Saturday 16 March 2013

#14: Temple Of Terror


Ian Livingstone

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Originally advertised as Dragon Master, FF #14 can be easily overlooked due to its falling in the middle of a fairly inconsistent period in the series. Puffin’s demanding release schedule (caused by FF being a victim of its own success) meant that other writers and experimental subjects were being brought into the series when it got into its “teens” to allow numerous FF books to be published in a matter of months, with mixed results in terms of quality. Temple Of Terrror was the first Allansia-based medieval FF to be released since #9 Caverns Of The Snow Witch and came after two fairly adult-themed entries (the modern-set #10 House Of Hell  and the medieval but Orb-based #11 Talisman Of Death) and two fairly pathetic Sci-Fi efforts (#12 Space Assassin and #13 Freeway Fighter.) The fact that it was followed by the relatively ignored Sci-Fi detective FF #15 The Rings Of Kether does not help its attempts at getting any attention... and Temple Of Terror certainly deserves attention as it’s a return to the feel of the earliest FF books and is arguably IL’s third best offering after #5 City Of Thieves and #6 Deathtrap Dungeon.

Interestingly the opening section suggests that this is the sequel to #3 The Forest Of Doom as it begins with you recovering in Stonebridge after a recent adventure when the ever-annoying Yaztromo turns up and hires you for another suicide mission after commenting that you look familiar to him. He takes you back through Darkwood Forest (which it turns out he is impervious to dangers in, which begs the question of why he didn’t do the mission in The Forest Of Doom if it would have been so easy for him to get through it) and then teaches you a choice of four out of a possible ten spells. Your task is then to travel to the Desert Of Skulls in search of the lost city of Vatos which is where five dragon statues are hidden. These statues are being sought by the evil wizard Malbordus so that he can use them to take over the world (surprise, surprise...) You have to get there before him and destroy the statues to foil his evil plan. Unusually for FF the plot of this book flows very logically and it all seems to make sense as you work your way along. The introduction is very well put together and you do get a sense of series continuity which I always like to see in FFs. There is also a genuinely epic feel to the plot as you have to actually locate Vatos rather than just starting on the doorstep like you do in so many other FFs (although repeat playing will reveal that it’s impossible to miss Vatos as long as you live long enough to get to it as this is a linear IL FF and you can’t go in any other direction once you’re close to it.) You have a choice of two different routes to take (although one is more dangerous and there is an essential item that you can only get if you go the other way), either via the ever-popular Port Blacksand or a trek directly south across the plains. Whichever way you go you have to negotiate the desert and it’s certainly pretty tough and really does have an atmosphere of endlessly trailing across sand with the sun relentlessly beating down on you. Logically, you are required to drink regularly, which is good to see as it makes perfect sense in a desert and you can meet some fairly tough creatures (that need to be tough to survive in such a hostile environment) including an incredibly strong Sk 10 St 20 Giant Sandworm (although you later discover that there was a reason it’s so tough as it yields an essential item that you can’t win without having, so that seems sensible too.) Once you’ve reached Vatos there is then a dungeon trawl through the abandoned city, hunting for the dragon statues before Malbordus gets to them.

