Sunday 15 December 2013

#37: Portal Of Evil


Peter Darvill-Evans

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Darvill-Evans’ second FF sees a return to the same region of Khul where his first (#25 Beneath Nightmare Castle) was set, with its Germanic-sounding naming conventions, but names and locale apart, this is otherwise a very different-feeling and less successful book than BNC. There is no sign of the eerie gothic atmosphere that pervaded BNC, instead PoE is far lighter material. The inclusion of large numbers of dinosaurs and very little creature diversity beyond the basics of elves, goblins, and dwarves, almost make this feel like an entry-level adventure.

The idea of a dinosaur-themed FF is something of a rarity in the series. The only other book that really has this feel is #7 Island Of The Lizard King (which is more akin to the Raquel Welch sun-drenched One Million Years BC version of prehistory) and the parallels are made more evident as both books also feature Alan Langford’s very appropriate-looking internal art. But there is a twist with PoE inasmuch as Lizard King’s Fire Island is a very primitive environment, whereas the area surrounding the Cloudhigh Mountains where PoE takes place is the equivalent of 19th Century America with its themes of gold rush fever and proto-capitalism so, on initially starting this adventure, you do find yourself wondering quite where the dinosaurs are going to fit in. This is not Valley Of Gwangi or 2000AD’s Flesh so do not expect cowboys farming dinos. Instead, dependant on your level of realisation (and the secret is hardly much of a secret for anyone who can read between the far from subtle lines here), it turns out that the dinosaurs that are roaming around wreaking havoc are actually people who have been turned into dinos as part of the arch-baddie Horfak’s evil plans. Opinion is that the dinos are passing through the titular Portal from another world (which is true) but they are seemingly just ex-people who fell foul of Horfak’s machinations. The Portal itself was accidentally uncovered by Horfak whilst digging mineshafts and it has gradually warped him into a hideous mutation (which is why he’s banned mirrors, incidentally) and this is where YOU come in, as a warrior who has been commissioned to try to establish what’s going on and stop it from going on anymore.

There is an interesting take on linearity in this book and, whilst it is definitely pretty linear, it seems (I emphasise “seems”) to be possible to visit certain key locations out of order, especially on initial playthroughs given how areas that are presumably miles apart link very closely into one-another, and working out the correct order is as surprising as it is frustrating. On starting out, you can go directly to a key town or the forest/mountains – should you do this, you can get the feeling that there is hardly anything to this adventure as you will quickly a) get close to the Portal, and b) fail completely. Once you find the correct route, it becomes clear that this is actually a pretty long slog involving a seemingly endless and pretty uneventful ride down a river (a good excuse to get a Plesiosaur into the proceedings though), interspersed with constantly being forced to either eat or lose Stamina due to hunger. And this part is the book’s biggest problem as it is boring and repetitive – ride along, do nothing, have something to eat (repeat ad nauseum) – but yields essential items and information that you can’t win without. There are some slightly baffling moments in this part’s latter hill climb section (especially involving an existentialist ex-person Ape that just accepts your suggestion that it bugger off somewhere else rather than killing you, as it will no doubt be far happier that way) and an initially intriguing but actually pointless run-in with some Goblins on a jetty. Get through the tedium of all this and you reach the first real tour-de-force in this book where you need to negotiate a brilliant and almost Arthurian trial lake to get to a Wizard who holds a key piece of information, not to mention his aiding you in going to the next key stage – handy given the fact that you will by now feel that you are about to fall off the edge of the World considering how far you have travelled to get to this point. From here on, the pace of the book increases noticeably as you go to the town of Kleinkastel to undertake a really well designed and fun series of trials to ensure you are good enough to be the champion who can sort out the region’s problems, followed by a trek through a forest to try to find various contacts and get important facts from them, and then on into the Cloudhighs themselves.

It is this interim stage between the never-ending river ride/eating and the actual Portal sections where the real depth of thought that has gone into this book becomes apparent. All the different races you can meet have very distinct behaviours and cultural idiosyncrasies that you need to figure out and navigate your way through. These are interspersed with increasingly frequent “dinosaur” encounters along with similarly growing numbers of mindless zombies roaming around the place that are also a product of the Portal. There are moments where you need to decide if the beings you meet are what they seem or if they are just more zombies and you will need to use a modicum of mental wit to survive this part and manage to get your hands on the items you need.

The final section involving getting through the Portal and passing into another dimension is fairly brief and maybe a little rushed considering the unnecessary length of the first section, but it also allows you to get to Horfak quickly and try to win. Surviving the Portal section itself does involve needing several items that can take some finding (as well as remembering to leave some explosives at the door – are you really likely to think this is a good idea given the likelihood of someone else blowing it up and trapping you in another World?), but the other dimension itself is quite easy to get through, plus Horfak doesn’t take much beating once you realise that/why he hates mirrors. The cultural aspect from the forest/hills episodes is continued here and there is nice fleshing-out of the primitive peoples who live in the other dimension so you can put them into some kind of context as you meet them.

So, as hit-and-miss as the plotting is, swinging as it does from tedium all the way through to highly innovative ideas and good contextualising of the region this is set in, there is certainly a lot to recommend and, once you’ve figured out what’s going on (which is hardly difficult given the relative simplicity of the overall idea here), this has a lot going for it if you can bare with it through the really dull first third.

I have to say I was left a little disappointed when I realised that this isn’t really a FF about dinosaurs, although a real plus-point for the book is the way the numerous dinosaur encounters are handled. Some have “handlers” (ie their non-transformed friends) who are using them to extort money from people by threatening menaces of dino-combat, whilst others are trying to defend themselves from hunters and/or just mind their own business for as long as they are stuck in their dino-bodies. The various dinosaurs’ combat stats are especially well thought-out in that they have low Skill scores (dinos should be essentially stupid and should react on instinct alone) and very high Staminas (anything as massive and leathery as them is clearly going to be hard to hurt.) Additionally, in some cases they will have special attacks that you also need to defend against (horns, big tongues, etc) so they are handled very realistically and also, importantly, very consistently. There is also a nice touch where some will lose interest in fighting you if they realise they can't get an easy meal and will just wander off. Another nice aspect of the dinosaurs’ inclusion is the balance of well-known famous species (Ankylosaurus, Pteranodon, Stegocephalian, Oviraptor, Triceratops, Plesiosaur) and some of the more obscure types (Dromaeosaurus, Noasaurus, Phororhacos, Struthiomimus) which, mixed with the fact that these are all real species that existed on Earth, gives the impression that these are not just thrown in for a laugh and that they are intended to fit in well with the plot. Of note is the fact that all these species are described as extinct on Khul. Khul must be distinctly different in its evolution from Allansia, as Triceratops and Pteranodons are alive and well there, but long gone on Khul. This is subtle but interesting in terms of the development and expansion of the FF universe and this book adds value in that respect. Plus, D-E avoids the obvious fall-back of using any Tyrannosaurs which I was pleased to see.

One of the best features of Darvill-Evans’ FFs is the atmospheric writing and the sheer depth of description in his long paragraphs. He uses the cultural aspects of each race to create vivid encounters/locations and Kleinkastel in particular is a hive of gold rush mania mixed in with determination to find a strong enough champion offset against the sheer megalomania of its Margrave leader who is one of the more satisfyingly arrogant yet also easily flattered NPCs in the FF series, making him a lot of fun to interact with. My only gripe with the excellence of Darvill-Evans’ writing in this book is that the lengthy descriptions do somewhat amplify the endless nature of the first section, but at least it’s boring in a thorough and expositional way and we certainly can’t complain about lack of depth or involving prose here.

