Tuesday, 14 August 2018

The Dark Chronicles Of Anakendis


Andrew Whitworth

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Warlock magazine issue 6 offered us this short FF penned by reader Andrew Whitworth. My initial reaction to the intriguing title was that the adventure would be a dark episodic effort with some sort of epic feel to it, the kind of short subject that really pushes the potential limitations of just 200 sections and crams in a large amount of material in the way that Dungeon Of Justice did so well. I was a little disappointed then, on reading the background section, to discover that the “Dark Chronicles” of the title were in fact literally a book that is the central conceit of the piece in that it is the source of Anakendis’ power and your aim is to destroy it (after killing Anakendis, of course) otherwise he will presumably resurrect. Already, this premise may seem somewhat familiar and, on reading the full background, it becomes even more so: a local settlement (Kokbridge near Fang) is being terrorised by an evil wizard who lives deep within a cave system and the previous hero did not fare very well in killing him. So: evil wizard, cave dungeon, curious source of power, disappearance/lunacy of previous person who was supposed to vanquish him…. Hmm, this all sounds very Warlock Of Firetop Mountain-ish to me.

Indeed, this adventure feels very like WOFM throughout. Not only is the concept suspiciously close to that book’s but the need to find the correct combination of keys (there are three, but only two will open the chest that contains the Dark Chronicles), as well as a tendency for the incorrect routes to end quickly at doors is also rather too close to WOFM for comfort. Similarly, essential items are often down these diversion paths which, again, mirrors WOFM to an extent. Sadly, what Dark Chronicles does not do especially well is hold the attention in the same way that made WOFM so compelling an introduction to the series. For example, the first two potential encounters are with creatures stolen from Doctor Who in the form of an Ice Warrior and a Macra (and yes, the Macra is a crab-type thing) which instantly makes this feel even more hackneyed and unoriginal. Very early on you are expected to contend with a very tough fight with an Astromancer who, after every other Attack Round, casts one of three spells at you: darkness, fire bolts, or sleep, the first two of which impede you stat-wise and the third of which irritatingly sends you back to paragraph 1 to then contend with the reset button. Needless to say, the reset button is just that and anything you might already have killed comes back to life if you revisit it and you can end up with multiples of some items (including one of the two essential keys). To add insult to almost certain injury, this fight yields nothing of use and just seems to be there to hurt and/or frustrate you. It soon becomes apparent that no matter which directions you choose to take you will quickly be sent back to the optimum path and by the mid-way point the map is so convoluted in the way that it links up that mapping is basically impossible, not that you will really need to map this adventure as you are unlikely to play it more than a couple of times because a) it’s just not that interesting, and b) it is very easy, assuming you don’t fall foul of one of a small number of tough fights or get the key combination at the end wrong.

The climactic decision point can be impossible if you have not actually found the correct pair of keys (although they are both hidden near the start and the third red herring key is very close to the end which, again, is not great for exploration and replay) but it is botched in its presentation as one of the three choices directs you to section 200. Assuming that you have already established that this is a 200-section book it does not take a genius to realise that choosing the number 200 option is probably going to lead to victory. This would have been far better executed and much more challenging if a bridging paragraph had been used to separate the choice section from the victory section and (like WOFM again) if you do somehow choose wrongly you get more chances to make another choice.  Furthermore, there are only three instant death paragraphs and one of these is avoidable simply because of the way the sections are randomised, as sections 171, 173, 176 and 179 are all involved in this episode and are all on the same page! Obviously, with the limited number of pages and their large format size, splitting paragraphs up is not as easy as it is in a book, but surely this critical fail moment could have been spread out more evenly to make it more deadly. Equally, this 17x episode offers you the odd choice of potentially facing Anakendis just after the half-way mark which seems far too strange to be worth attempting, unless you somehow believe that the adventure can end so abruptly and prematurely (which it can’t, evidently!)

