ultimately giving the feeling that you are reading a below-par children's book rather than playing a gamebook.


All in all, this is not an auspicious debut for the series.

Starlight Adventures

STARLIGHT ADVENTURES

Series Overview by Mark Lain

The short-lived and relatively unknown Starlight Adventures series were intended as Puffin’s female answer to Fighting Fantasy. Plots were designed around what the production team presumably felt were girl-centric ideas (horses, nurses, good-looking boys, etc) and the common thread was sassy and ambitious young women keen to do well in life. The setting was the modern world (well, 1985) and frequent cultural references help to trap these books in a time-warp, in particular, an ongoing obsession with Duran Duran that keeps surfacing in several of the books, along with 80s fashion motifs and an over-riding sense of mid-80s capitalism as success and wealth feature heavily as the ultimate aims of these books (and your characters quite often seem to be expected to be impressed by these.)

To see these as “adventures” is stretching a point. The majority certainly have an element of Enid Blyton-ish uncovering of wrong-doing (one is even set at the seaside, albeit in Greece) so there is a sense of discovery more than of traditional adventuring, whilst one is something of a manic pursuit across America (which I suppose you could say is a modern “adventure” of sorts), but the idea of a “mission” as such is absent, rather your character’s ambition and the discovery that you are in the midst of various forms of treachery is the prime motive.

Unusually for adventure gamebooks, these books are gender-specific in that your character is always female. This is not an issue as such, but it does make the playing experience feel slightly distant and alien if a male is reading them. On the plus side, there is also an element of ironic fun to be had from trying to avoid being seduced by various plotting men (and sometimes letting temptation get the better of you as a minor aim of some of these is to find happiness in romance) and in being reminded in general what made people tick in the mid-80s as well as the retrospectively very apparent feeling that there is a patronising womens’ lib thing going on here that is now very anachronistic (even though you are almost always made out to be quite attractive looking and you can use this to your advantage.)

In most cases, there are no rules to speak of and there is no system of any kind in these books. Instead each book has its own mechanics, ranging from having no system whatsoever (ie your decisions are all that can affect your progress) meaning there is no element of gaming-style chance at all, through dice rolls and/or coin tosses to determine key outcomes, occasional zodiacal influences, right up to a complex system of Lucky Numbers based on your date of birth!

The low challenge level of this series coupled with the relative brevity of an end-to-end playthrough make these books seem rather simplistic (with two specific exceptions: #3 Island Of Secrets and #6 Trance) as in some cases it is very hard to lose and there are even one or two where losing is not actually possible at all! In this sense, the simpler entries feel quite close to the often inane Choose Your Own Adventure series of gamebooks. However, dues must be given to the more involved books in the Starlight cannon, and two in particular are quite tough and take several playthroughs to even start to figure out what is going on, which does add an element of intrigue.


None of these books have ever been re-printed (not even by Puffin) and, in fact, I have no recollection of ever seeing any of them in the shops even when they first came out. Until recently, they were very tough to track down, although tatty second hand copies are starting to surface at very low prices (possibly because the sellers don’t know what they are?) on several online sales sites. To say the series deserves a re-appraisal is to probably give it too much credit as, whilst they are (mostly) inoffensive and there are far worse ways to spend a spare half an hour, none of them really capture the imagination and they are ultimately quite mundane. Their rapid disappearance is no real surprise as Starlight is the only one of Puffin’s numerous Adventure Gamebooks series that could be said to be a commercial as well as critical failure.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

#18: Rebel Planet


 REBEL PLANET

Robin Waterfield

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Previous attempts at Sci-Fi FFs to date had been miss-able at best. The first two were terrible (#4 Starship Traveller, #12 Space Assassin), the third was a novelty Max Max 2 rip-off (#13 Freeway Fighter), and the fourth was irrelevant (#15 The Rings Of Kether), so expectations were not high when FF #18’s forthcoming release under the far from inspiring title of The Aliens Of Arcadion was announced in Warlock #5. Thankfully, by the time it appeared on store shelves it had been re-titled to the better-sounding (but not actually very accurate in terms of what’s involved) Rebel Planet. This is Robin Waterfield’s first of four FFs and his only Sci-Fi outing in a similar writing progression to Luke Sharp, in fact, who also wrote a Sci-Fi FF and then three medieval ones. Waterfield’s books are, generally, very good - he penned the very tough and interesting #23 Masks Of Mayhem as well as the excellent and very ambitious #28 Phantoms Of Fear, and I’m pleased to say that Rebel Planet is no exception. This was the book that made it seem that Sci-Fi was not a lost cause in the world of FF and was the first Sci-Fi FF that I can actually say I ever genuinely liked. I kind of feel sorry for The Rings Of Kether as it’s all but forgotten and is not a bad book, and Freeway Fighter, whilst pretty enjoyable, is so unoriginal that it’s little more than filler in the series, but neither of these could be described as necessarily any good in real terms. Rebel Planet, on the other hand, works on many levels and is very good indeed.

