Wednesday, 30 January 2013

#28: Phantoms Of Fear


Robin Waterfield

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Number 28 in the original series has to be one of the most ambitious FFs ever in terms of structure and construction, and it must have been a major undertaking to keep track of the reality-dream cross-overs when writing it which are key to the book’s narrative. You play a wood elf shaman (one of the rare FFs where you are a non-human character) and you even have a name, which is very unusual for FF as you are normally, well, you! The plot revolves around your beloved Affen Forest being under threat from the pestilence caused by the appearance of the Demon Ishtra who is, unsurprisingly for FF, the latest candidate to destroy all of Titan and you have to save the world (nothing new there then.) What is very different about this FF is that you can switch (at will in the second part of the book) between the real world and your shamanic dream world where, in the first half, you can have visions of the future and/or of important bits of information that can help in your quest, and in the second half you can actually move freely through a dreamworld version of the playing environment.

The actual plot itself is split into two distinct parts as noted above. The first half is an info/equipment gathering roam through the still healthy part of Affen Forest. The second half is a trawl through an underworld dungeon as you make your way through Ishtra’s demonic domain under the diseased and unpleasant part of the forest and eventually track him down in his lair. Part one is fairly generic forest-set FF fare with relatively few perils along the way. You must regularly eat (which is realistic) otherwise you lose Stamina in your exhaustion and you can choose to sleep along the way and dream to gain information from your visions. As you progress, the forest becomes an increasingly less green and pleasant place and the creatures become more agitated, aggressive and/or warped as you approach the entrance to Ishtra’s domain. This is all very logical and flows nicely. Part two is where the real cleverness and ambition of Waterfield’s book becomes apparent. Once you enter Ishtra’s domain you have the option to be in either the real world or your own dreamworld and you can even switch between the two as you wish. This is both a blessing and a curse as the dreamworld part is very hard to map due its often abstract dreamlike nature and lack of continuity (as you’d expect in a dream, so kudos to RW for that.) The real world version is basically a large maze and if you map this then play through the dreamworld version you can begin to get an idea of how it links together. Trying to map the dreamworld alone would be practically impossible without a template to follow and the plot can become very confused if you decide to switch between both worlds randomly - you will soon have no idea where you are and can end up repeatedly visiting the same area over and over if you are not careful. But it also makes things more interesting and disturbing if you do opt to keep switching (plus sometimes you have to to avoid dying.) This means there is much scope for re-playability as you discover how the real world and dreamworld versions link together and it really does feel like a bizarre nightmare which is one of this book’s real plus-points. Additionally, depending on whether you finally decide to face Ishtra in the dreamworld or the real world, there are two possible versions of the final showdown with two different outcomes which adds even more replay possibilities. There is also a nice continuity feature where a group of dark elves that you despatch in part one get mentioned in part two as they haven’t come back from a food raiding mission so you will do as an alternative meal.

To emphasize the dream/reality element, this book introduces a new attribute and new attributes are always a mixed bag. Your Power score is your ability to cope in the dreamworld and to deal with the intensity of your visions. The higher the power, the more screwed-up are the visions you can cope with, along with having the mental fortitude to deal with the final battle with Ishtra. The more helpful dreams you have, the higher your Power becomes (there is no upper Initial limit to your Power), and defeating enemies in dreamworld combats also adds to your Power. Conversely, losing dreamworld battles will decrease your Power. With the exception of the final dream-reality mish-mash battles it is not possible to die if you lose a dreamworld combat, so this is realistic as well as you can snap out of a dream when it becomes particularly nasty for you by simply waking up. The dreamworld combat system itself is a problem as it is always weighted in favour of your foe – if you throw 2-7 on 2 die your opponent wins the round, but you must throw 8-12 for you to win a round. Thus the tougher opponents are practically impossible to defeat in dream combat unless you are incredibly lucky or have loaded dice! A higher Power score can also make you very lucky in certain situations (indeed the Luck attribute itself is relatively underused in this book, which is unusual) and you can make progress through the dreamworld far simpler and faster, helping you to avoid some of the more ramblingly bizarre parts of Ishtra’s dream dungeon. Indeed if you choose to fight Ishtra in the dreamworld there is very little need to really explore much (assuming you have a high enough Power score to actually do this) as items are not needed. Fighting Ishtra in the real world requires a lot of magical items with numbers on them, some of which are very hard to find – this could be deliberate to emphasise that this book is meant to be won in your dreams as you are, after all, a visionary shaman, so this could be another good bit of game design and does allow for variety rather than the usual FF trick of forcing you down one particular linear route.

... And that’s another neat feature of this adventure. Granted there is some linearity, but overall this book does allow for a lot of exploration, particularly in the second part. The first part does let you roam about in the forest to an extent, but persistently going in the wrong direction results in being turned around and pointed in the right direction which does remedy the problem of potentially aimless wandering around the forest looking at trees, getting hungry, and dreaming about impending doom, which would become dull after a while and slow the plot down. Part two of the book gives you, for the most part, almost total freedom to explore the underground maze. A few key stages will force you to take a certain path (as the other one “looks dangerous”, apparently) but this works in the same way as in part one and allows you to discover previously unknown parts of the dungeon rather than boring you with repetition (and the dreaded FF reset button, of course.)