But there is even more to this book’s plot than all this and this has to be one of the most well fleshed-out stories of any FF book as there are twists along the way to add to the challenge. Once you’ve survived the trip to the desert, then negotiated the desert to reach Vatos, as soon as you enter the city the Messenger Of Death whispers “DEATH” in your ear and you are involved in one of FFs best races against time ever. He tells you that if you find all five of the letters that spell out “DEATH” he will appear and suck the lifeforce out of your body (and not in a good way lol.) Thus you are presented with a double-edged challenge. As this is Ian Livingstone, the five dragon statues are very well hidden and involve lots of risk-taking and opening/looking behind things. However, you never know whether what you’re opening or looking in will contain a statue you want or one of the five letters you are trying to avoid. This mechanic is brilliant and adds masses of tension to the experience and really gives you something to aim for. You are not just hunting for a shopping list of items (and there are loads to find in this book as it’s Ian Livingstone so you can’t expect anything less), you are also trying to avoid finding some stuff as well. In keeping with the early FFs, the dungeon is full of fiendish traps and tough opponents, along with some NPCs that are helpful, and there are lots of choices of left or right to take. Also, as it’s Livingstone, the route is pretty linear and the true path is narrow, but you don’t really notice as you are intently concentrating on finding dragon statues without finding DEATH letters (which are all avoidable, incidentally.) There is a fairly tense moment where you can find two of the letters back-to-back if you’re unfortunate enough, but it’s also possible to find the first dragon statue immediately after you meet the Messenger Of Death which introduces a feature that is very rare in all but the best IL FFs (ie this one and numbers 5 and 6) – balance of difficulty.

This book, as with numbers 5 and 6, is very tough and requires multiple replays to beat it. What is great about this FF (and 5 and 6) is that it’s so well designed in terms of interest and excitement that you want to keep coming back and you know that you will eventually find the true path through repeat plays. What is brilliant about this FF (and, again, 5 and 6) is that it is as encouraging and rewards you as much as it punishes you. Skill, Stamina and Luck penalties are frequent and particularly harsh in this book (often 4 or 5 points are lost for errors), but these are offset against very generous bonuses for successes. You are allowed to use magic which always goes in your favour, but there are Stamina penalties for this so you have to choose your moments wisely (as in Steve Jackson Sorcery! cycle.) There is no optimum selection of spells and they are all handy (but not totally essential) at various points in the game. To avoid the final section being too easy, your magic is disabled near the end but I like this as it makes you rely on key items rather than using the easy way around things. Even the plot has an extra element of balance and intrigue – very little is made of Malbordus once you reach Vatos. No-one has heard of him and that’s because the few inhabitants of the lost city are living under the dictatorial grip of a megalomaniac called Leesha and, interestingly, she plays a far bigger role in the Vatos section than Malbordus does, which adds an interesting extra twist to the plot as you start to worry about what she might have in store for you, let alone Malbordus.

In the rules section, there is no mention of Potions and this is the first medieval FF where you do not get a Potion from the outset. You do get 10 Provisions (which you can lose and replace at various stages, which is also nicely balanced) and a rather generous 25 gold pieces. Initially, the money seems to be a mixed blessing as you can get ripped-off a lot early on in the book (as well as robbed of all of it), but it is not needed once you’ve used whatever you’ve got left of it to buy some items from a nomadic trader in the desert (if you find him.) There’s a neat feature here as some of his more useful-looking objects are useless and the more incongruous ones can prove very handy, but none are obvious by their price (no 25 gp blue candles here like in The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain.) There is also a treasure-related continuity item where you can find an item that could make you rich if you survive. It is very unusual for a FF book to make you think of your future beyond its own ending in terms of riches or fame (again Deathtrap Dungeon is one of the few others.)

If this book has one downside it is with Malbordus himself. It is possible to completely forget about him once your focus has been switched to Leesha (who you learn far more about) and he seems to be awkwardly tagged onto the end once you’ve dealt with her. He is definitely tough (Stamina 18) but there is no pre-combat to negotiate and you can get straight on with the battle which, if you beat him, leads you to paragraph 400 and victory. However, as this book is well-balanced the skill is in actually reaching him as you will have taken so many stat penalties and bonuses by now that at least one of your stats is going to be dangerously low, so you will do well to actually beat him even in straight combat. This could be intentional to avoid the soul-destroying problem in FFs of falling at the final hurdle due to something you probably couldn’t have anticipated. The usual Ian Livingstone problem of needing maximum stats to have any hope of winning is apparent, but this is normal for his FFs and it’s at least handled better and fairer than usual so you tend not to notice.