The generally light nature of the material on offer here contradicts the dark, gloomy cover which, whilst suitably mysterious in its depiction of the Portal, is not an accurate reflection of the tone and feel of the book, and in this sense it is something of a surprise when you play through it and see just how un-claustrophobic and non-threatening the adventure is, hence my opening theory that this is intended as a Beginner’s book. There is none of the terror (not to mention the difficulty) of Beneath Nightmare Castle and, once you’ve found where the items you need are hidden, this is one of the easier books in the series.

To summarise, this is a decent (but not brilliant) offering that sums up the feeling of general “meh-ness” that many of the books in the 30s part of the series leave you with. It’s OK, but it’s hardly ground-breaking, and its intelligent second and third parts are let down by your having to drag yourself through the initial part. Give it a go for the dinosaurs and the elven/dwarvish/goblin culture and for Darvill-Evans’ writing, but I’d recommend playing it after you’ve attempted Beneath Nightmare Castle, if only to prove that D-E is a genuinely good game creator.

Thursday 5 December 2013

Temple Of Terror (ZX Spectrum/CBM64/BBC/Acorn)


AdventureSoft (UK) Ltd

Reviewed by Mark Lain

The 6th FF computer adaptation appeared in 1987. A 7th (Sword Of The Samurai) was advertised but never materialised, making ToT the final FF-related release for 1980’s platforms.

In terms of its design, this game is very similar to AdventureSoft’s previous FF effort (Rebel Planet) with its half-image/half-text screen presentation (unless you have the BBC version which is text only and loses all of the visual appeal, or for some reason you choose to play Side 2 of the Spectrum version which offers a text-only version too which you won't want to do as Side 1 gives the full graphic version.) There is no combat system or character stats and these two adaptations are much more command-driven and the emphasis is on figuring out how to negotiate certain situations by finding the correct command whilst, in some cases, having to beat limitations on time and/or number of moves. Certain actions can have consequences later in the game and forward-planning plays an important part in some sequences. In this sense, this was easily the most sophisticated of the FF computer games up to this point and probably seemed quite advanced for the time as it is quite intuitive in how it responds to what you do. For example, not bowling cannonballs down a particular passageway before going down it will result in you dying under a hail of crossbow bolts fired by a trap in the wall, whilst not jumping over a particular pit with your eyes closed causes you to be killed by an eye stinger. Clever.

Clearly then, the fact that the game can “remember” what you have done to avoid/cause certain consequences does mean that it will take numerous failed attempts before you can make any worthwhile real progress through the game. Even the opening screen can be tough to get past as the first event the game throws at you is a beat the clock situation where you have to make your moves before an angry mob of pirates gets across the beach and kills you and I must have died about 20 times before I figured out what I needed to do. That said, once you have worked out how to beat the various traps along the way, this game is not especially difficult overall, even if some of the solutions are total guesswork, in particular how to get past the lizardine guard at the entrance to Vatos – what are the actual chances of eventually stumbling on the “kick sand at serpent guard” command? (even though you can just walk past him as well, it turns out!)

The commands, whilst they are the crux of the game mechanics, can be so specific in places that even one missed or wrong word is the difference between success and failure (eg: “kill harpy” needs to be “kill harpy with trident” to work.) Likewise, some of the pre-planning moves (to avoid failure further along) are obscure to the point that you may not ever think of them - the moment where the only way to beat the torture chamber cameo by thinking of throwing a scorpion in the room beforehand so it kills the torturer is the kind of abstract option that would seem like an imaginative solution when offered as an option by a FF book, but how long it would take to simply guess at this is anyone’s, er, guess, ditto, a moment where you need to “drop mongoose” so that it kills a serpent for you. A particularly clever moment comes when you have to throw a lodestone at a pair of slashing metal sword-arms to magnetically join them but, again, the book would suggest this, whereas you are fairly unlikely to hit upon this idea without prompting. Whilst this adds challenge to what is fundamentally not all that tough a game (once you’ve fathomed out all the peculiar commands and pre-empted various deadly situations), there is a bigger problem with the game’s reliance on commands to drive it – whilst it has an undeniably impressive and varied vocabulary (the specifics of the commands involving what to attack foes with etc certainly add realism and thoroughness to the game and give a RPG feel where you are free-er to roam and make more obscure moves), some of the commands that are listed in the instructions do not work, which is irritating and suggests lack of play-testing to match claim with practice:
  • ·         “I” to access your item inventory does not work. You have to type “inventory” in full. This is mostly just an inconvenience, but it becomes an issue when pirates are tearing towards you and you are bumbling through your spell book to establish that you know the all-important Sleep spell that you need to cast on them
  • ·        The seemingly very handy “drop all” does nothing, neither does the similarly useful “get all”. Instead you have to laboriously enter a “drop” or “get” command for each item, should you want to drop or pick up more than one thing

These are just glitches, rather than fun-killers, but why bother even making us think we can use these? In short, this is careless design, which amplifies itself when you start to notice the number of typos in, not just the on-screen text, but also the paper instruction insert that comes with the game! At least there is a modicum of consistency in that you have to spell the affected creature/object in the same incorrect way to allow your command to work (eg: “examine alter”), but this is just shoddy, especially when the alter (sic) and also a terodactyl (sic) episodes are key to survival.

Spelling and vocabulary issues aside, some of the moves you need to make to find the true path are actually quite fun and, in some cases, darkly humorous. You need to get some flesh from a freshly-killed goblin and pour some water on it (that you have previously filled a bottle with from what transpires to be a poisoned oasis) to later use it to feed a hungry attack dog – this kills the dog and avoids it killing you. Similarly, dropping a shiny bracelet into some water attracts the attention of a Tentacled Thing that intends to kill you and makes it dive after the bracelet instead. But, by far the most amusing pre-planned moment comes when you need to take the body of a glowing moth that you have killed so that you can use it as a lamp later on! There is also a suitably realistic bit of cause/effect programming included where whatever you drop will be listed as available where you dropped it (in other words you can go back and retrieve it later if you need to) and this even extends to seeing the bodies of any enemies you have killed (handy given that you need to collect some of these – see above), plus we are offered detail to the extent that a creature that is reduced to dust by an item will be listed as “dust” in the items you can see and, when you turn the Basilisk to stone with its own reflection, the screen lists “statue of a basilisk” as an item you can see (nice touch.)

The concept of some cameos being time/move-limited is another good inclusion as it adds a sense of urgency at key points in the game. The opening pirate sequence is a case in point, as is an encounter with a Giant Centipede where you only have one move before it kills you (firing a pre-loaded crossbow that HAS to be pre-loaded as you can’t load AND fire in the same move turns out to be the rather thoroughly-planned solution.) All the pre-planning and cause/effect scenarios add a noticeable RPG aspect to this game and you are totally free to roam backwards and forwards and re-visit previous locations at will so this game is far from linear and is certainly unusual and welcome within the FF cannon due to this. By the same token, the sheer amount of to-ing and fro-ing, along with a seemingly endless cycle of picking up, dropping, and retrieving items at the right times, can get fairly repetitive and it does seem that you are caught up in an endless Rubik’s puzzle where you are forever trying to make one move without ruining something else you have already managed to sort out and it does feel like you are going around in circles, especially in the Vatos dungeon itself.

Until you realise that you need to go back-and-forth so much (along with finding the convoluted solutions to various stages), it may seem that this game is impossible but, as we have said, it is relatively easy to beat once you’ve cracked it and is certainly the easiest computer-based text adventure I have played and it has to be said that it is ultimately fairly short on overall content, relying instead on solutions gradually discovered through multiple attempts at playing it. There is undeniable scope for re-play, but this is still quite a short adventure and is far shorter than the book, preferring to only include the most important moments and episodes from its source material (and, yes, the Messenger Of Death is included), to which it is generally, but not slavishly, faithful. There is enough puzzling to keep you interested, but this is not up to the high standard that the book version set.