There is a schizophrenic nature to how difficulty is handled in this book, but this could actually be intentional to emphasise the difference between the nice foresty part and the demonic underworld. Plus you would expect the book to grow more difficult as you near your goal – I hate FFs that kill you on the third turn of a page and this certainly does not happen in POF. The first part of the book is fairly easy with very few chances to die. The encounters in the forest are very logical and appropriate forest-dwelling creatures of various sizes from an angry mob of nut-protecting squirrels through to various boars, bears, etc. Enemy stats are very well thought-out with most creatures having low Skills (as most of them defend on instinct and have no fighting abilities as such other than thrashing about with claws or tusks, etc) and fairly high Staminas (as they are mostly pretty big and strong.) There is one fairly tough puzzle to contend with in the fairy glade at the end of section one but you don’t feel very clever once you’ve solved it even though it has probably taken you ages to do so. If you can’t solve it, you’re trapped forever so you have to get it right unless you cheat, but the answer is a low number and it won’t take you long to find the correct paragraph! Part two is far tougher with many instant deaths, a few based on failed Luck tests, but most relying on arbitrary dice throws. Whilst this does give the feeling of a lethal demonic underworld it is also pretty unfair and is akin to the more unreasonably hard FFs (Chasms Of Malice takes the failed arbitrary dice roll = death dichotomy to ridiculous extremes.) But at least it acts as a counter-balance to the fairly easy forest part of the book and avoids accusations of this FF being too easy, which it most certainly is not. The second to last showdown (with Ishtra’s side-kick Morpheus) starts hard as you have to face three increasingly stronger dream foes, but the actual dream showdowns with Morpheus and Ishtra are fairly easy by comparison with other dream combats in this book. However, the challenge at this last stage is to actually have accrued a high enough Power score to even be able to face fighting them full stop, plus surviving the many encounters with Ishtra’s Orc workforce and his various sneaky traps is not easy so you will have done well to get to the end. You have to employ common sense and/or ingenuity to survive some encounters, particularly the dining hall, so this is welcome in my opinion. The biggest criticism to level against the difficulty is an area of six doors where you have to roll dice to determine which door to open – one leads to instant death, another holds a potentially important item (if you’re planning on taking Ishtra on in the real world or have no choice due to a low Power score.) You are allowed to keep going until you’ve visited all five of the non-death rooms but this can take a while as you have to throw a double of a given number to be able to enter a given room. Yes, this removes linearity, but it also becomes tedious and you will probably give up after a few rooms due to the amount of dice rolling you have to do (if you’re still alive, of course.) To parallel the fairy glade in part one, there is an incredibly difficult area of the dreamworld where you are forced to undertake the Trial Of Ghosts. Whilst this is not impossible (contrary to what many reviewers have said), it is certainly incredibly difficult and will most likely result in your death. Again, you are at the mercy of a dice roll which makes this even harder/more unfair. I have never actually ended up having to play the Trial Of Ghosts so it is clearly avoidable, but I have looked at its entry (paragraph 309) and the solution is pretty mind-boggling. The creature encounters (mostly Orc and Lizard Man guards) in the second part are tougher in terms of Skill than part one, but not generally as physically strong which adds another welcome element of logic.

A sign of a good FF is originality and/or location-suitability of the monsters you encounter. POF handles this aspect very well. The forest is largely full of forest animals of various sizes (mostly stupid and instinctively defensive), with a few humanoid encounters thrown in, but not so many as to make it seem like Affen Forest is a major thoroughfare of some kind. You can meet a nutcase (who is actually a retired adventurer who gave up after getting stuck in the Maze Of Zagor) and make him be your companion (who, as this is FF, dies shortly afterwards, of course, but in the process takes some of the battle attention off you in a particularly gruelling combat with six dark elves), (unsurprisingly) six dark elves who you don’t like because you’re a nice wholesome wood elf, a lost and terrified travelling family cowering under their caravan, and a unique creature called a Weevilman which is a sort of social outcast human-beetle cross-breed that was apparently hounded from the towns and took refuge in the forest (this is a good feature as well as rarely do you get an actual contextual description of a creature in a FF.) In the underworld dungeon there are several creatures that are unique including a Drake (a dreamworld dragon basically), some Prowlers (mutant abominations created by Ishtra), and an Angaroc (a dreamworld-dwelling hairy lizard-spider thing with some very tough special skills.) Just like Zagor in The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain, Ishtra employs a lot of Orcs to guard him, and there’s even an unhinged Chaotic Orc to contend with.

The inclusion of the ex-adventurer is a neat feature that links this book to the overall body of FF works nicely and there are other links too: the fairies who challenge you in their glade work for The Riddling Reaver, and one of your dreams features the ever-present wizard Yaztromo (although you don’t know who he is or what Allansia is.) I always like to see FFs cross-linked as it creates a feeling of continuity and coherence across the series.

The Yaztromo dream is not the only connection with Y’s first ever FF appearance in The Forest Of Doom. There is another subtler relationship with FOD, that being the totally unsuccessful incorporation of magic into POF. In FOD, Yaztromo sells you a selection of utterly useless magical objects at the start of the adventure. In POF, you are allowed to use a few basic spells. However, use of spells reduces your all-important Power score and you cannot use any magic in the second part of the book as you are told that Ishtra’s underworld is protected by an anti-magic barrier of some sort. Plus, you cannot use magic in dreams, which kind of takes away most of the point of it even being in this adventure. It would have been easier just not to bother making us think there was magic use in this FF, but that might have detracted from the idea of your being an elf, so the jury’s out on this: personally I don’t think it was worth including magic to then take it away from you half-way through and render it largely unusable even in the first part.