The encounters in TOT are also well-balanced and varied, ranging from low-stat insects through to very tough specials (like the Night Terror) that really do take some beating. Some encounters can only be fought with special items (which also keeps things interesting) rather than just hacking your way through everything. Indeed, there are some NPCs that you need to speak to rather than kill so variety is added there too and you are required to think a lot about what actions to take (especially when you’re trying to find more dragons and less DEATH letters.)

As several of the encounters are fairly horrific (Night Terror, Phantom, Messenger Of Death, Giant Sandworm), the art is suitably unpleasant and Bill Houston’s vacant staring eyes on some creatures are very effective. I also like his skeleton guards dressed in Egyptian gear which, although no reference is ever directly made to pyramids/Egypt/pharaohs/mummies, seem very appropriate in the desert/lost city theme. Chris Achilleos’ cover art is effective, but I’d have preferred a yellower desert look rather than the night brown of the cover, especially as the cover depicts Vatos’ Serpent Guard who you meet on first arriving when it is still daylight (you are told specifically later on when it turns to night as that’s when the Phantom and Night Terror appear.) Achilleos’ best FF art ever was his wrap-around cover for Titan – The Fighting Fantasy World but his TOT cover is well-drawn too. As ever, the revised cover art for Wizard Book’s reissue is inferior and, whilst scarier than usual for Wizard’s covers, does not capture the feel of this book at all. This is not a horror-themed FF and the Wizard cover would suggest this. I gather that IL wanted the Wizard cover to be an extreme close-up of an Orc which would explain the thinking behind the design, but this is of little relevance in the book’s plot.

Overall this is a brilliantly-designed FF that is exciting and interesting from beginning to end. It is urgently written in a very upbeat manner with many long descriptive paragraphs that really draw you into the scenes. The initial journey to Vatos is epic in a good way and avoids the tedious drudgery of Caverns Of The Snow Witch and there are constant surprises once you are in Vatos itself. Few FFs have a plot mechanism that is as effective as the play-off of the Messenger Of Death against the need to hunt for the dragons, and Livingstone manages to create his second-best and most varied dungeon after Deathtrap Dungeon. This book is one of the few highlights of the 11 thru 19 part of the original series and is arguably one of the best medieval FFs. Incidentally, this is one of only two FFs that has no Puffin Books puffin logo on the spine – the other being #30 Chasms Of Malice but they probably disowned that one...

Sunday 10 March 2013

#27: Star Strider


Luke Sharp

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Let’s make something clear from the outset: as is often the case with FF aficionados, I am not generally particularly fond of the majority of the small number of Sci-Fi FFs, nor do I rate Luke Sharp (real name Alkis Alkiviades) as a FF author. He only wrote four FF books and has been criticised for including unfair features in his FFs such as Luck tests that invariably lead to death if you fail them and arbitrary dice rolling (often several times within one paragraph) where failure will also kill you. Sharp’s second FF offering (#30 Chasms Of Malice) is infamous for being practically impossible and his third (#35 Daggers Of Darkness) is certainly not a walk in the park either. Interestingly enough, his first effort, and his only Sci-Fi FF, is actually fairly easy (if you go the right way) and is far shorter when compared to his pretty long (in the FF context) medieval books.

The premise here is that YOU are a Rogue Tracer (aka a Star Strider) who has been hired to rescue the Galactic President from a hostile group of aliens who want to extract some key strategic info that is in his head. The aliens in question are the Gromulans (or Groms) who have settled Earth, a now fairly irrelevant planet that YOU know very little about. Exactly when this is supposed to be set is hard to say, but most Humans have left Earth and settled off-world so it must be set after 2019 which is when its obvious conceptual prototype (Blade Runner) is set! Off-world settling is heavily plugged in Blade Runner and the concept of your being a crack bounty hunter is a nod to this as well so Sharp has presumably borrowed from it. Indeed, borrowing is very much in evidence in Star Strider and there is a feeling that it is a hodge-podge of various likely influences both from classic Sci-Fi and also from actual Earth reality:
  • ·         A Rogue Tracer = a Blade Runner (more or less)
  • ·         The semi-baddies are the humanoid Gromulans = the semi-friendly but untrustworthy humanoid Romulans in Star Trek
  • ·         Youth gangs abound on Earth called Houlgans that are based on “some sort of ancient religion” and have names like L’pool, R’al and G’ners = football hooliganism
  • ·         You can ride Silverhound hoverbuses = Greyhound buses in America
  • ·         There is a race of feline humanoids from the planet Wistas-4 = Whiskas cat food
  • ·         You ride a hoverboard in the final London section = the hoverboards in Back To The Future II
  • ·         Earth is fairly irrelevant and of little interest/threat = Earth is “Mostly Harmless” in The Hitch-Hikers’ Guide To The Galaxy

