Steve Jackson (II)
Reviewed by Mark Lain
The fact that the Atlantis myth has not been exploited very much in the world of gamebooks is slightly baffling as it has considerable potential, assuming the execution is done right. Steve Jackson (the American one) obviously saw the concept’s mileage, moved the legendary lost city to Titan and set his second FF gamebook there, in the process creating a unique and very original gamebook experience.
The plot is simple. YOU are the sole survivor of a pirate ship’s attack on your vessel and, to reward your staying power, the pirate Captain (the crappily-named Captain Bloodaxe) kits you out with a load of heavy food and throws you into the sea where you sink to the ocean floor, only to land in a magical pentagram that gives you gills meaning you can breathe under water and go off in search of your revenge on the pirates who got you into this predicament (and maybe steal all their booty and become rich into the bargain too.) There is a snag, though – if you surface and/or dusk settles, your gills will disappear and you will not be able to survive under water any longer. So this is essentially a race against time revenge outing, but the beauty of it all is in the exploration itself.
One thing that quickly strikes you is how difficult this is to map and it is indeed quite labyrinthine in the way that various sections inter-link with one-another but that is because it uses an ingenious multi-levelled 3D structure to make the most of your being under water and therefore able to rise and dive at will. In places, you can get sucked into under-currents and head down watershutes, as well as being able to pass over areas from an elevated position. As confusing as this is on paper it really does give the feeling of being under water and adds massively to the (literally) immersive nature of this book. What is very important to understand, though, is that this being a SJ (II) adventure, there are multiple paths through as well as numerous different endings, so mapping is not especially essential to victory as such, given that you can blunder around and get sucked into or ejected out of various areas without it necessarily meaning you are going to lose. Granted, there is what seems to be an optimum ending where you defeat the pirates and become super-rich, but there are many other less successful but still acceptable end results which adds hugely to re-playability. Equally, there are several ways to defeat the pirates and, in fact, to get to where they are hiding-out, as well as there being several ways of finding the clues that can help you locate them (although you can of course just guess by simply picking the right option when you are prompted as well.) Unusually for a SJ (II) book this one is linear in that you cannot double-back or revisit previously explored areas, but you do have the standard SJ (II) option of exploring just about every option at each juncture, or at least until you pick the best one at which point you are sent to the next stage of the mission and can disregard the “lesser” options. Similarly, paragraph 400 is just a normal game section making it less obvious which outcome is the intended definitive one, if there even genuinely is one.
Furthermore, as is also the case with SJ (II)’s FFs, this book is very easy unless you surface too soon (and you can die two paragraphs in if you do this) or one of your stats gets reduced to nothing and the multiple paths/outcomes make it even easier as there is no true path to hunt for. Instant deaths are quite rare, although there are at least two moments where your Stamina can be instantly reduced to 1. That said, there is a plethora of opportunities for your Initial scores to increase, your Stamina to rise by 10(!), and/or your Attack Strength to rise a lot, and there is even one moment where you can quite literally become a “new person” and are made to re-roll all three of your stats (which could be good or bad for you, depending on how you started out, of course), so this is definitely a book that can be completed with rock-bottom starting stats. Add to this the fact that finding key items and NPCs is not that hard (you can even gamble gold pieces and black pearls to an infinite level) and you have a book that is not going to take much defeating, but that’s not the point – the idea is to explore and re-explore as you find all the various paths and outcomes with each playthrough. This is a book that allows you to discover fresh moments over and over again, rather than the sometimes frustrating usual FF approach of either find the one well-hidden route and win, or die trying.
For the most part, you are required to move around Atlantis hunting for useful items and allies to help you get your revenge, although some allies are more trustworthy than others and the sly Sea Dragon will certainly make you work for your victory if you choose to use its “help” (incidentally, several times the book sneakily tries to convince you that this is a wise choice, which adds a bit of unpredictability to the proceedings.) Nothing’s help can be got without you having certain items, but the different options remove the “true path” aspect that can often be soul-destroying in these books. If you want to use the Dolphin’s help (far safer than the Sea Dragon) you literally have to fight for the right when a Shark attacks it and this combat highlights a very noticeable feature of this book – physically strong, but technically useless foes resulting in long but easy fights with enemies that have low Skills but very high Staminas. As you are under water, the encounters are often unique whilst being perfectly-placed within the undersea environment, and many of them are animal types which, whilst acting largely on instinct, are quite big and tough. The vast majority of the fights here are with enemies with Staminas in excess of 10, with the logically toughest two being the legendary Kraken (Sk 10 St 30) and the Sea Dragon (Sk 10 St 24), although neither of these are necessary for victory. Many foes are fish or crustaceans and, in an interesting touch, fights with the “stupider” creatures can be avoided by feeding them, whilst fights with more “evolved” types (Water Elemental, Merman, etc) can be avoided by simply bribing them not to hurt you or by doing them services. To emphasise the Atlantean concept, numerous Mermen and at least one Mermaid come into the mix, as do some sea versions of familiar fantasy fare such as the fishy-looking Sea Ogre, the Muck Demon, and the Deep Ones (sort of frogmen with delusions of grandeur.) To add a nice fantasy twist to familiar Earth species, we meet a Swordfish (which thinks it’s Cyrano de Bergerac and really is an expert swordsman!), the cathedral appropriately houses Angelfish as well as Devilfish, and there is even a Lionfish which has a lion’s head and can roar! If that isn’t enough to get the undersea world message across, the Mermen use various species of Toolfish (as can you), which reminds me somewhat of all the different animals that are used as household tools in The Flintstones!