The dream sequences themselves are worthy of mention. Robin Waterfield’s writing in general is often more thorough and fleshed-out than you would normally find in a non-Ian Livingstone FF (paragraph 1 alone is almost four pages long!) and that allows for a very vivid and immersive Affen Forest, followed by a truly foreboding and claustrophobic underworld. RW’s descriptions of the dreams are particularly outstanding and really set this book apart as a unique experience. The dreams are confusing, eerie, and as intangible and vaguely symbolic as actual dreams. As you read them you almost see them in a murky mental fog which really does give a feel that you are dreaming. There is a particularly clever vision of a future where humans are riding around (trapped) in metal beasts (cars) which really is very neat and is perfectly suited to the overall environmentally-conscious wood elf theme of the book where your character is at one with the forest where he lives and wants to rid it of the foul pestilence that is threatening it. Indeed, the words “pestilence” and “corruption” are used a lot to describe the parts of the forest near to the entrance to Ishtra’s lair and RW is definitely making an ecological point in this FF. Rarely does a FF have a message, but there is a very clear one here which makes this book rise above sheer escapism and entertainment.

The art in this book is a perfect complement to the nightmarish themes and dreamscape environments. The art is chaotic, abstract, sometimes hideous, but is always suited to how you are visualising the descriptions. Ian Miller is to be congratulated for his interior artwork, but sadly his cover art is without doubt the worst FF cover of all time. It’s not even the stuff of nightmares, it’s just rubbish – the best description would be a lot of snot with some demons sticking out of it: appalling, and sadly very likely to put off a potential reader who would be missing a treat by not playing this book.

One small point of note is the naming of the demon Ishtra. It could be a coincidence, but this is an anagram (and not a very clever one!) of “Ishtar” (starring Warren Beatty) which is generally regarded as one of the worst films ever made...

Overall then, this is a very good FF that has a really different feel about it. It’s not too hard, but it’s far from simple, the art and prose work really well together, there is lots of atmosphere, and there is much all-important re-playability and freedom to roam. RW is to be congratulated for how well he has handled the extremely complex structure of the second part (particularly where you deduct 20 from a paragraph to switch to dreams or add 50 to it to switch to reality) and uses the inconsistency between dreams and reality to create a really convincing result. Yes, the second part can get very confusing and you can end up going around in circles but that’s part of the effect and I personally like it for this. There are definitely some flaws, but this one is well-worth taking the time to explore and it's a pity it hasn't been re-issued by Wizard Books, especially as they can't possibly do their usual trick of making the cover any worse as it can't be worse than it already is!

Monday, 21 January 2013

#29: Midnight Rogue


Graeme Davis

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Number 29 in the original series sees a welcome return to the mean streets of Port Blacksand, which we first visited in depth in City Of Thieves and then passed through en route to somewhere else in Temple Of Terror. This book has not been re-issued in the Wizard Books series and, frankly, this is a great shame as MR is actually a really fun FF. I emphasize the word “fun”, rather than using a word like “excellent”, as this FF does have its shortcomings, but it’s good enough to be a worthy further visit to Port Blacksand, rather than making us wish we’d never bothered going back after the dizzy heights of COT.

This book is the first FF to really put the player into an anti-hero role, which makes it intriguing from the outset. You play a thief who has one night in which to pass the initiation to join PB’s Thieves’ Guild. The initiation itself involves tracking down and stealing a priceless jewel called the Eye of the Basilisk - anyone who has played Ian Livingstone’s abysmal Eye Of The Dragon will be pleased to hear that not all FFs that involve finding unimaginably valuable jewels named after the ocular units of various lizardine creatures are terrible. The jewel is owned by a wealthy merchant called Brass (ha, ha) and you are first required to sneak around PB trying to find clues as to where exactly Brass is stashing said valuable object. You don’t actually get to properly see much of PB as you can only explore three pre-defined areas, but this does make sense as you probably wouldn’t go on any wild goose chases if you are a competent thief – you’d be straight to the point and out as quickly as possible, rather than wasting time having a bit of a look around. Once you’ve found the clues you need, you are then sent on a very linear dungeon trawl to ultimately find the jewel at the end of it.

There is much more depth to the plot than just its general essence, however, some of which makes sense and adds to the atmosphere of the book and some of which is plain ludicrous. Depending on which route you take into various locations you can see different angles on things and gradually learn what you ought to be doing as you go along. For example, if you try to access Brass’ house by shinning up the drainpipe and peering in through the bedroom windows you can establish who is in what rooms and therefore learn what you will meet once you’ve gone into the building via the front door (which it quickly becomes apparent is what you need to be doing.) I like this aspect as it adds a three-dimensional feel to the environment rather than the usual flat, one-way-in-one-way-out approach that you often find in FFs. There are relatively few encounters and combats within PB itself which is logical as you would not want to be drawing attention to yourself or making waves in a place where thieves are hunted by the city guards. Once you pass into the dungeon trawl there are numerous encounters and traps which, again, makes sense as this second part of the book is effectively a test in the vein of Deathtrap Dungeon. The two parts of the book add variety and also add meaning to this being an initiation that involves rather more than just pinching stuff, which would be a bit one-note. There is some nice continuity from other trips to PB: city guards are dressed the same as those in COT, Lord Azzur’s palace is still impenetrable, Madame Star is back (and is still useless), the pubs are still very unpleasant, you can meet Nicodemus (although if you do somehow end up at his hut, you are dead as he still enjoys turning people into newts), etc. Again, this is a nice touch as it adds to the atmosphere and makes PB feel familiar to the player, rather than being totally unconnected to the other FFs that are set there. The plot is also very “interactive” in the RPG sense as you have considerable scope to explore and revisit areas rather than following a linear route, although the dungeon trawl is literally a straight line but this could be deliberate to avoid the book feeling unbalanced towards this section and, therefore, make the player lose the sense of character and place that the first part creates in abundance.