An interesting (and useful) inclusion that I have not seen in other Spectrum/CBM64/BBC/etc FF adaptations is the “BOM” command. If you die, you can use “BOM” (ie “back one move”) to go back to the previous stage and try again. This is the computer’s version of using fingers to mark previous paragraphs in case you go wrong and can be handy (assuming you hadn’t already blown it at an earlier stage, of course), especially to avoid dull re-treads through all the sections you have already beaten before. The game can also be saved at any point as well, which is another useful and welcome feature that aids progression.

Very occasionally in FFs (and commoner in spin-off games than in the books themselves) you have restrictions on how many items you can carry. Again, this is a realistic RPG encumbrance idea and it does make you think about what items you will need to carry and when to have them with you. Granted, this only really holds value after a few plays where you can use the benefit of hindsight from past attempts, but it is certainly a plus point and is another neat programming touch. More traditionally for FF, your spells (taught to you by Yaztromo, just like in the book) can only be used once each and you only have four full-stop, with each having an optimum episode where they should be used. You can also carry more than one weapon and, interestingly, each one also has a corresponding foe that it is most effective against. It is worth giving credit where credit is due to the programmers for this, as this works in a very logical way – throw the trident at the flying harpy, kill close foes with your sword, etc. Furthermore, there are times when only a specific weapon will successfully kill an enemy, so this is a nice touch too.

A really winning feature of this game’s sister production, Rebel Planet, was the graphics that, whilst a bit garish and undeniably restricted by what could be achieved with 48 or 128K, were still effective. The graphics in ToT are not so good and are mostly blocks or outlines in black-on-yellow or blue-on-black. In some cases, the description mentions features that are not in the images and, whilst a screen full of text would certainly be uninteresting, I’m not convinced that ToT’s graphics add much, except in a few isolated cases (especially the rendering of the famous cover image of the lizardine creature at the entrance to Vatos, which is nice in a naive and simplistic way.)

A rummage through the internet will throw up numerous articles and letters in computing magazines from the late-80s where people have asked for help with the more bizarre solutions to some of the moments in this game. More worryingly, this will also reveal (assuming you haven’t already reached the end and found it yourself) a serious shortcoming of this game. Typos and commands that supposedly work but in fact don’t I can forgive, but ToT cannot be completed as there is a bug at the final stage. When you insert the four stone shapes into the wall key puzzle thing at the game’s climax, you are bafflingly told that the pirates that you will have caused to fall in the river and be eaten by crocodiles at the start of the game are falling into the river again and being re-devoured by the same crocodiles. This will just go on forever until you grow confused and think you’ve lost or you realise the game is irretrievably buggered and you’ve wasted your time trying to get this far.

In terms of playability and learning as you go, this has a lot to offer and it will certainly keep you guessing. There are some cleverly thorough programming touches along the way, but the game is all but ruined once you discover that it simply does not work properly. From what I can determine, US Gold did offer refunds once people started sounding-off in the gaming press that this could not be completed due to its ending bug (and at three times the price of the book, they had a right to!), but that does not make up for the ultimate let-down in what is otherwise a generally worthwhile game to play. What a shame, as this could have been another Rebel Planet in the context of computer FFs.

Saturday 9 November 2013

#56: Knights Of Doom


Jonathan Green

Reviewed by Mark Lain

This book has a problem. In fact, it has two problems – Spellbreaker and Dead Of Night. If it weren’t for the brilliance of these previous two books, Knights Of Doom would qualify as the last genuinely great FF from the original series. As it stands, if you have never read either of these other two books, KoD is indeed pretty great. If you have read either (or both), then it doesn’t take a genius to notice what is lifted from where and makes KoD seem like old news, even though it is still a good book all the same.

The entire structure (make your way around a pre-defined map of your homeland, visiting various towns and being sent on side missions in each) mirrors both books. This is not a criticism as such in that FFs can be given more structure if you can trace your route on a “published” map of the area (plus you may well know your homeland anyway) and get more of an idea of where you are going and how close you are to the end, but the fact that this is set in Ruddlestone again (where Spellbreaker is set) does make it seem a bit samey. You could equally, of course, argue that this flows logically on from Spellbreaker (and you are in a different bit of Ruddlestone) and that this gives coherence to Green’s chosen part of Titan. Each to their own with this but, structurally, this one does seem a bit stale to me if you play these books in their intended (released) sequence.
A bigger problem is that the concept is so close to Dead Of Night that it’s difficult to not see this as a clone. In both books YOU are a Templar charged with saving the land from an impending invasion of nasties. In DoN the scourge was Demonic, in KoD it is the Armies of Chaos that are attacking, but the feeing/effect is much the same. The Chaos aspect is unusual for FF as Chaos is rarely incorporated other than in random one-off run-ins as latter-part challenges in pre-set dungeon scenarios. In that sense it is nice to see Chaos playing a major role in a FF book. On the other hand, this does make this book feel far too close to Warhammer material and, due to this, it does feel a little “isolated” within the FF series as a whole. That said, Green does enjoy exploiting the history of Titan as laid-out in Titan - The Fighting Fantasy World and this is one of the beauties of Green’s FFs as they really do try to link into the wider FF universe. The wars with Chaos play a big part in Titan and this FF does follow on from that episode logically, even if most gamers will probably notice the Warhammer similarity before they make the association with Titan, as the former is more obvious.
The book flows in the same logical way as DoN in that the further you progress, the greater the evidence of invasion from Chaos. You travel from North to South and, the further South you get, the more over-run with Chaotics the environment becomes. This makes good sense and follows DoN’s logical flow from fact-finding to defence to final showdown in the eye of the storm. As with DoN, you also benefit from having a horse (that, as is always the case with horses in FFs including the one in DoN, dies or bolts part-way thru), a magic sword, and some special Templar skills. Here they are just called Special Skills and, whilst not quite as enemy-focussed as in DoN (where you are very specifically a Demon-slaying specialist), they are more balanced here between Warrior and Priest skills (which you would expect from a Templar as they were as much warriors as they were holy men) and seem to be more universally practical. You can choose four from a list of nine options (five Warrior type and four Priest type are on offer) and, to ensure you balance your character in a logically Templar-esque manner, you must choose at least one of each type. The write-ups of the Warrior skills often give you a clue as to what this adventure might involve, which is a handy inclusion: Battle Tactics makes you better at influencing and commanding armies (and you need to build up a decent-sized and strong force for the final section), Ride gives you the ability to guide a horse through tough terrain and also allows you to ride replacement mounts (a clue that you are probably going to unsurprisingly lose your horse at some point), Target and Weapon give you acuter fighting skills and/or accuracy (Weapon also allows you to carry and use a second weapon which is handy as you will almost certainly lose a weapon as the story progresses), and Tracking is a throwback to American Indian stereotypes. The Priest Special Skills are mostly lifted straight from DoN and serve the same purposes as those found in DoN – Arcane Lore is a variation of Speak Demon, Banish Spirit is literally Banish Undead, Commune is a more advanced version of Meditate that allows you to detect “vibrations” from the spirit world, whilst Holy Strike is the only new one here where you have the ability to fire a holy blast at your enemies (making fighting the Undead pretty easy for once.) The inclusion of these Skills adds much to the feeling of your character being highly trained and, as with DoN, works very well in the context and feel of this book, plus, again, there is no correct combination and Luck rolls can often do just as well to get you through Skill-based situations.
The inevitable inclusion of extra attributes that later FFs almost always seem to have is in evidence two-fold here with Honour being effectively the opposite of Evil in DoN whilst the always problematic Time tracks your progress compared to how much of Ruddlestone the Chaos armies have managed to take. I am always sceptical when Time is involved, as this does often restrict you to a pretty narrow true path and gives little allowance for digression or exploration. OK, I accept that thwarting a Chaos invasion is something of a race against time, but part of the fun of FF is in exploring. Given the number of side missions that are offered to you as this book progresses, it will take many replays to a) beat the Time trap, and b) actually find the extremely narrow true path. Annoyingly, the Time and Honour attributes seem to work against each other as the only way to build up the required number of Honour points you need for the Honour checkpoints is to help the locals and undertake side missions, but these side missions take ages and eat up vital time making passing the Time checkpoints all the harder.
The main criticism of Spellbreaker (Green’s first published FF) is the incredibly low percentage chance of actually completing it due to the sheer number of items you need and that is very much in evidence again here, with a shopping list that Ian Livingstone would be proud of. There are so many essential items that it is very easy to lose this book early on without even realising it and multiple replaying is essential to coming anywhere close to finding the true path as it is so extremely linear. It has also been suggested that the combats in Green’s books are unusually tough and no FF book comes tougher in this sense than KoD due to the sheer amount of combat that is involved. Add to that the fact that every other combat has adjusters and this really does feel relentlessly weighted against you encounter-wise. There is a slight gesture to fairness at the start of the book when you can plunder your starting castle’s armoury for special weapons that do extra damage etc, plus you can collect items along the way that will reduce opponents’ Attack Strengths and fighting the Undead is comparatively easy, but that does not hide the fact that I’ve never seen so many modifiers in use in a FF book and that some combats are just insanely difficult:
  • ·         Cockatrice Sk7 St7 – deceptively easy as, every time it wins an Attack Round, you roll one die due to its poisonous breath. Roll 3, 4, or 5 and lose 1, 2 or 3 Skill, roll a 6 and you die
  • ·         Chaos Knight Champion Sk12 St12 – if you don’t have Weapon (Lance) Special Skill you start off with AS -1, plus not having Ride is another AS -1. If it wins 2 Attack Rounds (highly likely with a Skill of 12 and your potentially only having a maximum Skill here of 10) you are unhorsed and lose 4 Stamina, followed by fighting with a further AS -2. In other words, if your Skill is only 7, you are potentially down to 3 Skill here!
  • ·         Four Chaos Centaurs Sk10/9/10/9 St9/10/10/11 – if you don’t have Ride, again you have AS -2. If a Centaur hits you, you roll one die and take -3 Stamina damage on an odd number roll. If you hit a Centaur, again, you roll one die and an odd number means you only inflict -1 Stamina of damage to it
  • ·         Hill Giant Sk9 St11 – roll one die every time it wins an Attack Round. If you roll a 5 you lose 3 Stamina. Roll a 6 and you are knocked over, taking 1 Attack Round to get back up which gives the Giant a free hit on you
  • ·         Ogre Overseer Sk9 St10 – roll one die every time it wins an Attack Round. Roll a 6 and it steals your weapon, causing you to fight on with AS -3
  • ·         Beast Man Champion Sk12 St14 – does -3 Stamina damage every time it hits you (again, likely to be quite often!)
  • ·         Belgaroth Sk12 St17 – the final baddie. His armour means you only ever do him -1 Stamina damage, but he does you -3 Stamina and -1 Honour. If your Honour drops to zero, you have gone over to the dark side (but at least this tough battle is justified as he’s the big boss)
  • ·         Beast Man Shaman Sk8 St7 – if he wins the first Attack Round you lose 5 Stamina
  • ·         Chaos Warrior Sk10 St9 – does you -3 Stamina damage and you fight with AS -1 due to being on a battlement. If it ever gets AS 22 (ie it rolls a 12) you fall off and die
  • ·         Knight of the Flame Sk12 St12 – does you -3 Stamina damage
  • ·         Cailleach Sk12 St12 – Test your Skill before every Attack Round, fail and you are transfixed with fear allowing it to automatically win that round
  • ·         Iron Golem Sk10 St16 – you only ever inflict -1 Stamina damage on it, but it always does you -3 Stamina damage. If you roll a double you have smashed your sword and then have to fight with AS -3. If it wins two consecutive Attack Rounds it throws you against a wall causing you one die of damage

