Tuesday, 22 November 2016

#7: Island Of The Lizard King


Ian Livingstone

Reviewed by Mark Lain
Following IL’s two masterpieces (#5 City of Thieves and #6 Deathtrap Dungeon) was an unenviable task and, unless book 7 in Puffin’s original series was the absolute greatest gamebook ever written, it was unlikely to be viewed in the same glowing terms as its two predecessors. Both of those books were very hard acts to follow and it would have been an impressive achievement if IL had pulled-off a third consecutive coup, so just what did he follow it with?
As most FF fans know, this is the third part of a loose trilogy that began with CoT, then saw you leaving Port Blacksand to enter the Trial Of Champions in Fang (Deathtrap Dungeon) and this third book begins with some nice plot extemporisation where you head away from Fang and decide to stop-off at the relatively hidden away Oyster Bay for some R&R with your old adventuring friend Mungo. On arrival in Oyster Bay, everyone seems depressed and tetchy and it soon becomes apparent that the secluded bay village is being attacked daily by Lizard Men from nearby Fire Island who are kidnapping all the menfolk to work as slaves in the island’s gold mines. Overseeing all of this is an uber-baddie, the titular Lizard King. Mungo decides he is off to Fire Island to save the day and you inevitably agree to go along and help. Thus we have the plot – a mercy mission to save everyone from slavery and kill off the root cause of the problem. Hardly original for FF, but this was only book 7 and the series was still in its infancy. In fact, this was the last of the Puffins that was initially printed with the star covers (and a red spine, in this case) before all the spines became the now iconic uniform green.
This is the first medieval FF that goes with a human interest central motif, rather than personal greed (WOFM, DD), assassination only (CoT, CoC), or heroic fame (FoD) and is the first where your character doesn’t seem driven by self-aggrandisement of some form. Instead, you are essentially just trying to help a friend and when, like all IL sidekicks, he dies almost immediately after the adventure starts, your mission becomes all the more personal. This is quite an interesting idea so early in the series and it does make this feel a little more like you are doing something rather more worthy than simple treasure-hunting or just murdering a villain. An interesting juxtaposition of characterisation comes in paragraph 1 when Mungo tells you that his father died trying to complete the Trial of Champions, something you have just arrived in Oyster Bay having successfully survived and won.
The adventure itself comes in three main acts: jungle/river/hills, the slave mines, and finally a mountain trek to the Lizard King’s fort (via a Shaman.) This is interesting too if put alongside the previous two books as the three together represent the three fundamental RPG environments - CoT was urban, DD a dungeon trawl, and IotLK is pretty much everything else (beech, jungle, river, cave, mountain pass, castle) – which is a clever meta idea by IL. On initially landing on the island, you can take one of two paths across the beech which essentially offer two different ways of killing Mungo (death by Giant Crab or death by pirate band) but there is at least a little bit of replay variety here. Either way, Mungo gets it and you head off alone into a rather primeval jungle full of carnivorous plant life, primitive humans, and big insects/reptiles/amphibians to contend with. Following this, comes a raft ride to the mines which are rather brief and I assumed they would be much bigger and more labyrinthine for some reason. Presumably they just haven’t been open for long? Next comes a mountain pass meander riddled with prehistoric encounters, the central purpose of which is to find a Shaman that an Elf you liberated tells you about in the belief that he will give you something essential to help kill the Lizard King, then you enter the LK’s stronghold and face your final challenge. One thing that strikes you after a few playthroughs (and mapping it out) is that this gameboook is extremely linear, even by IL’s standards. So linear, in fact, that the few path digressions that are offered are only slight diversions that quickly return to the same path and just offer slightly different versions of the same thing (eg: Headhunters vs Pygmies in the jungle, rockfall avoidance vs sliding down in a rockfall in the hills, etc) and you cannot fail to escape the mines as it is not possible to get lost in them. Even more striking is that you can visit every part of the mines in a single playthrough (if you move around it in one particular order) which is very out of character for an IL book. Once you are in the “hunt for the Shaman” section it does not take you long to realise that you have no options of alternate routes (making it impossible to not find the Shaman) and that you will not fail to find the Lizard King’s fort or, in fact, assuming you don’t die, to find the LK himself as there are two paths within his fort, both of which ultimately lead to him. Livingstone FFs are never this easy to navigate and the usual “take one wrong turn and you’ve blown it” Livingstone-ism is all but absent here. Even his ridiculously easy Forest of Doom at least has incorrect paths and an essential item set that you must have to be able to complete it. Which brings me to my next point – IotLK does not demand that you have hundreds of very well-concealed items with which to win. Instead, all the items you can find are a) presented on a plate (especially the monkey which is literally standing on the path in front of you), and b) are helpful, rather than critical, to victory. Granted, if you reach the Lizard King without at least one of a monkey and/or a fire sword, the final fight with him will be very tough (Sk 10 St 15), but it’s far from impossible and you are never lethally penalised for not having a certain item at a critical fail point, as there aren’t any. Yes, there are a few instant deaths, but these are sparingly deployed and even failing Luck tests is more likely to just hurt rather than kill you. Initially, this book may seem like a typically hard-as-nails IL effort as you can die in just three moves at the start, but most instant deaths are for doing obviously suicidal things and this book is far from arbitrary like many FFs are. On the contrary, as IL FFs go, this one is unusually generous and forgiving on the player. There are certainly several tough combats with double-figure Skilled enemies and you have no chance with a Skill yourself that isn’t in double figures, but the book gives you many Skill bonuses and you can quickly regain any points lost by falling foul of the nasties that are strewn about to hinder you. Ditto, Luck. There are many Luck tests, but there are also umpteen Luck bonuses to be found. The only real stat that you could find yourself hemorraging is Stamina and you are likely to consume most of your Provisions pretty quickly if you get into too many combats or fall into too many traps but, even then, a lot of the tough combats (barring the final mountain trek) are only encountered by failing Luck tests or blundering into traps and as long as you don’t catch a tropical disease or get hit by rocks you are unlikely to get really hammered for Stamina loss outside of combat.