Unfortunately, the RPG element also adds the one really silly part of this book’s plot – if you do not have the clues you need to leave PB at the end of the first part, you are allowed to go back to paragraph 1 and search about again which presents the credibility-losing problem that PB then resets itself, which is a problem FF rarely ever addresses properly. Granted, in MR this isn’t overly noticeable as there aren’t many encounters, kills, etc to have to keep re-visiting, but you could find yourself re-collecting more of the same items. The tavern, the sleeping beggar in the Merchants’ Guild and the re-sets of Brass’ house are more annoying but you might not actually visit the same places more than once unless you know for certain that you need to go back if you’ve established that you’ve missed something important. The fact that you can return to the start an infinite number of times does suggest that this is a very long night and removes some of the sense of urgency, as well as making no sense plot-wise!

There is a neat twist at the end when it becomes apparent that the whole exercise was just one big test as the jewel itself is a fake made of glass. This does also present a bit of a plot dilemma though – given that Brass is the pivot to finding the jewel, are we supposed to think that he is in on it all along? This is never answered so we just have to either draw our own conclusions or assume that there’s a big gaping hole in the crux of the storyline.

This book does not simply offer a (generally) coherent plot and lots of appropriate atmosphere. To help you get into the feel of your anti-hero character (you are, after all, generally used to playing all-round good guys in FFs), there are some neat additional rules and game mechanics added, albeit with mixed results. As you need to move stealthily and silently, you are limited to only being able to carry six backpack items. This is a nice touch, but it is rendered almost meaningless as rarely does anything you find actually qualify as a backpack item, plus weapons (presumably noisy sometimes?) do not count as encumbrance. OK, you have a shortsword, not a regular sword, but all the same, this feature hasn’t been incorporated well at all. Plus, on starting the game, you are told that two item slots are already taken up by your Potion and Provisions which makes you feel that this rule will be a real challenge. Sadly, it is not exploited much and is a wasted opportunity. There is also another small plot niggle here – why does one provision take up the same space as ten? Odd.

A generally better employed new game mechanic is the use of Special Skills of a thiefy nature: you can pick three from Climb, Hide, Pick Lock, Pick Pocket, Secret Signs, Sneak, and Spot Hidden. Sadly, whilst there are many references asking if you have these (and the deployment is fairly balanced across all of them), it becomes quickly apparent that some will be far more useful than others and, if you didn’t choose the best ones, you will go around and around in an endless circle back to section 1 until you either die or lose interest and give up. Hide, Sneak, Climb, and Spot Hidden can often be substituted for successful tests of Skill or Luck (although there are so many of these tests that you do need very high Skill and Luck stats to get through this way, which could be intentional.) Pick Pocket is largely useless and offers few benefits, although this could be a clever feature as you are fairly likely to choose this very thiefy talent, only to discover it’s hopeless, so we’ll give that one the benefit of the doubt as (probably) a good piece of game design. Secret Signs, whilst sounding mysterious, is the worst of the lot as you normally end up deciphering fairly incongruous Thieves’ Guild emblems that it transpires you don’t understand anyway – it’s handy in the tavern to get info but the info isn’t essential, and it adds some plot depth near the end of the dungeon trawl when you can realise that a dead body is a failed testee, but it’s generally no use to you overall. On the other hand, it is not possible to beat the book without Pick Lock (and Climb will become essential as well, depending on your Skill/Luck situation.) Frustratingly enough, or very helpfully, depending on which skills you started with, the book knows that Pick Lock and Climb are essentials and you can find items in PB that act as substitutes for these skills, which is helpful but is also part of the biggest failing of this book – it is far too forgiving to the point of being one of the easiest FFs ever.

Not being content with just allowing repeated resets if you can’t get out of PB, generally ignoring its item restriction rule, giving you the two key skills on a plate, and letting you literally see where you are going wrong, the book has yet more ways of helping you along. If you head off in the wrong direction in the dungeon or in either the Merchants’ Guild or Brass’ House, the book will repeatedly try to convince you to go in the right direction instead. In some cases, it eventually kills you for not listening to its suggestions, but in most cases it just turns you around and makes you go the right way instead. This is hardly a challenge, plus the rare occasions that you are killed instantly are usually the result of rank stupidity on your behalf – indeed, a fair bit of this book can be beaten on common sense alone. Granted this makes you feel the character, but it also takes away the element of danger that is key in FFs. There is a small challenge in that you can only access The Noose (a sort of thief-friendly part of the city) from section 1 (and you need to go there to get a clue), but, as you can keep re-setting the game, it quickly becomes clear that maybe you should be going to this otherwise exclusive location (and I can’t help feeling this might be an error in the construction, maybe?) Plus, I’d have thought that a thief would probably head straight there to try to build up some allies amongst his own kind before tackling the (theoretically) more hostile territories of the Merchants’ Guild and Brass’ House. If all this isn’t enough help, if you don’t know where Brass is hiding the jewel by the time you decide to stop searching the three areas, you are then offered the chance to try various other (more famous) parts of the city, all of which seem fairly suicidal to visit (Lord Azzur’s palace, Nicodemus’ hut??) and, if you try this, the book goes into overdrive to talk you out of it. If you really are daft enough to ignore its advice, it will then kill you, but you wouldn’t be very likely to get into this situation as your wariness as a thief should have turned you away by now. 