Some of these references (if intended) are actually quite witty and there is a definite satirical element to this FF. The Gromulans have the ability to use Illus-O-Scopes to control the planets they settle. Much is made of the Grom’s illusions in this book, plus you are sometimes inconvenienced by public transport which is unreliable and pretty useless. Added to this is that any food you eat seems to be fairly tasteless. All this suggests that Sharp is trying to say something about reality on present day Earth here. How successful this is depends on how much you notice of it and/or read into it but it’s definitely there and it’s rare that FF attempts satire so this does add to the experience.

As is often the case with LS’ FFs there is a lengthy background section that acts as you being offered the mission, followed by a mission brief where the scenario is explained very thoroughly including such details as the effect of Illus-O-Scopes and why the President’s info is so critical (along with some colourful detail about the Groms’ fondness for snails and chess, which is a bit bizarre.) The background is interesting enough to make you want to play the book, but you suspect from the outset that this could be a fairly daft experience and this will depend entirely on what mood the book catches you in as this adventure can either be perceived as genuinely amusing or just silly at times.

As normal with Sci-Fi FFs there are some extra game mechanics to contend with. Fear is back, but this time it is an unchanging value that is a measure of your ability to handle the Groms’ illusory attacks – roll higher than your Fear and you lose Stamina due to being scared. This is a generally effective feature (that can frighten you to death) but that overall reflects your fortitude to carry on, as fear of illusions will naturally weaken you. Time is included as you have a limit of 48 Time units in which to liberate the President otherwise the Groms have extracted the info they want from his head and apocalypse is on the way. This does add a sense of urgency and raises the tension of the game, but multiple playings will show that it’s practically impossible to run out of Time (unless you digress to a genuinely stupid extent) so it’s not hugely effective overall and could have made the book much more challenging in the sense of needing to find an optimum route (or routes as it’s not wholly linear.) The Adventure Sheet includes a section for Oxygen, but this is not a stat as such in that it is only used in the Plaza De Toros sequence (which can be avoided) which is a shame as this is intriguing when you first see it – basically, you have a limited amount of Oxygen to find your way out of the Plaza which, as with Time, adds some nice tension but isn’t particularly difficult to survive so is another wasted opportunity. Surely if you’re running out of air the aim is to find the true path out asap and this should be very tight? As most combats are with Androids that are all fitted with a fail-safe weak point installed by the slightly paranoid Groms, throwing a double 6 in combat with an Android means you’ve found its weak spot and disabled it. This does add a realistic aspect in that robots should be mechanically vulnerable. It also works well as the weak spot should be well-hidden so the highest possible dice roll is needed to achieve this. Interestingly, there are no instructions in the rules about your Skill, Stamina and Luck not being able to exceed their initial scores. As these are therefore presumably unrestricted, for once it really is possible to win with the lowest possible starting stats as you can increase your Stamina by eating (which happens a reasonable number of times) and you can end up with a ridiculously high Luck score as Luck bonuses are frequent and generous.