All in all, this book is actually very easy to complete and you are unlikely to take more than two or three attempts to beat it, assuming you have a very high Skill score of course, and this is a stark contrast to its two ultra-tough predecessors which relied hugely on the acquisition of loads of essential items, involved a lot of failed playthroughs and mapping to fathom out the very fiendish true paths, demanded that you solve puzzles, and often had opponents that would lethally trick you into losing. The biggest challenge in this book is definitely the catalogue of compulsory and quite tough combats in the final mountain pass trek, although the Shaman’s tests are deceptively challenging. By this I mean that the actual undergoing of the tests is not easy and you must complete three out of six and failing any one means outright failure. However, three are simply stat tests and, assuming you have a high enough Skill and Luck to have even got this far, these become academic. Two do require you to have certain items which could be a fail point but, as we have seen, all items are not hard to come by in this book. The sixth of the tests just involves picking the right choice (out of only two) so you have a 50-50 chance of guessing right making this one very easy. Now, here’s the real problem with the Shaman episode – whether you pass or fail makes no difference to completing the mission as he just gives you some info that you can just as easily guess about when you need to employ it, although if you do know it already, it guarantees a nice warm fuzzy feeling inside when you find the all-important monkey in the road and you will definitely know to take him along with you. So, the Shaman hunt is actually a bit pointless really and, being a key feature of plot, it does leave you feeling a bit short-changed when you realise that it is not as essential to victory as the book had led you to believe.
Further to the over-riding ease of this book, the final showdown with the Lizard King can be un-climactic. Having a monkey and using a fire sword reduces his Skill to a pathetic 6 (Stamina is still 15 though), which, in context, makes him as weak as most Goblins, a shield will give you +1 Skill, and wearing Sog’s Helmet automatically wins you the first Attack Round of any combat, so killing him will not take long. In fact, Sog’s Helmet overall makes even this book’s many tougher combats (especially the successive fights in the mountain pass) somewhat simpler.
So, we’ve made a lot of just how easy and uncharacteristically Livingstone-y this book is in the sense of its design and difficulty level, but that does not make it a bad book. Actually, it’s a very good book with a lot to offer from the outset. The backstory is interesting and compelling and you quickly establish an obvious purpose and motive for playing. It’s all very logical and there are no out of context moments which makes the whole experience feel very coherent and inter-related. Of particular note is the way the book focuses closely on its three main themes: the slave mines, Lizard Men, and the distinctly prehistoric nature of Fire Island when compared to mainland Allansia. Throughout the book you encounter evidence of attempted escapes from the mines, both successful (eg: the man hiding in a tree in the jungle who will furnish you with a particularly unhelpful and vague map of the island that is of no use whatsoever to you) and failed (eg: evidence of someone having been dragged away in the hills whose belongings you can find and actually get a useful clue from this time), all of which really adds depth and a sense of the ongoing nature of the mines as well as the (assumed) connection to the abductions in Oyster Bay. The central concept of Lizard Men is naturally key to the book and, although you don’t encounter any until you start to explore the mines, they play an important repeated villainous role from there on. To add a bit of variety there are even some rarer types including a two-headed version and a mutant one (is having two heads not a mutation, out of interest?) The logically recurring Lizard Men bring to mind the many Orc Guards in WOFM which also deployed its central minions very neatly. The sense of Fire Island being rather less evolved than the mainland comes through in spades and this is maintained very effectively from start to finish, from the primitive humans (Headhunters, Pygmies) and the many carnivorous plants and giant insects in the jungle section right through to the dinosaurs, sabre-toothed tiger and primitive cavewoman of the mountain pass section. It would be hard to talk about the cavewoman without mentioning that she is basically Raquel Welch in One Million Years BC, incidentally, but that is not necessarily a bad thing! On that note, it is worth mentioning Alan Langford’s internal art at this point which has a distinctly primitive sun-drenched feel to it and which suits the primeval nature of the setting perfectly. There is definitely a hint of the Ray Harryhausen to some of its source material, but that just adds to its effectiveness and it’s especially hard to not be reminded of RH in the opening Giant Crab encounter. Langford also does a good job of representing the pathetic and semi-starved appearance of the slaves, and the horrors of the Razorclaw and the Cyclops are superbly illustrated in my opinion, as are the various Lizard Men. If there is one criticism of Langford’s art it would be an echo of an oft-stated problem with the internal image of the Lizard King himself. The actual illustration is not that bad but he does seem a bit effete draped oddly on the battlement. The problem only really comes to the fore when you compare it to Iain McCaig’s colour interpretation on the cover. Most people, myself included, would be of the view that McCaig is one of the best fantasy artists of his generation so any comparison with his work is probably going to be unbalanced, but there are two key points of comparison to make here: 1) his version of the LK is not naked, unlike Langford’s, which makes the latter’s version look a bit unthreatening, and 2) IM’s version is attacking and genuinely looks frightening, whereas AL’s is teasingly looking back at you in a manner that is unsettling for all the wrong reasons! However, it would have made little sense to not include an internal image of your primary target in the book so we just have to make do with what we got and the rest of Langford’s art is perfect for the tone and concept of the book.