Personally, I struggle to see how you wouldn’t know where Brass is hiding the jewel as it’s laid on pretty thick, but there is a definite challenge in finding the three actual numerical codes you need to get out of PB – this aspect is really good and makes cheating impossible, but it’s only a matter of time from repeatedly visiting the locations before you will find the codes. 

Interestingly, if this book used the Time feature that some FFs use, the constant resets would be offset by limiting how long you can waste going round and round the same three places (if you really need to do this anyway), but that would be far too hard for this most forgiving of FFs! Even the inevitable FF falling at the final hurdle feature is dumbed-down. Granted, you can die at this point, but you might have just acquired a brand-new item in the previous chamber that is probably the answer... and if you haven’t, the book actually allows you to turn to a clue paragraph where your thiefy senses tell you to go back and try to find something that might help in said previous room. Any sense of difficulty that may still have been lingering in your mind will be gone by now (unless you’re dead, of course!)

The art adds to the sense of place very effectively, especially the images within PB itself. We’ve already noted its neat consistency with other PB-set FFs, but the art itself is very well drawn and is full and vivid. The dungeon-set images also have a suitable dark gloom to them, plus there is a distinct feeling of night in all the images which works well and is in context. I have only one issue with the art and that is the image on entry 134 when you enter Brass’ office – the picture is clearly from the outside looking in through the window, yet you are actually in the office at this point so maybe there was a misunderstanding or this picture was originally intended to be used somewhere else? The cover also suffers from an odd problem: the jewel is stated as being yellow in the book’s text, yet it is red on the cover. Is this another paragraph 134 incident or was the cover picture simply never colour-corrected? The blue background and the pink ROGUE lettering look very washed-out and I’m not convinced the cover was intended to look like this. An interesting point to note with this cover is that it is the only cover that shows YOU on it, albeit in fairly non-committal and general shadowy humanoid terms. Overall though, in spite of it looking wrong, there is a night-time feel to the cover and it is quite nice.

An interesting small point of note with this FF is that it includes a few fake paragraphs (eg: 260, 275) to prevent you from cheating by reading random entries and trying to piece the solution together. This is a neat feature but I have two problems with it: 1) This is basically a waste of paragraphs and I don’t like to see this in a FF; 2) This book is so easy I fail to see why you would ever need to cheat!

So, difficulty-wise this book is too simple and far too helpful (although that’s a nice antidote to brutally harsh FFs such as Crypt Of The Sorceror or Chasms Of Malice.) However, in terms of atmosphere and the feeling of the fun of playing a miscreant, it is actually really good and I really enjoy it for its originality and the variety it adds to the series. If it were a little harder it would make you have to plan your skills and route out more, learning from past plays, but it’s still got a lot to recommend it and is a worthwhile entry into the series.

Friday, 11 January 2013

#15: The Rings Of Kether


Andrew Chapman

Reviewed by Mark Lain

FF #15 (and the third Sci-Fi attempt) is probably one of the most obscure of the early FFs from the era when we would see a new title every month or two and when Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone were still actively writing for the series. Only Steve Jackson (II) and Andrew Chapman were the other regular contributors at this stage, before SJ/IL took a back-seat and the floodgates opened pouring loads of new FF writers (some good, some bad) into the mix. The obscurity of this FF is not helped by its never having been re-issued in the Wizard Books series'.

In spite of its comparative lack of press, this is actually the first decent Sci-Fi book in the series, if still only a fairly minor entry in the overall cannon and, whilst fun to play, it is certainly not without its faults but is considerably better than the dull Starship Traveller or the simply dire Space Assassin (the two Sci-Fi FFs that preceded it.) In many ways it is possible that this ended up as a lesser-known effort due to peoples’ lack of confidence in Sci-Fi FFs and it is something of a miracle that Andrew Chapman was allowed to write another one after he inflicted Space Assassin on the FF readers. But it is a good job that this book did go ahead as it paved the way for the best two Sci-Fi FFs (#22 Robot Commando and #18 Rebel Planet) shortly afterwards.

There is much to recommend in this book but the plot is its real strong-point. It’s a lot of fun and you really do get the impression of being an intergalactic Philip Marlowe figure as you gradually gather clues and information by sneaking about and by quizzing various characters that you meet along the way with the ultimate aim of locating the HQ of (and bringing down) the intergalactic Satophil-D drug ring. To add to the effect you have an expenses account and can bribe information out of people assuming you offer the right money in return. Furthermore, the more you sneak about the more attention you start to draw to yourself and the more in danger your life becomes, which adds to the atmosphere and draws you into the character and the storyline, so this is classic Film Noir stuff transplanted into Space. The plot is logical and there are numerous possible routes you can take – in other words, none of the irritating problems of there being only one linear true path that detracts from the playability of most FFs. Plus, there is ample scope for replaying and choosing a different route. Added to this is the fact that you are given a certain amount of RPG-style freedom to roam from place to place as you please which makes this feel less like a guided story book and more like an actual game. The final touch with the multi-directional plotting is that there are actually TWO ways to win: you can either take the baddies in dead by totally annihilating the entire asteroid where drug production is happening, or go for the more law-friendly option and take them in alive by out-gunning them (personally I find the destroy everything option more satisfying and it seems that AC did as well as the final paragraph for this outcome is far more vividly written than the somewhat pathetic three short sentences you are rewarded with for capturing the baddies.)

