Thursday, 20 April 2017

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Wednesday, 12 April 2017

#39: Fangs Of Fury


Luke Sharp

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Luke Sharp’s final FF book to date is the third in a trilogy linked by being set in the same general south-western Khul location and by the wizard Astragal, a man who seems to spend a huge amount of his time saving the local area from destruction. This time you begin in the citadel of Zamarra having just volunteered to save the region from an evil alliance of the luridly-named Ostragoth the Grim and his insane wizard side-kick Jaxartes. Zamarra is under siege and, normally, the citadel is protected by six Stone Sentinels who guard it with their fiery breath. The flame itself originates from the titular Fangs Of Fury (a volcano) but it has been extinguished leaving the citadel defenceless. Your mission is to break through the siege somehow, get yourself to the mountains where the Fangs Of Fury are, relight the flame using a special torch that Astragal has given you, and thusly allow Zamarra to avoid falling to Ostragoth’s hordes. To make things that little bit more tricky (and to ensure that you don’t simply just run off) you are fitted with a bracelet that glows every time one of the citadel’s fourteen walls is breached – once the last wall has fallen the bracelet will kill you. So, perhaps volunteering for this task was not the wisest move then!

The premise of this book has distinct echoes of LS’ previous two Khul-based FFs (#30 Chasms Of Malice and #35 Daggers Of Darkness) with its combination of seemingly lost cause and race against time, but this time the plot is bordering on being slightly silly. OK, volunteering for a mercy mission is classic gamebook fodder and the bracelet/walls mechanic gives you a sense of urgency and regularly reiterates your purpose, but if you begin to think about the concept too much it becomes rather far-fetched. The most obvious question is why is the volcano so far away from the Stone Sentinels and how the hell does the flame get all the way down to the citadel from it? But there is another odd element to the (admittedly dense) premise too. Your main allies are a religious group called the Wazarri and you need to find them and get their help to complete the mission. For reasons that are never made clear, their symbol is a cube (more on this later) and they cannot mention the religion’s name or else they will die within seven days - is that not just hugely impractical for followers? You do have to wonder whether the depth of the material here is by design or because LS has just randomly written a load of ideas on bits of paper, thrown them all up in the air, and used whatever landed face up. Yes, there’s plenty here to build an interesting world, but it makes very little real sense all mixed together into this particular concoction.

Whatever you might make of the basic ideas here, there is no doubt that a lot of effort has gone into at least making sure you know exactly what it is you are trying to achieve and constantly reinforcing this. You could be forgiven for initially being a bit confused as the rules tell you that you have 4 Black Cubes, can collect various types of jewels, and explains the citadel wall mechanic, all before you read the six pages of background spiel, but the introduction leaves you knowing exactly what the deal is which is a relief as otherwise this could have become incomprehensible before you’d even turned to section 1. What then follows (the adventure proper) involves you escaping the siege, then making your way (via various helpers and hinderers) to the volcano itself to reignite the flame, whilst en route you must also avoid being captured (you become increasingly wanted as the mission progresses) and kill Jaxartes. For some reason, Ostragoth never comes into the equation, but your real purpose is lighting the flame so I can just about accept this one loose end. Key to your success is the acquisition of as many Black and White Cubes as possible. Black Cubes make you impervious to fire (handy in a volcano) and White Cubes seem to be a sort of mystical indication of how enlightened you have become. Obviously then, Black Cubes will stop you from dying, but the less obvious White Cubes actually serve to determine how tricky or not your path through the Fangs Of Fury themselves will be at the end.

So there are three primary functions at work here: 1) do not allow the citadel to fall (or you will die); 2) protect yourself from fire with Black Cubes (or you will die); 3) make the end as easy as possible for yourself by achieving inner knowledge (or whatever) through White Cubes (or you could well die). Summarised like this, it seems that this is going to be yet another heavily-stacked-against-you gamebook but, curiously, that is not the case and, if anything, Fangs Of Fury is one of the easiest books in the entire FF series to complete. Black Cubes are in such abundance that you will almost never die by burning. White Cubes actually make the black ones seem scarce as, due to how they are found, they are literally everywhere that has an accompanying illustration once you pass the point where they are explained to you. And, it seems to be effectively impossible to manage to get all fourteen walls destroyed, so the bracelet is realistically never going to kill you, even if you take an unnecessarily long-winded routed. These three elements alone would make this very easy as they are the central maguffins of the book. But the book’s method of going easy on you does not end there. Most fights are very easy and, at the very least, involve low-Skill foes – even Jazartes only has a Skill of 10 – and there are no fights at all with more than one simultaneously-attacking opponent. There are a huge number of ways to regain Stamina and many of these are disproportionately generous (often 4 or 6 points are awarded) which, when joined to the fact that you get the requisite 10 Provisions and the usual choice of three Potions at the start, makes failure by Stamina loss quite unlikely. Skill and Luck boosts can also be found, along with the occasional bonus that even lets you exceed Initial scores. Plus, there is no true path and there are umpteen ways of getting through which are made all the easier by having several substitute options if you should be missing certain items or knowledge at key critical moments that, in any other book, would be win or lose situations. Granted, Sharp cannot resist several instant deaths by failing Luck tests (and a high Luck is very useful, but not a prerequisite, to success) and his trick of having you roll dice to establish a layout of a trap or a length of something to be negotiated, then have you counter-roll against these to determine success or failure, is back again, but this is about all the challenge that this book really presents. Indeed, I only count seven instant death sections that can be reached by misadventure, which is very low by any FF’s standards.