Lizard Men came into the FF world as a key protagonist with this book and their subsequent use has always been sparing which I personally think is a good thing. Everybody liked (and was afraid of) Daleks in Doctor Who but they just kept coming back for more constantly and the mystique did kind of wear off after a while. Only two FFs used Lizard Men as their central concept (this book and Marc Gascoigne’s only main series offering, #31 Battleblade Warrior) so their threatening and dangerous presence remains just that. It is interesting to note too that IL gave his self-confessed favourite creature creation, the Shape Changer, another outing in IotLK too, but this time it comes at the end and is much easier to miss but it is nice to see it being used again.
The sheer imagination that has gone into making Fire Island work so well as a coherent environment has also gone into the inclusion of some of my all-time favourite items in FF which, again, have rarely been re-used, if at all: the Pouch of Unlimited Contents is a fantastic idea with (literally) infinite possibilities and the option to trap a Water Elemental in it is genuinely amusing, whilst the initially negative effects of the Ring of Confusion later turn out to also give you the side-effect of being able to see through illusions, which is handy on at least two occasions. The special boots that allow you to walk on vertical plains are fun as is the Potion of Clumsiness, whilst even a spear has multiple points of usage (unusual in FF as the majority of items tend to just serve one specific purpose), assuming you haven’t already thrown it at a previous foe, of course.
IotLK is undeniably the weakest of the trilogy but, if viewed on its own and without the inevitable comparisons that are drawn from both the fact that it is the conclusion of the trilogy and its unsympathetic position in the release schedule, it is actually a very good and original gamebook, thanks in part to its unique setting, but also due to it being light-relief in difficulty terms by comparison with the rest of IL’s output. In some ways, due to its extreme linearity, it could be said to be even easier than Forest of Doom but the fact that the need for high Skill and Luck makes the suggestion that any character, no matter how weak, can win, a lie in this case makes FoD ultimately that little bit easier. Plus you don’t get the chance to go right back to the beginning and try again as was the case with FoD.
When this book was re-released by Wizard, rather than commissioning a completely new cover art concept a revised version of the original Puffin art was created which is unusually sympathetic to the book (and respectful to the original cover) by Wizard’s standards. If anything, Wizard’s cover makes the Lizard King seem all the more threatening and you do get more of an impression that he is a potentially aggressive and dangerous adversary plus his fire sword glows which is how I always imagined it. It’s just a shame that Wizard completely destroyed the flow of the intended trilogy by releasing the books out of order. In Series 1 Deathtrap Dungeon became #3, City of Thieves remained as #5, whilst IotLK was held back until finally appearing as #17, whilst Series 2 kept DD as #3, but moved CoT to #6 and didn’t bother re-printing IotLK at all the second time around. Wizard Series 1 therefore inadvertently allowed IotLK to be viewed more on its own which removed the inevitable comparison with the other two books that the Puffin series order causes. However, it does mean that the neat plot-linking introductions and the meta RPG environment exercise were rendered meaningless, which is a pity.
I like this book as it makes a pleasant change to be able to realistically beat an IL gamebook so easily and without endless mapping and failing at various critical stages. Yes, you do need a strong character but there needs to be some element of challenge and that is primarily where it lies here. It does not take long to explore everything on offer and the scope for repeat plays is limited by this, but the prehistoric overtones and Lizard Man-centric concept are a nice change and there is plenty of unique material to make this one very worthwhile. IotLK has taken a lot of criticism over the years from people who say it is nowhere near as inventive or as challenging as its two forebears but I don’t think that is what IL was aiming for with this offering. Instead we get a plot driven by necessity rather than ego, a very well-planned and unified environment, and an ultimately very satisfying experience.