There are some great cameo moments along the way, including a bizarre asteroid-monastery (that is actually a waste of time visiting other than for novelty value), several run-ins with some fairly surly rival groups of intergalactic miscreants who like to mouth-off about not liking Feds and who will use you in their power-games against each other (more Film Noir here), a few EVA space-walks to remind you you’re in Space (some of which are more dangerous than others), a very hairy negotiation of an asteroid mine field (Empire Strikes Back?), a fairly interesting spaceport with quite a few options of what to do, etc, but the best sequence by far is a car chase that you can find yourself in. This episode is really long and is peppered with all sorts of obstacles and ways of meeting a sticky end. In some ways it feels a little out-of-place and makes you feel like you are rather Earth-bound, but it is so well executed and so fast-paced that your adrenalin really does start to rush.

Overall, the pace of this book is pretty fast and there are no drawn-out moments or dull parts to break-up the flow. If anything, the only really disappointing part is when you finally come up against the drug-producing HQ – there isn’t all that much in there for a hive of illicit activity and Blaster Babet himself is a major let-down. It takes very little thought to beat his tricks and his stats are hopelessly-low for any FF encounter, let alone a final baddie. On that note, it was also a bit of an anti-climax when I discovered that the evil-looking fat bloke dressed in baddie gear on the cover isn’t the man you’re looking for, but one of his minions – Babet himself is fairly emaciated (unless that’s what Satophil-D does to you!)

As you would expect with Sci-Fi there are numerous extra rules to accommodate the use of laser guns and let you get into ship-to-ship encounter situations. These rules are basically the same as those created for Starship Traveller (although phaser combat is slightly less lethal, doing 4 Stamina points of damage rather than your life resting on one throw of the dice like in ST.) To counter the higher damage you can suffer, provisions are provided in the futuristic form of pep pills that restore 6 rather than the usual 4 Stamina points. This does mean that the damage vs restoration factor is actually no different to that in regular medieval FFs, but at least it’s realistic inasmuch as phaser combat will kill far quicker than normal FF sword combat. Yet again, as with ST, ship-to-ship combat is a wasted opportunity and there aren’t many of these encounters in TROK either. This is a shame as ship combat is made slightly more interesting here as you are given two smart missiles that cause instant destruction when fired at an enemy ship. Only having two means you have to be sparing and take a call on when is best to use these, but as there aren’t many ship combats you might not even use both of them so that’s a bit of an own goal as well. As regards one-on-one combat, there are less of these than you might hope for but how many times is a space detective really likely to need to kill? So this is actually fairly logical if a little on the flat side in terms of what you would expect in FF. Also, the encounters are almost all very weak (4 to 8 St is the norm here even for most robots) and take little effort to kill especially as your phaser does 6 St of damage. Similarly, there is very little to collect in the way of items so that’s a bit of a let-down but I can see how it fits into the overall concept of gathering information rather than stuff to reach the end so this is forgivable.

Unfortunately, the emphasis on plot and variation in terms of possible routes does come at a cost, not just in terms of weak foes, lack of combats, not having much to collect, and minimal exploitation of potentially scope-expanding extra rules. None of the various routes to either of the endings are especially difficult and this book is actually very easy to beat. I have played it several times and have never lost. Many would say the mark of a FF that is too easy is if you can win on the first playthrough and this is easily done in this book. It is also fairly short if you happen to crack the clues and take the quickest route through (indeed, some routes consist mostly of the car chase and I believe it’s possible to avoid even this), although you can drag it out by going everywhere possible along a given route even if you don’t really need to.

A real mixed-bag in this book is AC’s style of writing FF. There is a good amount of dialogue (which you would expect if you are trying to get people to tell you information) and it is nicely written in a hardboiled way that adds to the Noir-ish detective feel. You also get to read the plaques on peoples’ doors which always seem to feature heavily in Film Noir so that’s a nice addition too. Flavour and atmosphere is added to the Sci-Fi theme by the inclusion of ship displays, count-downs, etc and this is a welcome touch. However, a common criticism of AC’s prose is that it can be very curt and instant death paragraphs leave you feeling either a bit stupid or vaguely insulted (unless this was intended, but it’s hard to tell.) Worst of all is that AC commits the cardinal sin of wasting paragraphs. Granted this might be designed to maintain the pace but it would be just as urgent-feeling if there were less paragraphs. I really do not like to be sent to entries that say nothing other than to go to yet another paragraph. Similarly, some references merely list your options before you move to another entry. This is just lazy and leaves you feeling short-changed. Even Starship Traveller cut its losses and only had 340 playing references! A better use of paragraphs in TROK is in the car chase as the constant jumping from short entry to short entry adds to the frenetic feel of it, but even that stretches to consuming 50 possible entries (ie 1/8th of the entire book and that’s excluding pointless “go somewhere else please” paragraphs!) Annoyingly, there are also a couple of typos in this book where you are sent to the wrong paragraphs so even what was used is not 100% correct. However, it has to be said that Chapman’s writing here is far better than his ham-fisted effort in Space Assassin, although he would not really come of age stylistically until FF 16 Seas Of Blood.