On opening the book, the reader is presented with a lengthy section describing the backstory that has led you to be given your mission and some nice descriptive material on the different species of the enemy alien race (Arcadians), along with some historical detail covering the universe that forms this book’s setting as a whole... and it’s all very interesting and does make you want to visit the various planets and meet the various Arcadian types, so things seem promising from the outset. The rules follow this (unusually) and it’s pleasing to see that there are not endless pages of rules to deal with different types of weapon combat. Weapons are by definition banned by the ruling Arcadian Empire, so no need to cater for these. Your character possesses an illegal laser sword (a rather too obvious nod to light sabres in Star Wars), but this works in the same way as a normal sword, meaning combat rules don’t change if using this. As your character is highly trained in martial arts, there are special rules for unarmed combat but these simply involve rolling a die to determine who has hit who. In addition, unarmed combat allows for instant KOs if you roll a six at any point which, whilst linking neatly into the concept of you being a space ninja, makes it seem that your hands are far deadlier than your (normally pretty lethal, you would have thought) laser sword, so this doesn’t really make sense. But at least you don’t have to get your head around loads of extra rules that inevitably hardly ever play any part in the adventure, as is normally the case with Sci-Fi FFs.

The plot itself involves YOU being deployed (under the guise of a merchant) to track down three rebel cells dotted about on three occupied planets, get secret codes from each of them, then travel to Arcadion itself (the Arcadians’ homeworld) and destroy the super-computer that controls the Arcadians. The Arcadians rule your galaxy with an iron-fist and are part of a Borg-style collective mind that is guided by the queen computer that you need to destroy, thus rendering the Arcadians all purposeless and freeing the enslaved human race. The story moves along logically, with you having pre-defined cover missions as you move from one planet to another. These missions rarely come into the plot much (barring the final stage between the third and fourth planets) and the focus is on you landing on each planet, then locating your contact(s) as quickly as possible without attracting the attention of the authorities. For the most part it all makes sense and even the book acknowledges that the oddest moment (on planet #3) leaves you having no idea what just happened.

The differences between the planets themselves, along with the subtler variations in the behaviours of each of the three Arcadian species, are the real plus-points in this book’s design. The first planet (Tropos) is a very oppressive Police State and you do feel constantly under surveillance, as you get followed and watched wherever you go. There is a claustrophobic and grim feel to Tropos and you really do want to leave it as quickly as possible. A generally more pleasant experience, the second planet (Radix) is fairly laissez-faire (although there is still an Arcadian presence that can cause you problems) and seems more developed than any of the others in this game. The human inhabitants are either decadent capitalists or intellectual right-on students and the cityscapes are high-tech and advanced. By stark contrast, stop-off point number three is the planet Halmuris, which is still in a creation stage, being a fairly barren and foreboding rock with appalling (and potentially lethal) night-time weather and primitive animal inhabitants. The only human presence is still at the researching stage and this is effectively Pluto to Radix’ Earth, I suppose. Finally, you visit Arcadion itself which gets hardly any descriptive coverage and seems to just be a building with a computer in it – this fourth stage is the least well-presented and it seems that the adventure was running out of steam by this point and this planet functions purely as an end to the mission. It would have been nice to get some insight into the Arcadians’ home planet, but this never comes, presumably as, if you’ve made it this far, you are pretty eager to face the final showdown. Tropos and Radix are very well designed and the feel of each of these worlds comes across very well as you move from the dictatorship of Tropos to the relief of exploring the far nicer Radix. Halmuris is, on one hand, dull and little effort has gone into making it interesting, but on the other hand, a pre-evolved planet is hardly going to be very exciting or hospitable so there is something to be said for its lack of party atmosphere.

The three Arcadian variants seem to almost mirror the design of the planets, which is a subtle but clever touch. Northern Arcadians are primevally psychotic and stupid (= Halmuris), Southern Arcadians are mildly pretentious and talk in arty riddles (= Radix), whilst Central Arcadians are arrogant and semi-bureaucratic (= Tropos). Each type can be found on each planet, but they each consistently follow their species’ traits adding interest and variation to what can happen if you encounter them, whilst also demonstrating the level of thought that has gone into ensuring consistency in terms of how the global universe of this adventure functions, which really does make it work very well.

There is little doubt that the first two planet visits are far more stimulating and offer far more playability than the final two, but this does make sense in context, even if it makes the adventure seem lop-sided and there is a feeling that it loses steam half-way through. The Halmuris section in particular seems little more than an outdoors go North, go West, go South, etc path-following plod and there is hardly much to do other than keep dying horribly as this part is pretty tough. The Tropos part (assuming you can get past customs safely), whilst feeling dangerous, is almost impossible to fail as there are various ways to find your contact – it is the design of this part that makes it work so well. Radix is light relief after Tropos, but is intentionally misleading as it is fairly tough and one wrong move can lead to failure by not finding your contact quick enough. As for Arcadion, the challenge with this final section is in surviving the trip on your own ship as you have to deal with a rather tricky incident involving two Arcadians travelling with you. Plus, if you haven’t got the codes you need to access the computer building, you’ve had it anyway, so this final part is a case of either you crack the code or you fail at the final hurdle, as it is possible to get right to the end, only to discover you don’t know what you need to know.... or, more to the point, you simply can’t figure out how to use the codes even if you have them, which is a big aspect of this book’s difficulty level.

