Sunday, 16 November 2014

#26: Crypt Of The Sorcerer


Ian Livingstone

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Probably more famous for its incredibly tight route through (to the point where almost any digression will lead to failure) than for any other reason, CotS has gained something of a bad reputation amongst gamebook fans and it is easy to overlook the good things about it and simply write it off as ridiculously hard. In real terms, as IL FFs go, it’s actually quite unusually forgiving and, whilst you are unlikely to find the one true path the first time around, it is always possible that you could somehow find it on its first playthrough by pure chance.

Before I’m torn limb-from-limb for suggesting that this book might not be as hard as its reputation suggests, let’s look at how this one differs slightly from the standard IL adventure. Firstly, combats are for the most part not particularly difficult with most foes being of fairly average strength as you would find in the very earliest FF books before all sorts of adjustors started being applied to every other creature you ever had to fight in FF. Whilst it is, as with all IL FFs, extremely linear, you cannot miss the two key items you need (Razaak’s Sword and the Gigantis’ Horn) which takes away the usual IL-style misery of getting all the way to the end but being scuppered in the final analysis because you took a wrong turn and missed some essential object or other – if you make it to meeting Razaak, you cannot fail to have arrived with both items. Inevitably you have to travel part of the way with some NPC companions (two, in this case) but they are not the usual useless IL hangers-on who either die or run away at the first sign of danger – Borri is actually very useful and you need to pay close attention to his endless drivel to pick up important information that you can’t win without knowing, but sadly Symm is almost un-noticeable as he hardly ever says or does anything and you can quickly forget he is even with you. On the plus side, at least the companion element is finally functioning and purposeful in an IL FF. An incredibly non-IL act of generosity is the way that the optimum direction is offered several times at key turning points rather than giving you one chance to pick the correct route. In fact, much of the adventure plays out in a fairly straight line and, other than the initial section where you are trying to find a hidden lake (which you will always reach and can’t accidentally go past so, again, this is unusually lenient), choices of direction are far more limited than you would expect from IL. As would be anticipated, this book has a typically long shopping list of stuff you must find to win, but much of the requirement is for information that is linked to these items rather than simple binary “do you have x?” checkpoints, so why is this book so hard?

The answer to the difficulty question lies in several mechanics that have, justifiably, gained this book its infamy. More than anything else, the sheer number of numerical clues linked to items that you need to find, alone makes this incredibly difficult and therein lies the link to its ultra-narrow true path. The final showdown with the end baddie (the necromancer Razaak) involves you needing to know an incredibly high total of eight secret number prompts and, if that doesn’t sound hard enough, there is also a very Livingstone-y Dungeon Trialmaster to contend with earlier on who, in classic Livingstone Trial of Champions style, makes you answer several questions where any one wrong answer leads to you being toast. The sheer amount of numerical cheat-proofing in this book makes it feel much more like an entry from the hidden number-centric 50+ part of the series rather than the 20s and, stylistically, it feels very advanced in terms of its position in the series. Slightly less ultimately success-crushing, but still contributing to the books difficulty in terms of simply making it alive from one moment to the next, is the very high number of Skill and Luck tests that you need to survive and, unquestionably, if you start with a Skill or Luck lower than 12 you really have no chance of getting very far. This is compounded by many rather harsh Skill and Luck penalties along the way that make the attribute-testing aspect of this book unbalanced to the point where it is genuinely unfair. Furthermore, if this wasn’t already unreasonable, there is a make-or-break moment that comes very early in the adventure where you roll one die after defeating the Chameleonites – you must roll a 1 to get a particular ability otherwise you are screwed in the final fight with Razaak. I don’t like situations in FFs where you can be set up to fail from the very early stages as it makes reaching the end and losing all the more frustrating although, in the case of CotS, there are so many points where missing an item or detail will lead to eventual failure that this particular die roll seems less terminal, although it still seems more pivotal as it comes so early on. We have mentioned that the majority of combats in this adventure are not especially difficult or weighted against you and it is good to see that the only two that are excessively tough are the two most important ones – the final showdown with Razaak and the battle to get hold of the Gigantis’ Horn. Razaak is a suitably memorable final baddie with Sk 12 St 20 and he will kill you instantly if he wins two Attack Rounds in a row which might seem harsh, but he is meant to be a challenge and a super-strong final baddie is always much more worth waiting for than a weak one, so I can accept this part being so difficult. The Gigantis is more problematic if viewed literally (it has Sk 12 St 24 and has two opening special attacks) but actual combat with it can be avoided and it does yield one of two essential items that the main body of the adventure revolves around so, in balance, it’s probably overly difficult if fought, but it just about works in context as it does feel like a critical game point because of its strength.