It has to be noted at this point that, due to the large number of Skill and Luck tests, you are unlikely to get very far without both of these being in double figures, but Luck bonuses in particular are abundant, plus you get the standard choice of three Potions at the start which, in the Warlock style, contain two doses meaning you can start with a Luck score of as high as 14 if you choose the Potion of Fortune and immediately drink both doses before you even start the adventure. Essential items are mostly found after fights and Stamina penalties can be harsh in places (losing 25% of your Stamina at one point, a dice roll’s-worth at another point, and/or taking a -8 St hit from Anakendis if you are particularly unfortunate) but you do start with 5 Provisions and, whilst you can only eat when instructed by the text, for once this book actually remembers to do that and you can eat after most fights so replenishing lost Stamina isn’t too difficult, especially given the relative brevity of the adventure. Once you have identified the true path, completing this book is fairly easy and it will take very few attempts to do so and this is definitely an area where it wildly differs from WOFM as completing that book can take years.

Whilst this is a basic dungeon crawl, there are a few moments that seem to make no sense at all, in particular, what can only be described as the Forest Room which literally contains a forest complete with huts (er, somehow). As an essential item is hidden in here you have to suspend disbelief as you have no choice but to explore this contradiction of a room.  For some reason, you can find gold pieces here and there although they serve no purpose as there is nothing to buy anywhere. There is also a slightly bewildering room containing an aggressive man and some meat - I have no idea what this room is actually meant to be but you can masquerade as a meat inspector, should you feel inclined, which suggests it is maybe a pantry even though it contains just that one piece of meat – and an error loop that allows you to visit it an infinite number of times (again, ignoring the reset button) because paragraphs 23, 36 and 23 again all interlink which should not be possible unless you are teleported in some way. Basically, this is a mistake in the design and it does not give any advantage to keep going back to this room as the meat only serves one purpose very close to the end of the adventure so it is irrelevant how much of it you have got. Another moment that I found more annoying than strange is a pit containing a dinosaur which is just that, a dinosaur. There is no explanation of what type of dinosaur it is, it’s just a “dinosaur” – had the writer got bored of his own creation by this point or had he decided that, as it is not on the true path, the player would not care about it being completely one-dimensional? Either way, this is rather half-assed and, as the adventure progresses, this amplifies itself and it does appear that Whitworth was getting bored and/or his muse was running dry. It is important to emphasise that this is not as flat an experience as some other Warlock shorts (Rogue Mage is particularly dull) and the big difference between these two is that RM was written by a pro who was part of the Games Workshop inner circle, whereas Dark Chronicles was a reader submission, so someone in the editorial team must have thought it worthy of inclusion and up to the same standard as the rather better reader submissions that preceded it in previous Warlocks, and I think this is part of the problem as it is inferior because of the high standard set in the selection of adventures printed in Warlock up to that point (and after it to an extent, too). Had the Warlock minis up to this point been just so-so this would have been a pretty average dungeon bash that kept you occupied for an hour but, as it stands, it is not going to stay in your memory for long.

However, there are at times glimpses of what could have been, in particular the way that most of the creature encounters are unique and really make this cave environment feel like an unexplored part of Allansia that has its own distinct fauna. Unique to this FF are Devil Hounds, the Sand Squid, the Denrec (a subterranean bird), the Forest Demon (which appropriately lives in the otherwise out-of-place Forest Room), the IP-infringing Macra, and the truly macabre Walking Mouths. As we have no benchmark for these species image-wise, the more bizarre ones are helpfully illustrated, although the rather busy art does make them quite hard to make out without studying the images closely. The Devil Hounds in particular are pivotal to the plot and the connection between these, their handler (known only as the “Houndmaster”), and a NPC named Traskannd, draw the whole plot together neatly and connect the intro with the final act very smoothly. An early encounter with a good wizard that Anakendis has imprisoned within a well in the dungeon as well as a run-in with a tricky minion called Granzork part-way through adds to this overall sense of plot coherence and the adventure never veers away from your primary aim of killing Anakendis and destroying the source of his power. The problem is that the actual adventuring part is just not very exciting or inspiring and it seems that the writer hoped that this could be driven along purely on its premise alone and on the player maintaining the impetus to keep aiming for the final kill rather than the experiences to be had en route.