The sheer number and difficulty of many of the combats makes winning this book with low starting attributes all but impossible and you will need above average scores in all of Skill, Stamina and Luck to stand any chance in general, as you are also faced with numerous Skill and Luck tests throughout the book as well, especially near the end, with many of these resulting in death if you fail them.
As this book is so incredibly difficult due to the combination of narrow true path, many items being needed, Honour vs Time, and a seemingly never-ending series of (often very tough) combats, you could be forgiven for thinking that there is no enjoyment to be had in playing it but, just like Spellbreaker before it, KoD is so rich in period atmosphere and historically detailed cameos that it makes for a very interesting gamebook. Along the way you can find yourself being accosted by what is basically Robin Hood and his Merry Men, get involved in a Wicker Man rescue attempt, visit a group of tumuli on a misty hill, kill various things that are tormenting the locals including a Necromage (another near-copy of a side mission in Dead Of Night) and the aforementioned nightmares that are the Cockatrice and the Cailleach, go on a boar hunt from Cleeve Manor (that turns out to lead to an unexpected plot twist much later in the book), and help a Dwarf defend his house from an all-night Hellhound attack (again, pretty much a copy of an incident in DoN.) All these (as unoriginal as some of them are) add a lot of fun and rich detail to the land of Ruddlestone (which was already richly presented in Spellbreaker so this adds even more) and really makes you feel involved in the plot. There is even an ongoing episode where a flying assassin’s dagger keeps bothering you at night, plus accidentally summoning the Demonic Slayer is a lighter moment in what is, overall, a very dark and serious book. There are a few other humorous aspects (if you spot them) where inns are called the Wild Goose and the Red Herring but you could miss these given that you are probably desperately trying to stay alive. It is also quite fun to feel that you are also up against it with the ignorant attitude of the locals, most of whom do not like the Templar Order, and you spend a lot of the earlier parts of the book trying to avoid being run out of town or being lynched by wandering bigots.
With all this on offer, this book is very involving and detailed, but (astounding level of difficulty aside) it does suffer from a Jonathan Green-ism that I have never particularly liked, namely the codeword idea. Spellbreaker did not include this, but from KoD onwards, reversed codewords (eg: reggad which causes the assassin’s dagger to keep harassing you) would play a large part in how the plots of his books unfold. For me this feature is very transparent and obvious and does not sit well with his atmospherically very successful and well-written books (barring, maybe, Curse Of The Mummy, which is easily his weakest effort.) Indeed, in many ways, Green’s FFs read better as novels (atmosphere, setting, interesting events, historical elements, consistent flow, etc) than they do as games (too difficult, very linear, out-of-place rubbish codeword concepts, etc.)
Interestingly, you are not only required to make your way to the final showdown alive and furnished with lots of items but you also need to solve (often very hard) puzzles to collect clues to getting into the final sections (the mathematical cheat-proofing that I always like to see in FFs is pleasingly present here) and amass groups of allies who will join you at the end and sacrifice themselves as part of a makeshift army you need to assemble to have any chance of getting through the final part. The climactic battle(s) make the rest of the book seem comparatively easy and there is a real feeling that a titanic showdown against Chaos is taking place. Green likes set-pieces (his many side missions and in-village cameos evidence this) and this final part of the book is exciting, intimidating and you really do feel doomed (which you probably are, in the unlikely event you have even got this far!)
Chaos imagery needs to be spikey and spindley and that is definitely the theme of the art throughout this book. Tony Hough’s HR Gyger influences come through again in his work here (like they do on the cover of #52 Night Dragon) and his Chaos images really do capture the feeling of terror that you are supposed to be feeling. Some of his human images are a little cartoony, but they do contrast well with the nasty appearance of the enemy of the piece. Hough also drew the cover and his art does seem to work better in colour. KoD’s cover is certainly not up to the standard of his Night Dragon cover work, but the limited pallet (purples and reds) does give a night-time feel and there is a strange otherworldliness to it that is appealing.
This is a hard book to summarise. If played with no previous knowledge of Dead Of Night it would seem exceptionally good, if exceptionally hard. As it stands, it is not original enough to be classed as an above-average book, but it has so much material/content depth and is very long and epic-feeling that it certainly holds up well, especially as it came so late in the original series. It is a good effort, but is just too difficult to be considered as essential. Play it and enjoy it for its atmosphere and the obvious effort that has gone into it, but don’t expect to be able to beat it – even the online solutions are only suggested approaches and are dependent on being very lucky with dice rolling! Incidentally, this is the only one of Jonathan Green’s FFs that hasn’t been re-issued (or published full stop) by Wizard Books meaning that collectors routinely pay £20+ for decent condition copies.