The lack of any limits to how high your three core stats can get is a good antidote to one of the usually excessively tough aspects of a Luke Sharp FF – the very numerous Luck tests where failure will almost always kill you. Yes, there are lots of them in this book, but you have a pretty high chance of surviving them here – if only Sharp had allowed unlimited Luck in his other FFs... The other major problem with Luke Sharp’s FFs is very much in evidence - the arbitrary deaths by failing random dice rolls that represent things such as how many stairs you have to leap or whether a stray laser blast has hit you, etc. These don’t seem quite such an issue in this FF though as it is generally fairly easy so the relentless feeling of inevitable failure that blights his adventures does not come across in Star Strider. Similarly, the Luke Sharp-ism of instant deaths by going the wrong way are also included but they generally make sense in this book, mostly being caused by power units etc failing on stolen hover cars/bikes (that you can easily avoid commandeering anyway) or by persisting in blatantly going the wrong way. Indeed, a big aspect of this book is that common sense will generally see you through. If you are on a specific mission the likelihood of digression is low so this does add to the effect and make you feel part of the action (FF # 15 The Rings Of Kether is similar in the respect that you are encouraged to focus specifically on the task in hand.) The introductory spiel mentions that Excel droids are the Groms' most lethal android creation and that they should be avoided at all costs. This is certainly the case as any run-in with one will kill you. This may sound unfair (and typical of Luke Sharp) but, again, with one or two exceptions, only doing something really stupid will result in you encountering one, so they are mostly avoidable.

Encounters are also pretty easy to deal with for the most part. There are several incidents where you can get arrested by GromPol (the Gromulan Police) but as they seem to be the most forgiving law enforcement agency in the known universe (for some reason, considering their paranoia with androids and with wanting to control thoughts by using illusion propaganda) it is very easy to talk or shoot your way out. In fact, for a fairly dominant race that is into inter-planetary colonisation, the Gromulans are pretty pathetic. Any non-GromPol Groms that you encounter will usually faint in terror so it’s hard to believe that they are planning to wreak havoc when they get the info out of the President’s head. Granted they defend themselves with illusions, but these can be broken/survived with your Fear stat. Groms are rather like The Wizard Of Oz really. Most combats are with androids and, whilst this can be a bit monotonous, there are some humorous android encounters to break up the air of repetition. A visit to the Plaza De Toros will result in you facing a robot bull, whilst there is an unhinged android that thinks it’s living in a Western and will challenge you to a shoot-out after it’s rambled on about its imaginary horse (which does exist if only in illusion form) if you go to a certain tavern. All in all, these are quite fun and will, as I have said, break up the cycle of android fight after android fight. There is a continuity error where, if you find the robot bull’s weak spot and deactivate it, it will then come back and attack again, but it is hardly noticeable as all you will be interested in doing at that stage is escaping the bullring. It is possible to meet another Rogue Tracer (twice, in fact) and, in the first instance help her if you wish, whilst in the second she helps you, but these aren’t essential to the plot and (in the first case) you will achieve the same result by ignoring her completely. You can also pick up a few other wanted criminals along the way which neither gains nor loses you anything, but it does make the environments feel less like you are in a mission bubble and that there is an overall context to the setting.

A further feature of both Sci-Fi and Luke Sharp FFs that is very obvious in this book is that there are basically no items to collect as such. You can pick up a few bits occasionally but none make any difference to your success or failure. Acquisition of items is often an indication of whether you are on the right track so it is hard to establish how things are going when you never really find anything. Granted the main aim is to find clues (specifically co-ordinates) that will help you locate the President, but you can just as easily reach him without any clues. The usual FF mechanic of using numbers to find a hidden paragraph does not happen in the final stage. There are a few parts of the book where you can only access certain rooms or computers by solving fairly complicated mathematical problems, but, again, none are the difference between winning and losing so the effort put into figuring them out is wasted and you will never fail if you can’t solve them. Plus, the actual co-ordinates are in several different locations so it’s fairly easy to find them, if only to make you think that you’re achieving something by doing so!