On the subject of encounters, most of what you meet is very traditional “early FF” fare (Goblins, Orcs, Dwarves, Ape Men, Elves, Skeletons, Zombies, etc etc) with a few unusual ones thrown in to add a bit of uniqueness to this book (Chameleonites, Rad-Hulks, Lava Demons, Fire Beetles, Doragars, the Gigantis, and a very well-handled combat-less showdown with some Ice Ghosts), but this is where the book really works well because it is set in mostly familiar parts of Allansia, many of which we have visited in previous FF books, so throwing in weird and wonderful creatures would seem awkward and remove the element of knowing the territory that we need to take from this book. Continuity and series-linking was always one of Livingstone’s strengths and, amongst other locations, you can visit the Forest of Spiders, Darkwood Forest, Stonebridge, Silverton, and Yaztromo’s Tower, which gives this adventure something of a global travelogue feel. Indeed, in terms of design, this adventure is very traditional, being a forest trek, followed by open ground, then towns, plains, and finally a very straight dungeon trawl to reach Razaak’s tomb. Overall, the entire book does give the feel of a huge dungeon and, in spite of the large scale of its locations and the actual ground you cover, it does not give the sensation of travelling for miles, probably due to its linearity which restricts you from heading off in different directions to explore each environment. There is one exception, though, to this statement and that concerns probably the best set-piece in the whole book – a balloon ride from Stonebridge into the plains – which is very original and avoids novelty value just enough to make it great fun, plus it does feel quite epic as you fly over part of Allansia. As a point of note, IL must have liked this part too as it gets re-used (in a fashion) in the third Chadda Darkmane novel, Shadowmaster. Also, although I find him a tad irritating whenever he shows up in FFs, Gereth Yaztromo (IL’s favourite wizard and adventurer mentor) makes an appearance here which adds even more depth to this book’s connection with so many of the earlier Allansia-set FFs. The presence of a Hamakei in this book also signposts ideas that would be used in the second Darkmane story, Demonstealer, so whilst playing CotS may not give the impression of a massive expedition, there is so much inter-relation with FFs that had come before this book (and some that would come after it too) that it definitely gives it an all-encompassing feel.

Little credit is ever given to the structure and scale of this book (far too much critical focus and commentary is always on how hard it is) and, to highlight just how well designed this book is in spite of its cheat-proofing pushing it way over the unfairness threshold, the final act in Razaak’s tomb is written to cater for you entering either with or without your two companions. This is new (and welcome) territory for IL who normally forces us to take NPCs along and then gives us no option to continue with them once they want to or have to leave/die. Rather, in CotS, two parallel dungeon treks are written into the book. The fact that only one approach leads to victory is typical of this book’s one true path mentality, but the important point is that we finally get a choice of what to do with our travelling companions rather than being at the mercy of the book potentially making decisions for us. Furthermore, this book also has two self-sacrifice non-victory endings where you succeed in killing Razaak but die in the attempt, which is interesting (half-victories are at least a way of not totally losing) and encourages re-play to try to get the 100% success outcome. The ambitious nature of how much (literal) ground this book covers in terms of seeing what Allansia has to offer, combined with the desire to find the missing item (or more probably in this case, number clue) should be enough to encourage re-playability and a general feeling of enjoyment is had from playing this rather than a depressing sense of endless inevitable failure. Indeed, this book does bounce along and its combination of pace and old-school style adventuring romp does make for an enjoyable if very difficult adventure. It is never boring and its sub-division into different acts with the aim of finding items you are told you need reminds me of #5 City Of Thieves with a bit of #3 The Forest Of Doom thrown in especially in the initial Yaztromo/woodlands parts.

As this book appeared in the generally excellent 20s part of the FF series, its simple plot and ongoing logical storyline avoids the bizarre convolutions that plagued the early books and it does all tie together effectively, even if it is basically just a “find the important Achilles’ Heel items then use them to kill the baddie that wants to destroy the world” adventure. Overall, it works well and focuses on incidents and locations rather than trying to be high art. Livingstone always writes in a descriptive and vivid manner and this book is no exception. There are even a few moments of black humour (something IL often writes into his books) especially when you can find a Helmet of Cowardice which makes you useless at dealing with combats from there onwards. If this had been badly written or ploddingly paced it could have been awful given how hard it actually is, but IL has done well to write a fun adventure with a suitably lurid villain to kill off, plus you don’t have to hunt him as you know exactly where he is, so the challenge here is to track down the long list of items that you need. As a point of note, Razaak is a necromancer and is referred to as such in the text of the book, but apparently Puffin baulked at the idea of putting the word “Necromancer” in the title of a children’s book, so the name is a bit misleading and doesn’t really reflect what you are meant to be ridding Allansia of.

Les Edwards’ cover image is very effective with its subtle red-orange-yellow tones and Razaak is suitably hideous-looking plus, for once, the key villain is actually on a FF cover rather than an incidental event so we can counter the inaccurate title with a definitive idea of what our nemesis is all about. The internal image of Razaak is a bit more manic and less sinister-looking, but the rest of John Sibbick’s internal art has a lot of depth and captures the fantasy themes very nicely. Wizard’s re-issue cover manages to generally keep to the original cover’s theme, although Razaak is more like the emaciated Sibbick internal art version and he seems to be fleeing some large flies, which makes him seem a bit less terrifying!

Anyone who dismisses CotS as just “too hard” is simply not doing it justice. As an adventure, it is a lot of fun and is very well-paced considering its scale. It is very original in parts (especially the balloon ride) and works so much FF folklore into its plotline that it seems to be a pivotal moment in attempting to bring order to what Allansia had become (its appearance not long after Marc Gascoigne’s Titan – The Fighting Fantasy World can hardly be viewed as a coincidence!) There is no doubt that it is hard, ridiculously hard in fact, but IL has managed to rectify a lot of his more annoying previous foibles and address them in this book. It acts as a bridge between the traditional early FF designs and the later, more complex, cheat-proofed maths-based FF mechanics and definitely moved the series forward in technical terms. Personally, I really like this book and there is a lot to be got out of playing it. However, cheating is pretty much essential to surviving the unbalanced stat-testing moments which leaves the player to focus on mapping and finding the true path that yields all the clues you need. Treat this book as you would a “true path hunt” FF like Deathtrap Dungeon and it can be very rewarding. I just wouldn’t bother using dice at any point!