Saturday 26 October 2013

#40: Dead Of Night


Jim Bambra and Stephen Hand

Reviewed by Mark Lain

All-out Horror FFs are few and far between. The only ones that could really be said to qualify as Horror as opposed to Fantasy (or Sci-Fi, of course) are #10 House Of Hell, #38 Vault Of The Vampire (and its bug-riddled sequel #58 Revenge Of The Vampire), and this book, number 40 in the original series.

This book is easy to accidentally overlook for two reasons: 1) The title is hardly inspiring and doesn’t have the usual luridness and sense of inevitable doom that many FF books’ titles have; 2) The cover picture is pretty insipid and gives no indication at all of what lies within. And these two factors are a great shame as otherwise, this is a great effort and really injects some much-needed design originality and energy into the series after the fairly routine nature of many of the books that appeared in the 30s part of the series.

Unusually for FF, the plot here is largely personal. Yes, you also have a secondary residual task of saving the world (for a change), but your primary driver is to rescue your parents from the Demon Lord Myurr with whom you have had a long-running feud. He has now abducted your parents and wants to use them as the sacrifice in his demonic ritual to unleash himself and his nasty hordes on the land and generally ruin everything for everyone, and you have to travel from the South of Gallantaria to the North, passing through areas that show increased evidence of demonic infestation, to ultimately find Myurr’s stronghold and try to save your parents/the world before it’s too late. Even more unusually, YOU even have a name (or more of a title really: Demon-Slayer.) Yet more unusually, the plot works really well, flows logically and all makes sense. YOU are a specialist demon-hunting Templar which means you have quite a starting arsenal of kit and tricks to help you on your way, including a horse (that either runs off or dies at the half-way point depending on which route you take), holy water, a cross (all very logically Templar-esque pieces of equipment), and a sword called Nightbane. All this stuff proves variously useful or useless (depending on the situation you are in) and adds layers of realism and depth to your character as you try to decide what to use and when. Most importantly (in terms of characterisation) is that you have special demon-hunter-type Talents: Banish Undead, Dark Veil, Heal, Holy Circle, Meditation, Sense Demon, and Speak Demon. You get a choice of three (and, in a couple of neat later plot twists, you can gain a fourth one or even lose one and be reduced to only two Talents) that can be used as substitutes for combats, help you gain clues as to what is on the cards, ingratiate you with the locals (normally in return for goods and services like Gold Pieces or free food/board), or just generally give you an option other than brute force by which to progress. I really like to see this idea used in FF books and it makes those books that feature the concept of using character-type-specific special abilities stand out (some other excellent examples of special skill deployment to enhance gameplay are #20 Sword Of The Samurai and #56 Knights Of Doom.) It is very important that, in cases where a ”pick from a list of skills” option is offered, there is not an optimum combination (which is a problem with the use of this feature in #29 Midnight Rogue where you are screwed if you don’t have particular skills) – this adds re-playability (to see what happens if you have other Talents) and removes the problem of losing before you’ve even started simply by making a bad choice of useful or interesting-sounding abilities that actually turn out to be hopeless. In Dead Of Night, there is no perfect combination of Talents – each is handy or otherwise in certain scenarios, but there is always an alternative option should you not have a given talent or it doesn’t seem right to use it and there are some occasions where using the wrong one is bad news, especially Meditate, although common sense will often tell you whether using a Talent seems sensible and adds to your feeing the character, as a trained demon-hunter would surely know how to use his/her own talents to best effect.

Comments have been made by some reviewers that the plot just seems to be a series of unconnected cameos, but that is surely not the case. In the South people are growing concerned due to rumours of demon infestation, but the further North you go the worse it becomes. The Midlands are in the midst of fending off an ongoing demon attack, and the North itself is already lost to the demons. This makes perfect sense and really makes you feel that you are gradually entering the eye of the storm. Admittedly, each location you visit involves a cameo of sorts, but each is part of the overall plot concept and it would hardly be much of an adventure if nothing happened anywhere you went. Even the weather gets worse the further North you go and it really does start to feel oppressive as you make your way through the book, with sudden heavy rainfall, deep mud to wade through, and increased attacks from increasingly powerful types of demon. The Northern sections themselves are the highlights of the book. There is a plague town (Astonbury) that adds conceptual atmosphere but is totally unreachable, but the final third or so of the book is where the imaginativeness and superbly-handled atmosphere really kick in hard, especially in the towns of Axmoor (totally swallowed-up by a living demonic unpleasantness called a Land Blight) and Dunningham (protected by an illusion and watched-over by the eye thing from Mordor.) The Axmoor episode is one of the most warped concepts in any FF ever, mixing steampunk ideas with body horror and something out of a Jeunet-Caro movie. It is also brilliant in its execution. When you first arrive in Axmoor you are offered two ways into the “thing” you are faced with – either through the “door” or, hilariously, via a hole in the ground that turns out to be its arse (I kid you not.) If you choose the arse route it is possible to die from fart asphyxiation (although the book phrases it more subtly) and eventually either route results in travelling through the creature’s innards including a prison containing the captured locals who will fuel the Land Blight and a heart room where you need to turn the correct dial to cut its heart’s blood supply off and kill it. This is a key moment in the book which rewards you very well. The Dunningham section starts with you being “helped” by a character who gives you conflicting information from which you need to extract the truth. There is the option to play dress-up and infiltrate an Orc base, but the main task here (and the second key event) is to put out the deadly Mordor eye that looks out from a bell-tower. Either from (or on the way to) Axmoor you can also visit the village of Stamford which is in the thick of a major demon infestation. Help the local family to defend themselves and you are, again, rewarded richly. This adds even more plot logic and depth as you can see more of the demon scourge taking hold, but there is also a glitch here (even if it is one that can be exploited to your advantage) as it is possible to go between Axmoor and Stamford an infinite number of times, gain hundreds of Skill and Luck points, and render yourself immortal ready for the final really tough showdown. Not a problem if you are a cheat (or realise that you’ve already been there once), but it does detract from the challenge somewhat.

The subject of difficulty level is always a thorny one in FF books. More often than not the really good ones are extremely hard to complete or some that have good design turn out to be too easy. Dead Of Night is not really all that difficult in real terms, but it is also far from simple as Myurr's tricks and traps are everywhere. The combats are not too tough and combat can be used very sparingly by substituting battles for use of your Talents (you are a holy man of sorts, after all.) There is one seemingly impossible combat with a group of Moon Demons (Sk 11 St 24) but circumstances intervene after a couple of attack rounds and you don’t have to see this one out to its conclusion. Double-figured stats are used very sparingly and you can count on one hand the number of extra tough foes you have to fight and they are all in very key moments of the book so seem to suit the plot when they appear. It is more in the use of Talents and the making of certain bad decisions that the tougher aspects of this book show through. You have an Evil stat which reflects any deeds you do that might be more akin to a Demon than a Templar. It starts at zero and only increases on rare occasions so the feeling that some FF books give of inevitable failure due to a potentially lethal stat increasing every other paragraph is not present and will only ever increase if you use Talents that include a “demonic” act (Dark Veil, especially) or if you walk away from locals in obvious peril and leave them to die (ie mostly by not helping them to defend themselves in some way.) At critical points (again, used very sparingly) you are asked to Test Your Evil which works in reverse to how Skill or Luck tests work – ie you want to roll OVER your Evil score, so the lower the Evil the better. Fail the test and you will normally be seduced by the dark side. This adds an element that the player can really dread happening and that seems all the more important on the rare occasions that it is used. In the more traditional sense of FF difficulty, the number of instant deaths is very low (only 25) and they all seem very logical and fair when they happen (eg: straying too far into an obviously dangerous quagmire or trying to ignore the advice not to go to the plague village), plus they are described in such juicy and graphic detail that it is worth going the wrong way just to find out how you die next! There is nothing obviously arbitrary anywhere in this book and it is very well designed and all the more enjoyable to play for this.