So then, all the elements of this book that should present you with obstacles to success negate themselves by presenting just about everything on a plate. However, there is something very important that needs to be said at this point and that is the methods by which the book presents these to you. Firstly, there is the White Cube hunt. Never have I known a FF book (and that statement includes Keith Martin and Jonathan Green’s FFs that occasionally employ the mechanic) that relies so heavily on the reader’s observation in finding clues hidden in the internal art and this is a feature of this book that I cannot praise enough. To find White Cubes you must scrutinise every illustration for sets of White Cubes that are strung together. If you see some, you roll a dice and get that many cubes. Yes, they are everywhere and there are very few pictures without them but some are quite cunningly hidden (one has them in two sections, the string having broken) and you do have to be far more observant here than in any other FF book. In fact, this idea is much closer to those used in Fantasy Questbooks and it really makes this outing feel unique in its execution. Similarly, the Wazarri use a written pictogram language that, if you decode it, helps you avoid traps in the later stages of the book. For me this does not work anything like as well as the White Cube gimmick as it involves flicking back and forth between the picture that explains the characters and wherever you are whilst you try to match the sometimes unclear pictograms to their solutions. Furthermore, if you do take the time to decipher them, they all make the book even easier so this is a mixed blessing really, plus they are basically just semaphore so can hardly be called original. That said though, it does add another layer to the puzzle-cracking features of this book and it does give you something to focus on in a later playthrough. Less obvious (as you can only find it once) is the solution to a frankly annoying maze that you must get through to access the Fangs by a particular route (although even this is avoidable). The map to the maze is in an earlier illustration and shows the locations of the six objects you need to operate the door mechanism that opens into the Fangs. Without the map (and some pictographic prompts) the maze quickly grows exasperating and I have to say that, once you find the numerical code, the paragraph you are sent to does not make it entirely clear that you have got it right. This would have been a very tricky section to negotiate but even this is reduced to being fairly straightforward.

On the subject of the maze, there are only two parts of this book that detract from what is otherwise a very interesting and imaginative collection of locations and encounters. The maze we have covered. The other more problematic part is the initial siege, which seems to go on forever. On the one hand, this is a good thing as it should not be simple trying to break through a siege unscathed. However, there are so many different interconnected ways out (pretend to join the opposing army, steal a horse, defect in a boat, etc) and they go on for so long that I have to admit to having lost interest in this book several times in initial playthroughs as I just couldn’t seem to find an end to running about all over the place in a bid to escape the siege. I must have played it half a dozen times before I found the staying power to get beyond this stage which is a shame as most of the remainder of this book is great. Paragraph 207 even has a wry nod to the length of this part when it says “You are amazed at the difficulty you are having getting away from the siege”. You’re not kidding Luke! Although “difficulty” is not the right word as the siege is not hard to escape, it just takes ages and is not especially exciting. Get past this though and the rest of the book is well worth the effort mixing perils (eg: you keep finding your face on “Wanted” posters), humourous asides (eg: a giant who is looking for “Djack” and keeps saying “Fee-fi-fo-fum” and an Elf festival called the Feast Of Bradyliam ie Liam Brady, so Sharp is an Arsenal fan, right?), intelligent moments of mysticism (eg: Wazarri encounters and a focus on finding “The True Way”, not that there is one in this book lol) and your gradual building-up of information to help you reach the end (made all the more involving through the sheer number of visual puzzles). There is a lot going on here and, whilst not all of it seems to mesh, the fundamental concept stays very much to the fore throughout and you never feel that you are anything but focussed on your singular goal.