As regards the plot of the adventure, it is all very logical, if somewhat empty and unchallenging, and there are none of the usual ridiculous convolutions or credibility pushes that so often occur in FF books (plus it’s Sci-Fi so the horizons of logic are pretty unlimited anyway.) The actual game itself simply involves negotiating your way from Madrid to Rome to Paris and finally to London. None of this is even remotely difficult and the first three cities are fairly dull and only have a couple of possible routes you can take with very little to see or do other than a few (usually helpful) run-ins with the locals (not that you’ll ever really need any help!) The London section consists entirely of a hoverboard trip through the London Underground. This is the main part where going the wrong way or through the wrong door will often instantly kill you but, if you know where you are headed or use trial and error, it won’t take many attempts to get through it (plus there’s a map so if you do know the way it’s actually very easy.) This final section is very unbalanced compared with the other three as literally nothing happens here other than you change direction or die. At least the other three cities offered something (if not much) to do, plus the trips from city to city allow you to interact with people and/or eat to restore Stamina. When you finally find the President he is with a Grom who naturally faints from terror so rescuing him is also easy. There then follows a Luke Sharp scenario where you have to keep throwing dice to survive an ascent (this bit is actually quite hard if only due to it being based entirely on arbitrary chance.) The absolute final stage is the only part of the entire book where the Groms seem nasty and where their illusions have a sinister touch, but if you have already grown used to their illusion attacks it doesn’t take a genius to survive this and win.

There is one feature of this book that seems odd and that is your trusty Catchman pistol – the weapon of choice of Rogue Tracers. It fires a sticky net over baddies to catch them and will help you avoid combats. For some reason, the all-important Catchman is very unreliable and you have to test your Luck to see whether it has worked properly or not every time you deploy it. This may be designed to add some difficulty to what is generally an easy FF, but I fail to see why crack bounty hunters would favour such a useless weapon!

Art-wise this book is sound and the internal illustrations do have a futuristic feel to them being weighted towards greys and blacks which have a “shiny” slick appearance that also gives a sense that much of this is happening at night. Whilst the art is functional it does suit the tone of the book generally. The cover is pretty good and does have a futuristic feel to it, even if the creature on it is not particularly relevant and isn’t a Gromulan which is, after all, the central alien species of this book, so I’m not sure what happened there. Luke Sharp is not known for writing interesting text but the writing here complements the art and does create the right atmosphere to help you feel involved. At times the text is quite humorous and avoids the boring matter-of-fact-ness and lack of description that blights Sharp’s medieval FFs. Similarly, his often off-hand way of telling you that you are dead is avoided here by making the instant deaths actually feel like a natural progression from a previous section (be it from stupidity, time-wasting, a craft you are in going haywire, etc) rather than just another random “oh well, you’re dead for some reason or other” comment.

So, in summary, this FF is not bad, but it’s also not particularly good either. It’s certainly fairly easy, but the general lack of anything happening of any consequence or interest does make it all feel a bit pointless making it one of the most forgettable and irrelevant FFs ever and certainly the only underwhelming entry in the otherwise consistently good ‘twenties part of the original series. Far from essential...

Tuesday 5 March 2013

#30: Chasms Of Malice


Luke Sharp

Reviewed by Mark Lain

The watchword with number 30 in the original series is “malice”. This book is written and designed with absolutely no consideration for the player’s enjoyment and acts purely as a series of ways for YOU to fail. It took me 4 ½ hours to play through this book for this review, which is more than double the usual time to play a FF even if you visit everywhere (which I did.) Sadly, the time taken to get through this book is not a reflection of it having any depth or imagination to its construction – it is simply a boring and relentless catalogue of instant deaths and 50/50 life/death dice rolls with very little to see or do other than waiting for your inevitable death (which is, frankly, a relief when it comes.) The book may be so long and dull because it knows that you really aren’t going to get very far so the latter half wouldn’t be worth making interesting as it’d be a waste of the author’s time writing something that no-one other than cheats will ever read.