Clever construction and planning pervades this book and the key to beating it lies in picking up subtle hints as well as getting the all-important codes from the rebel cells on each planet. The intro section mentions that Arcadians only have two digits on each hand/foot which makes binary an ideal means of communication. If you pick up on this, you can make the connection between the codes being nothing but ones and zeros (bar the second part which requires you to ignore some twos thrown in to muddy the waters) and the Arcadian use of binary. Assuming you manage to acquire all three codes (the first is impossible not to acquire as such but you do still need to decipher the poem it’s hidden in, the second is in a picture and you have to find it visually, so that all adds challenge) you still need to fathom out a table that matches the code itself to various paragraph numbers, ignore the sections that link to zeros, and then add the one-linked numbers together to reach the paragraph that gets you into the computer building. It took me several attempts to even understand the instructions for this, let alone actually work the answer out and I refuse to believe that children (as these books are fundamentally aimed at children) could ever work this out (and I doubt too many adults could, either.) This is one of the most intricate and original ways of winning ever included in a FF book and, whilst undeniably complicated, it is a great bit of gamebook design.

Combat and encounter-wise, there are few real challenges. Combats are rare (which makes sense if you are trying to avoid drawing attention to yourself) and almost always lead to your being followed and/or retribution coming later on. The third planet involves lots of instant death situations, but its harsh environment suits this, plus you would expect the book to get tougher the further through it you get. There are many Luck and Skill tests throughout the book and Skill and Luck of less than 9 gives you little chance of survival. There are also several arbitrary single die rolls that can result in success or failure peppered throughout the book that can seem a little like the cards are stacked against you, but this does make sense as, in real terms, the likelihood of a resistance mission to destroy the heart of the occupation actually succeeding is incredibly low, so this is both logical to the plot and slightly unfair to the player.

Run-ins with the Arcadians themselves are frequent and range from police/customs harassment (that you can normally con your way out of, as the aliens involved tend to be stupid), gladiatorial contests (literal and psychological), or just social interaction in the form of pandering to their egos and showing you empathise with the gibberish they talk. A very interesting element linked to this is the way the book rewards you (with Luck bonuses) if you either behave honourably by not murdering fellow humans, or if you demonstrate understanding of the importance of empathy in surviving under the Arcadian Empire. A little pompous maybe, but still an intelligent bit of game design.

In a similar approach to FF #27 Star Strider, there are some nice elements of humour included in this book, including a trip to the Fission Chips, a night at Porky’s, and the opportunity to attend a boring University lecture that you fall asleep during. Needless to say, two out of three of these take place on the light relief planet that is Radix, but subtle humour is a nice touch all the same.

Unusually for a FF book, the art seems almost irrelevant (except the all-important picture that contains the second clue) as the depth of backstory and description creates all you need to know image-wise in your head. I rarely noticed the art and you could be forgiven for not taking any notice of it as it adds nothing and is not all that interesting anyway, being a schizophrenic mix of comic-strip panel work, dark corridors/offices, and Arcadians striking various poses. The cover is also not particularly inspiring with its white lettering on a black background showing a far more aggressive-looking Arcadian than any of the ones shown in the book, facing off against what I can only assume is YOU. The only real intrigue with the cover is the fact that the “dragon” cover version reverses the picture.

Whilst this is a very well designed and eminently playable gamebook (and it will take many attempts to beat it), there are a few elements that don’t quite gel, but these can go un-noticed due to how good it is overall:
  • ·         Laser swords are surely more powerful than human hands?
  • ·         Why don’t each of the cell contacts all just rendez-vous somewhere, share their parts of the code with each other, then send a volunteer to destroy the computer?
  • ·         Why is the third “human rebel” contact a sort of shape-changing ethereal wind that trades information for decorated wooden staffs?
  • ·         And finally, how is it that, if Arcadians are all a collective entity, they seem to show so much free will when you meet them?... and, given this, why are they so lost when the computer is destroyed?

On a lesser note, the title is a bit misleading as there is no “rebel” planet. Each of the three you visit has rebel cells on it (Radix’ student population in particular seems close to revolt), but there is no one inherently rebellious planet - the rebel is YOU, surely?

In spite of these final slight niggles, this is a superior gamebook and is easily the best Sci-Fi FF ever (not that there’s much competition!) It is extremely well put together, generally consistent to its conceptual creation, and very varied in terms of the places you visit along the way. Its solution is excruciatingly complicated, but it makes a nice change to just killing something/someone at the end or putting the right keys in the right sockets to get to the treasure. A definite contender for re-issue by Wizard considering that they re-released Starship Traveller!