The theory that the climax is all that really matters in this adventure is further supported by the end baddie fight with Anakendis himself who is very strong (by the standards of early FFs) with Sk 12 St 20. You can reduce him to Sk 8 St 14 but the item needed to do this is on one of the few paths that is not mutual with the true path so, whilst the fight is made easier, you probably cannot win this way when it comes to the final analysis when you try to open the box containing the Chronicles. So, this is a very tough and climactic end fight and Anakendis can deal you some serious damage if you are not careful. The generally easy overall adventure does not really prepare you for this fight (even the made-out-to-be-tough bottomless chasm that you have to cross to reach the final act has multiple ways of being negotiated) and this is quite an unexpectedly deadly encounter that does come as a bit of a surprise in the context of this FF’s design. The pre-end baddie fight with Traskannd could also be tough but it is avoidable.

The ultimate aim of destroying the Dark Chronicles itself is, as with WOFM, another of those “came so far and failed at the final hurdle” situations that FF likes to throw at you and, if you do not have the right (or any) keys the book does prompt you to look for keys when you replay which is both a blessing (as it means you might win next time) and a curse (as it gives the game away somewhat). However, as I have said, this adventure is not remotely in the same challenge ballpark as WOFM and the destruction of the Chronicles acts more to round off the story arc fully, rather than to do what WOFM did and repeatedly scupper you when you think you’ve won because you’ve killed the villain of the piece. In WOFM this was a hard pill to swallow but a challenge to try again. In Dark Chronicles it is just a very diluted carbon copy of a far better assassination-focussed dungeon crawl.

I have briefly touched upon the busy art in this adventure and this is the only FF to feature the art of Mark Dunn whose only other offerings were two creatures in Warlock number 7’s Out Of The Pit section. To my eye, Dunn’s art mixes Bill Houston’s dark-scaled terror images from Temple Of Terror (interestingly, Houston’s work is seen elsewhere in this issue of Warlock incidentally) with John Blanche’s busy and macabrely otherworldly style of drawing to create something really rather disturbing that puts over the sense of horror of some of the denizens of these caves very effectively. Dunn’s art is very busy and demands study to make any sense of it, but I find it rather good and would have liked to have seen more of it in the main series. The title image of Anakendis himself (at least, I assume that’s who it is meant to be) is imposing and full of horror, even if it looks suspiciously like Gerald Scarfe’s teacher in Pink Floyd’s The Wall movie (or was this intentional?) The cover art for this issue of Warlock is Dragon Man by Chris Achilleos which, whilst it is as impressive as anything Achilleos has done, has nothing at all to do with this adventure, although Warlock only intermittently had cover art that was associated with its mini-adventures, so this is nothing unusual.

Overall, this adventure can be summarised as a logical plot that has a beginning and end but not much of a middle to connect them. You start with the North-West-East choices (or the illusion of choices), followed by a deranged and unmappable mid-section, then a series of plot-bonding NPC encounters, followed by a difficult end boss fight and a very simple and overly-signposted final key choice, as long as you have found the right keys, that is. Rarely can you diverge from the true path and the general over-arching ease, combined with the lack of anything to really inspire the player, make this gamebook one that is unlikely to get many repeat plays. Furthermore, as there is nothing to explore once you have beaten it, you do not even have the option to replay purely to uncover the stuff on the other routes that you might not have taken, as there isn’t much of it and what there is is presented so flatly by the author that you will care even less about the wrong paths than he obviously did! Play it once you have only got this and Rogue Mage left to play from the Warlock minis or play it first when you have nothing to compare it to. That way, you might just about get something from it. Otherwise, this is as meh as meh gets.