The various creature types show both a clear focus on the setting as well as some wry humour and there are other moments where this book does not take itself too seriously as well, although it never lets itself down by seeming trivial in the way that the satirical FFs such as #27 Star Strider often did. We meet a Deep One Champion called Sharkspear, the tight-arsed Sea Dragon refuses to lend you two gold pieces if you ask it to, you have to kiss an ugly female Deep One to raise her from her slumbers, Cyrano the Swordfish is pretty bonkers (although the stat rewards for fighting him are well worth having), and there is a location called Gorblimey Rocks at one point too. These moments of humour are strangely suited to the generally very other-worldly feel and tone of this book, although there is a curious moment where a Merman asks if you are a Deep One and expresses relief when he finds out you are not as they are at war – a war which he presumably has only heard about otherwise he would know that a human and a Deep One look nothing like each other, but we can forgive this one inconsistency in what is otherwise a very well-designed and controlled concept.
One encounter worthy to be singled-out is that with the Bone Demon. Whilst this is not a unique creature and is certainly not restricted to an undersea locale, the encounter is memorable for two things: firstly, you have to fight three parts of it as three different foes, and secondly, it is the creature featured on Les Edwards’ cover. When this book first came out (and still now if looked at from a certain distance) I genuinely believed this cover had been rendered by photo-manipulation, it is that real-looking. The cover also perfectly suits the location with its sea blues, green seabed, and even air bubbles rising from the Bone Demon. This is probably one of my favourite FF covers due largely to how well it fits with the book, as well as its eerily realistic appearance. Sadly, the internal art is by Bob Harvey, a man whose work has never quite done it for me, but he does actually do a better job here than normally and his Mermen and buildings are especially effective, although I’ve never liked the way he draws people. Thankfully, the writing is so atmospheric and SJ (II) captures his atypical locations so well in the text that the art is almost incidental to the prose itself, rather than being a function of the overall experience of the book.
I briefly mentioned black pearls above and acquiring these is essential if you want to achieve the revenge-plus-riches ending. The search for these is more akin to the traditional Ian Livingstone style of gamebook where you quickly realise that you need to amass a certain volume of one recurring motif or another. Black pearls can only normally be found by defeating the toughest foes (killing the Kraken will yield the largest haul of three in one place) and, if you can find out how to use them (and the person with the info is not that hard to find) you will reach one of my favourite parts of this or any other FF gamebook where for every two black pearls you can create a Skeleton Warrior to fight the end pirates for you. OK, I admit it, I’m a huge fan of Jason And The Argonauts and this has been blatantly plagiarised from that movie, but the image of Ray Harryhausen’s Stopmotion skeleton army always comes to mind when I reach this point of the book and, that alone, is enough to make this one so memorable for me.
In terms of gamebook design, there is nothing unusual here other than its complex multi-level game map, and it avoids any special mechanics, relying instead on superb exploitation of its theme and concept. The multi-path/multi-ending approach is uncharacteristic for FF in general, but is standard fare for SJ (II) and I think it is all the better for its lack of gimmicks. Likewise, the revenge plot is very simple, leaving the player to focus on the unique world that SJ (II) has created in this book.
This is a fantastic gamebook which has a certain dignified elegance to it which is often missing from the generic stalk-and-slash “ultimate hero” FF books. It makes excellent use of its atypical setting, and its unusual and imaginative encounters and locations are perfectly matched to the writing and ethereal atmosphere. For these reasons, along with the Harryhausen steal, this is one of my favourite FFs. It’s a little too easy, but that only increases playthrough scope. I highly recommend this for something a bit different.