There are some moments where this book is exceptionally generous in how it rewards you for passing key plot tests. Notwithstanding the accidental Axmoor/Stamford cheat, it is also possible to gain 4 Luck points for defeating a Necromancer, plus Stamina bonuses can be found in many places (normally for doing the things that you’d gain Evil points for not doing, so there’s a double-incentive to properly play as a Templar and “be” your character.) There are also some very clever twists along the way, in particular a stage where, by using the secret paragraph reference you can have discovered earlier in the book, it turns out that it was a trap and that you have walked straight into it by accessing the hidden section. You do not see this in gamebooks very often and it is a refreshing change to the usual FF approach where you cannot win without finding whatever secret references you need to reach – it is almost as if the writers are trying to deconstruct a standard (and by book #40, pretty tired) FF concept here.

In terms of design, we have already covered the logical flow and overall well-planned plotting of this book (especially well executed as it was written by two people) and almost all of what is included is original (except for the blatant Lord Of The Rings rip-off in Dunningham), interesting, and well-paced to give a sense of urgency to your mission. Once you reach Axmoor and then Dunningham it becomes apparent that the writers are not just aiming for atmosphere and coherence of theme, but that they also want to really make this book stand out as highly original in terms of what it throws at you. As the book progresses, it moves from voyage of discovery (in the South), through survivalism (the middle part in the rain when you lose your horse, then come up against evidence of demons quickly taking over), then into very dark horror territory (the North.) Having survived the Land Blight and the Mordor eye thing, the book switches into another even darker mode entirely with a series of twisted puzzles for you to make your way through. First comes a house that keeps teleporting you back to its front door if you take a wrong turn, followed by a trial/test involving a Sorcerer who has been duped by Myurr into thinking his intentions are all for the good. Successfully convince him otherwise and he helps you, fail to put him right and he makes you undertake a very tough (in fact, it’s the hardest part of the book by far, but it is avoidable) test involving negotiating a MC Escher stair network. Following this comes a manic almost Vincent Price-esque moment where you have to deal with an insane (and evil) musical instrument called (and I love this name!) a Demonic Pandemonium. Next comes a maze of doorways that is confusing but doesn’t go on so long as to get irritating (like The Maze Of Zagor does in The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain) and then an encounter where you must fight Myurr’s final guard using combat only. This is quite interesting as it forces you to not always avoid combats by relying on your talents and reminds us that this is still FF. Finally comes the very climactic and elaborate showdown with Myurr himself. Being the final baddie he is very strong (Sk 14 St 25) but this is one of the best designed and most involved final combats in any FF book and easily equals the superb wizard battle at the end of The Citadel Of Chaos. You have various options in each attack round (including traditionally hitting him with a weapon, if you have the correct magical one, that is) and can substitute fighting for throwing holy water at him or trying to find his Achilles’ Heel by smashing up the objects in his chamber. It’s tough, but it is also the final showdown so it needs to be tough, given the mess he’s managed to make of Gallantaria, and demonstrates how powerful an adversary he really is. With the number of stat bonuses you can have gained (even without going backwards and forwards between Axmoor and Stamford) and the fact that combats can often be avoided by using your Talents, this combat is less unwinnable than it may initially seem and there is a lot to be said for the various choices/options you have during this battle.

The book as a whole has a very dark Horror tone to it and this comes through very well in the writing. In addition to this, the art by the always brilliant Martin McKenna emphasizes the atmosphere even more and the overall “feel” of this book comes across particularly effectively. The cover, on the other hand, shares little in terms of theme to the contents but, with a book this good, the cover could just as easily have been a blank white page. In some ways, the brilliance of the book itself is a welcome surprise and the cover could even have been deliberately misleading!

All things considered, bar the jarring Lord Of The Rings steal (which doesn’t fit in well with the otherwise original and imaginative material presented here), and the uninspiring cover, this is a brilliant entry into the series and the all-out dark horror genre approach works very well. This book and #38 Vault Of The Vampire were the beginning of a return to form that would be apparent in many of the FF books released going forwards. This is one of the as-yet unre-released books from the original series that desperately needs to be re-published.

Tuesday 8 October 2013

#33: Sky Lord


Martin Allen

Reviewed by Mark Lain

That this book would be the last Sci-Fi FF is no great surprise. That it was ever even remotely considered worthy of being released in the FF series is rather harder to believe as this is easily the worst FF book of all time.

The one great failing of this book is that it is almost agonisingly inane and it tries to pass itself off as a decent entry, but after a few paragraphs you find yourself becoming frustrated with its total lack of obvious purpose. Is this supposed to be an ironic book and, if so, why try to play it straight (or is that the irony)? If it is meant to be a satire, then make it come across that way as is the case with the “lighter” Sci-Fi FFs such as Appointment With FEAR or Star Strider. If this book was ever intended to be taken seriously then Martin Allen is frankly deluded – did he really believe this book was good or was this an intentional coup de grace for FF Sci-Fi? I’ve got this image in my head of the FF production team trying to find a submission that is so excruciatingly bad that everyone will be grateful never to see another Sc-Fi FF again and they certainly excelled themselves with this one! God forbid that anything worse ever got put forward...

Some FFs are criticised and categorised as “bad books” due to their excessive ease or (more often) unfairly hard difficulty levels. Sky Lord is inconsistent with this to the point of seeming schizophrenic, swinging from seemingly impossible problems that there should be no way out of (eg: the several times you can crash-land your ship) that you suddenly survive, through to situations that (as far as you can tell) seem to be going well but suddenly end in a one-sentence instant death section (of which there are loads the further you get into the book.) For example, it seems that writing your ship off by hitting the surface of a planet just leaves you with a few bruises and you can step away from the incident and brush yourself off. However, crash into another ship and you are vaporised. You might think that trashing your only means of space transport is bad news, but a run-in with someone who can conveniently reverse time soon sorts that problem out. A little bit of wacky disbelief suspension is all well and good, but this is just the first of a catalogue of ridiculous situations that this book presents. The only way to really appreciate this problem is to play it, but, amongst other daft episodes, the reader can be presented with:
  • ·         A character called Woderwick who is actually called “Roderick”, but the NPC can’t pronounce it (yawn, we’ve all seen The Life Of Brian, which is actually funny, incidentally) – oh, and he has a talking cat too
  • ·         Confused (and borderline psychotic) robots called Bric and Brac (the sort of thing you find in kids’ programmes)
  • ·         An in-flight assault on your ship from a sort of Space Moron called (oh so wittily) a Redneck (it wears a red scarf around its neck – in fact, it’s the thing on the cover)
  • ·         A game very similar to the Vortex in The Adventure Game where you have to trace the safe route across a grid (this also happens in the only very slightly less abysmal Space Assassin) using a very vague clue to help you
  • ·         A truly baffling series of choices involving pitch and yaw of your ship during encounters with large ships that is nothing more than pure guess-work and will more often than not end up killing you
  • ·         A stop-off at a space station that has been infested with orange gelatinous blobs that are running riot and causing mayhem – although they mostly chase you around a bit, leading to another arbitrary and incomprehensible series of choices that aren’t really choices as you have no idea what it is you are electing to do (and will more often than not end up killing you – see above!)
  • ·         A sort of surrealist final world with different “Domes” in it that are so random that they have no obvious association with each other, save for having been presumably designed by an architect under the influence of very strong hallucinogens

...And the effects of very strong hallucinogens are one of the over-riding feelings that this book gives you. It is easily the trippiest of all the FFs (far unintentionally weirder than the actually very pretentious and intentionally bizarre Black Vein Prophecy) and reading it really is an indescribable experience as it hits you with silly scenario after silly scenario, intermingled with a huge number of arbitrary ways to die.