The sheer variety of interesting material, along with the fact that just about any path you take can potentially still result in victory makes this book eminently replayable. Its ease means that it is not soul-destroying as you never feel that you are vainly trying to win (like so many gamebooks can be) but its non-linearity makes it a book that you can go back to over and over again as you try to find everything on offer and some cameos (especially the Elf trial that wins you the fun-packed elfwings) are very fiendishly hidden. It is even possible to lose your all-important torch and have to go on a side-quest to explore the Dragonmen’s caves in a bid to amass a huge amount of treasure to get enough money to buy back the torch for 500 gold coins. Indeed, once fully mapped-out this book is huge and not one paragraph is wasted. There are even aside paths where several choices are given, but certain options lead to extra perils before returning you back to where you would otherwise have gone.

If I do have a sight criticism of this book that would be LS’ off-hand prose style, which is a problem with all his books, and his sentence structure can be overly curt and to the point. Consequentially, some key moments leave you wanting for detail, the all-important flame in particular, which has no description or image, even when you are right in front of it. Given how much of the book relies on the art it would have been useful to have a bit more extemporisation of this key moment. That said, this book demonstrates none of LS’ usual excesses that make his books so frustrating and, whilst Daggers Of Darkness is his most impressive as it seems tighter and makes more sense, Fangs Of Fury is definitely his easiest, most accessible and most enjoyable gamebook (what can’t be fun about using flaming wand swords?), and this is a million miles away from the awkward humour/satire of Star Strider and the utterly awful boring unfairness of Chasms Of Malice.

As an aside, there is one very odd moment that seems to be an error when paragraph 5 has you fight your own exact replica with the same stats as yourself. This can be a tough fight if you are strong but it is balanced by definition as neither side has any advantage at all. The problem comes if you die as you are given choices of sections to turn to whether you win or lose rather than just ending your adventure by dying. Should this section not specify that any damage taken in this fight is illusory in that case, as you do not get resurrected afterwards if you “die”? Odd.

Sharp’s three medieval FFs are all set in a region of Khul that no other FF author has ever used and the locations have a unique feel about them with their mixture of slightly Eastern tropes and region-restricted creatures that cross-populate his books such as the ubiquitous Griphawks and Fangtigers. Indeed, one image/moment in this book even has someone riding a Fangtiger, mirroring the cover and incident from the previous Daggers Of Darkness. Ditto, Garks make a welcome return again here. There are also some unique creatures in this book which add variety rather than just re-treading the same old territory and the stand-outs are the treasure-coveting Dragonmen (Black Cubes are handy here, needless to say). I always like to see coherent inter-linking between FFs and this is definitely one of Sharp’s big strengths. There is even a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment where a Death-Spell Dagger turns up!

The final section is worth its own mention and the end “showdown” is very unusually handled. The Fangs have seven different possible entry Levels and where you enter depends on how enlightened you are (ie how many White Cubes you have found). The lower the Level of entry, the more dangerous the path and Level 1 is particularly long and dangerous, although Level 3 can lead to an almost as long route if you take a wrong turn. Naturally, seven different entry points adds another seven different alternative routes to an adventure that has already offered a plethora of different paths just to get to the volcano itself. This means yet more replayability, of course. Similarly, there is no end baddie battle to have to deal with (normally at a stage where you will be very weak) and literally all you have to do is relight the flame and you will win. Yes, this is easy, but something other than an insanely hard end fight makes a nice change in an FF book.

The internal art in this book is David Gallagher’s first outing as an interior artist (although he had drawn a few FF covers previously). Obviously, as the art is so central to the book’s concept and solutions you would anticipate something rather elaborate, but, oddly, Gallagher’s art here rarely rises above being workmanlike and functional. Thankfully, this does not affect the importance that the art plays here, but it mostly seems a bit insipid and lacking in depth and, particularly, any backgrounds. Likewise his dingy cover illustration does not inspire you to want to pick this book up which is a shame as the contents are well worth discovering.

Fangs Of Fury is a book that I really like. It is very enjoyable and, whilst very easy, its huge amount of replayability and diversity makes it worth the effort to play over and over, assuming you have the patience to not give up during the overlong siege. Your characterisation is well thought-out and, whilst you are certainly not useless, you definitely know the value of acquiring knowledge and help as much as possible and for once you are not the best of the best this time around. This is one of the few series entries where low stats are unlikely to make much difference to your chances of winning and it is very fair on the player. The huge game map adds to the value even if the bizarre plot premise might leave you scratching your head as you try to rationalise it. In summary, this is no masterpiece (only one of the books in the 30s, Vault Of The Vampire, could ever be said to be such), but it is certainly a lot of fun and is a real pleasure to play.