I have similar mixed feelings about the art in this FF. This was the only series entry illustrated by Nik Spender who should maybe have been given another chance. There is a very metallic monochrome feel to his machinery and environment drawings which does give a feel of Film Noir and of futuristic “shininess” with clean lines, little background and, in most cases, largely line-drawing. His people are not drawn in this way and are more conventional which adds life to the NPCs. Plus it means the art is in two styles which, whilst lacking consistency, does give contrast between human and mechanical forms. There are some let-downs though – the mutant thing you meet outside Babet’s lair is ludicrous and you kind of feel sorry for it, Babet himself is pathetic, and the serpent monster thing is genuinely laughable. Of more interest is the cover which I really like - there is a nice black and red theme going on and the henchman on it is suitably repulsive.

Overall then, this FF is no more than an average offering that could have been brilliant from the very hit-and-miss “teens” period in the series (probably the least consistent section of the series, in fact, due in part to Puffin’s demanding release schedule caused by the runaway success of FF) that started well with book 11, reached the series’ worst low so far with #12, was OK at #13, clawed itself back into classic territory with #14, was fun at #16, became stupid at #17, and then returned to form with a run of classics from #18 through to #22.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

#10: House Of Hell


Steve Jackson

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Following hot on the heels of the extended Caverns Of The Snow Witch (FF 9) came another expanded adventure that had also first appeared in Warlock magazine in shorter form. However, whereas COTSW was stretching the point in a bid to get 400 paragraphs-worth of material, FF 10 House Of Hell still remains taut and exciting when doubled to full-length FF format, without any of the pointless longeurs that made the final third of COTSW such hard work to motivate yourself to bother finishing. In fact, the more House Of Hell the better as this is one of the best of the early books and probably Steve Jackson’s second best effort ever after Creature Of Havoc.

Interestingly, if HOH was the first FF you ever played it would give you totally the wrong impression of what FF is. It’s set in the real world (you even have a car), you are a normal person, you have no weapons (and no prodigious fighting talents of any kind), dialogue plays a huge part in this book, and there is no actual mission to speak of. Similarly, combat is not a key part of this book (granted there are combats, but they are rarely particularly difficult) and this book actually keeps the normally meaningless FF promise that anyone, no matter how low their stats, can win. HOH is a refreshing change to the normal FF formula rather than a benchmark to measure the bulk of the series against and the key to making this a successful and welcome addition to the series rather than a diverting or deranged anomaly is how brilliantly this book handles all the non-FF elements it contains to the point where you genuinely believe you are playing a conventional FF.

The real world setting is made acceptable by there being very few blatant references to this. Granted you start in your car, crash it and then need to find a phone you can use. Beyond this opening premise, the bulk of the book could be set at any post-17th Century time – indeed, the dress-code is very late-18th/early-19th Century if the illustrations are anything to go by. The encounters could also be from any era and, whilst largely restricted to various undeads or ghosts, this really makes it feel like FF. Plus, the undead specials (eg the vampire) behave like any other FF vampire which helps HOH feel in keeping with the series.

Normally in FF YOU are able to remain steadfast and unflustered even when faced with the most terrifyingly-huge salivating death-beast that no normal human could ever possibly want to stand still and confront. This is not the case in HOH as it is possible to literally be frightened to death. This makes perfect sense as you wouldn’t expect to witness any of the things you have to deal with in this book in the real world that you are used to without feeling a bit scared. Your character has a Fear attribute and, once this is reached, you drop dead on the spot. This adds to your feeling of immersion in this book as you really dread any moments where your Fear may rise, especially when you are told to add 2 or 3 Fear points!

Your lack of weapons is a brilliant conceit. There is often a logic problem in FF where, no matter how big or small the weapon, it rarely has an impact beyond a +1 or -1 damage adjustor. In HOH you start weaponless (which makes sense) and have to find potential weapons as you go along, to the extent that you start with an automatic Skill penalty to reflect your defenceless state when faced with something massive that has claws, etc. The potential impact of these weapons depends on the Skill boosters they are worth. In other words, HOH is actually very logical and doesn’t leave you having to suspend disbelief as you play.

There is probably more dialogue in this book than in any other in the series and you cannot make many discoveries without talking to people, be they ghosts, devil-worshippers, potential sacrifice victims, an actually quite smug hunchback, or the Earl Of Drumer (an anagram of "Murder" incidentally) and Franklins themselves. It’s great fun getting to converse with your enemies and it makes the sense of unease all the more evident. Likewise, when you find someone (or something) that is actually benevolent you also get a feeling of genuine relief.

This brings us to the other excellently-handled aspect of this book that helps to draw you into the proceedings: the mission. Frankly, there isn’t one. But there is a plot and it is the most logical approach you could take to this book and its opening premise. Basically, having established that this house is probably not a good place to spend the night (you have already narrowly avoided one attempt at poisoning by the time you make it to bed, which is about half a dozen paragraphs into the proceedings), your only goal is to escape and destroy whatever unpleasantness is contained in this house. The emphasis on discovery (largely through dialogue) is the body of the book’s plot and the true extent of just how evil this house is gradually dawns on you as you experience genuine chill after genuine chill.