It is a shame that this adventure is so disappointing as the premise starts out quite intriguingly. YOU are the long-lost blood heir to a great King who trapped an untold unpleasantness (actually another loony who wants to destroy the world called Orguz) in the titular chasms. The seal to these chasms has been broken, the great shield that defends it has been stolen, and it’s the bloodheir’s job to enter the chasms and kill the maniac within. This is the first of three Khul-based FFs that form a loose trilogy based around the wizard Astragal (the others being Daggers Of Darkness and Fangs Of Fury.) Astragal enlists you for this task and, to help you on your way, sends a cat goddess called Tabasha The Bazouk along too. Tabasha is handy as she can find you food and sometimes also get you out of lethal situations, but you can only use her services nine times, one of which must be either increasing your Skill or Luck to its initial level (basically a Potion substitute then) but at least she’s one of the few reliefs in this grim reading-playing experience. Your character’s position of third assistant rabbit skinner in the royal kitchens is obviously supposed to be hilarious but just comes across as a lame attempt at suggesting just how irrelevant you are until you are sent on this mission. It is possible that the total impossibility of this adventure is intended to reflect your (lack of) status, but that would be giving too much design credit to Luke Sharp and I don’t believe this is the case. The only genuinely good bit of game design I can pin-point is something that I’m surprised didn’t get more use in other FFs – if you cook Provisions (assuming you can find some Fuel to do so) eating them is worth 6 rather than 4 Stamina points but you’ll need all the Stamina you can get and it hardly makes much difference as most of the death situations completely ignore stats full stop.

The design flaws in this book’s environment are out-weighed by its sheer unfairness, but these flaws are restricted largely to the problem that there are too many labyrinthine path networks. Whilst there is no maze as such, most paths interlink (often un-mappably and, therefore, probably impossibly) into each other with many of the wrong paths being very brief routes to a point just beyond the helpful part of the correct path so getting back on the right track is pretty hard. Ditto, seemingly thematically unconnected areas link into each other making the credibility and flow of the plot disappear very quickly. It would be very hard to map this book due to this which makes the likelihood of a lot of replays low as you’ll just end up back in some boring area that will eventually lead to death.

The biggest problem with this FF, however, is that it is fundamentally impossible unless your luck with dice-throwing defies all laws of probability. Yes, it is possible to get lucky on every throw, but this is not realistically going to happen. If you have the staying power and can really be bothered to find out what the whole book is about and what happens, the only real way of doing this is to cheat (probably many many times!) The best FF books are challenging and interesting/varied enough to make you want to keep replaying in the knowledge that, whilst the book may be tough, it is not impossible and you will eventually win by building on what you know from previous play-throughs. That is not the case here. This book has so many, often unfair, things to throw at you that there quickly comes a point where you just don’t care anymore. Any one of these on its own would be harsh, but Chasms Of Malice expects YOU to contend with:     

  • An inordinate number of instant death paragraphs (c.50 which is more than 10% of the book), many caused by simply going the wrong way or opening the wrong door
  • Equally, there are too many sections that lead to nothing but the 50 instant death paragraphs
  • There are too many Luck testing situations, most of which lead to death if failed and, as there are so many, you will end up with a Luck of zero fairly quickly making failure even more inevitable. Added to this is the fact that so many of the failed luck test deaths are handled in an almost aloof, off-hand manner such as getting hit with a stray arrow, falling off a ledge, or getting crushed by a big rock, that you just don’t care after a while
  • The absolute worst part of this book’s unfairness is the One-Hit Combat idea. This is meant to demonstrate that fighting on a ledge can lead you to fall off and die easily, but it’s arbitrary in the extreme and totally ignores your stats and therefore your combat prowess. You throw two dice for YOU and two for the enemy – the higher number wins, the lower number falls to their death. Given that in several cases you have to deal with 3 or more of these in one section, again, you are unlikely to survive
  •  Added to all this are the random dice rolling situations that can determine life or death. In one case, if you throw 50% of any possible numbers an Orc has randomly executed you, and in another the dice determine distance and then whether you make it across the distance or not
  • If all that isn’t depressing enough, there are even some combats where throwing certain doubles will lead to instant death

In short, the ways in which you can die and the way that they just follow one-after-another make this book a relentless experience to the point where it really is very boring.