We’ve already briefly mentioned the inconsistent difficulty level and this is no more apparent than in the two different styles of combat that the rules cater for (and the rules were not very well planned as the first combat you are likely to get into is of a third type that the book “guides” you through when it needs to.) Standard (ie traditional FF –style) one-on-one combat is unusually easy with most opponents being so weak as to present no challenge at all (unless your stats are very bad) – even the supposedly highly trained killing machines called Prefectas are useless and have low stats. The special addition of small craft combat is a whole other ball game. You have a Rating score which is your combat prowess from 1 to 6. In a combat, whoever has the higher rating automatically attacks first. This does add a sense of realism when faced with experienced opponents and your Rating even goes up by 1 point every time you win one against something with a higher Rating than yours so this book actually includes Experience Points, which ought to be a good thing. Sadly, this is ruined by the fact that many of your opponents have higher Ratings than you, putting you at a regular disadvantage, plus you cannot ever realistically have a Rating above 6. Added to this is the Lasers stat. You roll one die and need to roll under your Lasers which are between 1 and 6 again. All well and good, until you encounter either of the two foes with Lasers of 5 (not likely to miss) or the one with a Lasers score of 6 who cannot ever miss. The small craft combat is so weighted against you that you are unlikely to survive more than one or two skirmishes. The third combat type you can find yourself in is that against big ships which, as noted above, involves a series of meaningless choices where you are highly likely to either collide and die or set some sort of thermonuclear device off by accident and, er, die. The accidental deaths are made all the more likely as the names of the weapons you are offered the chance to use are also fairly confusing so you might as well just toss a coin to decide what to do next as you are otherwise pretty clueless. Other than combats, almost every other element of challenge is similarly unbalanced throughout. There are two “plot the safe route across the grid” games that are mostly just guesswork and luck rather than a challenge of any kind – they do involve looking at printed grids in the front cover, but these don’t really aid you at all and are even missing completely from the later printings which makes no difference to whether you make it through them or not. There are several situations where doing the most counter-intuitive thing turns out to be the correct option (is this surrealism or just more stupidity?) such as several episodes where NPCs ask for your help or offer you their help with the outcome normally being bad news for you. Unfortunately, you need to go along with most of them to find the true path so the element of your using your common sense and problem-solving skills is totally absent which is very annoying and it seems that the stupider the decision you make, the better it turns out to be.

If you can (be bothered to) wend your way through all the ridiculous stages of this book, the end is actually quite good (or the surprise twist is, anyway), even if the final foe (the last living Prefecta) is as pathetically weak as every other Skill/Stamina-based combat in this book. This brings us to the actual plot itself. YOU are a four-armed space warrior thing called Jang Mistral (not often you have a name in FF, probably to avoid you feeling distanced from being YOU) who is sent on an assassination mission (typical FF fare there then) to kill the space fugitive called L’Bastin who jumped planet after getting indicted on your homeworld for getting various of his colleagues/underlings fired, replacing them with exact clones, and then embezzling their wages. He has now holed himself up on a planet he’s built and defends himself with his crack troops called Prefectas (half-dog creatures that are also known rather un-funnily as “Yappies”.) The opening intro is long but vivid and is by far the best part of the book. The background does motivate you to go on your mission (the ones that involve killing off loonies and getting glory in return are always quite satisfying) and it is well written in what seems to be a semi-humorous style. Sadly, from paragraph 1 onwards, the rest of the book is total drivel. Yes, the plot concept makes sense, but the deranged way that everything then unfolds in front of you just defies any description at all. This is way beyond anything that disbelief suspension can allow for! FF is supposed to feel real, this just feels stupid.

The indescribably bad structure and design of this book does not just encompass unbalanced combats, dramatic swings in difficulty level, and desperately puerile episodes, but also the NPCs and encounters are named in such a way that you cannot see them as anything other than a very bad joke and there is certainly no feeling of foreboding created when you meet any of them. A select list of stupid and/or crappy encounter names includes NPCs with names like Captain Big-Ears, Fog Farkin, Ruthless Rod, and Ludo Kludwig, alongside general encounters with naming conventions including Crafty Corporal, Pugnacious Private, Snappy Sergeant, Fat Spider (this actually is a spider, by the way), Clumsy Mutant, Drooling Mutant, Big Hulk, Even Bigger Hulk, Foppish Dignitary, and something called a Gobblepotamus.

A frequent problem with Sc-Fi FFs is the lack of much to collect and that is similarly the case here. You can pick up a few bits and pieces along the way (and some are essential to success), but the bulk of the item-finding happens early on where you are presented with a series of lists to pick two things from each time. These listed items quickly get used, though, so you are mostly just left counting your 10 Provision Tablets (this particular future’s development of Provisions that each restores 4 Stamina so they have not progressed in the strength-restoring sense at all) and the 10 Credits you start the game with. The 10 Credits make it seem like there might be some astute purchases or trading to do along the way. Unsurprisingly (for a book that is such a mess) this is not the case and you only get two occasions where you need Credits at all.

The way this book is written should be its saviour, but contributes hugely to its downfall. The initial tongue-in-cheek feel that the intro gives is not maintained beyond the start and the rest of the book swings between being either smug (in a knowingly-surreal way) or the work of someone who really is doing their damnedest to destroy their own book in that it never seems to know what tone it is aiming for or whether this is all-out farce or something else. The sad thing is that this is not at all badly written (barring the very off-hand one-liner instant deaths), it’s just the material is so bad that the lack of an obvious register is made all the more apparent. Whilst the prose and descriptions work in the strictest sense of the two words (but certainly not in quality of material), any moments of dialogue are risible, especially with robots that call you “mate” and that always seem to have gone haywire. 

The artwork in Sci-Fi FFs is almost always panned, but the art here is probably the book’s best feature. I’m not saying the art is necessarily good as such, it’s just not as bad as the actual book, even though some of it is from a Third Party perspective where you can see your ship taking off and the like which does remove the element of the pictures being what you are seeing. The very bright yellow cover really appeals to me as it is very different to the often dark or menacing FF covers. It’s a shame the contents are so bad.

Sci-Fi FFs are often also very linear and that is definitely the case with Sky Lord. The true path (ie the one that avoids the numerous instant deaths) will take several attempts to find, assuming you can face replaying this book. Given the relative impossibility of the ship-based combats, it’s very likely that you will quickly find yourself cheating should you be curious or masochistic enough to find out what happens in the rest of the book.

If you want to experience what the sound of the bottom of the FF barrel being scraped is like, then play this just for curiosity’s sake as I guarantee that the only way to properly understand how diabolical this book is is to read it. If you want to play a better FF, just select any other one ever released!

Saturday 21 September 2013

The Citadel Of Chaos (CBM64)


Darryl J Mattocks & Simon J Ball

Reviewed by Mark Lain

After the almost totally unrelated nature of The Puffin Personal Computer Collection’s first FF release (TWOFM), the designers of the second conversion produced something so faithful to the original that you would expect it to be pretty damn good. The book’s strengths lay in its urgency, imagery, relative (and logical) brevity, and the novelty (at the time) inclusion of magic to give variety to your character and how to handle him or her. The big frustration for anyone who has ever played the computer version is that it takes a winning formula, changes basically nothing, yet the presentation is so turgid and cack-handed that the brilliance of the source material is all but lost.