So, here we have a FF with no mission, you are not some sort of superhuman, and you are expected to spend more time talking to people than killing them. Yes, there are some disgusting undead abominations that you can despatch along the way, but that is not the point, as creatures/monsters are not needed here. The way the NPCs are handled and used to add depth to the plot and atmosphere replaces any need for the usual FF slash-and-steal motives. Your own desire to escape is the real key, created by the vivid and frightening text, the really chilling art (bar the comedy skeletons in panama hats, and the rather fey-looking Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing clones that are the opening and closing baddies of the piece), and the non-standard FF character elements (the Fear stat, the Skill-building as you find weapons, etc.)
On first appearing, this book may have seemed baffling to many readers due to the method needed to beat it. It is not simply a question of tracing a true path, finding the items you need, and then killing the end baddie and/or finding the treasure. This book is in fact one big puzzle that takes many plays to even begin to try to piece together. SJ was always fond of secret passageways and of knocking you out and dumping you somewhere random where you could no longer trace an understandable route, but HOH would be the first of SJ’s two FFs that require you to use info from previous attempts to gradually unravel the mystery of how the environment is laid-out. There are secret passages and doors that you can only find when your intuition tells you you are in the right place to use the special reference you wrote down earlier when a ghost or something told you about it. There are mathematical versions of this as well (eg: deduct 20 from where you are now and hope it makes sense.) SJ even throws duplicate paragraphs at us to disorientate and trick us even more. All this adds up to a very complicated adventure that can leave many people believing cannot be mapped-out, but there are some playthroughs online. HOWEVER, don’t go near these – the fun and the adventure element is in unravelling the puzzle. SJ would later take this approach to the nth degree in what most people regard as the series’ best entry (Creature Of Havoc.)
Another unusual aspect of this FF is the handling of the difficulty level. HOH is incredibly hard (probably one of the hardest FFs), but not in the usual one true path + massive shopping list + really high stats + loads of Luck = still only 50% chance of winning way. As FFs go, the small number of combats are not difficult (bar the end Hell Demon who has Sk 14 St 12, but the essential Kris Knife that you cannot win without will reduce his Skill anyway), and there are not too many instant deaths (certainly not the 40 or 50-plus that some FFs throw at you.) The difficulty is in the complexity of solving the puzzle and that’s what makes this such a rewarding experience to play and what ends up being one of the best FFs in spite of it going off at such a tangent from the FF norm.
Bizarrely, dying is actually quite rewarding in this book as the instant deaths are very imaginative and fun, as well as being very well written (as is all of this book.) My favourite is the death by getting sucked into an evil genie’s bottle!
If there is a bad point, it is that you can grow frustrated by this book, due to numerous plays that only ever yield the same discoveries and outcomes along with the general feeling of disorientation as you try to logically work out where you are going. There is also a feeling that there might be a bug in this book somewhere (until you start to crack the puzzle.) You could argue that there is too much of the cellar where the devil-worshippers are (although if you end up that far along you have lost anyway) and that there are far too many secret passageways, but this wouldn’t be much of a house of hell if it was simply a couple of landings with nice rooms on them. It is also fairly easy to keep dying of fright, but after several plays it becomes evident that a lot of the rooms are red herrings and you don’t even need to bother going in them as they will just lethally increase your Fear scores well before you come up against anything really horrific that you genuinely need to face to win through. Plus, I have to say that the twist where Manvers/Peter Cushing turns out to be the Hell Demon is fairly obvious. Also, as is often the case, the Wizard Books re-issue cover is totally devoid of atmosphere, relevance, or any real artistic merit.
Of note is that this book is the only FF ever really to be censored and it did cause quite a stir when first released. It was re-titled House Of Hades in America as “hell” was evidently blasphemous and/or a bit too strong a word for the youth of America to be allowed to see on a book cover. WHSmith initially refused to stock it in the UK due to its fairly adult tone, its graphically chilling art (even the cover is pretty eerie), and its portrayal of devil worship which was a big media bugbear in the early 80s due to cases of alleged satanic child abuse. It has to be said that this book and the next (FF11 Talisman Of Death) are notably more adult in tone and are definitely not aimed at the usual FF readership. As an 8-year-old first reading this book it really did scare me! The furore over its content never really died-down in the FF world to the extent that the Wizard Books re-issues do not contain the picture on reference 264 of a naked girl being sacrificed. This is actually quite bizarre as a) her modesty is covered-up by a conveniently draped bit of devil-worshipper outfit, and b) some of the other pictures are far nastier (eg: the decapitated ghost thats severed head drips blood, the hanged old man swinging in the rain, the hell demon, and the ghost woman being torn apart by ghost dogs, to name but a few...) Some may also have been uncomfortable with the (actually quite clever) fact that all the upstairs rooms are names associated with Satanism and Demons.
Overall, HOH is a gem in the series. It is original, totally unique, succeeds in bending the accepted expectations of FF without becoming either overly-bizarre (eg: Spectral Stalkers) or just awful (eg: Starship Traveller), and, in spite of its seemingly over-convoluted construction, is challenging and makes you want to try to beat it as it really rewards your patience. It has atmosphere to spare and is one of the most immersive FFs ever, although it really pushes the boundaries of taste and is genuinely frightening in places. Plus, whilst within the FF output it is very original, within popular culture it is fairly run-of-the-mill horror fare: think The Rocky Horror Picture Show meets The Old Dark House meets The Devil Rides Out and you’ve pretty much got the idea!