The boredom is exacerbated by there being very few interesting encounters and cameos. Only the meetings with the underground people called Gaddon/Sensewarriors are of any real intrigue, but these usually just lead to attacks by lots of Orcs anyway, but you can at least learn how to fight in the dark, making combats slightly easier in that you don’t have to keep taking a -2 Skill penalty when rolling your Attack Strength. There is an OK-ish visit to an Orc garrison where the crack Xokusai Orcs that protect Orguz’ lair live, but this comes very late on so you will either not care anymore or, more than likely, never actually live long enough to get there at all. The concept of the Xokusai Orcs is a good one in itself but isn’t exploited at all and the Xokusai just seem like normal Orcs, if a bit more fanatical. On the subject of combats, the bulk of the encounters have Staminas of 10+ so even these are pretty relentlessly-hard.

Another potentially interesting, but ultimately wasted, concept is the Kuddam - these are Orguz’ seven fanatical side-kicks who you can run into in the chasms. They are all out to stop you at all costs and you need to mark off any that you kill on your Adventure Sheet as you go along. Any you miss will result in your having to fight Orguz once for every living Kuddam, plus once for himself. I could only actually find 4 of them in the entire book (unless I wasn’t paying attention any more, which is possible) which makes this final showdown pretty impossible as well (if that’s any real surprise!) Orguz himself is totally two-dimensional and is hardly worth the effort to reach him. In the unlikely event that you can get this far and beat him, you are then faced with yet another potential fail situation where you have to guess which person out of five is the traitor using clues you have gained along the way (or by cheating, which is highly likely by now.)

Of some interest is a system of cyphers used by the Gaddon. If you can learn these (and, shock horror, you actually get TWO chances to do so, which is the only real nod towards making your life easy here) you can then access locked doors and secret passageways. Unfortunately, most of these special routes can just as easily be found by going a different way so that is rendered a pointless feature as well.

A good FF should always have a well-fleshed-out and believable back-story to set the scene and make you want to get involved. Creature Of Havoc is probably one of the best examples of how well written a back-story can be in FF. Sadly, Chasms Of Malice is not. I had to read the introduction four times before I could understand its onslaught of information from various chronicles etc. Anyone who has tried to understand the baffling opening Chapter of Tolkein’s Silmarillion will know exactly what I’m on about here! Luke Sharp seems to then veer off into very sketchy descriptions for most of the book itself, giving very little impression of the chasms that you are in. There is very little to involve you in the text here.

This book has only one real mercy. The internal art is all by Russ Nicholson who I think really epitomises FF. As much of the art is his really good illustrations of orcs and dwarves, at least the book is given a familiar feel in this sense and the only sense of involvement you can really get is from the pictures as the text is so oblivious to the reader’s immersion. I also really like the atmospheric firey cover. It’s a shame the written contents are so bad as the art is wasted here and deserves to be in a better FF.

In summary, this has to be a contender for worst FF of all time due to its lack of interesting gameplay and the fact that it is so harsh on the player that you have very little motivation to try to beat it more than a handful of times - perhaps that’s why so many immaculate copies are around! Luke Sharp (which is a pen-name by the way) seems to have taken to heart the criticism that his previous FF #27 Star Strider was too easy and unleashed his resentment onto the player in this grim, relentless and dull FF offering which could have been good given some of the ideas it includes, but simply finished up being awful. Anyone who bought and played the FFs in release order will have got a nasty shock playing this after the very forgiving #29 Midnight Rogue that it followed. Incidentally, this hasn't been re-issued by Wizard Books and hopefully never will!