From what I can establish, very few people actually bought this for the Commodore 64 (or if they did, they binned them in disgust, possibly?) as original cassette copies seem to be by far the least commonly seen of all the FF computer games on eBay or Amazon and even pictures are few and far between. I used to own a CBM64 cassette in my general FF memorabilia collection, but the Spectrum version seems to not exist. The problem of playing this now is worsened by the fact that emulator ROMs of this are also difficult to find. The generally pretty exhaustive World Of Spectrum states it as Missing In Action and it was certainly advertised for Spectrum but all evidence suggests that this conversion only ever materialised for CBM64. After extensive searching, I eventually found a working d64 file for the CBM64 version, but there is no doubt that this one is tough to track down. Sadly, it is really not worth the time and effort to find it.

On loading the game up, the first thing you are struck by is the screechy and intrusive music that plays relentlessly throughout the game, sometimes creating completely the wrong impression of what’s going on. There is a particularly annoying sound (similar to the one associated with Wile E Coyote falling into ravines) that makes you think something might be going wrong but generally just seems to be a recurring part of the soundtrack. In places, the “music” inexplicably ends and then starts back up again when you least expect (or want) it to and it is not long before your ears are close to bleeding. If the stupid white noise doesn’t give you a headache after a few minutes of playing, the game’s other big programming failings probably will.

The main adventure sheet/combat screens are in garish colours, with the images of what you are fighting being in very bold greens, reds, purples, etc that look like a child has gone berserk with colouring pens and ruined your copy of the book’s art pages! The text screen is less stroke-inducing, but your eyes will soon tire of a sky blue background with a white panel positioned centre-screen that has constantly scrolling gothic text appearing on it to the extent that, when you turn away or the screen changes, the image is burned into your corneas for a few seconds as if you have left the same image on the screen of a plasma TV for too long.

The biggest problem by far with this version is that it is excruciatingly slow and quickly becomes frustrating. It takes an age just to create your character. The dice rolling animations are admittedly pretty quick which means you get your four stats together fairly efficiently, but the process of choosing spells is torture. You have to wade through several screens of the already mentioned scrolling text on white panel on sky blue background, each listing three spells per screen. You select a spell by pressing a corresponding number. Unfortunately, after screen one, the spell numbers carry on increasing (eg 4 thru 6 on screen two), but the selection buttons switch back to 1 thru 3 making things very confusing until you get used to it. The spells are exactly those from the book, but this time you get no explanation or even slight indication as to what they do so, unless you have prior experience of the book, you are left to draw your own conclusions about their purpose. There is a nice added touch where the spells have three-letter codes that you need to know to be able to use them (lifted from Sorcery! presumably), but this doesn’t really help you if you don’t know what it is you are trying to achieve by casting any of them.

Once your character is created (and you can give him or her a name this time, not that it makes much of a difference to anything), you are then thrown into a relentless (and very slow) cycle of scrolling text/white panel/blue background screens with scatterings of the adventure sheet or the very similar combat screens thrown in where appropriate. There are many points where it seems that the game has crashed (especially if the music has done you a favour and briefly stopped for a moment), only for it to come back to life and move on. This is particularly noticeable after combats where there is a long pause before your adventure sheet logs any items etc, followed by a longer pause before the next text screen appears. Due to the awkward and sluggish way this game runs, all the snappiness and momentum that is present in the book version is totally absent here and even the opening coda of getting into the courtyard and then into the tower itself seems to go on for an age.

Similarly, the lack of split-screen between words and art to complement and visualise the text (as would appear in the computer adaptations of Seas Of Blood, Rebel Planet and Temple Of Terror) that had made some of the best early text adventures such as The Hobbit or Lord Of The Rings work so well, makes this seem like a very alien experience. Russ Nicholson’s art in the book presented Steve Jackson’s setting perfectly with atmosphere to spare. Ridiculously brightly coloured text screens do not have the same effect and this really does go to show how well matched the text and images in the book really were. Any sense of dark mystery (in the early stages) and/or lavish decadence (in the latter sections) that should be felt are not likely to be and the whole way this is presented is botched in the extreme. There is a perfunctory nod to imagery that you only ever get if you engage in combat, whereby your foes appear in a small box centre screen but, as noted above, these are so appallingly rendered that, if you can even make anything out, you are still none the wiser about what the thing you are trying to kill looks like. No feeling of terror is given either by seeing what you are up against or by reading its description, given that the text takes forever to work its way onto the screen. Even the opening title screen is pixelly, but it is the only evidence of any attempt to set the scene, so we have to be thankful for that at least.

Magic is handled in what could have been a manner to rival the exemplary approach used in the Sorcery! books where you are placed into character by having to learn codes to allow you to use spells. This is an actual departure from the original book and is welcome in the sense that we get some slight variety, but you are never given any options of which spells to use. If you are able to use a spell, you are asked to key in the code of the one you want to try, almost always with the outcome that the spell you chose has no effect. I am in two minds about this. On the one hand, if you are the Grand Wizard of Yore’s star pupil you will probably know a fair bit about what spells will do what and in what situations, so this is quite realistic and demands that the player learns their lines, as it were. On the other hand, it gets very frustrating when your spells rarely do anything because you chose wrongly and you do start to wonder why you even have magic if all your spells will just get wasted, leaving you with none left for the big magic showdown at the end. The book offers you a handful to choose from at the most in magic use situations giving you at least a half-decent chance of doing something right. There is a neat touch that isn’t in the book where, on casting a spell, you sort of commune with the elemental plain (invoking the maelstrom from Maelstrom, maybe?), but this manifests itself by making the adventure sheet screen flash manically which just accelerates the onset of the headache that this game will almost certainly give you.

Other than the slight differences in spell use, there is precious little digression from the book and this is very much a literal copy of the source material with not enough variation to make it worth playing. The book version is far better executed and this computer attempt gives completely the wrong impression of what to expect from the book, for those who might play the computer version first. Yes, Steve Jackson’s words are the same, but the book worked on levels beyond just the text itself.

As this release appeared in 1984, it uses the much worse original book cover with Emmanuel’s picture of Balthus Dire’s hordes emerging from the Black Tower, being led by the black furry thing that made the first cover picture look so silly. But at least it isn’t cropped and is faithful to the book which might be an indication that this is basically the book in computer form to encourage potential buyers who were disappointed by the irrelevant TWOFM computer game to part with their cash. I assume it didn’t work as it seems that there aren’t many copies of this out there. It is worth noting that this and the third computer adaptation (The Forest Of Doom) were advertised together, including the planned released (as with TWOFM before them) of Software Pack editions (with the cassette and book bundled together) for both. FOD definitely appeared in this form for both the Spectrum and CMB64 as did COC for the Commodore 64, but there is scant evidence that a COC software pack ever got produced for the Spectrum or, for that matter, that the Spectrum edition ever even saw the light of day at all. Is this because it sold poorly? Or could it be due to people noticing that there was no discernable difference between the book and the computer game so they thought it wise to avoid making it too obvious to the buying public? Who knows, but there is no doubt that this is the weakest of all the 80s FF computer games and that it is all but ruined by its horrible visual presentation combined with its painfully snail-like pace.

If this game has one saving grace, it is with the dice roll generator. Two dice appear on screen and randomise numbers to simulate rolling real dice. This works exactly as dice would, giving a totally random element of chance and fate and really does make this feel like a RPG. These would appear in many of the subsequent 1980s FF conversions and are very effective, considering the limitations of the hardware at the time these were coded.

It is a great shame that this has been cocked-up so spectacularly as a faithful (but not totally slavishly similar) FF adaptation would have been welcome. Unfortunately, we would have to wait for Adventure International/AdventureSoft to enter the FF market before this would really happen and COC’s elusiveness is no loss to the world.